Alienware M11x R2: New and Improved Ultraportable Gaming

When the original M11x was announced, heads turned and everyone was impressed with just how much performance Alienware managed to cram into the small chassis. In fairness, while the LCD is a standard 11.6" size, the chassis is actually far closer to a 13.3" laptop than it is to 11.6" ultraportables. Still, no one else is coming anywhere near the performance level of the GT 335M GPU in anything smaller than a 14" chassis. We really liked the overall concept, but the first revision had a few areas where we wanted to see improvements. First and most importantly, the switchable graphics were good for battery life, but getting updated drivers on such designs has been difficult at best. With NVIDIA's Verde driver program releasing regular driver updates for everything but switchable graphics, we really wanted an Optimus enabled design. Second, the Intel Core 2 CULV processor was nearing the end of the road, with various Arrandale ULV processors nearing release and promising improved performance and Turbo Boost. The final item that prevented us from giving the M11x an Editor's Choice award was the lackluster LCD along noise and heat levels that were often distracting.

So the revised edition is here and it's looking to address the above concerns. NVIDIA Optimus Technology? Check. An Arrandale i7-640UM processor? Roger that. A high contrast LCD? Um… no. But still, two out of three isn't bad. The GPU is the same GT 335M, so performance shouldn't be any different in that respect. However, the GT 335M was likely more GPU than the overclocked CULV processor could feed, so just because the GPU is the same doesn't mean gaming performance won't improve. The i7-640UM processor has a stock clock speed of 1.20GHz, but now we're looking at two cores plus Hyper-Threading, and clock-for-clock Arrandale processors have outperformed the old Core 2 Duo parts. Add to that the ability for the 640UM to Turbo Boost all the way up to 2.27GHz and we're looking at potentially 50% more performance from the CPU (give or take).

The design hasn't really changed at all from the exterior. Our review sample for the original M11x came with a sliver chassis. We thought it looked decent, but the black R2 model we received definitely has a stealthier look. The lid has a rubberized paint texture that almost feels soft to the touch. If we had a choice, the black chassis wins quite easily. Oddly, the new touchpad (or at least the current Alienware drivers) lack support for both multi-touch gestures and chiral scrolling, though it does support pinch-to-zoom. We'll have to see about swapping out the provided driver for a Synaptics reference driver, as we miss the scrolling gestures. The keyboard is also going to feel a bit small for some, but the customizable colored backlighting is still a great feature to impress your friends.

We're still working on benchmarks, so all we can do for now is present some initial results. We'll skip with graphs and charts and save those for the final review. For now, here's what we can tell you. PCMark Vantage shows an improvement of 36% while most of the 3DMark results improve by 5-15%. Oddly enough, our initial testing has generated slightly lower scores in PCMark05 and 3DMark03, but we're running on the shipping NVIDIA 189.69 drivers rather than updated 256/257 series drivers and we've only completed a few test runs. We did try Alienware's Beta 257.30 drivers, but we experienced problems with the various Futuremark tests and out of memory errors. We're not sure yet whether the problem is the drivers or something in the Alienware software shipped on the system, or perhaps the BIOS just needs a few tweaks. In normal use, the M11x R2 certainly feels snappier than the original, and the upgrade to Arrandale and Optimus are the real story. Battery life results will have to wait, as we're busy testing other things right now, but the M11x should easily last upwards of seven hours for lighter loads.

There is one area that actually got substantially worse with the new release, unfortunately: pricing. While the first M11x was available starting at just $900 and is now shipping for just $800, the M11x R2 starts at $950. Upgrade to 4GB RAM and the 500GB 7200RPM hard drive and the original M11x goes for $1000; the same upgrades on the R2 bump the price to $1150, and if you want the faster i7-640UM (as opposed to the i5-520UM that runs at 1.067GHz stock and up to 1.833GHz Turbo Boost) like our review unit you're looking at $1300. $300 extra for performance that should be 10 to 50% faster is reasonable, especially since you get Optimus Technology thrown into the mix. If you can't wait, there's a quick ship "Fast Track" version with the i5-520UM, 4GB RAM, and a 250GB hard drive that ships in 48 hours for just $1050. If you're thinking of adding an aftermarket SSD down the road anyway, that would be the one to get. Stay tuned for the full review next week, and feel free to ask questions in the comments section in the meantime.

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  • Computer Bottleneck - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the preview.

    Can someone explain how the Turbo mode on the i7-640um works?

    How many cores for that 2.26 Ghz frequency? For how long?

    Thanks. I couldn't really glean the information looking at the Intel spec sheet--->http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=47700
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    In my testing, it looks like single-threaded tasks will run at anywhere from 1.86GHz to 2.26GHz, with 2.00GHz and 2.13GHz steps in between. Further details:

    Cinebench 1CPU usually is at 1.86GHz with periodic blips at 2.26GHz (nothing in between). Cinebench xCPU also stayed at 1.86GHz, though, which is much better than the old CULV M11x (even when overclocked).

