Introducing an Ultraportable Demon

We've been keeping track of Alienware's M11x series since the very first one landed and have had the privilege of testing each one. The move from Penryn to Arrandale in the R2 netted a substantial boost in performance at the cost of some battery life, though that issue was mitigated somewhat by the introduction of NVIDIA's Optimus graphics switching, replacing the more finicky software-based GPU switching in the first generation model. With the vastly improved power consumption and efficiency of Sandy Bridge, do we have a true successor to the last two models?

From first impressions, it certainly looks that way. Everything in the M11x R3 has gotten a healthy boost--everything, that is, except the screen. So spoiler alert there: the one big change we were hoping for, our last major complaint about the M11x in the R2, still remains present in the R3. Yet the move from Arrandale to Sandy Bridge has yielded dividends in other notebooks, and the GPU has received a stellar upgrade from the old GeForce GT 335M. And as a final bonus, Alienware is packing USB 3.0 in the R3.

Alienware M11x R3 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2617M
(2x1.5GHz + HTT, 32nm, 4MB L3, Turbo to 2.6GHz, 17W)
Chipset Intel QS67
Memory 2x4GB Hynix DDR3-1333 (Max 2x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M 2GB DDR3
(96 CUDA Cores, 672MHz/1344MHz/1.8GHz core/shader/memory clocks, 128-bit memory bus)
Display 11.6" LED Glossy 16:9 1366x768
(AU Optronics AUO305C Panel)
Hard Drive(s) Seagate Momentus 7200.5 500GB 7200-RPM HDD
Optical Drive -
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 802.11a/b/g/n
Audio Realtek ALC665 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Mic and dual headphone jacks
Battery 8-Cell, 14.8V, 63Wh battery
Front Side Speakers
Left Side Kensington lock
DisplayPort
HDMI
USB 2.0 (Chargeable)
Ethernet
MMC/SD/MS Reader
4-pin FireWire
Right Side Dual headphone, mic jacks
2x USB 3.0
Back Side AC adaptor
Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 11.25" x 9.19" x 1.29" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.4 lbs
Extras 2MP webcam
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
USB charging
Klipsch speakers
RGB configurable backlit 82-key keyboard
Warranty 1-year limited warranty (available up to four years)
Pricing Starting at $999
Priced as configured: $1,419

Much like in our review of the Alienware M14x, right out the gate I'll tell you that most of the upgrades to the base system aren't going to seem worth it. Our review unit comes equipped with the fastest processor Dell makes available in the M11x R3, the Intel Core i7-2617M. For just a 17W TDP it's a remarkably capable piece of kit, able to turbo up to 2.3GHz on both cores or 2.6GHz on a single core, and it promises to be a major improvement on the i7-640UM the previous generation sported. The alternative choice, for $200 less, is the i5-2537M, which takes a 300MHz hit to both turbo clocks, comes with a slightly slower 1.4GHz nominal clock, and 1MB less of L3 cache. Given the low resolution screen, it's hard to really swallow a $200 upgrade to the faster i7.

That's especially true when you realize the CPU and GPU are tied together into two specific combinations: you can get either the i7-2617M and 2GB DDR3 NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M, or the i5-2537M and 1GB DDR3 NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M. That extra gigabyte of video memory is a waste on a part like the GT 540M, whose 96 CUDA cores and 128-bit memory bus are ill-equipped to take advantage of the extra space. The 540M ships at spec, with 672MHz on the core, 1344MHz on the shaders, and an effective 1.8GHz on the DDR3. This is a massive improvement on the GT 335M that the M11x R2 shipped with, running more than 200MHz faster on the core while offering an additional 24 shaders. It also brings support for DirectX 11 and has performance around the AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5650, just as we requested in our review of the R2.

The last notable upgrade is the inclusion of USB 3.0: the two USB ports on the right side of the M11x R3 are now USB 3.0 instead of the 2.0 used in the last generation.

