Review: Alienware M11x

The King Kong of gaming computers now comes in a Fay Wray-size package

laptop with alienware image
Alienware M11x
US $800 and up
http://www.alienware.com


I didn’t know Alienware made a netbook!"

"They don’t."

That was a conversation I had several times at work after the arrival of my M11x, a tiny monster of a machine. Alienware, for those unfamiliar, is the prestige brand of Windows gaming PCs owned by Dell, and it never does anything by halves. If you want ultimate performance and can afford a top-of-the-line gaming laptop that costs as much as four or five "regular" PCs, Alienware can kit you out.

So it was with some bemusement that the gaming press greeted the news of the M11x, which looks for all the world like a netbook—11-inch screen, 3.25 centimeters thick, no DVD drive—but with an Alienware-ish price that starts at US $800 and climbs quickly. I was unenthusiastic as well; it’s as if Jaguar had tried to make a subcompact car. Having owned a couple of netbooks, I’ve enjoyed their portability, but not the frustrating torpor of an Atom processor struggling to run Windows.

So the M11x didn’t seem worthwhile—until I read the specs. Ultralow-voltage Core 2 Duo processor, Nvidia GT 335M video with 1 gigabyte of VRAM, up to 8 GB of RAM, HDMI video output...what is this thing? A visit to the Alienware booth at a trade show brought the answer.

It’s a top-of-the-line notebook in the body of a netbook. Clearly, Alienware is sensitive about the image of its laptops, where 5 or 6 kilograms is pretty standard, and they set out to change that. What they came up with is a joy to use: a 2-kg yet solidly built machine that can stand with the lions and run with the gazelles. The company’s over-the-top product design is there: alien-head power button, illuminated speakers, and keyboard with customizable colors. But I don’t mind a little flash now and then. It puts me in the mood for gaming.

I haven’t come close to filling the 500-GB, 7200-rpm hard drive, but I’ve installed Crysis, Modern Warfare 2, and Mass Effect 2, all of which can punish the average desktop machine. They play beautifully, maintaining high frame rates throughout. Game settings that rely on the video card, like texture resolution and post effects, can be maxed out, while features that tax the admittedly underpowered central processing unit—say, a huge number of scene objects—should be set somewhat lower.

The CPU was obviously chosen for low heat output and battery life: Using the low-power Intel graphics card (which is switchable on the fly with the Nvidia card), you can get more than 7 hours of basic work done on a single charge. Heavy gaming with Nvidia graphics will run 3 to 4 hours.

I’ve also run applications like Photoshop CS5 and ZBrush, powerful programs that demand good hardware, and the M11x delivers. Filters are fast, brush strokes smooth, and large image files can be edited with no noticeable performance degradation. Microsoft Office likewise runs extremely well.

It’s not as elegant or thin as a MacBook Air or a Dell Adamo, but the M11x blows them away in performance in a similarly small package. And it has a glowing alien-head power button. What’s not to love? Turns out Alienware does make a netbook—and then some.

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