I began researching netbooks–small laptops aimed mostly at Web browsing–several months ago. I do a fair bit of traveling, and while I love my current machine, lugging the 17″ beast through airports has never been what I would call a treat. Not to mention the fact that a large notebook is completely useless on a coach airliner. Thus, I used practicality as justification for spending some cash on a truly portable machine.
What follows is a non-scientific recap of what drove my purchase decision and how I ended up with the Alienware M11x.The Shopping Trail
My quest began with the HP Mini 311, which stood out because the Nvidia ION graphics promised smoother video playback than similar netbooks. However, reviews led me to conclude that any machine based on the Atom processor would not meet my power standards. Hey, even if I’m being practical, I still need a machine that can play some games.
Accepting that I was going to be spending more money than I’d originally planned, I next eyed up the HP Pavilion dm3t. This capable machine can be beefed up with a number of options, including a GeForce 105M card. I was concerned that the 13.3″ screen might hurt airplane usability a bit, but it was a really tempting machine–especially when a big coupon around the holidays dropped a maxed-out $1399 system down to $899. But I hesitated a day and the coupon expired, leading me to shop elsewhere.
Next I focused on the ASUS UL30Vt-A1, which features an even beefier GeForce 210M. Not only does its brushed aluminum exterior look sexy, but it can play games quite well. Oh, and it also fulfilled my practical requirement of long battery life. I was close to buying this machine, oh, so close, but then…
International CES 2010 arrived in January, and low and behold one of the most buzzworthy announcements was a “netbook” from Alienware. Dubbed the M11x, they promised this laptop would be a true gaming machine packed into a tiny form factor. I put my purchase plans on hold until I could find out more about this tiny powerhouse.
The Dell site started taking orders for the M11x at the beginning of February, and after reading this review of the laptop, I ordered mine on February 8. The website taunted me, saying I’d have to wait a full month for my new PC to arrive. But wonder of wonders, my baby showed a couple weeks ago. What follows is my non-technical, entirely subjective review based on practical experience. If you want benchmarks and hard data, there are plenty of other reviews that can give them to you.
First off, the M11x is sexy. As with their other models, Alienware is using LED lighting to provide a modern, gamer-centric look. While initially I was going to go with the silver case, I ended up with the black–it just looked too cool. One caveat about the black case, though–its glossy surface shows fingerprints really easily, so keep it wiped clean for maximum sex appeal. Handily, they included a cloth slipcase for the notebook which helps keep it clean. If vanity is important to you, rest assured that you’ll get tons of compliments on how eye-catching this machine is.
The screen is great. The WLED screen is extremely sharp, and reading even small text is easy on the eyes. It doesn’t have the widest viewing angle, though; the colors can get a bit washed out unless you’re looking straight on. I also wasn’t a big fan of the default settings, so I decreased the gamma and upped the contrast to sharpen the blacks. After that bit of tweaking, I’m very happy with it. Also worth noting is that the Nvidia graphics feel noticeably crisper and more colorful than the Intel card, so I use the performance graphics unless I will be on the battery for an extended period.
This laptop runs very cool and quiet. When browsing the Web or doing simple tasks like writing this review, the fan rarely revs up. Of course when the GeForce card is enabled and you’re gaming, the fan kicks in and runs regularly, but the machine is still relatively quiet. When I’m in an area with ambient noise, I honestly don’t even notice the fan running.
Being an 11.6″ laptop, the keyboard is a bit smaller than full-size. I’m a big guy with fairly large hands, and the reduced keyboard size isn’t a bother at all. Some users complain about the narrow arrow keys in the lower right corner or the placement of the delete key, but I have been able to type comfortably for hours at a time.
The M11x is very quick to enter and exit stand-by mode, which lets you get busy using it rather than waiting around. The built-in webcam runs facial recognition software, which is really handy as a security tool–so long as you’re in an area with decent lighting.
This machine has a ton of power packed into a small footprint, so it’s heavier than most systems its size. But even so, at about 4.5 pounds it’s far lighter and easy to carry than a larger gaming rig. I ended up buying a messenger-style bag built for a 13″ Mac, which nicely holds the computer, power supply, mouse, and sundries.
I’m pleased to say that the M11x is a great traveling companion. I was able to use it comfortably in coach on a flight from Baltimore to Boston, a short flight with planes that tend to be on the smaller side. I haven’t been able to test the full 6+ hours of battery life the machine is supposed to get when the Intel graphics chipset is enabled. I should get a better idea of battery life on the long flight to San Francisco for GDC.
Needless to say, the biggest selling point of the M11x is its capability as a legitimate gaming rig. Certainly its GT 335M graphics card and fast hard drive are the cornerstones of its gaming muscle, as the dual-core SU7300 processor isn’t exactly a powerhouse. The system BIOS lets you overclock the CPU, but I haven’t tested that myself yet.
The machine comes with Steam installed, along with Portal. Since there is no option for an internal DVD drive, Steam comes in quite handy. To be honest, I still buy physical copies of games more commonly than digital, but I have a feeling that habit is about to change.
(On a side note, I avoided Alienware’s overpriced external DVD drive and bought a $45 generic model on Amazon. It’s proven very handy for installing software and ripping music, though you can certainly live without one.)
When ordering the system you can elect to have World of Warcraft pre-installed, which is just plain handy. I only had to download the latest patch and was ready to log in.
Admittedly, I have not been able to try out as many games as I would like. You can check out the Hardware Heaven review for benchmarks on specific games, including many recent titles. I can say from personal experience that both Portal and World of Warcraft play extremely well on this machine. WoW (which, admittedly, isn’t a huge hardware hog) runs smooth as glass. I honestly forget I’m playing on such a small machine.
When I play games, I don’t feel the need to record a framerate. I can tell very quickly whether a game feels responsive enough for my tastes. So far, I have never felt like I was compromising quality 0r responsiveness to play on this machine. If that opinion changes after I’ve tried out games like Dragon Age on it, I’ll post an update to this article.
I highly recommend the Alienware M11x. Though it certainly isn’t cheap ($799 minimum, a bit over $1000 nicely equipped), it has a lot going for it: looks and feels great, very portable, and extremely capable gaming performance. It’s powerful enough to be my go-to machine at home, and it feels much more comfortable atop a lap desk than a full-size notebook. It’s solidly built and extremely satisfying to use.
Your needs or desires may not require the horsepower and expense of this model, but if they do, you won’t go wrong in buying one. No doubt the M11x will inspire competition from competitors, and future versions of the unit will probably feature beefier CPUs. For my purposes, the M11x was exactly what I wanted and I am very satisfied.