Gaming laptops are a conundrum for many: with costs and sizes that are higher and larger than most mainstream users are willing to accept, they exist in a specialized upper echelon of the computer universe, a niche usually avoided by most. An affordable, small laptop that also plays games well is a rarity, and most people looking for a travel-friendly notebook simply leave off such hopes in exchange for a few more bucks in their pocket, and buy a gaming console or desktop gaming PC instead.
At this year’s CES, we were surprised and excited to see an Alienware laptop that not only cost less than $1,000, but was compact enough to slide into a messenger bag. Dubbed by many as a “gaming Netbook,” the M11x is actually a hybrid 11.6-inch ultraportable that has an ultralow-voltage Intel Core 2 Duo processor married with a Nvidia graphics card that can be switched on or off to save battery life. The end result is a dense but very portable laptop that has the ability to play any mainstream game. For a student or a PC gamer looking for a truly portable system, the M11x could be a perfect product. Arguably, at a starting cost of $799, the M11x could be justified as the cost of a game console plus the cost of a Netbook/small laptop, while providing the benefits of both (but upgrading the configurable system can quickly drive up the price past the $1K mark).
It should be noted, however, that the gaming capabilities of the M11x are good, but not great. It’s a far cry from the blazing speed of its full-fledged and more expensive big brother, the Alienware M15x, and the main processor’s general ability to multitask is considerably slower than even the lowest-end versions of Intel’s affordable new Core i3/i5 laptop processors. That’s not to say there isn’t something impressive about a gaming-capable laptop as small as the Alienware M11x, but we want to at least let you know that compromises were made to get to the price tag offered. There’s nothing on the market right now that’s quite like it in terms of its size/graphics/price combination. Though it’s a hybrid that might not be for everyone, it has moments where it shines.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$1,149/$799|
|Processor||1.3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 ULV|
|Memory||4GB; 1,066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel GM45 Express|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 335M + Intel GMA 4500MHD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.3 inches x 9.2 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.5 / 5.3 pounds|
The compactness, especially in terms of width and depth, struck us upon removing the M11x from its box. The Alienware M11x is still a relatively thick ultraportable, especially considering that it lacks an optical drive, but its look is a lot cleaner and more streamlined than the M15x. Our silvery-gray unit (the M11x also comes in black) really only gives away its Alienware pedigree via a subtle black alien head logo on the back lid and its trademark angled-front profile with somewhat silly LED “headlights.” To some degree, the squared-off bottom-heavy look of the M11x resembles an old-school portable DVD player. Its all-around smooth and clean lines make it an easy laptop to slide into a bag.
Opening up smoothly on a plastic hinge that protrudes from an otherwise flush backside, the M11x interior is all black with a very familiar Alienware LED-backlit multicolor keyboard and an edge-to-edge glossy 11.6-inch screen. The sturdy-feeling chassis and slightly compressed but otherwise Alienware-quality keyboard are much better than average, as is the comfortable, large touch pad. Much like other Alienware laptops, the bold colored keyboard, grille, and Alienware logo lights can be customized in any of a rainbow of colors, or even set to strobe if you prefer. These effects are set using a set of Alienware apps.
The M11x’s 11.6-inch, 1,366×768 screen looked good behind its edge-to-edge glossy veneer, but there was quite a bit of glare, too, and colors weren’t as bright or rich as we expected under bright lights. With its screen size, the M11x seems made to be plugged into an external monitor. The audio, however, is astounding for the M11x’s size; built-in 5.1 speakers are crisp, loud, and good enough to enhance the gaming experience on their own. At maximum volume, the M11x can rock a room.
We have to note that the M11x lacks an optical drive, an obvious decision made to enable this laptop to be so small, but we couldn’t help notice the M11x’s conspicuously port-free stretch on its right side that looks about the same size as, well, an optical drive. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions. The ability to install games off disc without having to plug in a USB-connected external optical drive would be nice, but most modern gamers using Steam (preinstalled on the Alienware) or other downloadable software probably never touch discs most of the time anyway.
|Alienware M11x||Average for category [Thin-and-light]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI, DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, dual headphone jacks, microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, dual SD/Memory Stick card reader, mini-Firewire||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
The most impressive feature on this tiny laptop is its triumvirate of video-out ports: HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort. Though we don’t often use DisplayPort, it can’t hurt to have it. No ExpressCard slot is provided, but at least the M11x includes Bluetooth (though you can optionally save $20 and leave it out when ordering on Dell’s Web site). The 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive we had in our configuration is an add-on that costs an extra $150; the base hard drive is only 160GB and 5,400rpm. If you really wanted to blow out the M11x, a 256GB SSD upgrade costs $570. The 4GB of included RAM can be upgraded up to 8GB.
The 1.3GHz SU7300 Core 2 ULV is a processor we’ve seen on thin-and-lights and ultraportables. It offers a close-to-Core-2-Duo experience, but in the wake of faster Core i3 and i5 processors, it’s a little less impressive. In our benchmark tests, the M11x falls far behind a Core i7 M15x at multimedia multitasking, but stays close to similar laptops such as the Asus UL50VT. On the M11x the SU7300 processor is overclockable to 1.73GHz in the BIOS menu, which isn’t intuitive for the uninitiated, but that’s still nowhere near what even a Core i3 processor provides.
Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
A powerful but not top-of-the-line Nvidia GeForce GT 335M graphics card with 1GB of RAM is the M11x’s real secret weapon, giving it enough gaming power to handle most mainstream titles. The M11x also has “hybrid graphics,” meaning that with the press of a Function key the laptop will switch between its GT 335M GPU and less powerful but more battery-friendly integrated graphics, letting the M11x either be battery-conservative or a gaming workhorse. The switch causes the screen to black out for a few seconds, but otherwise is painless and doesn’t require logging out or quitting programs. Still, you have to remember to switch, and the hybrid-graphics indictor icon isn’t exactly prominent. Sadly, the M11x lacks newer on-the-fly Optimus graphics-switching technology recently announced by Nvidia, which would have been perfect on the M11x, but we have to admit that once you know how to do it, graphics-switching is easy.
The M11x ran Unreal Tournament 3’s benchmark test at 69.5 frames per second in native 1,366×768-pixel resolution, which is great compared with any other mainstream laptop with dedicated graphics, and even bested the far more expensive Sony Vaio Z. On the other hand, it can’t hold a candle to a “dedicated” gaming laptop such as the M15x, which ran about double the frame rate. We’d best call the M11x a machine that’s built to handle most games pretty well, but you shouldn’t expect this to be a shrunken-down version of a super-powered rig. At its price, however, it’s a pretty good setup.
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