Alienware M18x Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Insanely powerful; Customizable backlit keyboard; WirelessHD streaming; HDMI input

The Cons

Sky-high price; Very heavy; A little keyboard flex; Need to spend more for SSD

Verdict

Dual GPUs and an overclocked CPU make the Alienware M18x one of the most powerful--and expensive--gaming rigs ever.

Like a Michael Bay movie, it's getting harder and harder for Alienware to top itself. But somehow, it keeps doing it. Case in point: the M18x. Featuring an 18-inch full HD screen, an overclocked Core i7 processor running at 4 GHz, two of Nvidia's most powerful GPUs, and WirelessHD streaming, this gaming rig is hyperbole personified. As you might expect, this gaming monster doesn't come cheap. Our configuration costs a whopping $5,552. So do the special effects justify the cost of admission?

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Design

Everything about the M18x is huge. The notebook has a similar design to the M17x; it's just bigger. The aluminum lid (ours came in Nebula Red; black is also available) is adorned with a chrome Alienware logo in the center and a rubber panel at the bottom. A black soft-touch finish on the deck resists fingerprints. The front retains the distinctive backlit grilles on either end, which are all the more intimidating on this system. The red extends around the sides of the notebook, and massive vents run along the entire back of the machine, not unlike those on the ASUS G74SX-A2.

Where the M17x was a relatively trim 16 x 11.9 x 1.8 inches and 9.6 pounds, the M18x weighs a whopping 13 pounds and measures 17.2 x 12.7 x 2.1 inches. Other 18-inch notebooks don't even come close: The Acer Aspire 8951G weighs 8.8 pounds. The G74SX, a 17-inch system, checks in at 10.6 pounds. Heck, the M18x's power brick alone weighs 4 pounds.

As with all Alienware notebooks of the past two years, one of the coolest things on this laptop is the backlighting. You can change the keyboard, the logos, the front grille--even the ring around the touchpad--to a number of different colors, depending on your mood or what you're doing. It's just awesome. The AlienFX utility to change the controls is fun to use; you can easily spend a lot of time tinkering with the color schemes.

Heat

Overclocking a CPU will definitely cause things to heat up, which is the case with the M18x. After we streamed a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad was a cool 78 degrees and the space between the G and H keys was 86, but the underside near the rear was a hot 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Expect the chassis to heat up more after an hour or two of gaming.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard on the M18x not only has a full number pad on the right, but also a set of five macro keys running down the left. A button at the top of the column lets you switch between three modes, so you can have up to 15 macros per game.

While the keys are quite large, we think they could be beveled less to give more space on top to rest your fingers. Also, we noticed a bit of flex to the layout, especially on the left side near the ASDW keys. While you're not likely to notice it while typing, there shouldn't be any flex at all on a notebook that costs this much.

At 3.9 x 2.2 inches, the M18x's touchpad is the same size as that on the M17x; something slightly larger would be appreciated, even if gamers are more likely to use an external mouse. Powered by Synaptics, the touchpad is also capable of multitouch gestures, though Alienware turns them off by default. This may be for the best, as gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and rotate didn't always work.

Display and Audio

The massive 18.4-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel WLED display on the M18x is a sight to behold. The glossy panel has edge-to-edge glass. Movies and games simply popped off the display, and it was so large that it enveloped us in the action. When we watched a Blu-ray of Iron Man, the red and gold of Tony Stark's suit sparkled, and explosions were wonderfully fiery. The same goes for games; every little detail--from a disintegrating hay stack to blowing snowflakes--was rendered well.

Likewise, the 5.1 surround-sound Klipsch speakers delivered loud, true, and powerful audio with plenty of low end. Our Sherman tank growled like we never heard it before when playing World of Tanks, and the roar from the main gun was epic.

Wireless HD Streaming

As we first saw on the M17x, the M18x has a WirelessHD (WiHD) transmitter built in, which streams data at up to 4 Gbps on the 60-GHz spectrum, and has an effective range of up to 30 feet. Unlike Intel's WiDi technology, WirelessHD has no latency and can stream protected content such as Blu-ray movies to a compatible receiver (although WiDi 2.0 will support DRM with an upgrade).


