Alienware M11x R2: Optimus and Arrandale Join the Party

When we first heard about Alienware's M11x at CES 2010, we were super excited. Take the winning formula in ASUS' UL30Vt/UL80Vt and shrink it down, plus add in a juicy GT 335M to replace the anemic G 310M and you're looking at a potent little gaming system that can still last all day on a single charge. Let's be honest, though: despite having an 11.6" LCD, the M11x is hardly an 11.6" chassis. The LCD bezel is huge, and Alienware could have easily tweaked the design slightly to get a 13.3" panel in here. Regardless, this is still the smallest viable gaming system right now, with the only real alternative being the Sony VAIO Z series.

The VAIO is certainly attractive, and it actually weighs quite a bit less than the M11x. It also has a faster Arrandale CPU (non-ULV) but a GT 330M GPU. The deal breaker for most is going to be pricing, however, with the Sony starting at $1800. For that you get an i5-520M (2.40GHz), GT 330M (48 SPs), and dual 64GB SSDs along with a 1600x900 LCD. Of those changes, the item that the M11x needs the most is the LCD, at least if it's a higher contrast option, because the LCD panel is our primary remaining complaint with the R2. It's faster at general computing, slightly faster at gaming (the GPU is still the primary bottleneck), but the LCD is the same AU Optronics B116XW01 with a claimed 500:1 contrast ratio. In our actual testing, it manages just 262:1 and is the weakest link in an otherwise awesome package.

What's truly unfortunate is that along with the CPU upgrade and Optimus, the price jumped $150 and we're still stuck with a panel similar to what we find in entry-level 11.6" netbooks. That's another complaint we have with the M11x R2: pricing is no longer quite as compelling. In fact, if you're willing to give up Arrandale ULV, you can get the original for a lower cost, with slightly better battery life and the potential to run Linux and still get switchable graphics. For those that don't care about Linux, however, the R2 is going to be the better option—remember that getting driver updates for switchable graphics from NVIDIA is unlikely, whereas the latest Verde drivers support Optimus laptops.

Before we get into the numbers, here's a quick look at the specs of the M11x R2. The installed options in our test system are bolded.

Alienware M11x Specifications
Processor Core i5-520UM (32nm, 2x1.06GHz, Turbo to 1.87GHz, 3MB, 18W)
Core i7-640UM (32nm, 2x1.20GHz, Turbo to 2.27GHz, 3MB, 18W)
Overclockable to 166MHz bus
Chipset Intel QS57
Memory 2x1GB to 2x4GB DDR3-800
2x2GB DDR3-800 Tested
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 335M with Optimus Technology
(72 CUDA Cores, 450/1080/1580 Core/Shader/RAM)

Intel HD Graphics
Display 11.6" LED Backlit WXGA (1366x768)
(AU Optronics B116WX01)
Hard Drive(s) 160GB 5400RPM
250GB 7200RPM
320GB 7200RPM
500GB 7200RPM
256GB SSD
Optical Drive N/A
Networking Fast Ethernet (Atheros AR8132 / L1c)
Dell DW1520 802.11n WiFi
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (Optional)
Mobile Broadband (Optional)
Audio HD Audio (2 speakers with mic and 2x headphone jacks)
Battery 8-cell 63Wh
Front Side N/A
Left Side Mini 1394a FireWire
Flash Memory Card Reader
Fast Ethernet
1 x USB 2.0 (powered)
HDMI
DisplayPort
Kensington Lock
Right Side 2x Headphone jack
Microphone jack
2 x USB 2.0
Back Side AC Power Connection
Cooling exhaust
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Dimensions 11.25" x 9.19" x 1.29" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.39 lbs (with 8-cell prismatic battery)
Extras AlienFX Zoned Lighting
Webcam
86-Key LED Backlit Keyboard
3-in-1 Flash reader
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
Remote diagnostics
3-year and 4-year extended warranties available
Advanced and Premium In-Home Service available
Pricing Starting at $949
$1319 as Configured

All the features are identical to the original M11x, outside of the CPU/chipset, with one exception: the original M11x had a VGA output, which the R2 removed. We’re not sure why Alienware chose to remove the VGA port, and certainly some users (i.e. students or anyone looking to connect to a typical projector) will miss the feature. For better or worse, though, the VGA port is gone.

