Alienware M11x R2 First Lookby Jarred Walton on July 2, 2010 9:09 PM EST
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.