Our configuration of the M18x came bundled with a Vizio XWH200 receiver. (Vizio sells a transmitter and receiver separately for $229.) The triangular receiver, which looks like an oversized Toblerone bar, measures 7.4 x 2.5 x 1.3 inches. The front is a sleek glossy black, and the back, sides, and bottom are vented. The only connectors are an HDMI port and power on the back. We would have preferred a light on the outside to let us know a connection had been made.

After we attached the receiver to our TV and plugged it in, we opened the WiHD Controller utility, which has controls to connect to the receiver and turn off the transmitter. The M18x took just a few seconds to recognize the receiver. After that, cloning or extending our display was as simple as using the Windows Display manager.

The Vizio receiver worked just as well as third-party WHDI devices. Videos (both Blu-ray and those on the hard drive) streamed smoothly, and there was no lag whatsoever when playing games. Like those other two devices, though, we found that if you try to play a Blu-ray with the displays cloned, it will only show up on one screen. The benefit of WirelessHD is that you don't need to attach anything to your notebook; it just works.

For a better idea of how the WirelessHD works, watch the video below of the technology in use on the Alienware M17x.

Ports

Another area where Alienware takes the kitchen-sink approach: ports. The M18x has the following: Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA/USB combo (with PowerShare), one mini Display Port, HDMI 1.4 out, VGA, two headphone, one S/PDIF optical out, mic, and a Kensington Lock slot. A slot-loading Blu-ray player is also on the right, as is a 9-in-1 memory card reader and an ExpressCard/54 slot. As if that wasn't enough, the M18x also has HDMI 1.3 input, so you could use the notebook as a TV or monitor, too.

The 3-megapixel webcam on the M18x delivered crisp visuals, but colors were slightly muted. As Alienware is owned by Dell, the M18x features the parent company's Live Central software, which lets you tweak brightness and contrast and add fun avatars and effects.

Performance

Our M18x came outfitted with an Intel Core i7-2920XM overclocked Turbo Boost to 4-GHz, 16GB of DDR3 memory (at 1600 MHz), dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M GPUs (with SLI enabled), and two 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 array. It didn't break the PCMark Vantage record, but it put up a good fight. On that benchmark, the M18x scored 10,182. The M17x, which had the benefit of a 256GB Samsung SSD, blew past it with a score of 17,486. The ASUS G74SX, which also had the benefit of an SSD, notched 12,970. Even the HP dv7t Quad Edition scored a higher 13,565. Still, you're not going to want for power; the M18x's score is about 2,500 points above the desktop replacement average, and we had no trouble running high-powered games at their max settings.

The lack of an SSD also showed up when it came to some of our other performance tests. The M18x's hard drives booted Windows 7 Ultimate in 1 minute and 15 seconds, which is 12 seconds slower than average. The drives duplicated a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in 2 minutes and 32 seconds, a rate of 33.5 MBps. That's a hair under the desktop replacement average (34 MBps), but far below the SSDs in competing gaming rigs. The M17x, for example, was nearly three times as fast (99.8 MBps).

Graphics and Gaming

Take the most powerful Nvidia GPU on the market. Now take another. That's what Alienware put inside our M18x: two GeForce GTX 580Ms, each with 2GB of video memory. What that translates to is the highest gaming scores we've seen from a laptop. In the 3DMark06 benchmark, the M18x scored 24,142. By comparison, the G74SX, which has a single Nvidia GeForce GTX560M GPU, scored just 15,299. The next closest notebook? The M17x, whose single AMD Radeon HD 6970M GPU notched a score of 20,048.

This same dominance was borne out on our gaming tests. In World of Warcraft, with effects maxed out at 1080p, the M18x averaged 164 frames per second. That's more than two and a half times the desktop replacement average of 60 fps. The M17x came in about 60 frames per second lower. The same goes for Far Cry 2: With effects on Very High, the M18x averaged 151 fps, which is four times the category average of 38 fps. The ASUS G74SX managed a strong 97 fps, but it's still about 50 fps shy.

