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Laptops

Alienware M14x

The 14-inch Alienware M14x laptop will devour your games and then demand seconds. Our pre-production sample's appearance failed to match its inner beauty, though, due to a dim display and less-than-perfect keyboard.

Following the success of the M17x, M15x and diminutive M11x, Alienware's added yet another souped-up gaming laptop to its range. The 14-inch M14x packs a ferocious amount of processing power into a chassis that looks as if it might teleport back to the mothership at any moment.

It's a striking machine but, with a starting price of £1,100, is it worth your hard-earned lucre? We've been sent a sample, worth about £1,200, to test out. It's a pre-production model, so it's possible that the performance of retail units could vary. We'll have a review of a final product up very shortly, but, in the meantime, here are our first impressions.

Crysis management

Let's get stuck right in -- how does this beast handle gaming? Very well indeed. The M14x feels very powerful, and will chew through just about any current-generation game.

When we ran the 3DMark06 graphics test at the M14x's native resolution, it scored a whopping 11,569. That's a buttock-clenchingly high score. While the M14x didn't quite match the M17x's score of 14,457, it trounced the M11x's 6,359 points.

It's worth mentioning that the M14x's score isn't quiteas monumental as the Medion Erazer X6811's score of 13,300 in the same test. But, when laptops are posting scores this high, the exact figure almost becomes academic.

The keyboard and trackpad are backlit...

As mentioned, this 3DMark06 score was achieved by a pre-production unit, so final retail versions could differ in terms of speed and performance.

The machine's gaming performance is about as good as it's possible to get on a laptop. Watching the M14x power through our benchmark tests was awe-inspiring. It felt like watching Michelangelo sculpt David, only to blow the statue to pieces with a shotgun, while laughing and smoking a cigar.

Note that, if you're playing extremely intensive games, like Crysis, dialling down the settings to medium will improve your gaming experience. We ran Crysis with the settings on 'high', and the M14x played the game at around 20 to 22 frames per second. With the settings ramped up to 'very high', it mustered around 18fps. We don't think gamers should settle for less than 30fps when it comes to playing intense action titles -- you're liable to get shot in the face during a moment of slowdown.

We noticed that the M14x runs rather hot, so don't play games with it resting on your lap unless you fancy grilling your thighs. More irritatingly, it also runs extremely loudly when working hard. Even in our bustling London offices, surrounded by construction work, we were still distracted by the noise of the whirring fan.

Old master

While the M14x's gaming prowess can't be disputed, not much has changed in this field since the M17x first rocked our world back in 2009. Back then it felt like nothing could compete, but these days the field is more crowded, and affordable gaming laptops like the Erazer X6811 and MSI GX740 offer astonishing performance at competitive prices.

We wouldn't say those other laptops are necessarily better, but Alienware's lead is no longer clear-cut. With rival companies churning out some great machines, we want to see the Alien-faced manufacturer making more of an effort to stride ahead.

Alien autopsy

Taking pride of place in the M14x is a dual-core Intel Core i5-2540M CPU clocked at 2.6GHz. It's a fairly new processor, but it's part of Intel's Core i series, which has really impressed us over the last year or so. If you've got extra cash to splash, you can upgrade to a more powerful, quad-core, 2.3GHz Core i7-2820QM processor.

You can have up to 8GB of RAM. Our review model had 6GB of DDR3 memory. Completing the component line-up is an Nvidia GeForce GT 555M GPU, which is in charge of chomping through graphics.

The machine's battery life, predictably, isn't great. We ran the CPU at a constant 100 per cent and timed how long it took for the M14x's battery to expire. You can expect a minimum of 1 hour and 27 minutes of use from this machine. With less processor-crippling usage, you'll get longer battery life, but this isn't a laptop designed to survive away from the mains.

The M14x uses Nvidia's Optimus technology, which dynamically ramps up or dials down the graphics performance to better conserve battery life. It's worth noting that, when we tested a newer M11x and its Optimus tech, and an older M11x that requires the user to manually turn on the dedicated graphics, the machine running with an Optimus GPU had worse battery life. Optimus saves you the hassle of switching manually between the integrated Intel and discrete Nvidia graphics cards, but we wouldn't assume that a laptop packing Optimus necessarily offers better battery life.

Keep watching the skies

Alienware's renowned for its computers' striking designs. The M14x wears its branding with pride. The lid has an industrial-style moulding, and our review sample sported a muted red finish. If you prefer a slightly more subtle look, the M14x will also be available in black.

The M14x has the same shape as Alienware's other gaming laptops. The front of the chassis slopes downwards, housing two glowing speaker units that are covered in a honeycomb-like pattern. The power switch and Alienware logo are similarly illuminated, and there's a strip of luminous edging around the trackpad too. The keyboard is backlit. If you've a mind to, you can tinker with the colour of all these glowing elements using the pre-installed AlienFX software.

With great power comes poor portability

The M14x is very heavy. With a starting weight of 2.9kg, just looking at it makes our arms feel tired. It's not slim either, measuring 337 by 38 by 258mm. The M14x is portable but only in the loosest sense of the word. Don't expect to comfortably fit this monster into a satchel, especially if its hefty power brick is coming along for the ride too.

It's a shame Alienware hasn't worked on slimming this laptop down slightly, considering that people in the market for a 14-inch machine are probably looking for something fairly portable. We just can't help feeling that machines with this kind of screen size should be more mobile.

...as are the speakers on the front.

But, its intimidating girth aside, we do like the M14x's design. We're suckers for colourful LEDs and a futuristic aesthetic. We do have a couple of minor gripes, though.

Let's start with the trackpad. For the most part, it's good -- the touch-sensitive surface is large and feels very responsive, and the glowing edge is a pleasing touch. But the click buttons don't feel particularly well made -- we noticed they didn't seem to click very smoothly. On a few occasions, the left-click button got stuck down too, seemingly jammed against the side of the right-click button. When this happened, we were able to free the button with a swift poke, but it doesn't fill us with confidence as to the laptop's long-term durability.

The keyboard doesn't feel quite as springy as we'd like either. The keys don't pop back up terribly quickly once pressed. Normally, we wouldn't mind, but, when you're hammering away at these keys mid-game, you'll want them to be as snappy as your energy-drink-enhanced reaction times.

The port selection is respectable. There's an Ethernet jack, a DVD rewritable drive, three USB ports (two of which are of the USB 3.0 variety), a mini-DisplayPort connection, HDMI and VGA outputs, a multi-format card reader, two headphone ports and a microphone socket, plus a 2-megapixel webcam.

A dim view of things

Sadly, the M14x's display is quite disappointing. We've no gripes about the 1,366x768-pixel resolution -- you can upgrade to a 1,600x900-pixel panel -- but this screen simply isn't very bright. Even with the brightness setting cranked up to maximum, it looked rather dim, and we found games didn't look as colourful as they would on laptops with more vivid displays.

You could vastly improve your experience by plugging in an external monitor -- something we imagine many dedicated gamers will be keen on doing anyway. But it's a shame that the company hasn't made more effort with this laptop's display, as we've noticed this problem on other Alienware laptops too.

Conclusion

The Alienware M14x looks like it has a few flaws. A dim display and an imperfect trackpad and keyboard could stop this monstrous machine from achieving brilliance. In terms of sheer gaming prowess, however, it's bound to blow the minds of all but the most pernickety gamers.

If you're seeking an alternative, check out the MSI GX740 and the Medion Erazer X6811. They're also ideal for gaming.

Edited by Charles Kloet

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