Alienware M11x: (Mostly) Good Things in a Small Package

The M11x is a very impressive piece of engineering in so many respects, and it's easy to like much of what Alienware has done. That they stuffed this much gaming performance into such a small chassis is sure to delight mobile gamers. The problem is that Alienware also overlooked some very obvious features that should have been part of the M11x. Let's recap.

 

We like switchable graphics, as it lets us have our (gaming) cake and eat our (battery life) cake at the same time: tasty! However, NVIDIA's Optimus Technology launched in early February and suddenly made switchable graphics taste like last week's stale leftovers. Switchable graphics is still a step up from discrete-only solutions, but when NVIDIA beats their driver drums and says how much easier it will be to update NVIDIA graphics drivers on Optimus laptops, we can only conclude that switchable solutions are not likely to get updated drivers more than once in a blue moon. Don't believe us? Just go out and try to find an updated NVIDIA driver for the ASUS ULxxVt series. Granted, the situation isn't bad yet; despite warnings from a couple of games in our test suite, we didn't encounter any problems. What will happen in a year or two, though? We can't help but be concerned.

The LCD panel is another clear oversight by the bean counters. I can excuse a cheap, low contrast panel on a sub-$900 laptop that provides competitive gaming performance (i.e. the ASUS N61Jv), even if I don't like it. Sure, the M11x starts at $800, but as soon as you add 4GB RAM and a decent HDD you're looking at $1000+. A better LCD panel probably would have bumped the price up another $50, but the price increase would have been well worth the cost. We're also ho-hum on the keyboard feel; it's not bad but it's not great either.

Finally, there's the question of timing. CULV with overclocking showed itself to provide decent performance (even if the overclock is to 1.6GHz instead of the advertised 1.73GHz), but Arrandale CULV should be hitting the streets shortly. That would give users a dynamically "overclocked" CPU courtesy of Intel's Turbo Boost technology. Instead of a static 1.3GHz or 1.6GHz, the i7-640UM could run at 1.2GHz to 2.27GHz without ever rebooting or entering the BIOS—plus it would have the other performance enhancements of the latest Core architecture. We don't know if CULV Arrandale chips will actually be as frugal as current CULV offerings, but we're anxious to find out!

Perhaps with better power saving features and Turbo Boost, an updated M11x with an i7-640UM, i7-620UM, or even an i5-520UM would manage to stop the fluctuating noise levels. At present, the M11x oscillates between "silent" (<30 dB) and "I'm here" (36 dB) modes, even when sitting idle. It's irritating at best to have the fan kick on for a minute and then shut off for a minute; we would much rather have an in between mode where the system stayed at 33 dB whenever idle (or close to it). At least temperatures remain good, with the entire surface (top and bottom) staying under 37C (100F) even during stress testing.

Balanced against all of our complaints we have the fact that no one else offers anywhere near this level of performance without moving into the 15" or larger notebooks. Core 2 Duo may be yesterday's (well, 2006's) news, but it can still keep up with a midrange mobile GPU in most games. As we discussed in the Gateway P-6831 FX review a couple years ago, a "balanced" gaming notebook does a lot better with a moderate CPU and a fast GPU than it does with a fast CPU and a moderate GPU. The only competing laptops in terms of performance are going to need something like the GT330M, GT240M, GeForce 9700M GTS, or a faster GPU. Finding laptops with those GPUs for a reasonable price is fairly easy—the ASUS N61Jv is one example, and the Sony VAIO VPCCW22FX/R is another—but the VAIO is the smallest reasonable competitor we can find and it still has a 14" chassis and significantly less battery life.

That's the second winning element of the M11x: great battery life when you don't need the discrete GPU. Forget about Atom (unless you just need a slow $300 netbook); CULV designs offer great battery life and reasonable performance. With the GT335M, the only tasks that really don't work on the M11x are CPU intensive highly-threaded tasks like 3D rendering and video encoding. The final feather in the cap of the M11x is the overall design. Not everyone likes a flashy laptop, but gamers and technophiles are sure to appreciate the sturdy chassis and zoned lighting. The touchpad also works very well, and while it doesn't support all the latest multi-touch features, it does have ChiralMotion scrolling (swirl your finger to scroll) and pinch zoom. With the large touchpad surface and comfortable palm rest, the construction is definitely a net positive in our book.

