The Alienware M11x first hit headlines in January at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. Even without testing the unit, we could see that there was some real potential in the component selections. ASUS already showed us with their UL series that overclocked CULV processors can easily cope with most modern games, provided they have a GPU that is up to the task. The UL series uses GeForce G210M graphics cards, and while they’re substantially faster than any current IGP solution, they still struggle with running many games at anything more than low/minimum detail settings. A faster GPU is necessary for higher quality settings, but where exactly does the bottleneck shift from the GPU back to the CPU when we’re dealing with overclocked CULV? The M11x looks to answer that question by going with a rather potent GeForce GT335M.

Alienware M11x Specifications
Processor Core 2 Duo SU7300 (45nm, 2x1.30GHz, 3MB, 800FSB, 10W)
Pentium SU4100 (45nm, 2x1.30GHz, 2MB, 800FSB, 10W)
Overclockable to 1.73GHz
Chipset Intel GS45 + ICH9M
Memory 2x1GB to 2x4GB DDR3-1066
2x2GB DDR3-1066 Tested
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 335M
Intel GMA 4500MHD
Switchable Graphics
Display 11.6" LED Backlit WXGA (1366x768)
Hard Drive(s) 160GB 5400RPM
250GB 7200RPM
320GB 7200RPM
500GB 7200RPM
256GB SSD
Optical Drive N/A
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8132 / L1c)
Dell DW1520 802.11n WiFi
Bluetooth (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
DisplayPort
HDMI
Gigabit Ethernet
1 x USB 2.0 (powered)
VGA
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 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 $799
Test System: $1099 ($1198 with TactX Mouse)

Like the G210M, the GT335M supports DirectX 10.1 functionality and is built on a 40nm process technology. That’s where the similarities end. The GT335M bumps the SP count from the 16 in the G210M all the way up to 72 SPs, providing much more computational power; similarly, the memory interface is 128-bit instead of 64-bit. The actual core and shader clocks on the G210M are slightly higher: 625 core and 1500 shader versus 450 core and 1066 shader on the GT335M; memory speed on the other hand is bumped from 1600MHz to 2133MHz. The result is that the GT335M has 166% more memory bandwidth and 224% more computational power… all with the same overclocked CULV SU7300 (or SU4100) processor as the ASUS UL series.

Of course, the GT335M isn’t the only game in town when it comes to faster mobile GPUs. We recently reviewed the ASUS N61Jv with an i5-430M CPU and GT325M GPU, so that will be an interesting matchup from the performance standpoint. GT325M cuts the SP count down to 48, with a slightly lower shader clock as well, but it has the same memory bandwidth. With 63% more computational performance, the GT335M should be noticeably faster than the GT325M, but GPU memory bandwidth is often the bigger bottleneck on 128-bit GPUs and the N61Jv CPU is substantially faster than an overclocked SU7300 CULV. In games that are CPU limited on the M11x, we’ll see the N61Jv come out ahead (or at least close the gap), whereas GPU limited games should still prefer the M11x. Of course, there’s no getting around the size advantage of the M11x: it weighs less and has a chassis that’s much more portable. Really, there’s no competition for the M11x unless you’re willing to move to a 13.3” chassis. In that case ASUS has the UL30Jc, but that has a G310M GPU (a 2% higher shader clock than the G210M) so it’s still a big step back in terms of gaming potential.

The base model M11x comes with 2GB DDR3, a 160GB 5400RPM hard drive, and a Pentium SU4100 processor. Our test unit bumps the CPU up to the Core 2 Duo SU7300 for $100 extra; considering the only difference is 3MB L2 cache (versus 2MB on the SU4100) and support for VT-x (hardware virtualization), most users will be better off saving the $100 for other upgrades. The 500GB 7200RPM Seagate 7200.4 hard drive, on the other hand, is a very welcome addition. It should offer improved performance relative to 5400RPM drives while still providing a lot of storage capacity. The $150 to upgrade the hard drive is a bit steep, though, considering you can purchase the same drive for $85. Finally, Alienware shipped us a system with 4GB DDR3 (another $50), which brings the total price of our system to $1200. Obviously this isn't a cheap laptop, but if you take the base system and just add 4GB RAM (and clone the HDD to your own HDD/SSD when you get it) you can get everything you need for under $1000.