Considering Alienware was already swapping out the chipset, motherboard, and processor, not to mention adding Optimus (though according to NVIDIA, that’s a very simple addition to make since there’s no extra traces required), there are a few changes that didn’t happen that we definitely wanted. For one, the lack of Gigabit Ethernet is a joke. With no internal optical drive, it stands to reason a lot of people will be copying files over the network. This is a premium product and there’s simply no reason to continue using Fast Ethernet. Imagine purchasing a modern system only to get AC’97 audio instead of HD audio. Would you notice the difference? Perhaps not, but it would still grate just knowing that it’s outdated technology. Getting USB 3.0 on one of the ports would have been a nice addition as well. The final change we wanted we’ve already addressed: the LCD just isn’t a good choice for a laptop of this caliber.

One other item we need to bring up quickly: the pre-installed software caused a few problems. Specifically, the Dell Wireless driver (or at least the tray icon) has a memory leak that can create severe instability unless you kill the task. Thankfully, that process is not necessary, so if you have an M11x R2 and Dell hasn't released a new driver then you'll want to disable the "DW WLAN Tray Service" service and kill the WLTRAY.exe process. (I used msconfig.exe to disable both.)

We provided our thoughts on the design in our original M11x reviewas well as the M11x R2 First Look. We have very few complaints and the overall experience is very good. Compared to something like the Clevo W880CU, this laptop feels solid and well-constructed and it’s clear effort went into making this a functional system. You still have the choice between “Lunar Shadow” (silver) and “Soft Touch Stealth Black”, and we’d highly recommend the latter, but opinions on aesthetics vary. The only remaining question is performance, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.

Ultraportable Gaming Revisited
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  • blyndy - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Why the F**K does Alienware, for all its awesome customisability, poke a stick in the eye with reflective displays!?

    I would own a m17x if it wasn't for the shit screen. Give me the option for an RGB display but NOT for a matte finish? They can keep it.
    Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    For everyone who complains about glossy displays there is someone who prefers them. I am one of those people. And if the majority disliked glossy displays the industry as a whole wouldn't use them.

    Matte displays attract dirt and fingerprints which are then harder to clean than glossy ones, that is a fact.

    I don't know why everyone complains so much about them - true, in this instance the low contrast nature of the M11x display is bad but being glossy is a matter of taste, and given the choice, I would take the glossy display over the matte one, obviously you and others differ here, but whereas low-contrast is bad for all users, the display coating is definitely an opinion matter.
    Reply
  • LaughingTarget - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Sounds to me the problem can be resolved by, you know, not touching the screen. Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Just because I don't touch my screen doesn't mean other people in the vacinity don't...

    Or if you are in a rush and grab the computer. Or if you sneeze on it. Any number of things can get dirt on the screen, but I'm sure you knew that and were just being facetious and annoying for no apparent reason...
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    First off, I don't know what matte screens you're talking about but glossy screens attract dust and fingerprints like no other.

    If you are using the glossy screen for mainly home use and have it set up so there is no reflecting light, then I would say that glossy is the way to go.

    LaughingTarget was merely pointing out the holes in your logic. For on-the-go use and for viewing the screen more easily, matte is the way to go.

    Gloss is only there to compensate for the poor screen quality beneath that most manufacturers don't want to spend extra money on. I've seen matte displays with great contrast ratios AND given that the screen isn't a mirror, makes it usable in a well lit environments.

