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Alienware Area-51 m15x review: Alienware Area-51 m15x

Alienware Area-51 m15x

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
6 min read

Power users who pride themselves on having the most advanced laptops are happy to trade portability and desk space for a massive 17-inch desktop replacement with the latest high-end components. Those same hardware fetishists should be kicking themselves now that Alienware has gone all-in on a new 15-inch system, the impressive $3,899 Area-51 m15x, outfitting it with Nvidia's GeForce 8800M GTX video card (previously found only in 17-inch systems) and the fastest laptop CPU around right now, the Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000. Of course, this tricked out config cost nearly double the $2,149 base price. While Alienware has the insides down, we're less enamored with the redesigned chassis, which, despite cool lighting features, doesn't come off like the high-end powerhouse we know this system to be.


Alienware Area-51 m15x

The Good

Top-of-the-line components; backlit keyboard is a cool touch; highest resolution we've seen in a 15-inch display; one of the fastest laptops on the planet right now.

The Bad

Still not as slick looking as it should be; thick, clunky chassis; touch pad hard to use.

The Bottom Line

Alienware's amazingly powerful flagship Area-51 m15x has the insides down, but our finicky aesthetic sense isn't sold on the look of this otherwise awesome 15-inch powerhouse of a gaming laptop.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $3,899 / $2,149
Processor 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000
Memory 3GB, 667MHz DDR2 [Note: Only 2GB and 4GB configs are available and our "as-reviewed" price is for the 2GB version.]
Hard drive 200GB 7,200 rpm
Chipset Intel GM965
Graphics 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX
Operating System Windows Vista Premium
Dimensions (WDH) 14.5x10.8x1.7 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 7.8 / 9.5 pounds
Category Mainstream

The matte-black finish and massive plastic ridges that were featured on the back of the Area-51 m9750's lid are gone, replaced with a glossy silver finish, but the system is somewhat clumsy looking, thicker than most 17-inch laptops, and very fingerprint-prone. It's dorm-room chic at best--we'd expect a $3,700 laptop with the fastest components available to look a little more sophisticated.

The most unusual feature is the touch pad. Instead of having a separate mousing surface, the touch pad sits flush with the remainder of the wrist rest and is made of the same material, delineated only by a backlit outline. It looks cool but is hard to use--you can't tell when your finger goes off the edge without looking. In a similar vein, there are a row of touch-sensitive system controls above the keyboard etched right into the chassis for turning on the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas, and for launching Alienware's lighting control app. We liked the look, but the buttons lacked tactile feedback, and sometimes didn't respond to the first tap.

Thanks to a backlit keyboard, touch-pad border, logo, alien head, and screen border, the m15x has more lights than a Christmas tree (but note that the backlit keyboard is a $50 add-on). The Alienware Command Center is a software app used to control the lighting, and you can assign different colors to every section or use one color across all the lights. Unlike Dell's XPS M1730, the lights won't strobe or flash, but the backlit keyboard is especially cool, and it's good for accurate typing in low-light situations.

The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is the same found in the highest-end 17-inch systems (most 15-inch laptops have 1,280x800 resolutions). It's great for watching Blu-ray movies via the optional Blu-ray optical drive, as well as for cranking games up to the highest resolution possible. Text can look tiny at such high resolutions on a 15-inch screen, but we appreciated the full 1080p support.

  Alienware Area-51 m15x Average for category [mainstream]
Video HDMI VGA-out, S-Video
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data Three USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, mulitformat memory card reader Four USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, mulitformat memory card reader
Expansion ExpressCard PC Card
Networking Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

In an interesting move, Alienware ditches the usual (if largely unused) VGA-out and S-Video laptop outputs for a single HDMI output.

While the m15x starts at a little over $2,000, our review unit was packed out with options that nearly doubled the price. Our 1,920x1,200 display is a $300 add-on--the standard screen is only 1,440x900, while the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GPU is a $500 step up from the default GeForce 8600. This is the first laptop we've seen with Intel's new Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU, but that's a $650 upgrade over the also-new Intel Penryn T9300. Our m15x had 3GB of RAM, but Alienware is offering only 2GB and 4GB configurations (it's $300 to trade up to 4GB).

One expensive option we didn't get is the 64GB solid state hard drive for $775. We love these in smaller laptops, but it's fairly useless in a 15-inch model and likely too small for gamers, anyway. A modular smart bay offers you a chance to swap out the optical drive for an extra hard drive, which maxes out at a 320GB 5,400 rpm drive for $300.

The combination of the 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU and Nvidia GeForce 8800 GPU is a real winner, and the m15x is, overall, the fastest laptop we've ever tested (as of this writing), beating high-end systems such as the equally pricey Dell XPS M1730 and the Gateway P-171XL FX (each with the previous top Intel Core 2 Extreme CPU, the X7900) in nearly all our benchmark tests. In casual use, you're not going to really notice the difference in casual Web surfing or office apps, but gaming performance is impressive.

We got more than 63 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at 1,920x1,200. Drop the resolution to 1,280x800 and you'll top 100 frames per second. While it's not quite as fancy, Gateway's $1,350 budget gaming rig, the P-6831FX, offers similar gaming performance at lower resolutions, thanks to the same GeForce 8800 GPU, but a much slower 1.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5450 CPU. The very expensive super CPU is probably worth it only if you want to play games at the very highest resolutions, or if you want to future-proof your rig as much as possible.

The Area-51 m15x ran for 1 hour and 32 minutes on our DVD battery drain test. That's not very good for a 15-inch laptop, but compared to systems with similar components (which are usually 17-inch models), it lasted longer than gaming rigs from Dell and Toshiba. But the budget Gateway P-6831 again impresses, with 1 hour and 55 minutes on the same test.

Alienware includes an industry-standard one-year, parts-and-labor warranty with the system, which includes on-site service. Upgrading to a three-year plan will cost an extra $300, and Alienware includes its excellent binder that contains system and support info. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base, and driver downloads.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m15x

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m15x

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m15x

Unreal Tournament 3 (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1280x800, 4X AA, 8X AF  
1440x900, 4X AA, 8X AF  
Alienware Area-51 m15x
Gateway P-6831FX
Dell XPS M1730

DVD battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m15x

Find out more about how we test laptops.

Alienware Area-51 m15x
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000; 3,072MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX / 359MB Mobile Intel 965GM Express; 200GB Hitachi SATA/300

Toshiba Satellite X205-SLi4
Windows Vista Home Ultimate Edition; 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T8100; 3,072MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB (x2) w/ SLI Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT; 160GB (x2) Hitachi 7,200rpm SATA/150

Dell XPS M1730
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8700M GT; 200GB(x2) RAID 0 7,200rpm

Gateway P-6831FX
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 1.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5450; 3,072MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTS; 250GB Western Digital 5,400rpm SATA/150


Alienware Area-51 m15x

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 9Performance 9Battery 6Support 7