The short summary of the M11x is simple: it’s the smallest laptop ever made that can still manage to play games. Really. There’s nothing else even close when you get down to sub-14” laptops, and it can outgame many 15.6" and larger notebooks. Not only can it run every current game on the market, but we managed to get 30+ FPS at medium or higher detail settings in every game we tested! That’s the good news. The bad news is that a great design is once again saddled with a mediocre LCD, and Alienware omitted at least one feature that they really need: NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology. We don’t mind manually switching between IGP and discrete GPUs that much (though it was odd to see Dell’s Data Safe Online Backup utility trigger a block a few times—the toaster.exe process); far more important is that Optimus laptops will get better driver support in the future. We already encountered several games that complained about our drivers (for example, Batman and Left 4 Dead 2) and we suspect things will only get worse. NVIDIA has yet to deliver a Verde driver with Optimus support, but that should come in the next release. If you want new drivers for switchable graphics laptops like the ASUS ULx0Vt series and the M11x… well, don’t hold your breath.

Finally, we should mention that while the M11x technically has an 11.6” chassis, a few aspects of the chassis need mention. First, the M11x is about 1” deeper than other 11.6” CULV laptops we’ve looked at, and at 4.4 lbs. it definitely weighs more. Obviously, Alienware had to pack more cooling capacity into the M11x to keep the GPU and CPU from overheating, but they’re dangerously close to the size of a 13.3” chassis. Look at the LCD bezel and you’ll find a large border, particularly on the top and bottom. The M11x uses an 11.6” 1366x768 LCD, but with a few small tweaks we’re confident they could have put a 13.3” 1440x900 WXGA+ LCD into the chassis. The huge bezel area almost makes us think that they put a smaller LCD in the chassis just so they could lay claim to having an 11.6” gaming laptop. Personally, I would have preferred a 16:10 aspect ratio with a 13.3” LCD—besides, even if this were a 13.3” laptop, it would still be over twice as fast as the nearest competitor in graphics power!

Minor blemishes aside, there’s still no getting around the fact that this is a very capable gaming laptop with a very small footprint. The total performance on tap should be about equal to that of the Gateway P-6831 FX that we praised a couple years ago. The overclocked CULV processor is faster and uses far less power, and the same goes for the GT325M (though the old 8800M did have a memory bus that was twice as wide). Add in switchable graphics and you have a laptop that weighs roughly half as much and lasts two to four times as long on battery power. Join us as we take a closer look at what makes the M11x tick and run it through our benchmark suite.

Alienware M11x Design
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  • bobjones32 - Tuesday, March 30, 2010 - link

    Thanks so much for your comprehensive review, Jared. I've read a bunch of reviews for the m11x, but they're always mixing up overclocking, non-overclocking, GPU enabled, GPU disabled, and a bunch of other factors that make it extremely difficult to discern how the thing actually performs.

    Your review, on the other hand, covers all the bases thoroughly, and answers every single question I have!


    Well, one question left - I wonder when the 335M will be made available in other laptops? I'm interested to see what ASUS and other manufacturers could do with it....
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    I'm guessing it's just a question of laptop manufacturers asking for chips from NVIDIA. There are lots of options so they can take their pick. For example, a great alternative that's not from NVIDIA would be the Radeon Mobility HD 5670... we'll show you why soon enough. :-) Reply
  • aguilpa1 - Tuesday, March 30, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the review and only confirms my initial thoughts that this tiny notebook is hardly qualified to be a gaming computer. I knew it was all marketing hype. I don't enjoy gaming in low res, thank you. Reply
  • PrincePickle - Tuesday, March 30, 2010 - link

    As an M11x owner your review pretty much sums up the M11x pretty well. Once I got my Alienware unpacked and setup I immediately started loading some games onto it and was pleasantly surprised. I've only played Wolfenstein and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but they look good and are definitely playable with no problems. Will it play Crisis as well as my desktop? No way, but I don't expect it to either.

    I found the keyboard tight, but I got used to it quickly. I don't really care about the lack gigabit ethernet or optimus, however I do find the screen kind of glossy. Glossy screens are a problem with every other laptop manufacture on the planet, so I don't blame Alienware directly.

