Awe-inspiring performance and portability don't usually go hand in hand, but the Alienware Area-51 m15x artfully combines these two ingredients while allowing gamers to customize the look of its latest notebook with six distinct lighting zones.
In fact, the unbeatable one-two punch of Intel's Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor and Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX graphics allow this 15.4-inch screamer to outperform many heftier rigs. At close to five grand our configuration definitely isn't recession friendly, but if you have the cash, this system will blow you away.
Area-51 m15x Design
With the exception of the iconic glowing alien head, the 7-pound, 14.6 x 10.7 x 1.3-inch m15x doesn't look like Alienware's older rigs, and we think that's a good thing. Gone is the ribbed look of previous Alienware models. Instead, this system sports Alienware's new Ripley design, featuring a sleek and sturdy silver magnesium alloy frame.
The m15x features a full and comfortable keyboard with backlighting and a large, smooth, mylar touchpad that sits flush with the palm surface and is discernable only by a backlit square outlining it. Above the keyboard are touch-responsive keys for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Alienware's AlienFX Command Center, Stealth Mode, power, and volume. On the sides are three USB ports, FireWire, HDMI, Ethernet, two auto-sensing headphone and mic jacks, a 2X Blu-ray burner, and a 7-in-1 card reader.
The unit's crisp display feels larger than its 15.4 inches would suggest. The matte finish still collects glare, so plan on gaming in the dark (as if you didn't already). The 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution looked beautiful while watching Black Rain on Blu-ray. Viewing angles were very good vertically and horizontally, and we appreciated the deep blacks during dark scenes but noticed a small amount of noise on bright objects.
Above the display are a 2-megapixel webcam and a microphone. Images were washed out, but our Skype caller said we looked clear and that our movements were fluid. The speakers sounded okay, but they weren't loud enough for our tastes, and at full volume, the left speaker would squeak at high pitches. Best to hook up your own set.
Personalizing Your Rig
Alienware makes customizing the m15x easy. One of our favorite tweaks lets you change the color of the backlighting on the lid's alien head, the buttons on the deck, the touchpad border, and the logo below the display. There's even a light piping along the entire border of the display, but it isn't that bright.
You can choose from ten colors (or white and black), blend them into each other, and create themes for applications and activities. For example, you can have the power button turn red when the m15x is plugged in and blue when it's not, or set the keyboard to flash yellow every time a new e-mail comes in. Alienware plans to extend this feature to games, allowing the m15x to flash red every time you die, or green every time you grab an ammo box in Unreal Tournament 3.
The customization isn't limited to aesthetics, either. The AlienFusion power controls let you create custom energy profiles or choose one of the three basics: balanced, high performance, or power saver. Also, a Smart Bay lets you easily switch out the m15x' optical drive for an extra 6-cell battery ($150) or a second hard drive (80GB, 160GB, and 200GB Smart Bay drives are available for up to $325). You can also choose a 64GB SSD (a $775 upgrade) as the main drive.
Under the Hood
Our test unit came with Intel's new 45-nanometer 2.8-GHz Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor and 4GB of RAM. The m15x's score of 9,280 on 3DMark06 was the highest of any notebook that passed through our doors to date. Its 3DMark03 score of 30,196 was bested only by the Alienware Area-51 m9750 (which notched 34,585), and its PCMark Vantage score of 3,684 beat the mainstream average by 630 points. The m15x lasted just 1 hour and 51 minutes during our battery-rundown tests. That's the lowest in the category and pretty dismal for a gaming machine, but that's the price you pay for all this horsepower.
However, the m15x has a Stealth Mode that throttles down power usage and switches graphics into integrated mode--without a reboot--to save battery life. To launch it, you simply click the speedometer-looking button on the deck. With an extra battery and Stealth Mode activated, the endurance of the m15x doubles to around 3:40.
Wireless scores were mixed; the m15x brought in 18.5 Mbps at 15 feet from our router but dropped to 9.8 Mbps at 50 feet, so you'll want to stick near your router for the best wireless performance, especially during multiplayer matches.
Serious Gaming Fun
Where most computers at LAN parties are large, beastly hot rods, the m15x will hold its own as the Porsche of the bunch. On our gaming tests, the m15x even bested its 17-inch brother, the m9750. With settings maxed out at 1024 x 768, it scored 168 frames per second on our F.E.A.R. benchmark and 189 fps on autodetect at the same resolution. By comparison, the m9750 held the previous high score of 161 fps on autodetect. On Call of Duty 4 set to optimum system settings, we saw an average of 111 fps, a true testament to the m15x's gaming prowess.
Next up was our Crysis torture test. Alas, the m15x notched an average of only 16 fps with all the settings on High. Gameplay was a bit choppy, and frame rates dropped the most while running through the jungle and blasting tanks with a rocket launcher. Set to Medium, we saw an average of 31 fps on Crysis, so every firefight was fluid even with grenades going off in the bushes around us while we ran away at maximum speed. You'll still see trees blowing in the wind and beautiful water effects, but parts of the landscape loaded in the distance, and there's less detail in character models and foliage in general. Nonetheless, Crysis still looked beautiful.
Alienware Area-51 m15x Verdict
Overall, the Alienware Area-51 m15x delivers the power you need to play the most demanding games, and it's much more compact than competing rigs. We wish the speakers were a bit louder and that the system offered better wireless range, but no other 15.4-inch system can hold a candle to this rig.