MyGamer Hardware Score: 8.0/10
Just say the name in the hearing of any PC gamer, and watch their eyes light up with unholy lust. For years, the brand that made desktop models such as the Area-51 famous has been synonymous with high-end gaming performance. Indeed, so great is Alienware's profile that they have inspired an entire batch of boutique gaming PC vendors, from Voodoo PC to Falcon Northwest. Even vendors known for their business machines, such as the venerable Dell, seem to be ready to court the high-end gaming customer. Now, this PC manufacturer, famous for their desktop systems, has begun to offer laptop systems on-par with all but the most bleeding-edge desktop systems. (ed.- One eagle-eyed reader reminded us that Alienware was founded in 1996 by its current CEO, Nelson Gonzalez, and president, Alex Aguila, while Falcon Northwest was actually founded 4 years earlier, in 1992- thanks for that info…)
So, when Alienware generously offered MyGamer the chance to review one of their mid-priced mobile systems, the Area-51 m5700, we jumped at the chance. We've spent the last several weeks torture-testing the system, hauling it on planes, trains and automobiles, playing games and DVDs across the length and breadth of this fair country, and discovered that there's quite a bit to love about this mobile PC. All is not perfect with the system, however, and we discovered a few things that we'd change, should the power be put into our hands. Let's look at the specifics.
The system that Alienware shipped to us is powered by an Intel Centrino Pentium M processor running at 2.00 GHz backed with a Gig of DDR2-SDRAM. Graphics are handled by a 256MB GeForce 6800, driving a wide-screen (16:10 ratio) 17" LCD display which can handle resolutions up to 1920X1200 pixels. The screen uses Alienware's ClearView technology to assure that the screen is bright and sharp in varied lighting conditions. The system also boasts wired and wireless networking interfaces, surprisingly clear-sounding built-in speakers (although the truly hard-core will no doubt settle for nothing less than 5.1 speakers or high-end headphones), a touch-pad mouse interface, numerous USB ports and a DVI video jack for those wanting to output to an external LCD display.
All of this is wrapped up in a sexy, black and gray case sporting ice-blue LCDs, which illuminate the distinctive Alienware logo. The laptop really is eye-catching, and this reviewer literally lost count of the times that I'd be approached by gamers of all ages when playing in public spots such as my local Caribou Coffee or Panera. It really was fun to watch their jaws drop when they caught sight of World of Warcraft, or F.E.A.R., or my DVD copy of Sin City on the wide-screen display.
The m5700's wide-screen display is the very definition of "sexy"…
The system also doubles as a basic media center, and shipped with a Microsoft eHome infrared remote control for access to the laptop's DVD and audio playback features. Alienware also designed the system with an optional "media center" bootup button, which starts the laptop under a separate Linux OS. Doing so launches Cyberlink Power Cinema for DVD or audio CD playback, as well as the viewing of picture CDs or digital video captured by a video camera. This is a very handy feature, as it allows the unit to function as a widescreen DVD player without having to wait for the PC to fully boot up the Windows Media Center OS. My family used the m5700 on several long car trips as a DVD player, and found it more than adequate, even on bright, sunny days. We did notice, however, that a power-saving feature dimmed the screen after approximately five minutes of inactivity, and this made viewing DVDs extremely difficult. Worse, this feature could not be disabled as far as we could tell. If you're planning on using the Alienware in your car to entertain the kids on that next trip to grandma's, be ready to poke the PC's touch pad every few minutes to keep the screen from dimming. This was just one of the issues we had with the m5700 when operated on batteries.
But how do the system's specs translate into real-world gaming? We ran a number of games on the m5700, and were quite impressed with its performance, so long as we were sure to boot the PC using the corded power supply (more on this in a bit). In all cases, we ran our games (where possible) with 4X AA and the minimum level of anisotropic filtering offered by the game client:
World of Warcraft- We ran the game in 1600X1200 mode (WoW does not support the display's 1920X1200 native resolution). Even with the draw distance and other graphic goodies cranked up, we were pleased to see that the game ran at 55-60 FPS in almost every circumstance. The wide-screen display did cause a bit of distortion, as the graphics were "stretched" a bit to fill the screen, but it was nothing we couldn't deal with. The laptop's built-in speakers did an adequate job of recreating the game's sounds, but a set of headphones really made the experience complete. The PC's many USB ports made running an external mouse and USB headphones a snap.
F.E.A.R.- We also ran F.E.A.R. at 1600X1200, and experienced anywhere from 20-30 FPS in most cases. While the truly hard-core might find this frame-rate disappointing, we found it to be more than playable, even in frantic multiplayer games. The "stretching" issues that we saw in WoW did not seem as apparent in F.E.A.R. for some reason.
Doom 3- This aging FPS title is still considered to be an industry standard for benchmarking, so we felt we just had to give it a try. We saw average frame rates of 25-45 FPS at 1600X1200. Doom 3 seemed to cause the greatest amount of variable FPS performance, and slowed down quite a bit when confronted with complex, moving lighting situations. As with F.E.A.R., however, we found that the game was very playable, although we'd probably wish for a bit more horsepower if we were going into, say, a very competitive LAN-party situation. Try stuffing a high-end desktop into a backpack, though…
City of Heroes- With CoH's latest patch, the game's developers offered up a wealth of higher-rez graphics options, so we thought that this would be a good test. With 4X AA enabled as well as anisotropic filtering and bumped-up world detail, we experienced a frame-rate of 20-25 FPS- more than adequate for a MMO.
