With the M11x, Dell and Alienware gave the world the smallest gaming laptop, and we liked it a lot. So why change it? To include the two things we've all been waiting for: Optimus and i5/i7 CPUs.
Price and Configuration
The model we tested came complete with a 1.2GHz Core i7-640UM processor (Turbo to 2.66GHz, Overclockable to 166MHz bus), 4GB DDR3 RAM (800 MHz), and a 500GB SATAII 7,200RPM hard drive. This model, complete with Windows 7 Premium and Bluetooth, will set you back $1,319, though the base model including an i5 CPU starts at $949. The older Core 2 Duo models are also available, starting from $799. Customizations include 2-8GB of RAM and 160GB-500GB hard drive or a 256GB solid state drive. All models now ship with the NVidia GT 335M with Optimus.
If you put the M11x and M11xR2 side by side, it would be almost impossible to tell the difference. The only real difference in the aesthetic design is instead of the glossy black coating, the R2 can have a black matte finish, which both looks and feels more appropriate for the laptop. Like any PC of this size, the last thing you want is to leave constant fingerprints just from carrying it around.
Aesthetics aside, the only other change is that Dell's done away with the VGA port, which means no more impressing the class with Powerpoints directly through your laptop. All the other ports remain (3 USB, HDMI, Ethernet, FireWire, DisplayPort and a memory card reader), but this is still a letdown. VGA may be old tech, but it's still widely used nationwide.
Otherwise, the R2 is identical to the M11x on the outside. The display hasn't been improved. It still feels an inch too small and way too reflective. All of the keys on the right, including the arrow keys, still feel too small as well.
With the M11x, Brian told us that it's really two computers in one because of the switchable graphics. With Optimus, that all goes away…sort of. As Brian noted, Optimus is the automatic switch between integrated and discrete graphics, and indeed it does exactly that. The problem is that in practice, Optimus isn't as beneficial as previously described.
On my Gateway EC1437u, I can stream 720p videos from Youtube without slowdown, all through integrated graphics. On the M11xR2, any video above 360p will activate the discrete graphics, even though the i7 CPU is far more powerful than the Core 2 Duo in my Gateway. (Discrete graphics aren't necessary.)
This lack of optimization slams battery life when running various applications when it doesn't altogether increase performance.
I ran two main benchmarks and tested both with integrated and discrete graphics enabled, and compared them to our scores from our benchmarks on the M11x.
Testing with GeekBench, the R2 fares much better than the M11x, thanks to the i7 CPU, garnering as much as 700 points more than the original model. While the M11x was no slowpoke when it came to everyday computing, the R2 works and feels faster, even though the hard drive and RAM are the same.
The PCMark Vantage test gave me some trouble. At first, I ran the tests in triplicate and averaged the scores, but they weren't high enough compared to the integrated GPU scores for gaming and music, though everything else was significantly higher except for the HDD. Then I fiddled around with the Optimus settings in the NVidia control panel, and these were the results.
What seems to have happened is that the default setting for the GPU when running PCMark Vantage is to simply not run at all, which is why the gaming score was so low. But when I changed the settings to force the GPU to run, it's almost as if it decided to take over all of the tests and every score, except for gaming and music, lowered because of it.
This may seem like a petty side note, but in reality, it's evidence that NVidia needs to update their drivers. A composite of the PCMark Vantage scores would probably be more accurate, but because I couldn't create a perfect scenario for proper scoring (and I wonder if such a thing exists given finicky Optimus tech), these will have to do.
The bigger problems with the M11xR2 manifest in actual gaming. With the drivers at hand, half the games I set out to test just didn't work, including Batman: Arkham Asylum, Metro 2033 and Shattered Horizon. Others, like Left 4 Dead 2, Crysis Warhead and Far Cry 2 worked fine. Ultimately I did get all of the games to run after installing beta GPU drivers, which involved far more than the typical gamer who doesn't want to build their own rig would want to do.
