One of 2010's laptop surprises, the Alienware M11x offered something new to challenge the divide between gaming PCs and regular computers. Pairing gaming graphics with a compact Netbook-size body for a starting price less than $1,000, and battery life that was actually good, this travel-friendly "gaming Netbook" redefined our expectations of what a portable computer could offer.
There were a few drawbacks: in our original review of the Alienware M11x, we noted that the gaming capabilities were good but not great. With a Core 2 Duo ULV CPU, it was a far cry from the blazing speed of its full-fledged and more expensive big brother, the Alienware M15x, and the processor's general capability to multitask was considerably slower than even the lowest-end versions of Intel's new Core i3/i5 laptop processors.
Dell's new iteration of the Alienware M11x, equipped with Intel Core i5 and i7 ULV processors and automatically switching Nvidia graphics with Optimus technology, are now available alongside the original M11x for a slightly higher price. The specs raised expectations for both increased speed and battery life in our review unit, which had a Core i7-U640 CPU and cost $1,299.
Though the new Core i7 ULV version of the Alienware M11x does offer improved operating speeds and frame rates for games, it's not a quantum leap. It's better than its predecessor, but its higher price may scare away mainstream gamers or people looking for better laptop value for their money. Still, if you want a nearly unmatched size-graphics combination, this could be the hybrid you're looking for. If you'd like to save a few hundred dollars, consider giving the still-available Core 2 Duo version of the M11x (which starts at $799) a look. The new Core i5/i7 iterations of the M11x start higher, at $949.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$1,299/$949|
|Processor||1.2 GHz Intel Core i7 U640|
|Memory||4GB, 800 MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 335M (1GB) + Intel GMA HD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.3 inches x 9.2 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.6 / 5.6 pounds|
The Alienware M11x is still a relatively thick ultraportable, especially considering that it lacks an optical drive, but the compactness of the Alienware M11x as a gaming machine is hard to beat. Its look is a lot cleaner and more streamlined than larger Alienware products, such as the M15x. Our black model (last time, we reviewed the M11x in silver gray) has a smooth, soft feel and a matte finish. The M11x gives away its Alienware pedigree via a subtle, black, alien-head logo on the back lid, a trademark alien skull above the keyboard, and its racecar-like front face, with somewhat silly LED "headlights." To some degree, the squared-off, bottom-heavy look of the M11x resembles an old-school portable DVD player. Its all-around clean lines make it an easy laptop to slide into a bag.
Opening up smoothly on a plastic hinge that protrudes from an otherwise flush backside, the M11x interior is all black, with a very familiar LED-backlit, multicolor keyboard and an edge-to-edge, glossy, 11.6-inch screen. The sturdy chassis and slightly compressed, but otherwise Alienware-quality, keyboard are much better than average, as is the comfortable, large touch pad. Much like other Alienware laptops, the bold-colored keyboard, grille, and Alienware logo lights can be customized in any of a rainbow of colors, or even set to strobe if you prefer. These effects are set using Alienware apps.
The M11x's 11.6-inch, 1,366x768-pixel resolution screen looks good behind its edge-to-edge glossy veneer, but all that glass on a small screen results in quite a bit of glare, too. With its screen size, the M11x seems made to be plugged into an external monitor, but the 11.6-inch display is actually surprisingly decent for gaming. An immersive assist comes from above-average built-in 5.1 speakers, an astounding array for the M11x's size. Game sound comes off crisp, loud, and good enough to enhance the gaming experience on its own. At maximum volume, the M11x can nearly rock a room.
The M11x still lacks an optical drive; that's an obvious decision to enable this laptop to be so small, but we couldn't help notice the M11x's conspicuously port-free stretch on its right side, which is about the same size as, well, an optical drive. We'll let you draw your own conclusions. While the capability to install games off discs without having to plug in a USB-connected external optical drive would be nice, modern gamers using Steam (preinstalled on the Alienware) or other downloadable software probably never touch discs most of the time anyway.
|Alienware M11x||Average for category [Ultraportable]|
|Video||HDMI, DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, dual headphone jacks, microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, dual SD/Memory Stick card reader, mini-Firewire||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G broadband||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
Speaking of missing ports, the most impressive feature on this tiny laptop is its support of both HDMI and DisplayPort. VGA has oddly been removed this go-around, though the original M11x boasted all three video options. We do not often use a DisplayPort, and we think VGA might have been a more versatile connection. No ExpressCard slot is provided, but at least the M11x includes Bluetooth (though you can optionally save $20 and leave it out when ordering on Dell's Web site). Our configuration also included Gobi Mobile Broadband supporting Verizon, an $125 extra (an AT&T Gobi card is also available), which also requires a monthly data subscription starting at $39.99.
Under the hood, the new Alienware M11x configurations use either a Core i5 or i7 ULV processor, which amounts to Intel's next-gen evolution of the SU7300 Core 2 Duo ULV CPU that was in the last Alienware M11x we reviewed. The Core 2 ULV M11x is still available from Alienware at a starting price of $799. The new configs start at $949, which gets you a 1.06 Ghz Core i5 520UM ULV processor, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 160GB hard drive. Our top-of-the-line configuration came to slightly more, at $1,299. Upgrading from a Core i5 520UM to the Core i7 640UM CPU costs $150.
The Intel Core i7 640UM processor under the hood of our Alienware M11x is a Core i7 in brand name only: running at half the speed of a normal processor but overclockable in BIOS, the performance of this low-voltage CPU is more akin to what we saw in the Core 2 Duo ULV processor, the SU7300, than what you're likely to get in any other Core i7 machine. This M11x does run faster and better at both single and multitasking benchmarks than its predecessor--about 27-percent faster than the Core 2 Duo ULV M11x in our multitasking benchmarks, for instance--but it still lags behind standard-voltage Core i-series processors. That being said, it's plenty fast for accomplishing most tasks, especially on its smaller 11.6-inch screen.
A powerful but not top-of-the-line Nvidia GeForce GT 335M graphics card with 1GB of RAM is the M11x's real secret weapon, giving it enough gaming power to handle most mainstream titles. The older version of the M11x used switchable graphics to alternate between discrete power and battery-saving integrated Intel graphics, but the software switch was manually operated. This M11x finally has newer on-the-fly Optimus graphics-switching technology, which handles the graphics switch seamlessly for the most part. The effect is invisible, except in a few instances: a demo of Kane & Lynch 2 didn't trigger a graphics switch-over, which requires right-clicking on the .exe file to add the profile to Nvidia's Optimus settings. (Optimus keeps an updated profile library for all programs for which it needs to activate graphics.)
In addition to making things a little easier, the new graphics setup performed better than the original M11x. The current M11x ran Unreal Tournament III's benchmark test at 84.2 frames per second in native 1,366x768-pixel resolution, as opposed to 69.5fps from the Core 2 Duo ULV M11x. We also tried Mass Effect 2 and Kane and Lynch 2 and found them to run excellently. The M11x isn't a top-flight gaming laptop, because of its slower-than-average ULV processor and just-short-of-elite graphics, but for its size it can't be beaten.
The M11x also outputs to external monitors at up to 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, via HDMI or DisplayPort-out (VGA has been removed from the Core i5/i7 M11x). Our results were a little better than they were on the original M11x, as would be expected; full 1080p gaming on Mass Effect 2 wasn't buttery smooth, but 1,600x900-pixel resolution looked surprisingly strong.