Alienware is a company that needs no introduction when it comes to gaming notebooks. The interstellar PC builder has been able to consistently raise the bar in the portable gaming space over and over, and with the Area-51 m15x it’s done it once again. Though the machine’s not without flaws, the m15x is almost the perfect gaming notebook due to its performance, tolerable size and killer features. Bottom line: If you’re looking for a desktop replacement that will actually be an upgrade to your standard go-to system, this is it.
Features and Design
Though Alienware sent us the most high-end configuration available for the m15x, it’s actually possible to configure a more modest version for under $2K, but the computer obviously won’t offer the same level of performance. However, if you can get by with a mid-range graphics card, DVD-R/RW instead of Blu-ray and skimp on the amenities, you’ll still have a decent machine. The unit we received includes a 2.8GHz Extreme Core 2 Duo “Penryn” processor, which has 6MB of L2 cache and is currently the fastest mobile processor available. It works with 4GB of DDR2-667 on an Intel 965 chipset.
The m15x includes dual graphics cards, but not in SLI. Instead, it features a single NVIDIA 8800M GTX card with 512MB of RAM, and onboard Intel graphics. What’s interesting is that you can switch between the two, using onboard when you need maximum battery life and the NVIDIA card when you’re gaming. Bear in mind that SLI (two video cards working in tandem) is flat-out not an option with the m15x, though it is an option on the larger m17x.
Easily one of the most unique features of the m15x is its wild lighting scheme. It’s called AlienFX, and lets you change the lighting of seven different areas on the notebook including the alien head on the LCD cover; keyboard; touchpad; strip of light on the LCD; soft-touch controls; Alienware name on the LCD; and the power button. You can also change the color of each zone to one of 12 different hues or disable most of the colors if you want to extend battery life.
The m15x’s AlienFX lighting lets you customize the color of seven different zones.
Modular Bay and Storage
You can configure the m15x with a variety of hard drives ranging in size from 120GB to 320GB with either 5,400rpm or 7,200rpm spindle speeds. If you’ve got the cheddar, you can even opt for a 64GB solid-state drive, but it’ll set you back $800. If several hundred gigs of storage aren’t enough, the left-side of the m15x sports a modular bay that can be configured with a variety of drives. You can select a 160GB, 200GB or 320GB hard drive, and they are hot-swappable too. You can also purchase an auxiliary battery that fits in the bay and is reportedly good for around two additional hours of battery life.
Even though it’s “just” a 15.4-inch display included, the m15x runs at a true HD resolution of 1920×1200 and has a matte coating to reduce glare. You can also opt for a 1440×900 resolution panel with Clearview (glossy) coating, and both panels feature a widescreen aspect ratio that’s ideal for games and movies.
Ports and Connectors
The m15x includes numerous expansion and connection ports. The right side includes a 7-in-1 card reader, a USB port, HDMI-out, FireWire and a Kensington lock. The left side boasts a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB ports, headphone and mic jacks and the modular bay. The rear of the unit features just two exhaust ports for the CPU and the GPU and the front is barren with the exception of an IR receiver for the optional ExpressCard multimedia remote control.
Our review unit came with a pricey 2x Blu-ray burner, but you can also order it with a BD-ROM drive (for read only access) as well as a DVD-R/RW drive too, which reduces the price by several hundred dollars.
The boutique experience is often defined not only by the PC you receive, but all the goodies that come with it. Alienware provides several extras that include a hat, high-end mousing surface, several alien head stickers, a leather binder that holds the included software CDs and the manual, and there’s also a chrome plate on the bottom of the notebook with the customer’s name. Ours said, “Built for Digital Trends.”
The m15x is actually rather petite for a gaming notebook, weighing in at just 7lbs, and is only 1.3-inch thick.
Use and Testing
The m15x comes wrapped in a soft case that would come in handy while traveling, though it’s very slim and designed to protect the exterior from scratches, not from an accidental drop or other physical damage. We pulled it from its casing and plugged in its large power brick and booted it up. The boot time was an average 1 minute and 10 seconds.
Once we arrived at the desktop we were surprised, and pleased, to see zero icons. That’s right – zero. Since Alienware is owned by Dell we figured we’d see Trend Micro PC-Cillin, Google Desktop and all the usual bloatware suspects, but we were wrong. Kudos to Alienware for giving gamers what they want: A clean desktop with no bloatware. As it turns out, there are some pre-installed apps, but they are useful and include Nero Essentials and Cyberlink PowerDVD – that’s it.
General Windows Performance
How good is a Ferrari for getting groceries? It’s a similar situation here, where Windows Vista performance was superb at all times, especially during everyday tasks, which is not surprising. The m15x uses a 200GB 7,200rpm hard drive with 16MB of cache, and given the speed of the processor as well as well as the presence of 4GB of RAM (of which 3GB are seen by the operating system, which is Vista Home Premium) it’s an understatement to say it runs well. Its Windows Experience Index is 5.0, which is quite high, especially for a notebook.
We ran PCMark06 Vantage to determine overall system performance and the system scored 4,057 – top marks, pretty much. In fact, the only higher score we’ve seen in this test was the 4,604 score achieved by the SLI-powered Dell XPS M1730.
Even though it lacks a second GPU for SLI action, the m15x is still packing the fastest mobile GPU available – NVIDIA’S 8800M GTX, which has 512MB of memory. It scored a lofty 9,287 in 3DMark06, which is excellent. We also played a bit of Crysis, and were able to run the GPU-crushing first-person shooter at a decent 1024×768 with all details set to high. We also loaded up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and were able to play at the panel’s native 1920×1200 resolution, which proved fantastic.
During gaming, the fans spin up quite a bit and are clearly audible and a bit loud. Stil, that’s always been the case with gaming notebooks so it’s hardly a surprise. Also, you should plan on hooking the m15x up to a set of good speakers if you don’t want to use headphones, because the onboard speakers don’t generate nearly enough volume and have zero bass response.
If you’re going to be gaming, consider headphones or external speakers to drown out the fan noise.
Nobody expects a gaming notebook to have decent battery life. Truthfully, we usually see these supercharged laptops run about an hour or so before giving up the ghost due to the sheer amount of power required by both the components and the fast-spinning fans that cool them. But the m15x actually surprised us by delivering 2 hours and 22 minutes of battery life from its 6-cell battery, a surprisingly strong return on investment. Keep in mind that we tested this feature while using the onboard Intel graphics, and could have extended it a bit further if we had disabled AlienFX. It’s also worth noting that if one used the optional 6-cell modular battery, you might even be able to get around 4 hours or so worth of battery life, which is unheard of for a gaming notebook.
The m15x is actually only a 7lb system, so it’s actually something you could conceivably put in your lap for awhile, but it’ll be a short stay since the bottom of the unit tends to get quite hot. We liked the full-size keyboard and found it very comfortable for typing. We also enjoyed the Fn keys that allow special functions, as they allow you to perform a lot of useful tasks such as disabling the touchpad to make sure it doesn’t interfere with gaming.
Furthermore, you can additionally eject the optical drive’s tray, disable the keyboard backlight, adjust display brightness and more. We like the fact that the system has 802.11n (which also works with legacy g and b routers) as well as Bluetooth connectivity. It even has a 2.0MP webcam built into the LCD bezel, which is great. There’s also a soft-touch button below the LCD that looks like a speedometer, and touching it puts the m15x into Stealth Mode, which downclocks the components and lets the machine run silently – handy if you’re on a plane or somewhere with other people in close proximity.
Sadly, the m15x is not perfect. Our biggest complaint is with the soft-touch buttons that lie above the keyboard and are used to toggle the wireless radios on and off, turn Stealth Mode on or off, change the volume and to open the AlienFX program. We like the idea and design of these buttons, as when something is disabled it glows much softer than when it’s enabled, making it easy to tell at a glance if, for example, the wireless adapter is disabled or not.
However, the problem is the buttons require a lot of forceto activate, much more than we expected, since they’re not really buttons but more pressure areas. Secondly, the volume control is so difficult to use it is almost worthless, which makes increasing or decreasing noise levels while gaming very difficult. Alienware either needs to fix this or implement a dial or keyboard combination to control volume.
We were also a bit turned off by how flexible the LCD was, and how when you open it you can hear a bit of creaking.
The Area-51 m15x is certainly an amazing notebook, and we actually like it better than the Alienware m9750 and Dell XPS M1730 simply because it’s a bit smaller and easier to transport, but still extremely powerful. We love the system’s lighting scheme, the modular bay and the fact that it can be configured to be as cheap as $1,499 too.
The only real beefs we have are with the speakers and soft-touch controls, which are difficult to use. The LCD bezel also creaks when you move it around, but that’s the sum of our gripes, which prove less deal-breakers than general annoyances. Like we said in the intro, the m15x is one heck of a gaming notebook, and is almost perfect aside from these small issues.
• Awesome lighting
• Strong performance
• Relatively small and light
• Modular bay
• Decent battery life
• Soft-touch volume control is useless
• Feels a bit flimsy in places
• Weak speakers