Essentially what we're left with is a very healthy improvement to the system itself along with better connectivity. Unfortunately we're still missing out on the better screen--something Alienware otherwise gets right with their M14x, M17x and M18x. Other than the heavy rejiggering of the M11x R3's insides, though, the shell itself remains unchanged and in line with the rest of Alienware's notebooks: glossy black accents on the speaker grilles along with edge-to-edge gloss for the screen, a backlit keyboard, and a smooth rubberized texture on the plastic shell. The design has gone largely unchanged from the very first iteration, so our thoughts there still apply. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and while I personally still take some issue with the intake on the bottom of the notebook, at least the parts included in this version should generate less heat than the two previous generations.

The Fastest Ultraportable on the Block
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  • DanNeely - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    60hz is 17ms per frame; once response times dropped below that level they ceased to be anything except bogostats used by marketing people. Reply
  • GraveUypo - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    are you serious? really? god. this is even worse than the "humans can't tell apart more than 30fps so there's no point to it" argument. i had to register just to reply to this.

    if you have a "17ms" monitor, by the time the screen is fully set on a frame, it already has to transition into the next, so it'll be showing blends of two neighbouring frames ALL THE TIME. you'll NEVER get a crisp picture on ANY moving/changing picture.

    and yes, responses are still very much relevant. try reading movie credits on a LCD panel then on a plasma panel (or even play games on them) and you'll see how obvious the frame lag is on LCDs.

    heck, i always thought gears of war 2 had heavy motion blur on it until i played it on my plasma tv. picture was so clear on moving scenes i thought the game was missing some shaders.

    anyways, response times will be irrelevant when those transitions are all under 0,5ms. with 5ms it just hit the spot where it's usable (yes, 2ms is a lot better but still not quite there yet).
    Reply
  • Snotling - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Whatever the manufacturer, finding a laptop with a good display is a challenge... basically there isn't much incentive for them to try any harder much the opposite:

    people buy the display by the inch, not by the pixel count. (sometimes the pixel count is not even easily available in the product description)

    Contrast and color information is basic at best in any spec sheet.

    People don't care because they don't realize that even word processors and spreadsheets need visible LINES of display space to be useful (stupid 16:9 ratio doesn't help... more inches, less workspace)

    We're losing the battle
    Reply
  • Madcatatlas - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Where did the bigger Alienware and Clevo laptop reviews go? the ones sporting 6970ms and 6990m?

    These small laptops are no good for even light gaming. Gives a man a headache.
    Reply
  • ph0masta - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Good machine for the size, but you can still buy a faster notebook with full 1080p screen at 15-17" from Digital Storm, for around the same price. Reply
  • CZroe - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    I've owned an M11x r1 for over a year and now own an r3. I wanted to point out that the indicator strip has changed (was almost impossible to see Caos or WiFi status LEDs before), though that likely happened during the r2's life, and the rubberized texture is new to the r3. The WiFi toggle doesn't actually toggle anything anymore, it just launches a software dialog with check boxes for WiFi, Blueooth, and Mobile Broadband.

    It takes a Dell Wireless 375 Bluetooth 3.0 adapter, which can be added by the user if the cable is present internally (mine was). The r1 and r2 used a DW365 BT 2.1 adapter that conneted directly (no cable needed).

    The left USB port remained powered when the r1 was off or asleep as long as the battery had over 10% charge. I used this feature all the time to charge othe devices without running my notebook dead nearly as fast as if I booted, so I was disappointed to find that it usually doesn't work on the r3 (different between asleep and off). Oh well. Reviewers often misinterpreted it and reported that the notebook only had one "powered" USB port, which was untrue, so maybe they got rid of the feature and I'm only able to charge when it's not fully asleep or something.

    The article seems to be saying that it would take a 12.1" panel size bump to consider a good IPS panel but the 11.6" MacBook Air has obviously sourced one. Also, the MBA has an unexpectedly large bezel, just like the M11x. Now that they got rid of the discrete GPU in the refresh with a backlit keyboard, it's even less comparable and I'd no longer consider it in comparison to the M11x.