Let's summarize by putting it this way. The M11x design and construction on their own are worthy of a Gold Editors' Choice award… or at least they would have been five or six months ago. The bar is a bit higher now, and the lack of Optimus Technology immediately causes us to demote the M11x to the silver level. Unfortunately, the LCD is also disappointing, which drops the M11x down to a bronze. The cost is somewhat high, fluctuating fan noise levels are annoying, and CULV Arrandale laptops should start showing up any time now. That makes us waffle on the bronze award, and going back to Optimus we have serious concerns about long-term driver support. Ultimately, we feel the M11x has tons of potential but can't quite capitalize on the current market. It deserves an honorable mention, and those of you who like smaller form factors can promote it back into the Editors' Choice range. For the rest, it's this close (holding fingers just slightly apart) to greatness.

We gave the ASUS UL80Vt a Silver Award late last year, and frankly the M11x is superior in every way (except price and LCD quality). However, we've received a few emails since our review asking about driver updates; to date the most recent UL80Vt drivers are ~6 months old. Alienware isn't ASUS, but our—admittedly cloudy—crystal ball tells us to expect more of the same. The UL80Vt only has an entry-level GPU, so driver updates aren't as critical; the M11x on the other hand is clearly a "gaming laptop", so it deserves—no, it needs—better support. Now that NVIDIA has Optimus Technology, they're more than happy to point out the flaws with their old switchable graphics (probably in part because AMD is still using a similar solution). Switchable graphics costs more money for the manufacturer, is more difficult to validate, drivers are harder to coordinate, and you have to deal with blocking applications and manually switching. We think AnandTech readers are perfectly capable of dealing with the manual switching—and at times I actually prefer being able to control which GPU I'm using (and I'm sure Linux users prefer the switchable design as well)—but if you choose to jump on the M11x bandwagon, my advice is to be prepared for a lack of driver updates. If you're in no hurry, here's hoping Alienware can release an updated M11x that adds the missing ingredients sooner rather than later.

Once Again, the LCD Fails
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - link

    My wife picked Corbin, and I got the middle name (after my one brother). Thanks! :) Reply
  • aodonald - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    I love my M11x. I ordered it the day they started taking pre-orders. Also I swapped out the HD for an Intel X-25 160GB SSD. Also using Everest CPU-ID mine says 1.73 Ghz, not 1.6. Also I think my Multiplier stays at 6.5 and doesn't drop to 6.

    Jarred I realize that you probably use clean images for all your benchmarking but something I think you should really point out to normal users here is how great the standard image of Windows included.
    Compared to Sony, ASUS, Acer, HP this image is optimized, no bloatware other than the Alienware tools, which use only about 1-2% of the CPU. Alienware really treats the user nice by providing such an excellent Windows image.

    I agree with the review though, Core i5/7, Optimus, glossy display, annoying fan while idle/browsing all detract from the best case scenario.

    The fan is definitely the most annoying. Alienware/Dell if you read any of this please release a driver than enhances fan control. Louder but steady would be preferred over sporadic and crazy. Or give the user control :)

    Overall I have fallen in love though, I use it way more to actually play games. I have a nice customer Core i5 750, but having a portable, small light computer is great. I love playing RTSs, Turn Based (Total War) and Batman on it, One game I have issues with it Empire Total War - the font isn't read well. Anyone else know how to fix this?

    So many PC laptops out there are boring and terrible form factors. The extra thickness for a completely enclosed PC + battery is well worth it. I never swap batteries anyway. Goodbye disk drives! I've purchased everything on Steam or GOG.com for the last 18 months and can't wait for disc drives to die. Alienware did a great job with the computer look and feel. It is the gamer equivalent to the style and attention paid by Apple for the consumer (Minus the LCD…)

    There really is no other laptop this cool and small out there for playing games!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    I actually run with the manufacturer install on all laptop tests; the only catch is that I uninstall any bloatware. That means antivirus, Internet security, etc. plus I disable some of the auto-start items that I don't need (automatic updates and webcam tools, for instance). But you're right about the M11x install being nice and clean. Other than the extra Alienware themes, you don't get a bunch of junk you will never use. You can have Alienware pre-install Steam and a few other items, and if you *want* internet security they have that as an option as well. Unlike many Dell (and other OEM) consumer laptops, there's an option for "none" on the security extras. Reply
  • CZroe - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    I'd love to get one of these because 12" and under notebooks are the only ones that will fit in my magnetic motorcycle tank bag and I've been wanting a gaming notebook to replace my 8.9" Acer Aspire one. So, I've been eagerly researching it since it was first announced.