The distinctive Alienware logo lights up, a cool, blue beacon in the dark…
All of this performance and the unit's gargantuan display does carry a price, however: the m5700 is massive, both in physical size as well as in weight. Indeed, this is the heaviest laptop I can ever remember carrying around, so heavy, in fact, that I could not lift it and place it inside my laptop bag with one hand. I don't know if it's the weight of the large battery pack or some other component that makes the m5700 so beefy, but beefy it is. Also, the laptop's 17" display means that the physical dimensions of the case are quite large- the m5700 is an oblong PC that some carrying bags might have trouble accommodating. My Swiss Army brand backpack-style laptop case, which is actually almost too large for my Dell work PC, was barely able to fit it, and I had to carefully stretch the bag over the laptop's corners to make the Alienware fit.
If you're a student, and plan to carry around the m5700 to classes, or are a road-warrior looking for a mobile computer capable of running demanding Windows applications while working from remote locations then this could be an issue. Indeed, when you combine the weight of the PC with its equally bulky power brick, you're looking at a severe case of shoulder fatigue when trying to carry this thing around in a traditional, single-strap case. It should be noted, however, that the idea of a mobile PC which can replace a desktop gaming rig is and of itself pretty impressive, so we're not highly motivated to ding Alienware on this issue too harshly.
As impressed as we were overall with the m5700, if there were a single thing we would change it would be the unit's mobile operation on batteries. For instance, when booted on fresh batteries, the laptop ran Windows applications for approximately 100-110 minutes, something that remote users might find troublesome. Running DVDs under the unit's "entertainment" OS wasn't any better, clocking at approximately 95 minutes before low-battery shut-down. This should suffice for the short plane flight or quick trip to a coffee place to check email, but that's about it.
Worse, whenever we tried playing games on the system when booted on batteries, we discovered that every title ran very slow (single-digit frame rates), even with the "Long Battery Life" BIOS setting, which throttles down the PC's CPU to extend battery life, disabled. Alienware, to their credit, did try very hard to diagnose and fix the issue, and eventually tracked the issue back to a BIOS code issue, but as of the time of this writing still had not fixed the problem. Alienware has promised that they will be distributing a BIOS update soon that should address this situation, but until then, users wanting to play their favorite games will have to boot the m5700 on the supplied power brick. We found that this was not as big a chore as we initially thought it might be- most coffeehouses, bookstores and even airports that offer wireless internet access usually provide a place for users to plug in their laptops, but it did mean that everywhere we went, we had to schlep around the Alienware's large power cord if we wanted any chance at gaming.
One last thing that we wish were better was the M5700's temperature issues. When gaming, the laptop's plastic case grew almost unbearably warm, so much so that everyone that played on it made comments about their hands burning. Don't be surprised if your left hand, which most gamers will leave resting on the laptop keyboard, grows almost unbearably warm over the course of a long gaming session. In the end we were forced to make a small heat shield out of an old, cut-down foam mouse pad, which we rested beneath the heel of our left hands. We never tried playing with the unit resting on our laps, where the heat from the exhaust fans would be vented down onto us, and we're glad we never tried.
Alienware has built in, and heavily markets, something they call Battery Control Technology, which, they say, allows users to "increase your system's efficiency at the touch of a single button, putting you in control of the balance between performance and battery longevity." What this amounts to is shutting down unnecessary fans that you might not need running. While this does make the unit much quieter, we simply cannot imagine decreasing the cooling system on a PC that runs as hot as the m5700, so we always left them on. To be fair, the unit's heat issues didn't seem nearly as bad when we were doing word processing or other basic Windows tasks, and we never noticed any stability issues, even when the unit was running at its hottest. But, the people that will be buying the m5700 are gamers, and so will doubtless run into the heat issue sooner rather than later. We hope that Alienware looks into better insulating the top surface of the unit in future models.
Heat and battery issues kept us from giving the m5700 an unqualified recommendation, but it's still one hell of a mobile gaming rig.
So, the big question is: Is it worth it to spend approximately $2500 for a laptop that performs on-par with a desktop costing less than half that amount? The answer is a firm… depends.
We can see the value in a PC like the m5700 if you are a business person and travel quite a bit, and are looking for a system that will let you run a wide variety of work applications while also allowing you to play games. This reviewer, in fact, is firmly in that category, and found the m5700 to be a perfect traveling companion on my week-long trips to Atlanta and New York, allowing me to display Powerpoint slide-shows for clients, watch (short) DVDs on the plane, and even game with my wife in the evenings from the comfort of any number of hotspot-enabled coffee shops. Or, if you are a student, and are looking for a system that you plan to take with you to class and also game with, then the Alienware, with its high-end performance and drop-dead good looks is probably right up your alley. Granted, the m5700 is heavy and large, and may well require you to upgrade your laptop case, but gamers are used to making sacrifices. We recommend putting the Alienware on your graduation present list.
Pros: Desktop-caliber performance in a portable unit. Stunning 16:10 ratio, 17" wide-screen display. Entertainment OS allows a fast boot for DVD and CD playback. Looks great- you'll be pestered by every geek in the world, asking you for system specs.
Cons: Heavy as a brick. Relatively weak battery life. Runs very hot during long gaming sessions. Pricey (but, hey, mobile computing performance doesn't come cheap).
Price (as configured): $ 2,468
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