Gaming notebooks are an odd breed of machine that tends to be much more expensive than what you could get a higher performance desktop for. However, anyone who has tried to lug a decked out full tower desktop gaming machine to a LAN party can tell you, sometimes giving up performance for portability isn't such a bad thing.
Alienware is a gaming notebook and desktop maker that started as a boutique notebook builder catering to the gamer with the coin to spend on high-end equipment. The company was purchased by Dell and has continued to build gaming machines under its own brand name, unlike the major change that happened to Voodoo when HP gobbled it up.
Today we are going to look at one of the latest gaming notebooks form Alienware called the Area-51 m15x. As you can gather from the name of the gaming rig, it uses a 15-inch screen and packs oodles of performance inside the slick looking chassis. If you have the green and you want a serious 15-inch portable gaming machine, this is the review for you.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
Like all of the systems that Alienware makes, the m15x can be had in a wide variety of configurations depending on how big your budget is and how much performance you want. Prices for the machine start at a mere $1,099 but quickly run more than double that when you start adding options to the machine, of which there are plenty as shown below.
My test machine has the following specifications:
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo T9300 2.5GHz w/ 800MHz FSB
RAM: 4GB DDR2 667MHz
Storage: 500GB 5400 RPM HDD, Secondary 500GB 5400 RPM HDD in Smart Bay
Optical: Smart Bay Blu-ray drive
Networking: 802.11 a/b/g/n
Audio: Onboard HD audio
Case Design: Ripley Case
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 8800M GTX w/ 512MB RAM
Lighting: Alienware AlienFX Lighting System
OS: Windows Vista Home Premium
Among the myriad of options for the machine that you can choose from when ordering are 64-bit OS versions, 7200 RPM HDDs, SSDs and up to an Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 2.8GHz CPU. The machine is available directly from Alienware and as tested, my notebook carried an MSRP of $3949 at the time it was ordered. Prices have dropped since then, so the current configuration today may cost a bit less than the price as tested.
As I always say, most of us only care about the packaging that our gear comes in to the extent that it protects the gear in shipment and gets it to us in one piece. There is nothing special about the packaging that Alienware uses; it's merely a black box on the outside.
The notebook was packaged well and should survive shipment anywhere. And to keep the paint safe the notebook is packed inside a soft fabric sleeve.
Inside a smaller box next to the notebook are all of the accessories that come with the m15x including a mouse pad, recovery DVD and a power adapter.
The Alienware m15x
The first thing you notice when you pull the m15x out of the protective fabric sleeve is how fantastic the paint quality is. The Saucer Silver hue on my test unit was glossy and looked like something you would find on a high-end sports car rather than a notebook.
On the right side of the notebook are the FireWire port, HDMI out and a single USB port. Also located on this side are the memory card reader, the PCMCIA slot and a Kingston security cable slot.
On the left side of the m15x, you find the port for the AC adapter, RJ45 jack, two USB ports and the headphone and mic inputs. Also located on this side is the Smart Bay, which in this picture is housing the Blu-ray drive.
The front of the computer has little to see when it is closed.
Flipping the lid up gets us our first glimpse of the touch sensitive controls, track pad, screen and keyboard of the m15x.
The track pad is large and offers a single button that is clickable on the left and right sides. The line around the track pad you see lights up when the AlienFX lighting system is on.
My test system has the upgraded 15-inch LCD with 1920 x 1200 screen resolution.
This shot shows the bottom of the m15x. You can see the requisite alien script writing on the bottom of the system and the custom engraved plate that bears your name and the alien script translation. You can also see the battery in this shot.
Accessories and Documentation
The m15x comes with the typical gear you expect to see with any high-end notebook, including the recovery DVD to restore the machine should some catastrophic software failure damage the install.
Also included with the machine is a mouse pad bearing the Alienware logo and in the case of my review system, the Smart Bay 500GB hard drive. Other than those items there is nothing else included with the m15x, just the necessities.
Benchmarks - PCMark and 3DMark Vantage
When we review some hardware and gaming desktops, we use all sorts of synthetic benchmarks to test every minute aspect of the computers. However, we are coming at our notebook reviews a little differently than the reviews of enthusiast class desktop systems and individual components.
We will be using a few synthetic benchmarks to test notebooks, but we will also be performing some real world tests to give an idea of how well the notebook will perform in real world tasks that many notebook users expect their machines to be able to perform. We will be running an iTunes encoding test and a Windows Media Encoder test. The synthetic benchmarks ran on the m15x include PCMark Vantage, 3DMark Vantage and MobileMark 2007.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//
Buy It Here
The first benchmark up for the m15x is PCMark Vantage. This is a newer benchmark that is designed to simulate a typical workload of different things that a computer user would likely do with their computer, from watching video to general office productivity tasks. Check the results out by clicking on the below screenshot.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here
The next of the synthetic benchmarks is 3DMark Vantage. This benchmark simulates 3D video games to give an easy to compare score for video gaming performance. The test works both the GPU and the CPU of the notebook. As you can see below, the total score for the m15X was P3286, a great score for a notebook.
