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Alienware Area-51 m17x review: Alienware Area-51 m17x

Alienware Area-51 m17x

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Dan Ackerman
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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

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5 min read

We'll just come right out and say the Alienware m17x is about as powerful as a laptop gets, at least if it's as tricked-out as our $6,000-plus review unit was. More modest builds are available for as little as $1,999, but at that level, you get a fairly yawn-inducing set of midrange components, dressed up in a very attractive shell.

8.2

Alienware Area-51 m17x

The Good

Highest-end components; imposing design; fantastic performance.

The Bad

Starting configurations are overpriced; touch controls are a bit wonky.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking to drop some major change on a show-off gaming laptop, it's hard to do better than the Alienware Area-51 m17x, a mean-looking, high-performance black slab.

The Alienware really shines when packed out with dual Nvidia GeForce 9800 GPUs and an Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor. Of course, few people, even serious gamers, need that much horsepower, but as a display of conspicuous consumption, it's hard to beat, with an illuminated keyboard, imposing new black-slab aesthetic, and a Blu-ray drive.

Alienware almost has a better case to make with this system's smaller cousin, the 15-inch m15x, which at least has the distinction of being one of the only mainstream-size gaming laptops out there. Gamers with more realistic budgets are encouraged to check out the Gateway P-7811FX, easily the best bang for your gaming buck. Still, excess has its fans, and if your gaming laptop is just as much about making a statement as playing games, few do it as well.

The m17x's 15-inch cousin, the aptly named m15x, suffered from some awkward design cues--it was thicker than many desktop replacements and had a fingerprint-prone silver finish. The 17-inch version, however, does much better aesthetically, with a matte black all-over finish that makes the entire thing look like an imposing slab of high-frame-rate granite.

Like the m15x, 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 can be 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 you have to hold your finger on them for a few seconds to get a response.

There's nothing we like more these days than a backlit keyboard (see the Dell Latitude E6400), and the m17x goes several steps further, with a backlit keyboard, touch-pad border, Alienware logo, alien head, and strip of touch-control buttons. 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. The same software package also provides a fairly comprehensive power control suite, which offers more detailed options than the basic Windows Vista power settings. You can get a nonbacklit keyboard $50 less, but that seems like a poor way to save a couple of bucks.

The 17-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is what we expect in a high-end desktop replacement. Interestingly, the 15-inch m15x had the same high resolution. A 1,440x900 resolution display is also available for $250 less, but again, if you need to pinch pennies, this may not be the laptop for you.

Our Alienware m17x is tricked out with plenty of high-end components, including two 500GB 5,400rpm hard drives, for a whopping 1TB of total storage. We also got twin Nvidia GeForce 9800 graphics cards (which, unfortunately, do not appear to be currently available on the Alienware Web site) in an SLI configuration, a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU, and 4GB of RAM. By way of comparison, our current favorite gaming laptop, the $1,449 Gateway P-7811FX, has a Core 2 Duo P8400, only 200GB of hard drive space (but it's a 7,200rpm drive), a single GeForce 9800 card, and the same 4GB of RAM. The Alienware is clearly more powerful, but also costs around four times as much.

The combination of the Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU and Nvidia GeForce 9800 makes the m17x nearly unstoppable in our benchmark tests, easily besting other high-end multimedia desktop replacements such as the HP Pavilion dv7-1025nr (and, of course, the Gateway P-7811FX). In all honesty, the difference will be hard to notice in casual Web surfing or office apps, but gaming performance is impressive. The twin GeForce 9800 graphics cards got us an amazing119.5 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 at the extremely high resolution of 1,920x1,200. The Gateway got about half that score (also, that's still nothing to sneer at).

With this much power under the hood, we weren't expecting much from the battery, and we were right. The Alienware Area-51 m17x ran for a mere 1 hour and 27 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's about average for a high-end desktop replacement, and explains why these systems spend most of their time plugged in.

Alienware includes an industry-standard one-year, parts-and-labor warranty with the system, which includes onsite 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 m17x
700 

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m17x
143 

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m17x
133 

Unreal Tournament 3 (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200, 4X AA, 8X AF  
Alienware Area-51 m17x
119.5 

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m17x
87 

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Alienware Area-51 m17x
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1; 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000; 4096MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800M GT (x2); 500GB Samsung 5,400rpm (x2)

Gateway P-7811FX
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeFOrce 9800M GTS; 200GB Seagate 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion dv7-1025nr
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400; 4096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT; 320GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q701
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9700M GTS; 200GB Toshiba 7,200rpm

8.2

Alienware Area-51 m17x

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9Support 6
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