    I was able to compare the r1 and r3's audio side-by-side and the new "Klipsch" speakers sound very different. I'm somewhat hard-of-hearing, so I'll just assume that the quality was better, but the volume was notably lower. It was already frustratingly low for me the first time. Looking inside, they look identical. One of the two is still placed almost in the center, but I don't expect much stereo separation in such a small chassis anyway. I am disappointed that this article didn't touch on the strange Sound Blaster software configuration option. Most people would love an explanation of that! They ask $20 to add what, exactly, to the integrated sound? Is it just a software EAX wrapper? Has Creative joined those they can't beat?

    I didn't see any mention of the dual microphones in the display. They should help with noise canceling in a crounded room. They are both farther away from the webcam than the single mic on the r1/r2, but the dimensions are otherwise identical. The webcam/mic cut in the official Green Onion Supply AG2 anti-glare filter/screen protector no longer suffices, so I had to use a hole punch to make two holes. I also spoke with the creators of Invisible Defenders and they supposedly updated their templates, but I don't see the change on their site.

    I can suggest a couple more changes for the future than the article suggests. Make the touch pad as large as will fit, like Apple does, and stop truncating keys like the shift key just to keep from shifting the arrow keys down. There is no reason for the keyboard to be perfectly rectangular. The M14x has them shifted down and there is obviously plenty of open space in the palm-rest area. The tiny rear rubber feet always come off eventually and they have remained unchanged. I had problems with the palmrest rubber bumpers as well (holds the screen above the keys when closed). The keyboard backlighting us not needed when the display is closed, so they should be hard-wired to turn off and save batter when closed, the same as the backlight. Of course, this is when you set the lid sensor to "do nothing." At least it doesn't interrupt a manual sleep and hard-lock it like the M11x r1 did if you closed it before it finished entering sleep (obviously, it was doing SOMETHING).

    I also want to mention that the DW375 BT module doesn't seem to have improved range at all. I still sometimes find that I am operating my BT Razer Orochi mouse too far away on the same lapboard as the notebook, which is annoying (mouse pointer stutters and lags until you get closer). Gaming on battery power with "balanced" settings isn't always great. For instance, the initial GlaDOS encounter in Portal 2 gets really choppy unless you are plugged in and set to high performance, but the rest of that particular game seems fine so you may find yourself doing it anyway.

    That's it for now. I still love the notebook and will put it to good use.
    Reply
  • Guspaz - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Dell has been shilling the software SoundBlaster stuff for years; I had the same option on my Inspiron 9400 (e1705 in the US) when I bought it four or five years ago. It's just as you say: all it really does of worth is emulate EAX in software, as well as providing a DirectSound3D to OpenAL wrapper, which lets older games use surround audio (and EAX) on Vista or 7.

    This is of limited use, since modern games tend not to use EAX (environmental audio is normally handled by the game's sound engine itself), and support Vista/7's native 3D audio API.

    EAX stopped being relevant when Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 came out seven years ago, and both did all their audio processing internally.
    Reply
  • CZroe - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks. I know is that it wasn't available for the M11x back when I bought my r1 but is is available for the r3. Reply
  • seapeople - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    Macbook's (including the Air) use TN panels.

    The issue here is that there are good TN panels, mediocre TN panels, and BAAAAAAAAAAD TN panels. My experience suggests the following:

    Good TN panels generally go on stand alone monitors (which are in turn considered poor compared to much more expensive IPS panels).

    Mediocre TN panels are usually the best we get on laptops (i.e., anything apple, or some of the higher resolution upgrade options on Dell, etc).

    BAAAAAAAAAAD TN panels are what we get standard on pretty much every laptop made today, usually at 1366x768. Actually, if your panel is 1366x768, there's probably a 99% chance it's a bad one, because most of the better quality TN panels are also higher resolution. In fact, it may have been literally impossible for Alienware to source a better quality TN panel at the 1366x768 resolution, without working out some exorbitantly expensive deal. Since they probably did not want to increase the resolution since this is a gaming laptop, I bet this is why we are stuck with a horrible panel.
    Reply
  • Beenthere - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    I was considering the M11x but it's too ugly and only available with an InHell CPU. If it was better looking and available with an AMD A8-3530mx I'd be seriously interested. Reply

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