Clean design The customizable gamer-specific software
The price Speakers, while good, could be better
Turns out you can put a price on laptop power. To be precise, Alienware's M17x costs $3849 (in our review unit's configuration, as of 7/29). Scary part: That's a fairly "reasonable" price among the desktop replacement notebook set. Do you--or even most hardcore gamers--need this kind of juice?
Like the M17, this latest Alienware laptop tries loading up on features while still achieving a fairly reasonable entry price for a base model ($1799 in the case of the M17x). The base-level 17-inch machine will earn a warm reception from gamers but, of course, what descended upon my desktop was anything but entry-level. It's got every conceivable bell and whistle, from a Blu-ray drive to the backlit illuminated keyboard.
It's also fast. Though lagging behind the Eurocom D900c Phantom-X (whose Clevo-based design notched a 133 in WorldBench 6), the M17x still managed to score an impressive 100 in our test suite thanks largely an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9300 processor, 4GB of RAM, and two 160GB hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration. Certainly no slouch, it edged out the 17-inch MacBook Pro (that notebook earned a 98) and tied Toshiba's Qosmio X305-Q708.
Once you fire up the dual 1GB nVidia GeForce 280m GPUs, this thing turns up the heat. We turned the dial way up on games such as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament III at 1680-by-1050-pixel resolution with all the settings maxed. The M17x ran at 65 and 84 frames per second, respectively. In short, you're getting blistering gamer-approved performance for a notebook. To put this in perspective: A near-$6000 rig from Eurocom (the Phantom-X mentioned above) piling in a Xeon CPU, 8GB of RAM, and two nVidia GeForce 9800m GTX GPUs cracked 48 and 87 fps in those respective tests.
But even running games at 1680 by 1050 hardly does this machine justice. The sharp 17-inch screen supports a native resolution of 1900 by 1200. So I decided to throw on a couple more games: Left 4 Dead and Mirror's Edge. The first is a dark, dank firefight against zombie hordes; the other, a mad sprint through a bright, shiny dystoptian metropolis. Both are fantastic tests that show off both the range of the screen and the power of the M17x. It didn't falter on either count--solid performance in both games ensured a smooth gaming experience. The screen fared well, making it easy to spot enemies lurking in the inky shadows as well as armed guards giving chase across rooftops with nary a frame drop.
So we've established that the M17x has power in spades. The other big thing that Alienware crows about is the design. (My first thought as this new Alienware unit landed in the labs: "If I just sit here and look at this thing, will it transform into a robot--or a 2009 Dodge Charger?") It is a step in the right direction beyond what the company attempted with its M15x. That creaky box felt like it was held together with duct tape and true grit.
The only signs of creakiness or slight seams showing in this otherwise solid chassis were the shortcut buttons above the keyboard. While they did quick launch a variety of handy proprietary apps (see below), it required a fairly hard press sometimes for me to see something happen. It could be the unit I had, but otherwise, no complaint on build quality. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find many screws (they hide behind the battery for access to upgradable components).
And the keyboard? It certainly feels good enough as my fingers danced over the backlit keys. Actually, maybe I should say that my fingers moved over the dance floor because you can change the color of the backlighting on the keys. But I digress. Though the touchpad is a little on the small side for my tastes, it's textured and easy enough to use. The buttons also have a good amount of give as they jutted above the large wrist rest.
Like any self-respecting desktop replacement, this laptop uses its monstrous size (it measures 16 by 12.6 by 2 inches and weighs 11.68 pounds) to accommodate a gaggle of ports. Crammed around the sides are a four-pin FireWire port, four USB plugs, an eSATA/USB combo port, an ExpressCard slot, and an eight-in-one Media Card reader. The M17x also makes room for DisplayPort, HDMI, and VGA video-outs. A bunch of audio-out jacks for external surround sound provides a pretty strong indication that you won't be tempted to stick with the two built-in speakers.
Pro tip #1: The internal speaker pair provides decent sound in a pinch. Good mids, nothing too tinny--but nothing that hot, either. Unlike with the big dynamite audio emanating from Toshiba's Qosmio line, you'll likely want a pair of headphones for your next gaming session. Consider that to be one of the few corners trimmed for this already expensive machine. But if you're dropping this much money on a laptop, don't skimp on sound.
Otherwise, the M17x comes with a pimp-my-rig-worthy lighting kit for the keyboard, numberpad, touchpad, and trim lights. Sigh. I know that I'm just showing my age on this one, but really--you need running-light LEDs on a laptop?
That leads me to Pro tip #2: Don't bank on long battery life from this traveling arcade. Initial tests show that it'll hang in for about 3 hours, 4 minutes--a little above average for a desktop replacement machine, not that you'd lug this one around often.
Want to optimize features or tweak the way the lights twinkle? Alienware still has its user-friendly software on hand. Want to customize (or turn off) the extra lighting? No problem. If you want to adjust touchpad sensitivity or activate the facial recognition software (Pro tip #3: I highly recommend against using that facial recognition package), it's there. The performance-tweaking software, I have to say, hits that basic customizability that a gamer craves. But hardcore coders and tweakers--the guys that want to squeeze out every ounce of performance--will need to dig into the BIOS.
So the $3849 question: Should you buy this sort of muscle machine? Y'know, these days it may seem ridiculous to drop so many ducats on a laptop that you can upgrade only so far--but some live in ivory towers and demand the best. Like this notebook. Otherwise, let me save you a couple thousand bucks and point you in the direction of the miserly but game-friendly Gateway P-7811FX. It won't crush benchmarks, but it is one of the better deals in gaming notebooks.