Every once in a while a system comes through our offices that obliterates the gaming performance scores of those that preceded it. Currently, that notebook is the Alienware Area-51 m17x, an overachieving beast that sliced through most games without a hitch. We love its matte black design, customizable glowing features, and killer gaming scores. If you're pinching pennies, you may not dig its $2,199 starting price. And you may have to sell your car to buy the configuration we tested--a whopping $5,598. While the m17x' blazing speeds got our adrenaline pumping, its flaws gave us pause.
The m17x, aptly named for its 17-inch glossy display, features a full and comfortable keyboard with backlighting and a large, smooth touchpad that sits flush with the palm surface and is discernible only by a backlit square outline. The lid felt a bit chintzy, though; it doesn't feel very sturdy and has a bit of a bounce to it. The m17x boasts a full number pad, a feature the m15x does not offer.
However, like its smaller brethren, above the keyboard the m17x offers the same touch-responsive keys for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Alienware's AlienFX Command Center, Stealth Mode, and volume. The power button is a silver alien head with glowing eyes. The area around its gorgeous high-definition 1920 x 1200 display is a sleek, glossy black. You'll also find a 2-megapixel camera and two microphones for videoconferencing.
On the left are the power jack, headphone/microphone jacks, optical audio, S-video, an HDTV Tuner, audio out, three USB 2.0 ports, and a Smart Bay for swapping drives. The right side of the m17x has a 7-in-1 memory card reader, an additional USB port, HDMI, FireWire A/B ports, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, and a security lock slot. The Smart Bay lets you easily switch out the m17x' optical drive for an extra six-cell battery ($150) or a second hard drive (120GB to 500GB Smart Bay drives are available for up to $400). Or you can choose a 128GB solid state drive (a $550 upgrade) as the main drive.
Alienware makes customizing the m17x 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.
You can choose from ten colors (or white and black) for the Alienware Command Center, blend them into each other, and create themes for applications and activities. For example, you can have the power button turn red when the m17x 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 a designated area to flash red every time you die, or green every time you grab an ammo box in your favorite game.
The customizing features aren'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.
High-Quality Display and Speakers
The high-definition 1920 x 1200 display is simply gorgeous, and the colors really pop. We loved the crystal clear view while playing Call of Duty 4, World of Warcraft, and Flight Simulator X. The display was bright enough to play in the office and still make out details, and the first-level boat mission in Call of Duty 4 exhibited deep blacks. The speakers were quite good; they were crisp enough for us to hear our movements through gravel in World of Warcraft, and audio from our commanders in Call of Duty 4 came through loud and clear.
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Under the Hood
The m17x has components similar to those in the m15x, and that includes the 2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor and 4GB of RAM. Instead ofan Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX discrete graphics card, though, the m17x has the latest-generation 9800M GT series cards in SLI (Scalable Link Interface, which lets a laptop use two discrete graphics cards together to double the graphics performance). Unfortunately, this graphics configuration isn't available for consumers yet, though an Alienware representative said this should be an option within the next month. At the moment, the m17x is available with a pair of GeForce 8800M GTX cards in SLI, which should result in performance comparable to the m15x. The system also has an HDTV tuner for watching broadcast HD television, but you'll have to supply your own antenna.
Benchmark Performance Results
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Thanks to the brand-new 9800M GT graphics, the m17x blew right past the Area-51 m9750 in 3DMark03. The m9750 had a score of 34,585, while the m17x scored a sky-high 45,403. (The m15x was a closethird with 30,196.) The m17x' 3DMark06 scores were just as impressive, raking in a score of 12,042, compared with the m15x' score of 9,280 and the m9750's 8,706. The same goes for its PCMark Vantage score of 3,954, which is 270 points higher than the m15x, and 910 points higher than the desktop replacement average, where it was bested by only the Gateway P-171XL FX and P-7811FX.
The m17x took a poky 1 minute and 23 seconds to boot. We attribute that sluggishness to the 5,400-rpm hard drive; it was able to copy 4.97GB worth of files in 2 minutes and 34 seconds (a rate of 33 MBps), which is quite good, but a 7,200-rpm drive would have provided quicker speeds.