    And as for the whole cleaning thing, they are the same. Just use the LCD cleaner with the cloth and both get just as clean.
    Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Well, I agree with most of what you say, however 'LaughingTarget' was being a tool. Whatever I do, some moron will come across to my computer screen or laptop in the day and point with the fleshy part of their finger having previously been stuffing their face with something greasy and unhealthy, so 'not touching' it just doesn't happen.

    I'm sure matte displays have their place, but there are times when glossy screens have a price premium and people do pay that premium for them (not me personally). And I have a Dell 2005FPW attached to one of my computers which is (as far as I know) a S-IPS panel with a great contrast ratio and matte finish, far outpacing most of the TN panels built 3-4 years later I seem to come across.

    Personally, I still prefer and will continue to use glossy screens where possible (one of which used to be the stunning RGBLED in the SXPS16). It doesn't matter what someone says, it is down to personal preference ultimately - I'm sure someone will spin me a load of rubbish about how I don't take graphics or image work seriously because I just said that but they would be wrong (and I hope that isn't you). What is universally agreed though is that high contrast and gamut is better.

    And yes, I do own an M11x and my complaint is not with the glossy LCD layer but with the hideously poor contrast and terrible vertical viewing angle.
    Reply
  • LaughingTarget - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Understand what tool means. Whom am I being a tool for, pray tell? Some secret international conglomerate of matte monitor manufacturers?

    At the end of the day, your piss poor behavior using your expensive piece of hardware is hardly a great reason to buy a lesser monitor. If you can't pop open the screen without grubbing the monitor and hang around people with a total lack of consideration, that doesn't somehow make the glossy mess any better. You shouldn't be buying the m11 if you regularly bring the unit to places where folks smudge Cheeto dust all over it. That's what $300 Netbooks were invented for.

    As for dust, close the thing when not in use. Problem solved.
    Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Look it up on Urbandictionary if you don't get it.

    Yes, you are a tool for being undeniably facetious and smug with your response without adding anything to the conversation. You may not agree with my use of glossy screens as do others but slating it or making a pointless remark like 'don't touch it' doesn't add anything, just like your last comment.

    And I wasn't talking about my M11x, I was talking about any LCD (matte or glossy), I mean at work people come to show you things and poke the screen - I work in an office where it's 90% women, they don't listen when I say 'don't touch the screen, it damages it' even if I do work in IT.

    Dust appears on screens and keyboards even if you do close them after use, it's these annoying things called static electricity and gravity but being such a smartarse you must've already known that.
    Reply
  • erple2 - Saturday, July 10, 2010 - link

    Honestly, the initial response of LaughingTarget I thought was pretty reasonable, even funny.

    Clearly, the solution <i>is</i> not to touch it. Whether you can fully control whether people other than yourself touch the screen is a side issue, but you can at least prevent your own fingerprints on the laptop.

    Regardless, glossy vs. matte is, I suppose, as much about personal taste. I personally think that glossy is exceptionally annoying (and inferior from a practicality standpoint), but that's my opinion. I also think my opinion is based on facts. Whether those facts are important to you is a different story.

    BTW, touching a screen is not a male/female thing. I work in an office where it's about 80% men, and they still touch screens, even after being told not to.
    Reply
  • blyndy - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    The slight mirror layer over the whole display contents is what is unacceptable for me and others. They're obviously acceptable to some and that's fine, but for people who prioritise 'usable' over 'sleek' our options are negligible, hence the frustration.

    "Matte displays attract dirt and fingerprints which are then harder to clean than glossy ones, that is a fact."

    *turns off desktop lcd (matte)* ...I see a few smudges, but I have to shift my head from side to side to see them, and they're invisible when the screen is on, completely unobtrusive either way. I don't go poking the screen too much anyway, with that said it's simple to clean if ever I happen to rub my hands all over it. With a glossy screen though you HAVE to clean it if you don't want it to look dirty.

    Anyway my main gripe is that for all of Alienware customisation options they don't include a matte screen, on machines that are supposed to be uncompromising and for hardcore users.

    Especially when all they have to do is remove the clear plastic cover.
    Reply

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