    Peacekeeper (a single-threaded task) was generally at 2.0/2.13GHz, but it fluctuated from 1.86GHz to 2.26GHz.

    x264 encoding was more stressful in terms of limiting Turbo Modes, with the multiplier ranging from 11x (1.33GHz) to 16x (2.00GHz) for the first pass and 11X (1.33GHz) up to 14x (1.86GHz) for the second pass. Average seemed to be around 1.86GHz for pass one and 1.73GHz on pass two, but both fluctuated quite a bit. It's not clear if current draw is the limiting factor or heat, but in general you'll get at least the equivalent of a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo. That's fast enough to feed the GT 335M quite well.
    Reply
  • Computer Bottleneck - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the information. It is interesting you mentioned current draw vs heat.

    I am still trying to learn this myself, but it appears i7-640LM is capable of 16x stock multiplier with a 22x multiplier for Turbo. However, it only uses 7 more watts than the i7-640um.

    That seems like a pretty large difference in performance between a 25 watt CPU and a 18 watt CPU.

    Hmmm.....so maybe heat is involved to a degree? (The Anandtech arrandale article mentioned this back in January).
    Reply
  • aarondeep - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    When searching for gaming laptops I have been a bit surprised that there are no offerings with available docking stations. I know I may be a minority here but these machines are designed to be desktop replacements, with the M11x being a very portable one. Not a single alienware laptop is available with an optional docking port. I know this is a business feature but it wold be nice to make these machines the ultimate desktop replacements. Reply
  • erple2 - Tuesday, July 06, 2010 - link

    I used to think that a Docking Station was a waste of money. And I suppose you could make the case that you save money by not having it since there's "nothing" you can do without the docking station that you can't really do without it. However, I started using one for work and home (they gave me a second docking station for home use), and I love the thing. Push it down into the docking station and instant Ethernet, secondary monitor, power, mouse all ready to go (I really like the keyboard on my Elitebook). One click, and the laptop pops off, ready to go somewhere else. I also like that I don't have to wrap up the power cable to take my laptop anywhere - it's always in my bag.

    Unfortunately, it seems you have to get a business class notebook to get, IMO, one of the best optional features that I've ever used in a laptop.

    It's enough to make me want to think about getting something like an Elitebook or Thinkpad. If only they were cheaper, or my company discount included customizeable models for each rather than fixed models...
    Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    Sorry, I know most everyone and the reviewers all seem to love this laptop. However, to me it is just too expensive for the performance and for such a small screen. An 11 inch screen might be OK for casual gaming, but for real PC games?????
    For 1199.00 you can get an Asus from Best Buy with a HD5870M and a quad core CPU and a much better screen. This machine is only slightly less expensive.
    I like the switchable graphics and long battery life, but at the price of this system, I would prefer a larger laptop. A lot of people on some of the earlier laptop reviews criticized the fact that the "gaming experience" is not that good on a laptop. Now a machine with an even smaller screen is suddenly the coolest thing going. I dont mean to offend anyone who has bought this machine, but I just dont get it.
    Reply
  • bobjones32 - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    People in the real world who need to bring their computer around with them value quality battery life and portability. That's the key point you're missing.

    Do you think anyone is actually oblivious to the fact that the m11x doesn't perform as well as other behemoths of the same price? That's the point. That $1200 Asus with a 5870 is massive, a tremendous pain in the ass for people who actually need to carry it around with them (you know, the "lap" part of "laptop), and it probably has extremely shitty battery life to boot.

    The m11x will run more than twice as long on battery than that Asus will do while just browsing the web with the brightness turned all the way down.

    The only offensive thing here is your myopic view of what people want out of a portable gaming laptop. The m11x is more than capable of running every game on the planet, which is an amazing, pretty much revolutionary feat for such a small machine with such great battery life.
    Reply
  • bobjones32 - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    I meant to say:

    "The m11x will run more than twice as long on battery *while playing a demanding game* than that Asus will do while just browsing the web with the brightness turned all the way down."

    Browsing the web, the m11x will easily get 3-4x the battery life of that Asus.
    Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Tuesday, July 06, 2010 - link

    The point is not that it will run the games with great battery life and portability. I realize that, and it is an impressive technical feat. I guess I cant really say without trying it out, but I still dont understand wanting to game on an 11 inch screen. Reply
  • someone0 - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    I got it, and now returning it. Prior to ordering this, I looked at the online manual and it said it's gigabit ethernet. But I got it, it doesn't. And I need gigabit, so a fair warning to whoever want the M11xR2. And BTW, Dell made a similar mistake on Vostro3300 also. The website was originally listed as 1920x1080, which just changed a few days ago to correct resolution 1366x768. I wouldn't rely on correct info from Dell right now. Reply

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