In February last year, we reviewed the barnstorming Alienware M17 gaming laptop. Sixteen months and 16 intensive chiropractic sessions later, the spine-crushingly heavy, brain-meltingly powerful gaming behemoth is back. It's been dubbed the Alienware M17x for some time now, but this latest version adds Intel's Core i7 processor for even more power. Available in about a zillion different configurations, the base model costs around £1,550, while the model we've reviewed will set you back about £2,170. Does the new hardware pack enough extra punch to satisfy the discerning PC gamer?
It may be a laptop, but any notions that the M17x is portable should be instantly dismissed. It weighs 5.3kg and measures 406 by 51 by 321mm, so it's really far too big and heavy to move on a frequent basis, except possibly from room to room. Even the power brick has dimensions that outstrip those of some netbooks we've seen.
Once it's finally installed, however, you'll be able to feast your eyes on the M17x's demonic good looks. Extremely angular, our review model came in a bright red that extended across the lid and around the sides of the chassis. At the front, twin grilles cover the built-in speakers.
The M17 sported a fairly understated interior, but that's no longer the case. An LED backlight illuminates the keyboard, speakers, trackpad, logo and power switch in a range of customisable colours. We opted for a very butch rainbow effect, spread across the keyboard, but there are enough colour options so that you'll probably be able to make the laptop match the walls in your house.
Our review sample came with a 17-inch, 1,920x1,200-pixel LCD display, but, if you're not fussed about having a super-high-resolution screen, you can opt for a cheaper, 1,440x900-pixel model. We have to say, though, that the higher-spec screen looks really fantastic.
Despite the glossy display, our gaming experience wasn't ruined by annoying reflections, because the M17x's screen is very bright indeed. It's crisp, extremely colourful, and has really impressive horizontal and vertical viewing angles, so the whole family will be able to crowd around the display as you pump rounds into the corpse of an enemy.
The charmingly backlit keyboard is very comfortable to use. Each key is springy and responsive, and the massive wrist-rest area means your fingers will stay comfortable hovering over the W, A, S and D keys for hours on end. A full numberpad to the right of the keyboard will help you out if your games require frantic number input or if you're fond of assigning in-game macros to the number keys.
The trackpad is less impressive. It's tricky to distinguish the touch-sensitive area from the rest of the machine's chassis, and the trackpad itself doesn't feel very sensitive. The tracking area is large, but it's not possible to execute very fine cursor movements.
To an extent, this isn't important because, once you fire up a game, you'll undoubtedly want to use a serious gaming mouse anyway. But, if you're using the M17x for a spot of light Web browsing or image editing, the lack of sensitivity may rankle.
Around the side, you'll find a whole heap of ports, including VGA and HDMI outputs, a FireWire port, an Ethernet jack, four USB sockets, a multi-format card reader, one SATA and USB 2.0 two-in-one port, two 3.5mm headphone sockets, and one 3.5mm microphone socket.
Our only complaint about the ports is that the USB sockets are clustered quite closely together. If you're hoping to plug in bulky peripherals, you might find that they obscure more than one USB port. That's quite aggravating.
This is the part of the review where we talk about performance. For those in a rush, we'll paraphrase the section below: using the M17x feels like being punched in the face by God -- in a good way.
Slicing into the abdomen of this beast, we find its beating heart -- an Intel Core i7 CPU. Our machine had a dual-core, 2.66GHz i7-620M processor with 4MB of cache, but more powerful i7-720QM, i7-820QM and i7-920XM CPUs are also available. If you opt for the best-possible CPU, you're looking at adding £930 onto the total price. At the other end of the scale are less potent and cheaper Core i5 CPUs.
Teamed up with 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, the M17x achieved a staggeringly high score of 11,399 in our PCMark05 benchmark test. That easily bests the previous M17x's 8,724. That machine was running a quad-core, 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9300 CPU.
As for graphics performance, our review sample came with a dual 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4870 GPU. A single 1GB Radeon HD 5870 option is available if you want to save some cash, but, if you don't want to, you can go for the top-end option of two HD 5870s in a dual configuration.
When we ran 3DMark06 with the display at a resolution of 1,280x1,012 pixels, the M17x scored a blistering 15,381, which is significantly higher than the earlier M17x achieved when running the test at a lower resolution. Running the benchmark again at the M17x's maximum resolution of 1,920x1,200 pixels, it still managed a shockingly high score of 14,457. We're pretty sure that running PC benchmarks isn't supposed to feel this pleasurable.
Using frame-rate monitoring software Fraps, we tested Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on the M17x. While not the most cutting-edge game, it's still up there in terms of really throwing pixels around. We found that, even playing through the most graphically intensive levels with the settings up as high as they'd go, the frame rate never dipped below 50 frames per second, making gameplay incredibly smooth and enjoyable. All in all, the M17x puts in a simply wonderful performance.
Before we move on, we have to give a word of warning, however. The M17x is the most powerful gaming laptop ever to grace CNET Towers, and we're not even playing with the best configuration. But, while this laptop may be peerless now, it's extremely expensive, and it's impossible to predict for how long it'll remain a system capable of chewing through anything you choose to throw at it.
A machine this powerful is bound to have rubbish battery life. In a sense, it's not a big deal -- we can't imagine a situation in which you'd want to use the M17x away from the mains. Still, when we ran Battery Eater's Classic test, which runs the CPU at full belt until the battery is exhausted, the M17x conked out after only 51 minutes, despite the hefty nine-cell lithium-ion battery stuck up its backside.
Our configuration of the latest Alienware M17x is very expensive, but we have to admit that it still represents pretty good value for money, considering the stonking array of components you're getting your hands on in the process. The Core i7 CPU makes a positive difference in terms of performance, and everything's wrapped up in an appealing chassis. There's no telling for how long it'll be the king of gaming laptops, but, for now, the M17x wears the crown.
Edited by Charles Kloet