Dell's high-end design gamble: Adamo XPS and Alienware M11x

Dell's two recent high-end gambles, the 11-inch Alienware M11x "gaming Netbook" and the wafer-thin 13-inch Adamo XPS, both hit a lot of the right notes, even if they themselves are unlikely to be big-volume products.

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If there's a company almost universally associated with low-cost, high-volume, middle-of-the-road 15-inch laptops, it's Dell. In fact, the company, which might best be described as "the guys who make your mom's laptop," has struggled for years to break into the design chic space occupied by Apple and Sony.

That's why it's somewhat surprising that Dell's two recent high-end gambles, the 11-inch Alienware M11x "gaming Netbook" and the wafer-thin 13-inch Adamo XPS, both hit a lot of the right notes, even if they are unlikely to be big-volume products.

Previously, we've seen Dell chase the design dragon by buying specialty gaming PC maker Alienware--but most of that moribund line remains firmly entrenched in dorm room aesthetics. For a few years now, you've also been able to order a wide variety of designs and colors for the lids of many of Dell's mainstream laptops, but the driving force behind that offering has always felt like the $40-$85 premium charged for personalized shades and patterns.

More promising was the original Adamo laptop -- a product cloaked in Apple-like secrecy, and touted as "a luxury-brand notebook design for the luxury-conscious consumer," according to the company. The end result was something less: a MacBook Air clone that was too heavy and too expensive (although it did look quite nice).

With that kind of backstory, Dell's latest attempts to break the design mold carried a lot of baggage from the start. First was an entirely redesigned Adamo laptop, called the Adamo XPS. We loved the bold 9.99mm-thick body, which is something you really have to see in person to appreciate.

But, at the same time, the larger footprint makes it feel like a 15-inch laptop, despite the smaller 13-inch screen, and our main complaint was the weak battery life; something so clearly designed for portability should last longer than a typical rush-hour cab ride to the airport.

The other notable new design from Dell is the Alienware M11x. Scott Stein says of the system: "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."

For a laptop that looks and feels only slightly heftier than other 11-inch systems, the M11x offers a compelling case for taking that Netbook aesthetic and bumping up the price and performance. And compared with other 11-inchers, the M11x has a very good backlit keyboard, edge-to-edge glass over the 1,366x768-pixel display, and great audio (for its size).

The Alienware M11x starts at $799 and easily goes past $1,000, whereas the Adamo XPS is $1,999--which puts both into the ultrapremium price range in their categories. We don't know how many of each Dell expects to sell, and, in fact, the Adamo XPS has suffered from sporadic availability since its original December 2009 release date.

Both are welcome breaks from the norm (especially as laptops have really become commoditized in many ways), but thanks to relatively high prices and specialized appeal, they're both plagued by the same question we get from non-techie friends and colleagues when we show them off: typically some variation on, "That looks cool, but why would I buy one?"

The first laptop maker to answer that burning question may be in for a big win by merging a fresh design take with mainstream accessibility.

 

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