Alienware isn't really to blame here, though they are building and selling the product. NVidia's had enough time to get their drivers done properly already, and users are bound the get frustrated just trying to get a game to run.
Once I did get the games to run, just as with the M11x, most ran smoothly at medium graphics settings. Some games, like Batman and Left 4 Dead 2, could run on high and even very high settings without incident, easily kicking 60 frames per second. But don't expect to run Crysis all-out. Even with the boost from i7, and even with overclocking, the 3D-chewing boost to the R2 is minimal when compared to the M11x.
There's no listed battery life for the M11xR2—a bad sign—though Dell rated the M11x at 8.5 hours, and we got that down to 6 hours 7 minutes on integrated graphics and between 2.5 and 3 hours with discrete graphics. With Optimus, the battery should last as long as the best a non-Optimus machine can muster, though in reality Optimus turns on and off depending on the application at hand, so battery life jumps up and down depending on what you're doing. This was of course true in the past (watching Hulu all day will drain the battery faster than word processing), but with the GPU running every time it thinks it's needed, battery life can easily go down the toilet.
With the M11x, I was stuck on it for over six hours. With the R2, I got 5 hours 12 minutes in standard use, meaning web-browsing, word processing, picture editing and the occasional Youtube clip, which is still decent, but clearly worse than the M11x. Gaming also fared worse, where the battery lasted around 2 hours 15 minutes, depending on the game.
Battery life is also expected to be worse because the i7 chip is not as efficient as the older Core 2 Duo, which Intel and Dell have had more time to play around with and make more power efficient.
A Message for the Future
The M11xR2 doesn't improve performance enough for anyone to warrant switching from the original to the latest revision of Dell's mini game machine. Sure, i5/i7 is more powerful, and Optimus is more convenient, but these are minor benefits that barely influence performance. So why the hell would anyone care to buy this when they could find a good deal on the older model?
Put simply, software updates. Optimus is still a fresh technology, one that will get better over time. For anyone looking to buy a portable gaming laptop with decent battery life, the R2 at least has some room for improvement because NVidia will continue to support Optimus, meaning that soon it shouldn't make the mistake of activating the GPU for 480p or even 720p video if the integrated graphics can handle it, nor will benchmarks have wonky scores because Optimus activated incorrectly.
The life of this model will last significantly longer than the original M11x, and even though users may get less battery life and only a minimal performance boost today, the promise of future support makes it worthwhile.
Matte finish looks great
Optimus! But it still needs plenty of work
Battery life is worse, but not significantly
The screen , keyboard and weight haven't improved
Gaming performance improvement is minimal
UPDATE: Upon further testing at the recommendation from NVidia, that the tested hardware may be faulty, I determined that instead the software drivers from Dell in fact caused lower benchmark scores and stopped a large number of games from properly running, as well as a number of applications. I was sent uncertified drivers from NVidia, set to release early next month, and had no difficulty. All of the games I tested which didn't work originally ran perfectly.
After re-running all the benchmarks, the GeekBench scores remained the same and the PCMark Vantage scores matched the top scores found on the chart above. However, it is clear that a small number of current M11xR2 owners have had some driver difficulty, which has for the moment been remedied by using NVidia's beta drivers, as well as a few code hacks. These drivers don't fix everything. If you recently purchased or plan on purchasing an M11xR2, your system may ship with faulty drivers, but within the next month NVidia will release an update that I can confirm will fix all of the current faulty drivers.
I do want to make one point clear about the difference between the original M11x and the M11xR2, specifically about Optimus. An Optimus-based PC is like a car with an automatic transmission: it isn't as efficient, doesn't have as good gas mileage, but it's way more convenient for daily use. Overall performance may suffer slightly, but it's a price we pay for convenience. And while some gamers want total, absolute control over everything, the Optimus software suite accommodates those users too. But unless you stick to a full manual PC, there will always be a price to pay, small as it may be.