    In my research, I've seen Alienware/Dell refer to it as an 11.6" "edge to edge" LCD panel. If here is truly a large bezel on all sides, just what do they mean by this?

    Oh, and I'm sick and tired of seeing needlessly truncated right shift keys. There is plenty of room to shift the arrow keys down, you just have to be willing to make a non-rectangular keyboard module. Acer does it and it's hardly "L-Shaped." It doesn't curb my enthusiasm much considering that it is still nearly full size, but I still wanted to point it out.

    The measurements indicate that it'll be a tight fit *IF* it fits, so I'm just waiting for it to show up at Best Buy so I can size it up for certain. I know a 13.3" notebook will not fit, so everytime someone suggests that they should have made it larger, I shake my head. I only home the successor sticks to this formula.

    It's refreshing to finally see some decent coverage on the battery situation. Engadget's review just dismissively mentioned the internal battery as if we already knew about it, despite them never reporting on it! You have eased my concerns. My Aspire one's battery completely died (will not even pretend to charge) in barely more than a year, possibly due to a bad power plug, but my cheap replacement 9-cell battery gives me the freedom that only the m11x seems to compare with (9-hours).
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    The "edge to edge" marketing speak really just means that there's a sheet of plastic on top of the LCD panel that extends from edge to edge. You can see this in the gallery images of the M11x:
    http://images.anandtech.com/galleries/623/alienwar...

    By my measurements, the M11x is about the same size as a 16:10 AR 13.3" laptop already; that's why I suggest they should have just made a 13.3" laptop. I don't mean it should be larger, bur rather they should ditch the large LCD bezel and go with a narrow bezel, a 16:10 LCD panel, and preferably a 1440x900 native resolution. I know it would be tough to have to ditch the "Alienware" logo that sits right under the LCD, but seriously: do people care so much about branding that they would rather have the logo than a better LCD? Obviously the companies care about it, but I'm not advocating for the manufacturers.

    In case you're wondering, the M11x has a diagonal chassis measurement of just under 14". An actual 14" laptop with a 16:9 AR display has a diagonal of around 15.6" which would put a 13.3" chassis right about 14.8" (give or take). A normal 11.6" LCD (without a bunch of wasted bezel space) has a diagonal of around 13" for the LCD with Bezel while the M11x LCD and bezel measure 14". So realistically a 12" panel would fit in the M11x without any difficulty, but they would probably need the chassis to be around .5" larger to fit a 13.3" LCD panel in it.

    Anyway, if you have a laptop bag that can fit a 13.3" laptop, I'm positive it will fit the M11x (at least in diagonal measurements... the M11x might be slightly thicker than some 13.3" laptops).
    Reply
  • Eidorian - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    I'm waiting for this product to mature in a revision or two. It's amazing to see it start off at $799 given Alienware's previous models. It falls in line above the Atom notebooks and still manages to hold its own against other CULV notebooks.

    My main interest right now is how well Battlefield: Bad Company 2 runs on it.
    Reply
  • osideplayer - Monday, October 25, 2010 - link

    Well it seems like the Nvidia 197.xx. will be the last drivers for the m11x R1. I went ahead aand purchased the laptop anyways. I was able to get it for 550 w/ the su7300 +4gb bgn and etc. I took this review and your newer one into serious consideration before i took the plunge, but relatively i wanted to ask, will its latest drivers and ssd increase frame rate performance. Now that ssd's are plumeting im looking to purchase one for my m11x. What would you say? Also i was curious... what drivers did u use for the graphics card. I noticed, on ur m11x r2 review, the frame rate referenced for the m11x were the same as this review. Thus either drivers made no difference or you did not have time update and retest.
    Either way i appreciate your review. Anandtech is one of the most reliable sources for thirough and comprehensive reviews. Way better than any video review. You guys really do things right.
    Reply

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