    One thing that really surprised me when I opened up the packaging was an actual Windows 7 install disk was included. The system manual was actually useful as in it gave graphical pictures on how to replace the hard drive, memory and battery. Granted I don't buy that many laptops but I haven't seen either these things included with a computer since 2002.

    There's a laptop for everybody and this one will suit some and not others. The angular looks and the system lighting are the greatest thing since sliced bread IMHO, but I'm sure others will disagree. I'm in the military and deploy fairly regularly so small form factor and power are crucial when your trying to squeeze hundreds of pounds of stuff into small bags. This computer is almost perfect for a deploying gamer and I'm sure I'll be testing that out soon enough. Anyway, good review even if I thought you were being just a little bit picky.
    Reply
  • synaesthetic - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    The lack of Optimus is more a driver concern than anything. The old push-button switchable graphics probably won't get more than token driver support from nvidia, while they're pushing Optimus very hard--Optimus drivers will soon be included in the Verde package.

    Personally even if I had Optimus, I'd tell it to change GPU switching to manual since there's a lot of weirdness with some apps when you let it try to decide on its own.
    Reply
  • RamIt - Tuesday, March 30, 2010 - link

    Such a huge mistake to not include report post in the new web setup :( Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    Working on it, and will be hopefully filtering out spam automatically in the near future. Reply
  • Fastidious - Tuesday, March 30, 2010 - link

    As an M11x owner I thought I'd just comment/question on a few things:

    1. I know there are two different LCD panels(one a bit brighter, one a bit better contrast) used and both pretty much suck ratings wise, yet I find mine looking more than good enough for me. My 24" LCD for my desktop is rated much better all around(double M11x quality or more) but I honestly can't tell much of a difference between it and the M11x screen. So while I do understand better is better, I see why the LCD is the corner that is cut most often in a notebook.

    2. My fan never turns on unless I am using the 335M. Once I use the 335M it kicks in instantly and can get loud if you don't have sound(games, music, etc) going.

    3. How well does GPU assisted video editing work? I know you said fast but does it make up for the weaker CPU? I am planning to use it on vacation most likely once I get around to buying a camcorder.

    Overall I think the M11x is sorta for people who want something as small as possible that can game well and have big battery life in standard tasks like browsing. I got it for traveling/mobility myself, I liked the better performance in bigger notebooks but I knew I their size or extra weight would defeat the purpose. I almost never use the 335M for gaming unless I am going to be sitting plugged in for a while so it works perfect for me.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    As far as the fan, either my unit is flaky or your unit is better than most. Fan noise levels top out at 36 dB, which is certainly lower than a lot of laptops, but it kicks on ALL the time for me.

    Video editing is generally far more CPU bound than video encoding, and here the CULV processor will be a definite bottleneck (at least AFAIK... maybe someone can recommend a good video editing package where the GPU will make a difference). Since you asked about video, though, I did a quick check of Badaboom with the GT335M.

    The result (using the same test as here: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2878/9) is an encoding speed of 53.1 FPS on the GT335M. With the CPU using TMPGEnc, we got a result of just 22FPS. A faster CPU can surpass the GT335M, but we're looking at quad-core Kentsfield before we get to the crossover point.

    Finally, in regards to being picky, I admit to being a bit occupied with my wife and pending birth. LOL. But I tried to make it clear where the flaws are and where the M11x excels. If your primary criteria is getting a smaller laptop with good battery life that can still play games, it's awesome. If you're concerned about drivers, I'm not convinced. The LCD is also a weak spot, but it's no worse than 98% of laptop LCDs, so that's almost a wash. Optimus and an i7 ULV processor would have been a silver award for sure.
    Reply
  • synaesthetic - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    When I first heard about the M11x, I was really pretty shocked Dell didn't use the Arrandale ULV processors. A Core i5-520UM or i7-620UM would have been perfect in this (along with Optimus), but it appears the problem was that Intel did not have the ULV chipset with support for discrete graphics available at the time the M11x was ramping up. It wasn't until later that I saw Arrandale ULVs with a discrete graphic option... and right now, only one of the MSI X-Slim is the only one I can think of. Reply

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