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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  • adonn78 - Sunday, July 11, 2010 - link

    Same crappy video card. Just a slightly faster and more expensive CPU added. Its still not enough for today's games even at the low resolution of the monitor on this notebook. They need to shrink the die on the mobile video card to get a good heat and electricity level. That way it won;t sue up too much power and will be of decent speed. Reply
  • Jamezrp - Sunday, July 11, 2010 - link

    I've been running my own benchmarks on the M11x R2, and besides having a hell of a time with a number of the games, Optimus just doesn't seem to be ready thus yet. My scores are similar to the ones posted (close enough to make them seem right), but Optimus just doesn't seem to activate the GPU at the right times.

    For instance, it'll play for a Youtube video at 360p. I don't need that, I don't need to waste battery life there when my netbook can handle 720p without a GPU at all. Then, of course, it'll run at 1080p, but not show that it's running for the new 4K videos available on Youtube.

    I'm not impressed enough with the R2 to say it's worth a purchase, but if anything it's because of the software still being in beta, and games not supporting Optimus yet. Does this determination sound right?
    Reply
  • jfmeister - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    The most interresting part comes at end, where you mentioned the goodies we should have had. The 2 most well awaited upgrades from v1, the LCD monitor & DX11 GPU. I was really disapointed. Would having an Radeon would have killed the battery life that much vs GT335M?

    Now the part about the 13inch model sounds tasty. It would make more sense of getting all we need in there i.e.: better LCD & GPU. Dell/Alienware, it's time to redeem yourself and jumpover the 13inch bandwagon before competition grabs the market before you. I am pretty sure they are looking around taking notes on the M11x from users & reviews to finaly create the overall "suits you best machine".

    Good point on cutting off the choices to drop down prices. On a large scale, it'll benefit the Dell & the customers.
    Reply
  • buzznut - Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - link

    Hey, thanks for the great article. This addresses all my questions about my upcoming purchase. My choice is clear, I can see no reason to pay an extra $150 for optimus. Battery life is worse, and considering the CPU is faster, similar gaming performance is disappointing.

    I think I'll take my chances with the driver updates. perhaps I will invest in the return program they provide. At any rate, I'll save my 150 bucks and go with the original.
    Reply
  • jaeyang9 - Sunday, July 25, 2010 - link

    i decided to splurge and got the i7, 8gb, 256gb SSD... still waiting for it to arrive... but i came across this from tutorial video from dell/alienware regarding how to *properly* use optimus for gaming or gpu intensive applications

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U874jC2blJQ
    Reply

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