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Quick Take: Alienware M11x

We go hands-on with Alienware's "gaming Netbook" here at the CNET offices. Can the much-discussed ultraportable live up to its hype?

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Remember the Alienware M11x? Back at CES 2010 it won the Best of CES: Gaming award, simply because we were pretty impressed by its compact combination of nearly Netbook size and mainstream gaming-readiness. Months later, we finally have our hands on the final version.

The compactness, especially in terms of width and depth, still struck us upon removing the M11x from its box. It is, however, pretty thick, especially considering that it lacks an optical drive. While this thickness-to-size ratio keeps its Alienware look intact, it's chunkier than most other ultraportables.

A sturdy-feeling frame and slightly compressed but otherwise Alienware-quality keyboard are much better than average, as is the comfortable, large touch pad. The M11x's 11.6-inch, 1,366x768 screen looked good behind its edge-to-edge glossy veneer, but there was quite a bit of glare and colors weren't as bright or rich as we expected under bright lights. The audio, however, is astounding for the M11x's size--built-in 5.1 speakers are crisp, loud, and good enough to enhance the gaming experience on their own.

The U7300 Core 2 ULV processor on the M11x is a processor we've seen on thin-and-lights and ultraportables. It offers a close-to-Core-2-Duo experience, but in the wake of faster Core i3 and i5 processors, it's a little less impressive. Nvidia hybrid graphics switch easily between integrated graphics and a powerful Nvidia GeForce GT 335M graphics card with 1GB of memory, allowing the M11x to either be battery-conservative or a gaming workhorse. This system lacks the on-the-fly Optimus graphics switching technology recently announced by Nvidia, which would have been perfect on the M11x. Still, even without it, graphics switching is pretty painless.

We tried a few game demos using Steam, which comes pre-installed on the M11x. Batman: Arkham Asylum got a little choppy at times, but was impressively playable. Just Cause 2's open landscapes and zip-lining were smooth and detailed, rarely stuttering. We'll comment on the M11x gaming capabilities in greater detail when we've done formal benchmarking, but it certainly does more than nearly any laptop we've seen in its size.

Our biggest regret on the M11x is a lack of an optical drive, since it seems like something a gamer would use far more often, and some games even require the original disc to play. With three display-out ports (DisplayPort, HDMI, and VGA), there are plenty of ways to output to a larger monitor, but the right side of the M11x has a conspicuous section of gray plastic where more ports could have gone. There are three USB ports and even mini-FireWire, but no eSATA or ExpressCard.

Is this type of system for you? It depends whether truly portable gaming on a PC is a requirement for you, which is unlikely.

At a starting price of $799, it's not nearly as expensive as other Alienware laptops, but the config we used (and would buy) costs around $1,100. With affordable Core i5 laptops available that are even cheaper than that, the M11x is a hybrid that might not be for everyone, but it has moments where it shines. We'll be posting a full review later this week.

Alienware M11X