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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  • Stokestack - Sunday, July 11, 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."

    Not true, apparently:
    http://arstechnica.com/hardware/news/2006/10/8022....

    Glossy screens were shoved down buyers' throats by third-tier vendors at Best Buy with lies about "deeper blacks and richer colors." Sadly, so-called "leaders" like Apple followed the precedent set by plastic, fake-chromed Toshiba laptops with their tails between their legs. Most consumers, not being capable of critical thinking on these matters, accepted that. But the fact is that glossy screens suck in EVERY lighting condition. It doesn't matter if you're in a pitch-black room, because the light from the screen will illuminate YOU and create a reflection anyway.

    Your "deep blacks" aren't black at all with the sheen of a reflected image overlaying them, and that's a fact. Rich colors? Which ones, the ones contained in the scene behind you?

    And I hope we're not to take that strawman about matte screens being hard to keep clean seriously.
    Reply
  • plewis00 - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    I don't try and force my opinion on others I just tell you what I feel and how I see things. I find matte screens harder to keep clean, you may not, and frankly as you were a total asshat anyway I don't care - for all I know you can't afford an LCD and are still using a CRT. At least -some- people who came back and countered my opinion did it politely and with a modicum of decency about it stating their opinion.

    I have had good matte screens, I have had bad glossy screens.

    And you posted ONE link to a loaded survey anyway (from Lenovo/IBM users - who have been using matte screens as long as I can remember) where the article even states the reason why we are moving to glossy screens - where's the stuff about Best Buy come from? A demo glossy unit in a store sounds like the one place I would definitely rather NOT have a glossy display (bright lights and fingerprints and smudges everywhere).

    Unlike you, I'm not going to demand or ask that everyone bows down to my opinion, it was, for what it's worth an opinion. I like my M11x and if I had the choice of both displays I'd have to see both to make a decision but I don't have any complaints about the glossy finish.

    Take me seriously or not - am I bothered? No. Am I more bothered about how a self-opinionated jerk gets through life without getting the crap kicked out of him? Somewhat, but probably not as much as you'd hope...
    Reply
  • mrjminer - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I'm with you. This glossy phase that all manufacturers have entered is extremely annoying. I don't want a laptop that I have to position based on whether or not I have a light on, and I don't want a screen that's reflecting everything around me.

    I think the reason manufacturer's switched to this is because it looks better in the store. For practical purposes, though, glossy is inferior to matte.

    And to the guy below that says "matte displays attract dirt and fingerprints," that claim is outright false:
    1. Fingerprints barely show up on matte screens and they're almost always unnoticeable when the screen is on.
    2. Matte screens attract less fingerprints than glossy? Please, let me know who manufactures the screens on the laptops you've used because I'd like to invest in their non-existent company.
    3. Attract dirt / dust more than glossy screens? No. You merely spend more time cleaning off your glossy screen because you have to do so any time you accidentally give it the slightest touch.
    4. Take more time to clean than glossy screens? Um... I guess if you're comparing a larger matte screen size to a smaller glossy screen size.

    All of these things taken into account, matte screens need to be cleaned less and are not limited in position by the light/furniture setup.

    The only practical use I see for glossy screens are for touchscreens / tablets because it avoids the push-down effect (whatever it's called) and would largely negate the possibility of damaging the screen by pressing too hard.
    Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    If you get dirt on a matte screen and try to clean it, it smears more, whereas on a glossy it tends to come off easier - that was my point, nothing more. All my computers use glossy screens for better or worse (Dell M1530, 1750, M11x and Sony UX1XN) and I don't take issue or offence with them.

    The only LCD using a matte display is my TV and I do have a harder time cleaning that off - and you're right, I barely see dirt on it when it's on but knowing it's there, I find annoying.

    Glossy screens don't avoid that pushdown effect (do you mean the ripple) - the only way to fix that is the glass plate on top of capacitive displays i.e. iPhones.
    Reply
  • blyndy - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I'll add that I have vertical blinds behind me. I found a borrowed Macbook to be frustrating to use as the daylight leaked through the closed blinds and left glaring vertical reflections for me to have to look through. Reply
  • mrjminer - Saturday, July 10, 2010 - link

    Oops... slight correction, #2 is supposed to read "Matte screens attract more fingerprints than glossy?" I accidentally put less :O Reply
  • phreax9802 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I have an R2. Can you give details on how you achieve such long battery life? Just curious, because the maximum idle time that I get is around 4 hours. If possible maybe you can do a general guide for optimizing battery life for laptops. Thanks for the good job! :) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Use Power Saver profile first, set brightness for 60% second, disable AlienFX (on battery -- use the Go Dark option), and make sure to disable any extra crap processes (especially the rogue Dell WLAN tray icon). Doing just those items got me to nearly the listed results. Going in and halting all the additional processes/services got me the rest of the way, but that was only an extra ~20 minutes idle. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Oh, and turn off Firewall, Windows Defender, and any Update services.

    FYI, the problem service with the wireless is called "DW WLAN Tray Service", as well as the WLTRAY.exe process.
    Reply
  • koscica - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I am going abroad in a couple of weeks and I would like to buy M11x before I leave. Therefore my only available choices are original m11x at best buy or the fast track i5 version from alienware. Is the i5 worth 150$ extra? Reply

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