MSRP (as configured): $4,858.00 (starting at $2,149.00)
MyGamer Hardware Score: 8.4/10
There's been a lot of speculation out there amongst people that follow gaming hardware regarding the whole Alienware/Dell relationship. In mid-2008, rumors surfaced that Dell (Alienware's parent company) would be phasing out their popular XPS line in favor of further developing the Alienware brand. While these rumors appear to be just that – rumors – it is certain (in the opinion of this reviewer, anyway) that Alienware notebooks and gaming desktops have improved as the result of Dell's involvement, however hands-on or -off that involvement truly is.
Of course, this is a review of a specific gaming notebook, the Alienware Area-51 m15x gaming notebook, but the topic is worth bringing up since it appears as if with Alienware's latest offering, they do seem to be not only raising the bar on performance, functionality and stability over previous offerings, but also on overall design refinement and packaging. The m15x is in many ways the best-designed and executed gaming laptop I've yet seen from this company, and indeed may very well be one of the best overall performers I've yet tested. Is this a result of Dell's involvement in Alienware? Possibly.
Let me be clear though: there are some problems with the m15x, most or all of which are hopefully corrected by the time you read this review and which are being looked into according to out sources at Alienware. Overall, though… whoo boy, this is one fine machine. Let's get into the specifics.
The m15x is powered by an Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU clocked at 2.8GHz. A 800MHz front-side bus is coupled with a whopping 6MB cache for max performance. The system we tested came equipped with 4GB of Dual Channel DDR2 RAM, with video powered by a 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800M GTX video card. Onboard storage came via a 200GB 7200RMP hard drive with a 16MB cache.
Additionally, Alienware supplied us with a 320GB 5400 RPM hot-swappable secondary hard-drive as well as a secondary battery that fit into the same bay as the 2X Dual Layer Blu-ray disc burner – more on this very nice setup later on. Video was displayed on a 15" widescreen UXGA LCD display (1900X1200 native resolution) – not the largest screen we've ever seen, but more than adequate.
The overall design of the m15x's case was attractive and stylish: gone are the days of rubberized industrial-looking matte black plastic – this notebook is all sleekly-finished silver plastic. Even the controls are futuristic, and are set flush into the material of the case itself. Even the mouse surface is slick and smooth. This is made even better by Alienware's FX Lighting system, which allows you to customize practically every part of the notebook's lighting setup, from the back-lit keyboard to the glowing, trademark alien head design on the lid. It's a very cool and well executed setup.
The m15x's backlit, laser-cut keyboard looks sexy, turns heads, AND it can be seen in the daytime or at night… impressive.
Overall, we were very impressed with the m15x's design. The choice to reduce the LCD size solved the issues we'd had with older Alienware notebooks, and we're thrilled to report that the notebook fit easily into our test laptop backpack with plenty of room to spare. Even the power brick is fairly small, and is fitted with well though-out extras like a permanently attached Velcro securing strap for the cord. Why doesn't everyone do this?
Of course you have all the usual assortment of USB ports (3 total), HDMI video-out, integrated 7-in-1 card reader, Express Card port and other various networking and headphone/mic jacks, all of which are easy to get to. Even the power plug has been relocated to the side of the case rather than in the back, which makes it just that much easier to get to when you need to plug in. Anyone that's used a notebook PC day in and day out knows that it's the little things that can make or break a well-appointed, top-end system, and overall you can color us impressed with the m15x's overall level of product design – it really feels like the designers have been listening to feedback with this notebook.
One of the notebook's better features was its array of hot-swappable accessories. Alienware shipped the m51x we reviewed with a DVD optical drive as well as a secondary hard drive and a backup secondary battery unit, all of which share the same accessory bay. We used this system extensively, using the spare battery while on trips (we got upwards of 4 hours of computing time in Windows and almost 2.5 hours of gaming time with the second battery fitted, which is, in a word, fantastic). Because of the seamless hot-swapability, pulling out the optical drive was fast and easy. We did have a spot of issue with the second hard drive however- sometimes the system would fail to recognize the second HDD unless we rebooted.
The only problem we found with this setup is that since you can have either the secondary battery or the optical drive installed at any given time, it's impossible to have max battery life when also playing DVD movies, which is when you most need it. Without the secondary battery in place, we only got about 70 minutes of playback time with a DVD spinning in the optical drive – not enough to play back a full film on an airplane, for example. Drat.
