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Alienware Area-51 M9750 review: Alienware Area-51 M9750

The Area-51 M9750 is probably the most appealing Alienware laptop we've ever come across. It's powerful, it's highly configurable and best of all, it's drop-dead gorgeous. You can pick one up from Alienware direct for a starting price of £1,049.

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8.3

Alienware Area-51 M9750

The Good

Styling; performance.

The Bad

Can get expensive when you start adding extra features.

The Bottom Line

It's not quite the fastest gaming laptop we've seen, but the Alienware Area-51 M9750 is ruthlessly quick. It's also surprisingly attractive and can be configured to within an inch of its life. Overall, it's one of the nicest gaming laptops we've seen

Design
Alienware laptops have traditionally been hideous, bulky things, so you can imagine our surprise when the Area-51 M9750 turned up looking beautiful. Gone are the garish colour schemes -- instead, you get a fabulous matte black finish on the lid and keyboard sections and a glossy black bezel around the 17-inch display. It would be slightly reminiscent of a black Apple MacBook but for the ribbed rubber section and glowing alien head on the lid.

Alienware has fitted the M9750 with a webcam at the top of the screen bezel. It's a 1.3-megapixel model that's only any use for MySpace-style profile shots and the odd bit of video conferencing, but the good news is that it can be rotated to get a better angle on your face.

The volume adjustment wheel makes it easy to adjust the sound levels

The M9750 has a good selection of ports scattered around its chassis. On the left, in order of appearance, is an Ethernet port, two vertically-mounted USB ports, 4-pin FireWire port, an SD card reader and an ExpressCard slot. At the right, you get a very funky scroll wheel for adjusting volume -- a far more flexible solution than buttons. Next to this is a headphone, mic and speaker output and another USB port, the other of which is located around back.

Alienware seems to be pitching the laptop heavily at audio enthusiasts, judging by the fact it has two types of SPDIF port. The right side has an optical SPDIF, while a coaxial alternative sits round the rear of the laptop. Both allow you to connect the laptop to a set of surround sound speakers.


Touch-sensitive buttons give users quick access to a browser and email client

Being such a large laptop, it's no surprise to learn that the M9750 has a very comfortable keyboard. Just above this, you'll find a touch-sensitive array of shortcut buttons that give you one-touch access to a Web browser and email client. There are also playback control buttons that come in handy when you want to pause, fast forward or rewind films and music.

Features
The Alienware M9750 has several party pieces. In addition to its standard 250GB hard drive, it has a 32GB solid state hard drive -- a £305 option -- which is used to store the operating system. This gives better responsiveness during Windows tasks that don't involve the second hard disk, and faster boot-up times. The M9750 started up in about 50 seconds, which is pretty impressive. You can probably improve on this time if you strip out non-essential services and processes that load at startup.

It's next trick is the fact it can use one or even two graphics cards. A single GeForce 8700M GT is the basic option, but you can also kit it out with dual 512MB GeForce Go 7950 GTX cards for an extra £180, or dual GeForce Go 8700M GTs for £264 -- although the availability and prices of these options are always subject to change. Hardcore gamers should go for the more expensive option, particularly if you intend to run games at high resolutions and demand consistent frame rates.


The M9750 can be configured with two types of screen. Both are 17-inchers, but one runs at a relatively low WXGA+ resolution of 1,440x900 pixels, while the other can push 1,920x1,200 pixels. The latter is better for playing games and watching movies, so we'd recommend spending the £150 premium if you have the means, and especially if you've gone for the dual GeForce Go 8700M GT graphics cards.

At the rear, you'll find a line-in, coaxial SPDIF port, S-Video output and a modem jack

Our review sample shipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor running at 2.33GHz, which is the fastest Alienware offers at the time of writing. Other options are available, though. The bottom-rung 1.66GHz T5500 can save you nearly £400 off the asking price, but we can't see the point of a 1.66GHz CPU in a gaming laptop. Other 1GB, 2GB and 4GB RAM options are available, all of which are 667MHz DDR2 modules. Ours used 2GB and ran fine.

Alienware offers a variety of optical drives including a standard dual-layer DVD rewriter. If you've plumped for the high-res display, you might also want to upgrade to a Blu-ray disc drive, although that costs an extra £190. We wouldn't bother with the dual Blu-ray writer configuration, but that's only because we don't have £235 to spare.

Performance
It's quick, but you probably didn't need us to tell you that. It racked up a very impressive PCMark05 score of 6,616, which is 786 more than we got with the Dell XPS M1730 -- but it's worth noting that our test sample of that laptop used a slightly slower 2.2GHz CPU.

It couldn't beat the Dell for 3D gaming performance, however. The Alienware racked up a 3DMark06 tally of 5,136, which is slightly embarrassing considering the XPS M1730 scored 8,870. Don't let that put you off, though -- the M9750 is still very capable of throwing a few polygons around.

Conclusion
If you're after a gaming laptop that doesn't scream 'chav' or 'boy racer' then this could be the ideal solution. It's attractive, quick and can be configured to suit your specific needs. But if no-holds-barred gaming is what you're really after, then the XPS M1730 is probably a better option.

Update: Alienware contacted us to suggest that the 3DMark 2006 score in our M9750 review was low compared to their expectations of the system. We agreed to test a second Alienware M9750 laptop, but Alienware was unable to ship an identical model, making a direct comparison between the initial review sample and its replacement impossible. Whereas the graphics solution in the original sample comprised dual GeForce Go 7950 cards in an SLI configuration, the second sample uses dual 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 8700M GT cards in SLI -- which cost an extra £120. That system scored 8,871 in 3DMark 2006 -- a tally that is nearly identical to the Dell XPS M1730, which uses the same cards and achieved 8,870.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday