Alienware Area-51 m9750
“With its dual GeForce Go 7950 GTX videocards in SLI and Core 2 Duo processor, this is one blazing-fast notebook.”
- Great gaming performance; lots of storage; brilliant display
- GPUs are DX9; lots of fan noise; wonky webcam and system restore
Alienware’s Area 51 notebooks have long been heralded as the cream of the crop in gaming notebooks, and the m9750 largely upholds this proud tradition. With its dual GeForce Go 7950 GTX videocards in SLI and Core 2 Duo processor, this is one blazing-fast notebook. The only downside to this much portable power is that it doubles as a space heater, battery life is laughable, and you’ll need a small fortune to pay for it.
Features and Design
The Area-51 m9750 is designed to do one thing and one thing only – be the most powerful notebook ever made. Though it’s a gaming notebook per se, it has the hardware to be competent in all areas of PC computing, not just gaming. Let’s take a closer look at its specs.
Ready to Dual
The brain behind the outfit is a dual-core Intel T7600 processor, which runs at 2.3GHz and is one of the fastest mobile processors available. It’s an Intel based “Merom” CPU, meaning it’s just like the C2D processors available for desktops, and has 4MB of L2 cache.
What truly sets the m9750 apart from other gaming notebooks is its dual-GPU SLI setup, which pairs two GeForce Go 7950 GTX cards together for enhanced performance in games. Both cards have 512MB of memory, so in total there’s 1GB of video memory. The 7950 supports Direct X 9 though, and has been supplanted by the new 8700M GT, which is a DX10 part (and also available when configuring this notebook on Alienware’s website).
No hardcore gaming notebook would be true to its name without massive quantities of storage, and the m9750 does not disappoint with its dual 7,200rpm hard drives striped into a RAID 0 array . In total they offer 372GB of super-fast storage and file access, and are way faster than what you’d have if Alienware configured it with the much more common 5,400rpm drives. If you’re the cautious type, you can opt to mirror the drives instead of striping them for increased data safety. The difference with a stripe setup is that if one drive fails you lose everything. With a mirrored setup, everything that is written to one drive is written to the other drive, so in case one fails you don’t lose your data. It should also be noted that Alienware is now offering the m9750 with optional Solid State Disks, which are insanely expensive ($1,100 for a 64GB drive) but very fast and cannot “crash” like a mechanical drive can.
The m9750 is built upon the latest Intel chipset platform, code-named Santa Rosa. That means it has a Merom processor (covered above) CPU, Draft-N wireless, and an 800MHz front side bus. Out of all these, the only spec that is really of any interest is the N wireless, as it’s shown to be significantly faster than 802.11g. The front side bus can also dynamically down-clock itself to save battery life, but battery life is not something to be concerned with on a notebook with this much power since it will be terrible regardless of what the FSB is doing.
The 17” display on the m9750 is something to behold. It’s not only large and widescreen, but its native resolution is an amazing 1920×1200. Alienware’s “Clearview” technology is employed to make the display richer and more vibrant.
More ports than Los Angeles
The sides and back of the m9750 have more ports than we’ve ever seen on a notebook.
The left-side sports a security lock, Ethernet, USB, FireWire, SD card and an Express slot.
The right-side offers a volume wheel, headphone/mic ports, 5.1 speaker ports, an optical port and USB.
The back has audio-in, Coaxial, 56K, S-video in-and-out, USB, DVI and VGA connectors.
The unit we’re sampling comes with Vista Home Premium, but you can also get Vista Ultimate, or even XP Professional and XP Media Center, which would be ideal in our opinion since the m9750 has a built-in TV Tuner.
We hate bloatware and free trialware that a lot of builders cram onto their PCs, but it seems there is none of that on the m9750. The notebook comes with Cyberlink PowerDVD and Adobe Acrobat reader pre-installed, and nothing more.
Like most boutique PCs the m9750 comes with a slick leather binder that includes a manual, quick-start guide, recovery CD and so forth. There’s also a hat and a very nice “mousing surface” included as well.
The included leather binder is handsome, and includes a manual and media.
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Alienware also throws in a very high-quality mousing surface…
…and a high-quality Flexfit hat.
At the top of the keyboard, below the LCD, is a series of soft-touch media controls that can be activated just by grazing them with a finger. The controls include Internet Explorer, Windows Mail, media controls, and buttons to open DVD software, Media Center and Media Player.
Soft-touch controls for Internet, media and other apps require a mere tap from your finger.
Use and Testing
We pulled the m9750 out of its box and were immediately smitten with its chassis. We’ve seen numerous Alienware notebooks before and have thought they looked a bit cheesy and plasticy, but not the m9750. We love the all-black exterior as it goes hand-in-hand with “bad ass,” and the smooth rubberized surface is totally cool. There are the obligatory alien eyes that glow blue as well as the molded grips that all come together in a package that looks fast as hell just sitting still.
We set it down on our desk and then opened the single box with all the extras. We took out the massive AC adapter brick and plugged it in. The system booted directly to Windows Vista and did not require activation, meaning it was not sent to us as if we were using it for the first time. It most likely was sent to other media outlets, as UAC was disabled, which is not how it is by default. We didn’t mind, as we have UAC disabled on our home system.
Since this is a gaming notebook, our first task was to get some games on it. Since its GPUs are a bit old, we decided not to punish it with Crysis, but rather loaded up some games we thought would run decently, namely Portal, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock. We then installed Fraps to see what our framerates were while playing.
Portal played like an absolute dream, which is not surprising given its sparse environments. We were able to run it at our LCD’s native 1920×1200 resolution and framerates were smooth and very playable. We averaged around 45fps, but it went as high as 70fps in some spots.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ran worse, but was playable. We had to enable “dual videocards” and even then we had to play at 1024×768 to keep a consistently playable framerate. We could not get Fraps to work on this title though, but we started at 1600×1200 and kept lowering the resolution until it was playable.
Bioshock ran about the same as Call of Duty 4. We had to run it at 1024×768 and though our framerate was consistently over 50fps, it would plummet for a few seconds any time we entered a room full of water. After a few seconds of hitching it was playable, however. And though we could have lowered the resolution even further, we didn’t want to because of the terrible aliasing.
While gaming we noticed the system got very hot and the fans were angrily exhausting extremely hot air from the rear of the unit. The fans were loud too, and we could easily hear them over the games we were playing.
We installed nVidia’s nTune utility to measure temps, and the measurements we saw confirmed that the GPUs do indeed get insanely hot. Both GPUs idle at relatively modest temps of 61C and 71C. Yes, one GPU is hotter than the other, most likely because it’s close to the CPU or chipset. Under load however, we saw the cool GPU get up to 78C and the hot GPU get up to 93C.
One GPU was always hotter than the other, and it got up to 93C during gaming. Yowza!
We also tested the CPU temps, and they were very respectful for a notebook. The CPU idled at 62C and got up to 74C under full load. Yes, these temps are hot, but its par for the course on a notebook given the lack of space and relative size of the cooling apparatus.
Note that we aren’t complaining about the temps really, as the system was rock-solid throughout testing. Despite the high temps we never suffered a lockup, reboot, freezing or any behavior associated with over-heating.
Of course, this is a desktop replacement notebook and is not designed – at all – to be run on batteries. Still, we decided to see what kind of battery life we could squeeze out of it. The results were interesting. When gaming, we got 37 minutes out of the battery. We then recharged it, and just shuffled some MP3s until the battery went dead 50 minutes later. One cool thing was when we charged it back up and turned it on it told us that it had saved our “state” to disk before the battery died, so we were able to resume our session of Windows with no hassles.
Audio and Media
The m9750 includes a pretty impressive sound system that actually gets loud. There are two speakers at the very front of the unit, plus a small subwoofer underneath the notebook. Though we didn’t hear thumping bass, the audio was much better than anything we’ve heard on a notebook before. Our only complaint is the volume knob on the side of the chassis has to be spun, and spun, and spun to make any discernable difference in volume. Going from max volume to low volume takes about 45 seconds of spinning the volume knob, which is ridiculous. The knob needs to be much more sensitive in our opinion.
There are also hookups on the right-side for 5.1 audio, including three mini-jack ports for center, front and surround speakers, which is cool.
Not surprisingly, the m9750 is a veritable dragster in Windows Vista. With its 2GB of RAM, fast processor and dual-GPUs it runs Vista Aero like buttah, which is no surprise. It’s Windows Experience Index score is 4.7, which is impressive for a notebook.
The hard drives are very fast, and allow programs to start instantly. We also liked the touch-sentive media buttons below the LCD. You just graze them with a fingertip to launch Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, etc. Our only gripe is there doesn’t seem to be a way to customize what the buttons do, so for example we could not get the “Internet” button to open Mozilla Firefox rather than Internet Explorer.
There are also the standard Fn keys that turn the Wifi radio on and off, but Alienware added two that we like a lot. One lets you turn off the glowing alien eyes on the lid, and the other lets you disable the touchpad since it can get in the way during gaming. These are nice touches indeed.
Now we get to the bad parts. There’s an integrated 1.3MP webcam but we couldn’t get it to work. We were able to use it to capture video but no audio. When we selected the microphone as an active device in the drop-down menu, we got an error message with some funny grammar.
When we tried to enable the onboard microphone we were met with an unintentionally funny error message.
System restore issues
The m9750 includes a hidden partition with an image of the hard drive as it shipped from the factory. Theoretically, you’re supposed to be able to restore the notebook to its factory settings using the included Alien Respawn 2.0 software that you activate during bootup. Unfortunately, we could not get it to work at all. Every time we pressed F10 during bootup to run it, we got a Blue Screen of Death. The BSOD told us to run Chkdsk /f and we did that, but it still would not work.
Every time we tried to run the Alien Respawn system restore we got a BSOD.
So, we had to re-install Vista using the included CD. This left us with Vista installed but no drivers, but thankfully Alienware includes a driver CD that is very easy-to-use and simple. It’s not ideal, however, as restoring using the image on the partition would have already had all the drivers and applications installed.
Alienware provides a very easy-to-use driver and application CD in case your OS gets hosed.
We actually took the m9750 with us to our family’s holiday celebration, and the reaction from our family members was priceless. They couldn’t believe a notebook could be this big and powerful. Everyone was impressed by its looks and its performance, including us. This is a seriously powerful notebook but it does have a few drawbacks. The first is that its cooling fans are almost always on, and they are noticeably loud. The second is the videocards are already a bit dated, though they were able to play Bioshock and CoD4, albeit at a low resolution. If you order an m9750 we highly recommend upgrading to the 8700M for maximum longevity. Third, we had issues with the webcam and system restore, which is disappointing. All-in-all we had a better-than-average experience with the m9750 though, and despite its flaws we would still put it near the top of our list of must-have desktop replacement notebooks.
• Great gaming performance
• Lots of storage
• Brilliant display
• GPUs are DX9
• Lots of fan noise
• Wonky webcam and system restore
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