Gaming on the Area-51 m17x
During our Call of Duty 4 tests, our average frame rate on optimum settings (1024 x 768 and graphics turned up) was 161 frames per second. The m15x, by comparison, offered up 111 frames per second with the same settings. On F.E.A.R. with the settings set to maximum and a resolution of 1024 x 768, we saw 182 fps with the m17x, which bested the m15x' score of 168 fps. Even more remarkable was the m17x' ability to notch 128 fps with the resolution set to its native 1920 x 1200. This offered a much crisper experience: Walls were sharper and edges more clean than with the lower resolution, and it still managed a very high frame rate.
On our World of Warcraft test with a dedicated Ethernet connection, we measured frame rates while flying from Orgrimmar to Gadgetzan, about a 5-minute ride, and saw an average of 215 frames per second. By comparison, the P-7811FX, which packs a slightly slower 2.26-GHz Core 2 Duo P8400 processor and a single 9800M GTS graphics card, did the same run with an average of 61 frames per second, showing what a difference two graphics cards in an SLI configuration can make.
In Flight Simulator X, with the graphics switched to the highest-possible settings, the system managed only 9 fps during a flight over Manhattan from JFK to Newark Liberty International Airport. So while the m17x handles games better than any laptop we've tested, it's not perfect.
In Crysis the m17x fared quite well. We found our favorite settings were graphics set to Medium with the game running at a native 1920 x 1200 resolution. With these settings, the system averaged 33 frames per second through hardcore fire fights; with the graphics set to 1024 x 768 and on High, 43 frames per second--a good deal better than the m15x's average of 16 fps at those settings. The game was unplayable on High at native resolution, where we averaged 9 frames per second, and worse at Very High settings on native resolution, where we couldn't even top a single frame per second.
A Word of Caution
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The 9800M series cards from Nvidia support PhysX technology, which allows for objects to act according to real-life physics: Think water spilling out of a glass or a window shattering. However, Nvidia has not turned on this support in the mobile version of its graphics cards yet and will not do so "for months," according to a company spokesman.
During an Unreal Tournament 3 session, our m17x locked up completely, and when we restarted, it would not boot into Windows. After opening the system's RAID configuration panel during the boot process, we found that our RAID 0 array was no longer recognized by the computer. Alienware says this is a Vista issue, but we didn't appreciate losing all of our data and having to reconfigure the RAID array and reinstall Windows. Microsoft had no comment before press time.
Adding insult to injury, when we loaded the restore disc, the Alienware Command Center software no longer offered support for the backlit keyboard. In the m17x' defense, we didn't have any trouble with Call of Duty, Flight Simulator X, or World of Warcraft. After we reimaged our system, created a new RAID 0 array, and reinstalled the graphics drivers, we played the same level in Unreal Tournament 3 two more times with no problems at all.
Wireless and Battery Life
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Wireless scores were decent at 15 feet, where the m17x managed 19.5 Mbps of throughput, but at 50 feet the system mustered just 8.4 Mbps. For online gaming, you'll want to sit near the router or use the Ethernet jack.
The m17x lasted 1 hour and 6 minutes on our own battery-life test, which browses Web sites until the battery drains. Under gaming conditions, that time would be far less.
We love that Alienware didn't pack the m17x full of garbage software or free trials. Instead, it came with CyberLink software for playing Blu-ray discs and Nero 7 for burning files. The desktop was clutter free and, in fact, only had a trash can icon on it when we first powered up. Alienware includes a one-year warranty, which can be extended to three years, and 24/7 toll-free phone support. The company also offers customer support forums, as well as an online knowledge base and the option to chat with an Alienware representative using its chat system.
Alienware Area-51 m17x Verdict
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Gamers with deep pockets will love the Alienware Area-51 m17x. It's the fastest gaming rig on the market, and competitors won't likely surpass it anytime soon. It's super sexy, and its customization features will make you the envy of fellow gamers at LAN parties. However, for $5,598, it shouldn't crash under the stress of a game, even if it may be Vista's fault.