Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Dell's promise: that the Alienware M11x is the "most powerful 11-inch gaming laptop" around. And they're right! It's hard to imagine packing much more oomph into such a portable frame. Then again, there's a reason Muggsey Bogues never won MVP.

There's clearly value in having a gaming-capable notebook on the go, particularly for frequent travelers or LAN partiers. And even if you're not a heavy gamer, the M11x's switchable graphics allows for substantial battery life during casual use. But a laptop that can accommodate everyday tasks and Crysis equally inevitably demands compromises that you may not be willing to make.

Price and Configuration

The system we tested housed a 1.3GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor (overclockable to 1.73GHz), 4GB DDR3 RAM (800MHz), and a 500GB SATAII 7,200RPM hard drive, a capable set-up that will cost you $1100. You can customize further up to 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, while the base model ships for $799 with a 1.3GHz Pentium SU4100 processor, 2GB DDR3 RAM, and 160GB SATAII 5,400RPM hard drive. Most importantly: Nvidia's 1GB GeForce GT 335M graphics card ships standard with all models.

Design

Hellloooo, Alienware! Everything about the M11x—even the packaging—screams Alienware design. Whether that's a positive or a hindrance comes down to your personal tolerance for pseudo-futuristic panache.

For all its compactness, the M11x has a thickness, blockiness, and heft that clearly distinguishes it from the netbooks it's aping. At about 4.5 pounds, you'll never confuse it for an ultraportable rig. But that sturdiness doesn't always read as quality; the molded plastic case both looks and feels a little cheap. I did, though, appreciate the distinctive touches provided by notebook's tapered front, and the prominent Alienware logo adorning the top.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

That logo is repeated when you open the M11x, in the form of an LED-lit power button that rests above the keyboard. Speaking of LEDs: they're everywhere. Beneath the keyboard. Behind two front grills. Under the Alienware branding that occupies the ample bezel below the display. The constant red glow (the color can be adjusted to your preference, and you can set different themes depending on if you're running on outlet or battery power) is a fun effect when gaming, but feels a little over the top when you're just sending emails. Of course, you can always just turn it off.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

The keyboard's more than adequate, especially given the limited space the M11x is working with. The key caps are flat and pleasant to type on, though they're close enough together that you can expect an occasional errant stroke. The only truly frustrating part are those narrow arrow keys in the bottom right-hand corner. It's as though the designers ran out of space and decided to squish them in at the last minute. They're not unusable, but they're a headache. The trackpad fairs better: it's amply sized, pleasantly textured, and engagingly responsive.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

The 11.6-inch, 1366x728 (720p) display is plenty sharp and crisp, but colors don't quite pop, especially under bright light—you wouldn't want to try using it outside. More troubling about the screen is its aggressively glossy finish. Reflections are strong, which will frustrate gamers who want to get lost in a dark and gloomy landscape and end up just staring at their own reflection.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Of course, when you're at home you can always use an external monitor. I did just that, hooking up the M11x to a 21.5-inch HD Alienware OptX Aw2210 display, which offered a notably improved experience, for the obvious size benefits but also for the cleanness of the image and merciful gloss reduction.

Fortunately—if you do decide to go the extra display route—there are video out ports aplenty. The M11x has everything from VGA to HDMI to Display Port, along with three USB 2.0 ports, two audio out connectors, one microphone input, a 3-in-1 media card reader, Ethernet, and FireWire. No ExpressCard, though, or eSATA. There's also no optical drive. That's the trend in ultraportable laptops these days, and while I understand how a casual user doesn't have much need for one, its absence here prevents you from playing games that require the original disc.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

I was pleasantly surprised by the M11x's 5.1 speaker set-up, which sounds equally nice—rich tone, and not nearly as tinny as other systems of this size—whether streaming online radio or pwning n00bs.

Performance

It's important to remember that, thanks to its switchable graphics, the M11x is really two different laptops. When operating with Intel's integrated graphics, you're getting decent (though not gamer-friendly) performance and solid battery life. Switch over to the discrete Nvidia, though, and you're looking at a surprisingly badass rig, albeit one that flames out more than twice as fast.

