Is this the end of the ultraportable as we know it? Not so, I say! In addition to the fresh arrival of the buffed up ‘ultrabook’, the netbook category has been bolstered by an arrival from Dell-owned purveyor of gaming systems, Alienware.
The group, renowned for its reputation in building high-powered gaming systems, surprised us in 2010 with the m11x, which could probably be the world’s first ‘Gaming Netbook’. Those two words I thought I’d never see together, and now with the m11x in it’s third revision, I thought I’d see if it lives up to its promising nickname.
Netbooks have, despite their various merits, always been somewhat considered as the punchlines of the laptop world. A lot of this criticism falls down to the fact that whilst incredibly convenient, netbooks have a tendency to be a bit finnicky, not to mention that they are unbearably sluggish at times.
In addition, any sort of game that isn’t older than a few years is a no-no. So it’s no surprise that the small, stalwart forces of ultra-portable laptops are being pushed back by the advance of the iPad-championed horde of tablets; devices which can offer a much more versatile and comfortable user experience.
Look & Feel
If Alienware have done one thing right in their long history, it’s making designs that are truly something to take note of. The m11x, along with every current model in their current laptop lineup, features an incredibly sleek and futuristic design; the lid is a subtly bent, rubberised surface adorned with two pairs of sleek, angled recesses, and embedded with a metallic alien head in the centre.
The m11x features an incredibly sleek and futuristic design.
The rest of the device has a series of neat, smooth bevels along the edges, with the front face of the laptop featuring a series of sleek, angled lines. In addition, the m11x is riddled with undeniably cool lighting effects; the keyboard is backlit, as is the power button, the ‘alien head’ on the lid, a pair or recessed ‘holes’ on the front of the device, and a proudly glowing Alienware logo just below the display.
The majority of the chassis is hewn from a smooth rubberised plastic, toned to a subtle, very dark grey. However, there is an option to have the laptop toned a deep crimson red as opposed to black, in addition, there is customisable (US only) chromium nameplate attached to the underside of the device.
Overall the notebook’s build quality is superb!
Overall the notebook’s build quality is superb and I have found no major faults with any part of the m11x’s chassis during my time with it; the lid hinge is stable. That said, I found the glossy plastic areas on the front panel and below the display to be somewhat overly prone to cosmetic scratches, and the usually matte keys seemed to wear down to a slight gloss after only a week or so of use.
Of course all of this fancy sci-fi glamour wouldn’t be much use without some actual functionality. In that department you’d be happy to know that the m11x boasts a handsome array of ports; the left side of the laptop sports a Kensington Lock, a DisplayPort for video input (interestingly unusual for a laptop), as well as the bog-standard HDMI output. These are followed by a solitary USB 2.0 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, a pair of all-in-one media card readers, and a firewire port.
The right side, whilst featuring less in the way of ports, has a duo of undoubtedly more modern USB 3.0 ports, as well as an and an audio input and two audio output jacks. As one would expect with any laptop today; a 2-megapixel webcam is perched above the display of the m11x, in addition to a pair of noise-cancelling microphones.
The m11x has, to say the least, a lot of connectivity for a laptop of this size category. Those of you who have nothing better to do than transfer files all day will enjoy the boost provided by the USB 3.0 ports, whilst the convenient pair of headphone jacks all but eliminates the need for an easily-losable headphone splitter.
Display & Internals
An obvious and inevitable compromise made by netbooks comes, unfortunately, in the category of display sizes and the power of hardware. Both of these are sacrifices made in the all-important name of mobility, but both are ones that Alienware are stubbornly unwilling to make compromises on in the case of the m11x.
You may hate the glossy display but it’s darn good.
The laptop features an impressive 1366×768 11.6” display, one that is bright and clear in good conditions. However, due to being gloss instead of matte, the LCD unfortunately suffers from an terrible glare problem when used anywhere other than indoors.
Looking underneath the m11x’s sleek black hood, we are treated to what I have to say are some fantastic specifications for a device of this size. The m11x can currently be configured with (at its best) an Intel® Core™ i7 2637M processor clocked at 1.7ghz, or 2.8ghz maximum when turbo-boosted.
The laptop can also be upgraded to include a massive 16gb of DDR3 1333mhz RAM, a choice of either a 500gb 7200rpm SATA HDD, or a 256gb Solid State Drive. The m11x also comes equipped with an nVidia GeForce 540m, which is tied with the processor configuration, and will consequently come with either 1gb or 2gb of VRAM.
Unfortunately, the processor and GPU are both ‘hardwired’ to the motherboard, eliminating the option for post-purchase upgrading. As per-standard, you get a choice of the three editions of 64-bit Windows 7 at purchase.
Now these sorts of specifications have been unheard of in notebooks of this size, and the fact that the m11x r3 packs so much power is just a new testament to Alienware’s credence of packing a great deal of muscle into relatively small chassis.
This case also happens to be something different and unusual as it no longer places the ‘gaming laptop’ solely in the realm of bulky 15″+ desktop replacements, instead we can now enjoy more modern titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Battlefield 3 in a package not much larger than today’s netbooks. I for one thoroughly enjoy the ability to access my beloved Starcraft II whilst out on the road.
5.5 hours is pretty good for the hardware it’s packing.
Speaking of ‘on the road’, another area the m11x pleasantly surprised me in was battery life. Usually another area where traditional gaming laptops fall flat, this particular device was able to, at its best, last for about five and a half hours. That was, of course, with the screen brightness turned down to it’s lowest and with nothing too intensive running.
The impressive battery life demonstrated by the m11x comes down to a combination of two power-saving features’. The first is the ‘turbo-boost’ feature found in Intel’s ‘Core i’ series of processors, which allows the CPU to boost its frequency up to a maximum when needed. The other is a similar piece of technology used by nVidia’s more recent GPU’s, which dynamically switch between the dedicated card and an integrated Intel adapter when the situation arises. Both of these features in combination prove to be a big power saver, and make the m11x even more travel-friendly.
Unfortunately, this level of hardware does come at a cost. Whilst the m11x is positively small, and could just be classified as ‘ultraportable’, it still suffers from a notable amount of bulk. Additionally, the cooling fans can be incredibly noisy when the system is running at its fastest.
Performance & Benchmarks
For those of you curious to see precisely how well the m11x r3 measures up in the real world, we’ve included some benchmark results. Our system featured the i7 2637m processor and 4gb of 1333mhz RAM with a standard 7200rpm HDD. Benchmarking for Starcraft II and TESV: Skyrim were conducted using Fraps.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Graphics Preset: High
Resolution: 1366 x 768
AA: 8 Samples
AF: 8 Samples
FPS Max: 44
FPS Min: 26
FPS Average: 32.4
Starcraft II (Single Player)
Graphics Preset: High
Texture Resolution: Ultra
Resolution: 1366 x 768
FPS Max: 35
FPS Min: 42
FPS Average: 36.7
The question you are probably asking, and have been asking since the start of this article, is going to be ‘Does a gaming netbook actually work in practice?’.
When I first heard about the m11x, I was asking the same questions, but now I can answer this question with a resounding yes; Alienware have done a first-rate job of packing some incredibly awesome power into their smallest machine yet. If you, like me, are interested in clocking in some of your favourite PC games whilst on the road, look no further than this miniature monster.