Alienware m15x - Thoughts and Summary
While we did find plenty to like with the m15x, we did run into a few problems, and there are areas that are likely to cause concern. The good news is that we didn't experience any system locks or crashes. The bad news is that there are some design decisions that were made that we dislike, and we did have to reboot the system a few times in order to regain full functionality.
On the design decision side, when the m15x enters battery mode the processor clock speed is clocked at 1.6 GHz - and it appears the GPU speed is locked at some value as well, although we weren't able to determine what the clock speeds were. This combination resulted in an inability to play back Blu-ray discs while running off the battery, and PowerDVD would stutter and then crash within a minute or two of starting playback. Nothing we tried affected the performance or clock speeds when running on battery, for better or for worse. It's odd that when virtually every Core 2 Duo laptop we have ever used allows the CPU to run at 1.2 GHz as well as higher clock speeds as needed, Alienware felt the need to lock the CPU speed to 1.6 GHz.
Blu-ray playback was an area that gave us additional difficulties even when we weren't running on the battery. The laptop shipped with an OEM version of PowerDVD 7, but it wouldn't playback our test BRD properly (Jumper, encoded at 35 Mbps AVC). We were able to get the disc to play using PowerDVD Ultra 8, after installing the latest compatibility patches, so this appears to be a software issue. Alienware informed us that they would make sure that there were no problems with getting updated media support for customers, which is as it should be.
We also experienced problems when swapping devices in the Smart Bay. Removing or inserting a battery worked without any difficulty, and removing the optical drive also seemed to function properly. Where we encountered difficulties was when we tried to switch between the optical drive and a secondary hard drive. Sometimes everything would work as you would expect; other times Windows Vista wouldn't recognize the hard drive, or it wouldn't recognize that the hard drive was removed. This was even after using Windows' "safely remove hardware" feature to stop the device before removing it.
None of the problems we encountered qualifies as a real showstopper, although they were frustrating at times. The only other complaints we had with the laptop are much more likely to make users want to look elsewhere. First is the price. While it's possible to get the m15x for as little as $1500, that's an extremely stripped-down version of the notebook. You get the slowest processor (T8100), 1 GB (2x512MB) of memory, a 120 GB hard drive, a GeForce 8600M GT, 1440x900 LCD, and a DVDR. That's not a bad notebook, but it certainly wouldn't be adequate for playing most games. More importantly, you could get a similar notebook from some other vendor for around $1000, perhaps less. That means you're paying about $500 for the Alienware brand, the custom case, and the ability to shut off your discrete graphics card. Start upgrading components, however, and you quickly reach a price of over $4000. The laptop we were sent for testing is priced at around $4250. (Ouch!) And that doesn't even include a 3-year warranty. (Double ouch!)
You might still be tempted to get this notebook, if only for the ability to disable the discrete graphics card. We expect to begin seeing other competing notebooks that provide similar functionality without requiring a reboot, however, so really all you're left with is the Alienware brand and case. That brings us to the final problem: the case simply feels cheap. We actually don't have a problem with most of the case, but the top cover (i.e., the hinged cover with the LCD) just doesn't seem to be sturdy at all. Every time you open up the laptop, the top panel makes popping and creaking noises - and in fact, it makes a lot of noise if you even touch it. It also flexes and twists a lot more than we would like. For the price, we would like to see something a little more elegant, like perhaps some sort of brushed aluminum finish, or at the very least a case that doesn't make you feel like it might start to fall apart after a year or so of use.
One final item to mention is that Alienware currently does not support 64-bit operating systems on their notebooks. You could probably install one on yourself, but certain features would likely break (i.e., the AlienFX lighting). Before anyone gets out the tar and feathers, however, we have to say that Vista 64-bit doesn't strike us as being dramatically better than Vista 32-bit, particularly on notebooks. A 32-bit OS with 3 GB of available memory ends up being very similar to a 64-bit OS with 4 GB of memory, since the 64-bit OS requires a bit more memory. Add to that some applications and utilities that still don't work with 64-bit Windows and the lack of 64-bit applications and Alienware can probably get away with shipping 32-bit systems for a bit longer. They did indicate that they are well aware of this concern and that they will have 64-bit laptops available when they feel it makes sense.
We end up with a lot of very favorable impressions about the m15x, particularly in terms of features. If you disable the discrete graphics, plus add in the optional Smart Bay battery, you can reach an impressive 4.5 hours of battery life. Combined with the 8800M GTX you have a laptop that might finally allow you to have your cake and eat it too when it comes to gaming performance and battery life - provided you don't want to have both at the same time. We also really like the fact that you can get all of this in a 15.4" chassis; normally, gaming laptops are comfined almost exclusively to the 17" and larger realm of notebooks. However, despite the smaller size, this is definitely not a lightweight notebook. For the price, you can also pick up larger notebooks with dual graphics cards, so if you're interested in gaming performance first and foremost, it might be better to purchase an SLI notebook.
If you can stomach the price, and perhaps more importantly if you're okay with a somewhat flimsy case cover - not to mention the other minor quibbles we had - the Alienware m15x has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, that's a lot of "ifs" right now, so we're more inclined to recommend waiting for a revised m15x that addresses some of our concerns. It's also likely that we'll see more competition in this sector in the very near future, so as usual if you're not in a rush there are always new products on the horizon.