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Alienware M11x (spring 2011) review: Alienware M11x (spring 2011)

Alienware M11x (spring 2011)

Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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7 min read

Last year, we were extremely bullish about the Alienware M11x. The 11.6-inch ultraportable laptop offered a unique blend of compact size and performance, particularly in terms of graphics, a reasonable price. At the time, it was without equal in its category.

Alienware M11x (spring 2011)
8.3

Alienware M11x (spring 2011)

The Good

This year's version of the <b>Alienware M11x</b> has markedly improved graphics performance and battery life, and the laptop's solid build, USB 3.0 ports, and impressive 5.1 surround-sound Klipsch speakers are also pluses.

The Bad

The M11x still has a chunky chassis; also, the lack of an optical drive isn't a dealbreaker, but can be frustrating when installing games.

The Bottom Line

Don't be fooled by its unchanged looks: the 2011 Alienware M11x makes big leaps forward in performance, graphics, and battery life, while keeping a reasonable price. Anyone looking for a portable gaming-ready laptop will have a hard time resisting the urge to pick one of these up.

Now, 2011 has brought us an update to the M11x, named the Alienware M11x R3. You'd be hard-pressed to notice any external differences, because there are none: the impact is all inside. New second-generation Core i5 and i7 ULV processors, Nvidia GeForce GT 540 graphics, USB 3.0 ports, and optional WiMax are all worthwhile updates. Our $1,099 configuration also beats last year's $1,299 review unit on price, while improving CPU and GPU performance and battery life.

If you were considering an M11x last year, then this year's version is a must-buy. Our only complaint is the lack of updates to the M11x's thick and weighty design--11-inch ultraportables are more plentiful now (see the HP dm1z and 11-inch MacBook Air), and are slimmer than ever. Still, in its size class, the Alienware M11x is still unparalleled. Those looking for a gaming-ready ultraportable laptop in the $1,000 range need look no further: this M11x gets the job done.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,099 / $999
Processor 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel HM67
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 540M (1GB) + Intel HD 3000 (Nvidia Optimus)
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 11.3x9.2 inches
Height 1.3 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 11.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.5 pounds / 5.3 pounds
Category Ultraportable

While the Alienware M11x is relatively thick for an ultraportable, especially considering that it lacks an optical drive, 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 M14x. The M11x's outer casing has a smooth, soft feel and matte finish. While minimalist, the Alienware design pedigree shows up in the black alien-head logo on the back lid, a trademark alien skull above the keyboard, and a race-car-like front face, complete with grille and LED "headlights."

The M11x's all-around clean lines make it easy to slide into a bag, but its relative thickness is notable in a landscape of ever-thinner laptops. To some degree, the squared-off bottom-heavy look of the M11x resembles an old-school portable DVD player. The small footprint and thick chassis may need to be improved on soon; with thinner laptops like the MacBook Air and HP dm1z on the market, the 4.5-pound M11x is already starting to feel less portable than it did last year. The Alienware M11x gets a design pass this year, but it'll need to slim down if it wants to stand out again in 2012.

Opening up smoothly on a plastic hinge that protrudes from an otherwise flush back, the M11x interior is all black, with a very familiar Alienware LED-backlit multicolor keyboard and an edge-to-edge glossy 11.6-inch screen. The sturdy-feeling chassis and slightly compressed keyboard are much better than average, as is the comfortable, large touch pad. Much as on other Alienware laptops, the boldly colored keyboard, grille, and company 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 a set of Alienware applications.

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 surround-sound Klipsch-powered 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. While the M11x's Klipsch partnership is new as of 2011, we already loved last year's M11x audio, so it's hard to note any improvements.