A note on the graphics switching: Nvidia recently introduced its Optimus technology, which makes jumping from an integrated to a discrete GPU totally seamless and automatic. Curiously, that's not present in the M11x. It's not a complicated process here to switch to the Nvidia GPU and back—just press Fn+F6—but the move causes the screen to go black and requires quitting out of certain applications. It's not a huge burden, but it's frustrating knowing that a better option is out there.

So how does the M11x stack up? I ran two sets of benchmarks, in both integrated and discrete modes.

Both yielded about the same results on GeekBench—not surprising, since it's a benchmark that focuses on processor and memory capabilities. It's notable, however, just how much juice the M11x squeezes out of that SU7300 compared to other notebook PCs with the same processor.

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

The where the GeForce GT 335M really makes a statement is, not surprisingly, in gaming capabilities. Here's how the M11x discrete graphics compare to the integrated GPU on PCMark Vantage:

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

While the overall scores are mostly comparable, the Gaming subscore jumps from 1780 to 3264 when the Nvidia GPU kicks in. Even more impressively, PCMark Vantage recorded an average FPS of 23.368 on discrete graphics versus just 1.664 FPS with the GT 335M switched off.

In terms of actual game play, I was able to get 130-210 fps playing Portal, though I was mostly at the lower end of that range. Scott'Soapbox did some more expansive real-world gaming testing, and found that the overclocked M11x was more than capable, especially with less intensive games:

* Unreal Tournament runs fine at default (high) settings.
* Far Cry 2 can be played at medium settings when overclocked.
* Call of Duty 2 can be played at maximum settings which includes an in game 4x AA and generally see between 50-80 FPS stock or 60-90 FPS overclocked.
* The original Call of Duty is old enough that it can't support the native wide screen res and forces you to drop back to 1024×768. With max setting and nHancer set 4×4 AA and 16x AF you generally get 70-200 FPS without overclocking but intense action with large explosions can cause a dip down to 30 FPS at these extreme settings.

All of these benchmarks are solid, but they're not going to melt your face. And against games like Shattered Horizon, that lean heavily on the CPU, Notebook Review found that the M11x often couldn't best single digit frame rates. For people who like to play games every now and again at medium settings but don't take the whole thing too seriously, it's more than fine. But if you're a self-identified hardcore gamer (who wants to play the latest titles at max settings), you may end up disappointed.

Battery Life

Dell claims 8.5 hours of battery life when running integrated graphics; in my test with higher performance settings, medium screen brightness, and a page automatically reloading every 30 seconds on Firefox to simulate active web browsing, the 8 cell (64whr) battery performed admirably:

Total Run Time (Integrated GPU): 6 hours, 7 minutes

I wasn't able to test active gaming all the way through to completion, but the battery drain rate is 2-2.5 times faster when you switch over to discrete graphics and play, so you can expect somewhere between 2 hours 30 minutes and 3 hours of pewpew on the go.

That's actually not bad as our test reflects realistic use; enough for a short flight, certainly. But one important last note on the battery: it's housed under a back panel that needs to be unscrewed for access. That makes switching out batteries on the go pretty impractical.

The Mighty Mouse Gaming Notebook

The M11x is a strange little animal: it's small but hefty. It's powerful but limited. If you're a serious gamer, it may not pack enough wallop, and if you're just looking for an ultraportable notebook the Alienware design cues might throw you off.

But for all of those contradictions, what Dell's attempted here is admirable. Is it the all-day portable gaming you've dreamed of? No. And that still may be a long ways off. But it's well-built machine with the best of intentions: to let you game whenever and wherever you want to with comfort and ease. If that's worth $1100 to you, the M11x isn't just your best bet; it's your only option.

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Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Solid battery life with integrated graphics

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Excellent audio for its class

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Overclocked CPU packs a lot of power

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Keyboard and trackpad are solid, except for the too-narrow arrow keys

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Alienware design notes are distinctive, but may come on too strong for some

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Heavy for its size

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

No optical drive

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Glossy, reflective screen

Alienware M11x Review: Gaming's New Featherweight Division

Gaming performance won't melt your face