An alienesque package containing a “stealth black” Alienware M14x has just arrived. The white lab coats are on and to be a little original we are going to test it with both the included hard drive–in this case a 500GB 7200rpm drive as well as a 256GB Crucial m4.
But first things first; this is a full review so let’s go over the basics first. Here are the specifications for our system:
- CPU: Quad Core Intel Core i7 2630QM 2.0GHz (with TurboBoost 2.9GHz)
- Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce GT 555M with 1.5GB of DDR3 + Intel HD Graphics (Nvidia Optimus)
- Display: 14-inch WLED (1600×900)
- Memory: 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 (Hynix)
- Hard Drive: 500GB 7200rpm (Seagate Momentus, stock HDD)
- (SSD: 256GB Crucial m4)
- OS: 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium
- Dimensions: 1.49″ x 10.7″ x 13.27″ – 6.45lbs / 2.92 kg
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Design and Build Quality
The M14x’ chassis feels extremely robust and a lot of thought has obviously gone into this build. This is apparent not least when you start to dismantle the laptop. Only two screws keep you from accessing the internal parts, and the screws are fastened on the other side with a small brick so you can’t lose them. The lid and palm rest areas are covered in a smooth, rubber-like material that does not attract fingerprints or smudges as easily as glossy surfaces.
The WLED panel is very bright and sharp. Compared subjectively to some other panels we have on hand, a 2010 MacBook Pro 13, a Gateway netbook and a regular desktop monitor with a TN panel, the one in the M14x is the most attractive by far. The viewing angles are also surprisingly good for a TN panel. Like all other Alienware laptops, the M14x comes with “AlienFX” backlighting for the keyboard, track pad and other components, which is really fun to play around with. It lets you change the backlight color of individual components as well as certain zones of the keyboard. You can set it to anything from a conservative, slightly dimmed white to a flashing neon rainbow Las Vegas-style. Everything is customizable via the included AlienFX tool.
On the whole, you definitely get the impression that this is a premium quality laptop. At the same time it is also heavy for a 14-inch laptop. It actually weighs more than the 15-inch MacBook Pro (and its Windows competitor the new lightweight Dell XPS 15z). We expected it to be somewhat clumsy, but that’s not really the case. It is just very compact. On the other hand some added weight shouldn’t be surprising when you’re dealing with the most powerful 14-inch gaming laptop in the world, which is the slogan–quite an accurate one by the way (of course, there aren’t many 14-inch gaming laptops on the market, but still). The 150W power brick is fairly large as expected but also flat, so making room for it in an average 15-inch laptop bag shouldn’t be a problem. It also has that convenient rubber strap attached that Dell is known for. Even the laptop end of the power cord lights up when it’s connected to the mains.
In terms of connectivity, the M14x includes two USB 3.0 “SuperSpeed” ports, one USB 2.0, dual headphone jacks + 1 mic, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, VGA, multi-card reader, SIM-card reader, Ethernet port and an optional WirelessHD output that streams HD audio/video to an external HDTV or projector (not present in our unit). It’s also equipped with a slot-loading DVD reader/writer, which is a questionable design choice. A Blu-ray player might have been justified, but most of us would get by without the optical drive or use an external one. For those who like to experiment, however, it is apparently possible to replace it with a hard drive dock similar to the OptiBay solution for MacBooks.
The Alienware M14x is indeed very powerful for a 14-inch laptop. This particular model includes a quad-core, 2nd-generation Intel Core i7 CPU that runs at 2.0GHz but automatically overclocks to 2.9GHz on demand.
This is the “slowest” processor available for the M14x. [Correction: after this review was published, Dell started offering a cheaper dual-core Core i5 alternative]. Other than the 2.0GHz CPU in this model, you can also upgrade to an i7 2720QM running at 2.2GHz (3.3GHz with Turbo Boost) or an i7 2820QM running at 2.3GHz (3.4GHz with Turbo Boost).
Any of the above CPUs will give your laptop performance aplenty. There’s also an option for an Nvidia GeForce GT 555M with 3GB of video RAM instead of 1.5GB–an upgrade that we can’t imagine has any noticeable effect on games. A better option would have been a GT 555M with GDDR5 memory modules, but this alternative is unfortunately not offered by Nvidia, so it’s no fault of Dell’s. This is possibly to differentiate the GT555M from the high-end GTX series graphics cards, which this GPU is already very close to in the performance department.
