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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  • JarredWalton - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    It's going to come down to whether you value Optimus and regular driver updates from NVIDIA. I suspect the i5-520UM will be slightly faster in applications but that's about it. I do, so I'd go for the Fast Track R2; Linux people will want the original though. Another thought: grab the original and buy your own SSD for about the same price as the Fast Track... would be nice. :-) Reply
  • SlyNine - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I wish you guys would test for throttling on the CPU and GPU under load. After the whole XPS16 Studio deal. When plugged in it was slower then on battery, it could clock down as low as 300mhz while trying to play a game. Turning almost every game in to a studdering mess. Then it turns out this is COMMON practice for Dell. Other systems have done this as well.

    Throttlestop by unclewebb is the easiest way to check for it.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Intel is really dropping the ball here with arrandale ULV. There is no compelling reason to not choose a SU7300, up until Intel stops making SU7300s. Reply
  • Roland00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    all evidence points towards the fact that Intel wasn't quite ready for 32nm due to the canceling of the notebook version of nehalem 45nm (Auburndale) and the mainstream dual core nehalem 45nm (Havendale). Now when Intel announced they were canceling Auburndale and Havendale they were doing so for is 32nm replacement Arrandale (mobile) and Clarksdale (desktop) were comming around nicely and they didn't need a 45nm version.

    The evidence points to the contrary, there is too much leakage on 32nm thus you can actually get better battery life with the 45nm chips. Then again Intel is doing 32nm so much better than TMSC is doing their 40nm bulk (not really comparable, but TMSC really messed up with this one) and there 32nm chips are still awesome just not as great as they looked on paper.
    Reply
  • cjl - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Not at all. Intel's 32nm is definitely lower leakage and power than their 45nm. The problem is that the Nehalem architecture is more power hungry than Core. This more than offsets the advantages from changing processes to 32nm.

    If you need proof that 32nm is more power efficient than 45nm, just look at the i7-980x vs the i7-975. Same clock speed and 50% more cores, and it doesn't use any more power.
    Reply
  • HexiumVII - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    I had the R2 for about a month. It was pretty nice and turned heads with the dancing lights. Overall its quite nice for the road warrior. The trackpad was surprisingly good after playing with the M17. A few things made me return it. First battery life I could only eek out about 5 hours at most, with internet browsing in todays world, you can get a little over 4. Its quite heavy for it's size, a lb or so less would be awesome, any lighter and it would be hard to balance. It really has room for a bigger screen. Viewing angles, contrast, are all very acceptable compared to most other models under $2k out there. The Geforce 335 is a bit dated and slow, need something a little faster. Needs USB3.0/eSata/gigabit to get things on this bugger faster. I had an Intel G2 in there and it felt a tad bit faster, battery life didnt improve much. Its hard to do that many things on an 11inch screen.

    Probably going to get a new Acer TimelineX or Sony Z. Or a new Tablet if something exciting comes out in the next two months.
    Reply
  • bakareshi - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    "The Geforce 335 is a bit dated and slow"

    The GT 335m that your R2 sported was by no means dated or slow for this category of notebook. In fact, the GT335m debuted in the m11xr1 that began shipping in the second quarter of this year. As for GPU speed, there is nothing faster offered under a 13" form factor. The 13" Vaio Z is the closest competitor, which still sports a slower GPU for about a thaousand dollars more.
    Reply
  • fire400 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    This laptop is a piece of junk. Reply
  • plewis00 - Friday, July 09, 2010 - link

    Sounds like jealousy from not being able to afford this 'piece of junk', strange because maybe 80-90% of the people who use or see this machine either want it or buy it... Reply
  • erple2 - Saturday, July 10, 2010 - link

    You'll need to provide sources to back up that 80-90%.

    :)

    However, it's just as much hyperbole as fire400 put forth, so that's ok..
    Reply

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