When we first clapped eyes on the Alienware M11x back in March, it blew our tiny minds. We were hugely impressed by what was a high-spec gaming laptop squeezed into the body of a portable netbook. Now the M11x is back, and it's been kitted out with Intel's Core i series processors, as well as Nvidia's Optimus graphics technology. But how do these tweaks affect the M11x's performance?
The updated M11x is available now, starting at £850.
Back in black
On the outside, very little's changed. The M11x still rocks the matte black, aggressive styling that we fell in love with the first time around. Also, being an Alienware machine, the keyboard, speakers and logo all light up in bright, customisable colours.
Weighing in at just under 2kg, the M11x is definitely light enough to carry around with you. Measuring 286 by 33 by 233mm, it's also slender enough to fit in your backpack without busting the seams. This machine isn't as portable as a standard netbook, such as the Dell Mini 1012, but, bearing in mind the heavy-duty hardware buried inside, we're impressed by its portability.
You'll still find an 11.6-inch display, with a maximum resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That's a pretty high resolution for a machine of this size. While the screen itself is glossy and reflective, it's also sufficiently bright and vivid to cancel out most of the aggravating reflections.
The keyboard is sensibly laid out, and the buttons have plenty of travel and spring, which makes typing for extended periods of time comfortable. Better still is the trackpad. We've had some pretty unpleasant experiences with netbook trackpads in the past, due to their tiny size and unresponsive surfaces. The M11x's trackpad, however, is large, responsive and features two big buttons. Lovely.
The M11x comes with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium by default, although you can upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate if you so wish for an extra £105. Similarly, the base model features a 250GB, 7,200rpm hard drive, but 320GB and 500GB models are also available. You can opt for a 256GB solid-state drive too, although that will set you back an eye-watering £505 extra.
Seeing i to i
The real changes have taken place under the hood. The M11x now comes with a choice of either Intel's Core i5-520UM or Core i7-640UM processors. Our review unit had the slightly weaker i5-520UM CPU, a dual-core, 1.06GHz chip with 3MB of cache. You can bag yourself the more powerful chip for an extra £180.
You have a choice of 2, 3, 4 or 8GB of RAM. Our review model came with 4GB, which adds £80 to the base price. In our opinion, it's a worthwhile upgrade to get the best gaming performance out of this machine.
When we ran the PCMark05 benchmark test, the M11x achieved a brilliant score of 5,252. That's not as high as the previous M11x, which scored 5,654 in the same test, but our previous review sample had almost the best hardware configuration possible, whereas our most recent sample was more middle-of-the-road. Consequently, we're not surprised or disheartened by the lower score.
Smooth gaming chops
The machine's graphics capability has also had a facelift. Previously, you could switch between an integrated Intel graphics unit and a pumped-up, discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 335M GPU, depending on whether you wanted high performance or longer battery life from the machine. Manual switching is no longer necessary, thanks to the inclusion of Nvidia's Optimus technology, which automatically switches the discrete graphics on or off depending on what you're doing.
The new M11x certainly delivers a smooth gaming experience. It scored a mammoth 6,911 in 3DMark06 at a 1,024x600-pixel resolution, and a stonking 6,359 at its native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That beats the previous model's score of 5,968 at a full resolution. We tested the M11x with Crysis, and achieved between 30 and 40 frames per second under the 'optimal' graphics settings, which is a very playable rate.
Cranking the graphic settings up to 'high' across the board and switching to the M11x's native resolution, the frame rate dropped to between 15 and 20fps. We wouldn't really call that a playable rate, but it's still an impressive indication of this machine's capability, and suggests that the M11x should sail through just about every current-generation game you choose to throw at it.
Running Battery Eater's Classic test, which runs the CPU at full whack until the battery conks out, the M11x lasted for 1 hour and 58 minutes, which is less than our previous review sample's 3 hours and 44 minutes. That leads us to suspect that the Optimus technology isn't quite as efficient as manually switching graphics cards. That said, it's less hassle.
We see the M11x becoming the central hub of your gaming set-up. If you're really into your gaming, you'll want a large monitor to connect the M11x to, and probably a proper gaming mouse and keyboard too. Luckily then, this netbook offers a pretty generous collection of ports. There are three video-output ports (D-Sub, HDMI and DisplayPort), an Ethernet jack, three USB sockets, a four-pin FireWire port, a multi-format card reader, two 3.5mm sockets for two sets of headphones, and another 3.5mm socket for a microphone.
Notably absent, however, is an optical drive. It's an omission that pained us greatly when we reviewed the earlier M11x, and time has failed to heal this wound. You can buy an external optical drive for the machine for £61, and we reckon it might be worth investing in. We're great believers in download platforms such as Steam, but, if you need to install something directly from a CD or perform an operating system recovery, you'll need an optical drive to get the job done.
Alienware's updated M11x is just as portable as before, but its gaming performance is even better. For gaming on the go, it's our go-to machine.
Edited by Charles Kloet