It was a delight to be able to turn on every effect and setting to its max; we felt a bit like Marty McFly in front of Doc's amplifier. When we were rolling through World of Tanks, everything from explosions to leaves on trees and dust in the wind was beautifully rendered, with all the details as crisp as could be.

How powerful are the M18x's graphics? Using the WiHD, we extended our display to a 55-inch Samsung Plasma HDTV. We then played a Blu-ray of Iron Man at full screen on the Samsung and fired up World of Tanks on the M18x's display. Even with the game's settings at max, we averaged 60 fps and never saw a blip or pause on either screen. It was incredibly impressive.

Configurations

Believe it or not, you can go higher than our $5,500 configuration of the M18x. Outfit the system with Windows 7 Ultimate, an Intel Core i7-2920XM overclocked to 4 GHz, dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M GPUs, 16GB of DDR3 memory at 1600MHz, dual 256GB SSDs, Killer Wireless-N Wi-Fi, WirelessHD, and a slot-loading Blu-ray, and you're looking at a price tag of $6,500. That's a lot of first dates.

Don't have that kind of money? THe M18x starts at $1,999; for that, you get a 2-GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM processor, Windows 7 Home Premium, 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory, a single Nvidia GeForce GTX560M GPU (with 1.5GB of memory), a 320GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive, Intel Advanced-N 6200 Wi-Fi, and a slot-loading DVD burner.

Other options include dual AMD Radeon HD 6990M GPUs with CrossfireX and solid state hybrid hard drives. About the only thing we wish the M18x had was support for SATA 6GB SSDs; a company representative said it was in the works.

Battery Life

Forget endurance. With all its high-power components, the M18x draws about as much electricity as North Korea. So it's not surprising, then, that the notebook lasted just 1 hour and 46 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi). That's about half the desktop replacement average of 3:19. The M18x lacks Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology, but, in a fit of lunacy, if you decide to run the notebook using a single Nvidia GPU--which requires a restart--you'll increase the battery life to 3:36.

Software

Alienware keeps all of its notebooks fairly free of annoying trialware, so you won't get any pop-ups for antivirus software or the like, a refreshing change of pace.

The Alienware Command Center is the most prominent piece of software. This utility lets you change the colors of the backlighting, create power profiles, and adjust the sensitivity of the touchpad. Though the last two are somewhat redundant, the Command Center UI is more attractive than the Windows control panels.

Verdict

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown, if you absolutely, positively need to kill everyone at the LAN party, accept no substitutes. If you can only afford one GPU, the $3,300 M17x is a better option, but its chassis can only accommodate a single graphics card. But if you can swing for two GPUs, then the M18x is the way to go. From power to weight to price, this notebook simply has more--the most--of everything.

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Author Bio
Michael A. Prospero
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor
Michael A. Prospero has overseen reviews on Laptopmag.com since 2007, focusing on producing the most thorough and authoritative mobile product reviews. After receiving his Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia in 2003, Mike worked at Fast Company. Prior to that, he worked at The Times of Trenton, George and AlleyCat News.
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor on
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CPU 4.0-GHz Intel Core i7-2920XM
Operating System MS Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit)
RAM 16GB
RAM Upgradable to 16GB
Hard Drive Size Dual 750GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type Dual SATA Hard Drives
Display Size 18.4
Native Resolution 1920x1080
Optical Drive BD-R
Optical Drive Speed 8X
Graphics Card Dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M
Video Memory 2GB
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 AGN
Bluetooth Bluetooth 3.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.9 x 2.2 inches
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI-in
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) S/PDIF
Ports (excluding USB) eSATA/USB
Ports (excluding USB) Mini DisplayPort
Ports (excluding USB) Dual Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) 5.1 audio
Ports (excluding USB) Kensington Lock
USB Ports 4
Card Slots ExpressCard/54
Card Slots 9-1 card reader
Warranty/Support 1 year/ 24/7 toll-free
Size 17.2 x 12.7 x 2.1 inches
Weight 13 pounds
Company Website http://www.alienware.com