Benchmarks - MobileMark 2007, iTunes Encoding and Movie Encoding
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.05
Developer Homepage: http://www.bapco.com
Product Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/products/mobilemark2007
Buy It Here
MobileMark 2007 is a test that loads the system up with tasks and gives a direct score for battery life. For the m15X, I used the video task to get the runtime for the battery. The battery in the gaming rig lasted only 1 hour and 50 minutes from a full charge.
You are probably cringing at that score when some notebooks can run for four times that long. But those other notebooks don't offer the phenomenal gaming performance of the m15x. When you buy any gaming laptop, battery life is far from the top priority.
Version and / or Patch Used: 8
Developer Homepage: http://www.apple.com
Product Homepage: http://www.apple.com/itunes
The first of the real world tests for the m15x is our iTunes encoding test. I took a set of 12 MP3 tracks and using the latest version of iTunes encoded them all to AAC format. The tracks used in this test are the same tracks we use for all of our notebook reviews, allowing direct comparison of performance.
Using a stopwatch, the m15x encoded all of our test tracks in a blazing 4 minutes and 11 seconds. That is by far the best score to date for our iTunes test.
Version and / or Patch Used: 9
Developer Homepage: http://www.microsoft.com
Product Homepage: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/encoder/default.mspx
The final benchmark for the m15x makes use of Windows Media Encoder. We use the same video file for all of our WME tests and use the same version of the free WME application to perform the tests, allowing direct comparison between computers.
The m15x was able to encode our test file in 5 minutes and 52 seconds, the fastest time for a notebook that has passed through our labs so far.
Hands On Usage
Hands on Usage
I have mentioned before that how well a notebook performs comes down to much more than just how well any one major component such as the CPU or GPU performs. For a notebook to be truly great, it needs to have a great screen, great keyboard and a great design as well.
The Alienware m15x offers some of the best components that you can get in a gaming notebook. The keyboard in particular is fantastic. The keys are full-size and offer great tactile feedback. Touch typists will find that you can work on the m15x as well as you can with most any desktop keyboard. The only thing lacking from the keyboard is a full number pad, which Alienware could have included had it desired. There is more than enough room for a number pad on the chassis.
One of the things I really liked about the m15x was the lighting system for the notebook that allows you to customize the color of just about every light on the machine. You can have different colors for the touch sensitive controls, the glowing Alienware logo on the bottom of the screen bezel, the keyboard backlighting, the Alienware head logo on the front of the case and for the lighted ring around the track pad. You can also opt to go for the same color everywhere if you want and the choice of colors is very impressive.
The controls on the top of the keyboard area allow you to control all the software and features of the m15x. Rather than buttons that you press, all of the controls are touch sensitive, including the power button. To turn the computer on you simply lay your finger on the alien head above the keyboard for a few seconds and the notebook comes to life.
The screen is one of the most important things on a notebook and the m15x has a fantastic screen. The only bad thing I can say about it is that the glossy coating makes for serious glare in some environments. The 1920 x 1200 resolution makes for some fantastic graphics in games and allows the use of the Blu-ray drive to watch full resolution Blu-ray films.
To test the screen I popped in my favorite Blu-ray flick -- Casino Royale. This is hands down the best 15-inch screen I have ever tested. Colors are sharp and crisp and skin tones are realistic without any of the green tint so many inferior screens tend to add to skin tones. Fast action was fluid and no smearing or tearing was noted. The screen could use a bit more contrast in darker scenes, but is still better than other screens I have tested.
One of the biggest gripes I have with the m15x is its onboard sound system. The speakers sound good and offer decent bass in quiet environments, but the volume levels are simply far too low for a high-end notebook. Watching movies in a moderately loud environment was very difficult because you couldn't hear the spoken words well, even at 100% volume. This problem was pronounced and noted on all DVD movies that I watched on the m15x. The only real way to remedy the lack of volume is to use amplified headphones or a set of external speakers.
When all the testing was done and the results were in, the Alienware m15x is one of the best gaming notebooks to ever hit the market. It has loads of performance for general productivity tasks and when game time comes around it has the muscle for today's hottest video games.
The only real downside to the m15x is the sound system, which lacks volume. You could consider the price to be a downside as well, but you don't wander into a Ferrari dealership and complain that the high-end rides inside are too expensive and you can't really complain that one of the fastest 15-inch notebooks on the planet is too expensive either. As the old adage goes, you can have fast and you can have cheap, but you can't have both in one machine.
If you want a gaming notebook that can be used for any task from gaming to media center duties and beyond, the Alienware m15x is worth a hard look. Simply put, this is the best performing 15-inch notebook I have ever laid my hands on.
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