With its acquisition of Alienware earlier this year, we've been wondering how Dell was going to keep its high-end XPS line separate and distinct from Alienware's luxurious offerings. The Aurora m9700 certainly makes a bold statement for the Alienware brand, serving up components not offered on its Dell counterpart, the XPS M1710, including an AMD processor, dual-SLI graphics, dual hard drives, and an integrated TV tuner. Like the M1710, the Alienware Aurora m9700 features a 17-inch wide-screen display and a black-and-glossy-silver exterior. Admittedly, we had high hopes for this $3,881 laptop, which is the first 17-inch SLI laptop we've reviewed; the only other SLI laptop to have graced CNET Labs to date, the 19-inch Eurocom M590K Emperor, owns claim to the fastest frame rates we've seen on our 3D gaming benchmarks. The Aurora m9700 didn't quite meet our lofty expectations: though its performance is among the best in its class, it failed to set records. Still, we give Alienware credit for squeezing so much into a 17-inch laptop and doing so with such style. Mobile gamers and multimedia aficionados with deep pockets won't be disappointed.
Compared to Eurocom's rickety Emperor, which struggles against its great weight, the Aurora m9700 feels sturdy and well crafted. The small alien head that glows blue on the top of the laptop makes it clear to others at any LAN party that you are toting Alienware hardware. The rubber grips on the hood don't serve any real purpose, but they do contribute to the Aurora m9700's ominous visage. Measuring 15.5 inches wide, by 11.7 inches deep, and 1.8 inches at its thickest, and weighing 9.4 pounds, the Aurora m9700 rests comfortably in the desktop-replacement category. It's 0.6 pound heavier than the XPS M1710, but the two laptops share nearly the same dimensions. The Aurora m9700's three-prong AC adapter is huge, weighing in at 2.3 pounds.
Above the 17-inch wide-screen display sits a 1.3-megapixel Webcam for video chats. The display itself is bright and crisp; our review unit included the upgrade to the Wide Ultra XGA screen, with a 1,920x1,200 native resolution. It has a glossy coating that makes movies and games shine, but like any such display, it's easily smudged and prone to distracting reflections. It's not ideal if you plan to use the Aurora m9700 as a mobile workstation vs. an entertainment device for gaming, movies, and TV. That's too bad because beneath the display rests a full-size keyboard. It's very comfortable to use, especially given the wide wrist rest. There's also a separate number pad, a feature the Dell XPS M1710 lacks. As much as we like the keyboard, we're less enthralled with the touch pad. It's coated with the same glossy finish as the rest of the chassis, which is good for the overall appearance but not so good for actually moving the cursor around. Your finger doesn't glide across the surface as easily as it would on a typical touch pad with a matte finish. Below the touch pad is a single bar for left and right mouse buttons; it's as wide as the touch pad, forcing you to reach for the right mouse button.
Thankfully, Alienware throws in a mouse. And not just any mouse, but Logitech's excellent G5 Laser Mouse, complete with weights to get the precise feel gamers demand. Since the Aurora m9700 will be anchored on a desk and not frequently toted around, you'll find yourself using the mouse more than the touch pad. Because our review unit included the Media Center OS and a single-tuner TV tuner, it also came with a Media Center remote, which lets you access and control your music, videos, photos, and TV from across the room.
Ports and slots abound on the Aurora m9700. USB 2.0 ports are conveniently located on the left and right sides of the system, letting gamers connect their mouse on the side of their preferred trigger finger. There are four USB 2.0 ports in total along with one four-pin FireWire port. In addition to the standard headphone and mic jacks, there are three audio ports for front, center, and rear surround-sound channels. Video ports include VGA, DVI, S-Video (in and out), and coax, courtesy of the TV tuner. Next to the ExpressCard slot, a 4-in-1 media card reader supports SD, MMC, Memory Stick, and Memory Stick Pro formats. For networking, there are modem and Gigabit Ethernet jacks and integrated Wi-Fi (b/g) and Bluetooth.
A double-layer DVD burner resides front and center; this reviewer prefers its placement along the laptop's front edge vs. the traditional spot along one of the sides (see the video for another editor's differing opinion). On either side of the burner are the speakers, which offer rich sound for an integrated set. We wouldn't want to listen to music or a feature-length film with them, but they suffice for Web audio and video and even casual gaming. We greatly appreciate the volume dial along the system's right side, but we pine for a Wi-Fi on/off switch.
At $3,881, our Aurora m9700 review unit almost doubles the $1,999 starting price. Though our review system features the highest processor offered, the AMD Turion 64 ML-44, it's a single-core model. At this price, we want the option for a dual-core CPU, either an Intel Core Duo or a new Turion 64 X2. Working alongside the CPU on the Nvidia Mobile SLI motherboard is 2GB of 400MHz DDR memory and dual Nvidia GeForce Go 7900 GS GPUs, each with 256MB of memory. Alienware also manages to find room for two 100GB hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, a rare feature in a laptop. Despite all of its high-end hardware, the Aurora m9700 runs cool and quiet, even when running intensive apps, such as a 3D game. Unfortunately, it doesn't always add up to top-flight performance.