What about the battery life? In spite of Optimus it doesn’t last that long unplugged. On the ‘Balanced’ power setting (default) and while actively using the laptop–web browsing, background processes running and so on–it lasts for about 2 hours and 30 minutes. With aggressive power savings it should be able to run for 4-5 hours, but the 6-hour mark would be very tough to reach. This is not surprising considering the powerful components inside. It was not until switchable graphics came along that you could mention ‘battery life’ and ‘gaming laptop’ in the same sentence, so it’s good to see that things are improving on this front.
The largely useless Windows Experience Index pegs this laptop at the lowest base score 5.8, for the Windows Aero interface (because it uses the integrated GPU). For gaming graphics the score is 6.9 (without overclocking). The other scores are 7.4 for the processor, 7.6 for the memory, and finally 5.9 for the hard drive (apparently the maximum score for all hard drives) or 7.8 for the SSD. In PCMark Vantage, the score with the original 500GB hard drive was 7,436 and with the SSD 9,307–a noteworthy difference which is only attributable to the HDD score. Similarly the system boots considerably faster with an SSD: 27 seconds to a fully working desktop compared to 1 minute and 5 seconds with the hard drive. The other Futuremark benchmarks are all about graphics performance–arguably the most important factor for this system. 3DMark 06 measures DX9 performance, 3DMark Vantage DX10 and 3DMark 11 DX11, respectively. All of them were run with stock clock speeds and delivered excellent results. Note that the 3DMark suite has been run on an external monitor to comply with the default resolution (1280 x 1024).
Important update: After using the M14x in combination with the m4 SSD for a while, it became apparent that this drive does not run at SATA III 6GBps speeds for some reason–something that almost certainly affects the PCMark Vantage HDD score. Moreover, it must have the Intel RST (Rapid Storage Technology) driver installed for this SSD to function properly. This is installed by default and carried over when we cloned the hard drive contents to the m4; however, using the system without the driver causes instability. Whatever the root cause of this problem, we can not recommend a combination of an M14x and a Crucial m4 SSD for the time being.
Now for the interesting part, namely how the Alienware M14x performs in different games. We have intentionally chosen to run the games at native resolution (1600×900). This makes the frame rates more difficult to compare against other laptops (that’s what the above benchmarks are for), but it gives you a much better impression of what the M14x is actually capable of. It is always preferable to run your games at native resolution, as it always gives you the best image quality. In other words, this might be one (and probably the only) reason to opt for an M14x with a 1366×768 panel, which is also available. It’s fairly safe to say that the M14x will run any game currently on the market in native resolution at more than adequate frame rates.
As you have probably guessed, our sights were set on the 30 FPS (frames per second) mark–the point where everything is silky smooth with the only limiting factor being your eyes, which can’t perceive higher frame rates. In STALKER and HAWX 2, the mark was impossible to miss even on the highest settings (without FSAA). Dragon Age 2 was fully playable in the “high” setting using DX11 as the renderer. Crysis 2 was running smoothly at the “very high/advanced” setting (actually the game’s medium setting), whereas Resident Evil 5 was another game where everything could be left on high. All games were run without any overclocking or other tweaks, with the usual services running in the background. All of the five games were in other words playable at the display’s native resolution; the older games with all the details maxed out, and the new ones with less details but without having to lower the pixel count. Here’s a higher quality video captured with FRAPS. Keep in mind that there’s some performance loss when recording this way, but it never drops below 30FPS.
Heat and Noise
The M14x ranges for completely silent to Xbox 360 blow dryer mode. When you are just browsing the web an writing an Alienware M14x review in Word for example, the laptop is actually entirely passive and silent. The fans only start up occasionally to blow out some moderately hot air. When firing up Crysis 2, on the other hand, the fans become very active and loud. At the same time the cooling solution appears to be very efficient; the laptop never gets too hot for its own good. Also, when playing games you are probably wearing a headset or making use of the included Klipsch speakers, which give off a fair amount of above-average sound by the way. It actually has some bass and depth, which is more than you can say for just about any other laptop.
We can only agree that the Alienware M14x is the most powerful 14-inch gaming laptop in the world, although this comes at the cost of it being a pound heavier than the average 14-inch machine. The quad-core Sandy Bridge Intel CPU, which shows up as eight cores in the operating system thanks to Intel’s Hyperthreading feature, makes everything extremely snappy and responsive, although ours is the slowest alternative. With an SSD the loading times are theoretically 4-5 times faster, and subjectively the system feels about twice as fast in everything but the games. The games’ loading times are greatly improved though. Nvidia’s GeForce GT 555M is not quite on par with the latest GPUs from the GTX series, but comes very close. If you are looking for a gaming laptop in a more convenient form factor than desktop replacement, the M14x is definitely the most capable option at the moment.[pcu id=40]
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