MyGamer Hardware Score: 8.3/10
MSRP: $4,033.00 (as configured)
Alienware's newest laptop offering is the Aurora m9700, a sleek, painted beauty (available in a variety of colors), featuring such gaming goodies as SLI-enabled video, a mammoth screen and, of course, a metallic flake exterior paint job sure to catch the eye of even the most jaded PC aficionado. Before the holidays, Alienware graciously agreed to send us a m9700 to review, and we bring back this test drive report.
First, let's run the numbers: The unit that Alienware shipped is powered by an AMD Turion 64 ML-44 CPU running at 2412 MHz. 2 GIG of DDR RAM round out the unit's memory profile. Video is supplied via a 256MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900 GS card, and storage is provided via a 200GB hard drive running in a striped RAID configuration.
The things that everyone commented on when we unboxed the m9700 were, first and foremost, the lustrous, metallic-flake "Conspiracy Blue" paint job and, second, the laptop's bright and sharp 17" widescreen LCD display. We admit that the laptop's paint job (which wraps around to cover the entire surface of the PC, inside and out, including the built-in touch pad – very slick indeed) is a treat for the eyes, and we never got tired of going out to LAN parties and local coffee hangouts to watch the jealous stares we gathered. If you're looking for a PC that's different and unique, look no further than the m9700.
As far as the LCD display goes, we were impressed as always by the quality of the display. Like the last Alienware laptop we reviewed, the m5700, the m9700 uses a "Clearview" screen, which, unlike most other laptop screens, is not satin-coated. What this means to you is that small text and fine details are displayed in all their crisp glory, at the cost of a bit of reflectivity in bright areas. Luckily, the display is bright enough that even at the unit's default display resolution of 1920X1200, even the smallest Flash-based web text is east to read. Only the Dell XPS M1710 had a lovelier display in our books, and even then it was a close call.
The Aurora's Clearview screen is sharp, bright and clear in all environments
The m9700's overall portability has been improved over previous Alienware laptops. Like the m5700, the laptop is still beefy, and is so heavy that lifting it one-handed is not recommended, but Alienware does seem to have managed to lighten the m9700 by a few pounds over last season's offerings (we could not lift the m5700 with one hand under any circumstances and traveling with it was like lugging around a cinder block – the m9700 is more like hauling a few bricks). It even fit into our test laptop case without having to finagle the corners into the bag. Even better, the laptop's case is festooned with extra goodies such as four separate USB ports, a FireWire port, a front-loading optical drive and external surround-sound jacks and even a convenient 4-in-1 memory card reader.
Unwilling to stop there, Alienware then went nuts with additional Media Center-inspired offerings, such as external S-Video and coaxial video-in ports, touch-sensitive media buttons (used to launch and control Windows Media Center or the MP3/video player of your choice) and even an integrated TV tuner – basically everything you need to use the laptop as a component in your home entertainment suite is included, right down to integrated Bluetooth capability (perfect for remote-controlled wireless keyboards, speakers, headsets and mice).
So, with all this technological love, you may be asking yourself "what's the down side"? We certainly were – after living with the m9700 for a few weeks, we were ready to have its alien love-child. In fact, if the m9700 has any flaws at all, it's in the area of game-play or any other computing task beyond basic Windows while on battery power. To put it simply: this is not a PC designed for mobile gaming, movie viewing or almost anything else.
Before we proceed, we should explain that statement. The Aurora m9700 is indeed a laptop, and as such, it's portable. Feel free to take it (as well as the included power brick) along to a LAN party or over to a buddy's place for a little multiplayer mayhem. Just don't try firing it up on a plane or in a coffee place on batteries for a little Prey fun, because it just ain't gonna happen. Bottom line: according to our contact at Alienware, any time the m9700 is booted on batteries, the unit tries to save the battery life by cutting power to the CPU and to the video card. This basically makes playing any games more demanding than Solitaire or FreeCell while on batteries impossible. There isn't even a BIOS option to disable this power-save setting – the unit is designed to play games only while connected to wall power.
While this wouldn't seem to be a huge drawback at first blush (after all, this reviewer wouldn't dream of playing a heated game of Warhammer 40,000 on batteries most of the time), and we can see why Alienware decided to make this difficult decision, this choice has definite consequences. Besides gaming, playing movies while on batteries is also impossible, and DVD playback is definitely something that I have in mind when I travel on an airplane. Attempting to play a DVD at full screen resolution while on batteries resulted in a stuttering, choppy mess that was basically unwatchable. We also found that the m9700 has an average battery life of only about 60 minutes (even with the display dimmed almost to the maximum) while spinning a DVD and less than 80 minutes when doing simple tasks like word processing or web browsing. Ouch.
In addition to blue, Alienware makes the m9700 in sliver and green. The paintwork wraps around to encompass the keyboard and even the touchpad.
When the 9700 is on wall power, however, all of these problems evaporate. As a game unit, the m9700 certainly is no pushover, as our suite of game applications proved. As always, we tested all games at 1600X1200 resolution with 2X antialiasing and 4X anisotropic filtering (where available) with vertical sync disabled, using FRAPS as a frames-per-second monitoring tool. (Note: normally, MyGamer tests laptops on both wall and battery power, but because of Alienware's comments on how they designed the laptop to conserve battery power, all game tests were performed on wall power only and all reported frame rates were observed when the unit was plugged in.)
Perennial staff favorite Guild Wars fared well at 48 FPS on average, with newcomer Prey clocking in at a very playable 29 FPS overall. The aging, but still visually demanding Half Life 2 did very well at 102 FPS (and looked incredible on the Clearview screen, we might add), and Doom 3 performed at 47 FPS in almost all areas. Newcomer RTS title Battle for Middle Earth II clocked in at a fairly decent 27 FPS, certainly not blisteringly fast but more than acceptable for a top-down strategy title, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, came in at 29 FPS overall.
While game performance certainly wasn't the fastest we've ever seen, the frame rates we saw were more than adequate for a mobile PC, even for our demanding tastes. When we factored this in with the m9700's plethora of other features, the laptop swiftly became a contender for the "PC of the Year" here at MyGamer, however the issues we had with the unit's lackluster battery performance dropped it down in the standings. As awesome as the Aurora is (and it's very, very nice indeed), it's just a hair less awesome than the Dell XPS M1710 we reviewed a few months back – the Dell performed just as well for sheer power but also was a viable choice on airplanes and off wall power. We do, however, applaud Alienware for improving the m9700's weight and size limitations over previous models.
Pros: Hands-down the most visually striking laptop we've ever seen. Take the m9700 to a LAN party or anywhere that geeks gather and be sure to bring a towel to catch all the drool. Between the slick paint job, the Clearview LCD display and the glowing Alienware logo on the front you'll be sure to cause more than one case of whiplash. There are also plenty of USB and other connectivity ports, a hallmark of a well-designed portable PC.
Cons: Battery performance is still lacking compared to other top-of-the-line mobile PCs – don't try playing games or watching DVDs on the plane. We understand why Alienware made the choice they did, but even with the battery-saving measures they employed, the m9700 still can't run very long on batteries, and can't play games or realistically watch DVDs while doing so. The m9700, while lighter than last season's back-breakingly heavy m5700 is still a bit weighty and large, but at least it (unlike the m5700) fits into a laptop case without a good deal of grumbling and cursing.