The M11x still lacks an optical drive--that's an obvious decision made to enable this laptop to be so small, but we couldn't help noticing the M11x's conspicuously port-free stretch on its right side that looks about the same size as...well, an optical drive. We'll let you draw your own conclusions. While the ability to install games off a disc without having to plug in a USB-connected external optical drive would be nice, modern gamers using Steam (preinstalled on the laptop) or other downloaded software probably never touch discs most of the time anyway. Still, it's a lacking feature that's a tiny bit harder to forgive this year considering the M11x's size. If it were thinner and lighter, we wouldn't even be asking this question.

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 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, dual SD/Memory Stick card reader, Mini-FireWire 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WiMax and 3G broadband Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None None

Speaking of missing ports, the most impressive feature on this tiny laptop is its support of both HDMI and DisplayPort, although VGA is missing. For gamers, DisplayPort is arguably more useful than VGA. Our configuration included WiMax, which costs an extra $50 on Dell's Web site; additionally, Gobi Mobile broadband with GPS is available in Verizon or AT&T flavors, for $125, and for either, you'll need a monthly data contract with a wireless provider.

Under the hood, the new Alienware M11x R3 has changed quite a bit from last year. New second-gen Core i5-2537M or Core i7-2617M processors are available; the latter costs an extra $200. The speed of the included 4GB DDR3 RAM has also been boosted to 1,333MHz, and can be increased up to 16GB (a whopping $1,000 extra). Hard-drive capacity starts at 320GB, and can be increased to 750GB ($100 extra), or you can go with a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) for $600. All non-SSD hard drives are 7200rpm.

The Core i5-2537M is a low-voltage processor that we last saw in the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 laptop. Performance is significantly improved from last year's Core i7 ULV Alienware M11x: it's still not a full-voltage laptop, but like the Samsung Series 9, you can perform most critical everyday tasks without significant compromise.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

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

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

The graphics on the M11x R3 are also nicely boosted. An Nvidia GeForce GT 540M GPU with automatically switching Optimus technology offered considerable improvements on last year's M11x graphics performance. Unreal Tournament 3, admittedly an old horse of a game, ran at 135.6 frames per second at native 1,366x768-pixel resolution with graphics set to medium; last year's M11x ran the same benchmark at 84.2fps. That's a big difference in a single year. Street Fighter IV performed at 59.6fps at 1,366x768-pixel resolution with 2x antialiasing. Put simply, this laptop can handle games, and it can do so better than most laptops on the market.

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, 0X AA, 0X AF*  
1,366x768, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
Alienware M11x
147.9 
135.6 

Via HDMI or DisplayPort (not both at the same time), the M11x can also output its gaming to external resolutions up to 1,980x1,080 pixels. Games suffer a bit in performance accordingly, but still played well enough in our tests.

Juice box
Dell Alienware M11x Average watts per hour
Off (60%) 0.39
Sleep (10%) 0.58
Idle (25%) 6.05
Load (05%) 27.75
Raw kWh number 27.96
Annual power consumption cost $3.17

Annual power consumption cost
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The new M11x is not only more power-efficient, but its battery life is significantly improved over last year's version, most likely thanks to the improved efficiency of Intel's current-gen platform. With its included six-cell battery, the Alienware M11x R3 ran for 4 hours and 40 minutes in our video-playback battery drain test, 100 minutes longer than last year's model. Approaching 5 hours on a gaming portable is a great accomplishment; moreover, it more closely approaches a workday's worth of work. With tweaks to power settings and screen brightness, it should last significantly longer than our benchmark result.

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The Alienware M11x is backed by a one-year basic warranty with 24-7 phone support and in-home service for qualifying basic warranty issues, using remote diagnosis via DellConnect. Options to upgrade the warranty up to four years or switch to an advanced warranty, which includes accidental damage protection, are offered on Dell's Web site. Dell's Alienware support Web site also offers a clear directory of drivers, software and troubleshooting information.

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Alienware M11x
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 540M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 3000; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E220s
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB(Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 128GB Samsung SSD

Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T-68U118
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.46GHz Intel Core i7-680UM; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Alienware M11x (spring 2011)
8.3

Alienware M11x (spring 2011)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Battery 8Support 7