Of course, the m15x did well in our everyday Windows computing tasks, smoothly launching as many applications as we demanded. Watching YouTube videos in one of 35 open tabs in Firefox, combined with multiple documents in MS Office and various video/MP3 applications never seemed to slow it down, nor did it ever cause system instability (that was caused by the system's funky power management system- more on that in a bit). Also, we never experienced any problems whatsoever in getting legacy Win95/XP applications to run on Windows Vista, which was something we were concerned about.
Gaming performance was more than acceptable. As is our standard with gaming notebooks, we did all tests how a gamer would do them: with the game running at the PC's native LCD resolution of 1900X1200, with 2X antialiasing, 4X anisitropic filtering (where applicable) and with all visual effects and draw distances maxed out. In all cases, the m15x was set to "High Performance" mode for max frame rates, and all tests were performed on wall power. All games we tested loaded the first time and ran under Windows Vista seamlessly and without a single lockup or crash.
We figured we'd start with the classics: MMO World of Warcraft, with everything turned up to the max, delivered an average FPS of 76.9, even in character-choked areas such as faction capital cities. Staff favorite Guild Wars showed an average 79.2 FPS while Half Life 2 ran at a blistering 187.1 FPS – awesome.
Moving up to more technically advanced games, we loaded up the still-demanding F.E.A.R. – the m15x delivered a somewhat disappointing 35.4 FPS. Not bad and certainly playable, but we'd hoped for more. RPG Bioshock fared a bit better (and looked marvelous doing so), clocking in at 40.7 FPS. FPS Unreal Tournament III did even better, running at a slick 59.5 FPS. The only title that did not fare well was Crysis, a game infamous for bringing even top-end gaming systems to their knees. Crysis earned its killer reputation with the m15x, running at a paltry 11 FPS overall at the test settings. Backing the sliders down allowed us to run the title at around 20-23 FPS, which was better, and still looked fairly good. It must be said though that it's disappointing that even a $5K PC like the m15x couldn't do better.
Whoever designed the case for the m15x had a very good day… It might look a bit Mac-ish, but the change away from oh-so-last year black rubberized plastic is a welcome one, and the PC positively radiates class and power.
We did have a few issues with the m15x, we're sorry to say. Power management, always a weak spot in our experience with Alienware systems, is still not quite ready for prime time. The main issue we had was with the system's Hibernate mode – basically is doesn't work. Most of the time when we tried Hibernating (either by closing the PC lid or invoking it via the Start menu), the system screen would go black but the computer would not go to sleep. Only a hard reboot would clear the fault. As we prefer to Hibernate a laptop between Windows or gaming sessions, this quickly became a huge frustration. Other times, the system would appear to Hibernate, but would later power itself back up in our case, leading to unexpectedly dead batteries and soaring temperatures. Alienware tells us that they've traced the issue to some problematic RAM and hopefully will have fixed the issue by the time you're reading this.
We also encountered some issues with the inlaid controls for Volume, Wireless and the FX Control Panel. Often, the controls simply did not respond, no matter how we poked or prodded them. In one case, we switched off the wireless card in an airport for security reasons using the inlaid control, but when we went to switch it back on later it became non-responsive. No matter where we looked, we could not see a way to re-enable the wireless card via Vista, so we were dead in the water, network-wise for the better part of day, until the problem control decided to respond again. Also, we could never get the volume control to work no matter how we tried, and were often forced to drop back to Vista to access the taskbar volume control instead. Not deal-breaking, like the Wireless control, but definitely frustrating. Alienware has told us that they've traced the issue back to a bad early batch of the laminate material used in the case, so hopefully this is now a non-issue by now as well.
These flaws seem magnified when taken against the overall high quality of the m15x – considering the obviously high degree of effort that went into the design of the PC, it's a real shame that a few, small issues like this managed to creep into what is otherwise a top-notch PC, and quite frankly, for almost $5 grand any sane gamer should expect close to perfection. If indeed Alienware has crushed these few, remaining bugs in the current build of the product, we'd certainly recommend it whole-heartedly (but you may want to check the system over carefully before the warranty expires… just in case).
PROS: Lighting-fast frame-rates in all but the most bleeding-edge titles; beautiful Blue-ray capable 1200p, wide-screen display with HDMI output; well-implemented "hot swappable" accessory bay with extended-life battery, optical drive and secondary hard-drive. Finally, a gaming PC from Alienware that can be used whether on wall power or on battery and that fits in our backpack case!
CONS: Frustrating power management bugs (hibernate is effectively useless); non-responsive case controls for volume, wireless, Blue Tooth and FX control panel. Expensive.