Alienware m11x Initial Review

m11x-mini.jpgAfter playing with -er- using the m11x for over a week, I can safely say that this is one of the best 11″ notebooks ever created.  I still have more testing to complete because multiple styled battery tests are not only boring – they are time consuming.  However, I feel like I have enough good data -beyond my first impressions– to help those in the market for a portable yet powerful notebook to make a better decision.  I’ve included comparisons to my desktop, Adamo, and netbook to give you a good feel for how this pocket rocket performs.   Below are the specs for my machine:

  • 1.3GHz Intel SU7300 (800MHz FSB, 3MB Cache) overclockable to 1066MHz FSB (1.73GHz)
  • Nvidia GeForce GT 335M Discrete Graphics (1GB GDDR3) with switchable Intel GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics
  • 4GB PC3-8500 DDR3 (2 x 2GB)
  • 250GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive
  • 11.6″ WXGA WideHD LED Backlit display (1366×768)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit
  • 802.11b/g/n, 10/100 LAN
  • 3-in-1 card reader
  • 8-Cell Li-ion 64WH battery, 65W Power Supply
  • Dimensions: 11.25″ x 9.19″ x 1.29″
  • Weight: 4.48lbs

First off, let’s address the 3D Marks issue. Engadget reported a “3DMark06 score [of] 5593. That’s significantly lower than the ‘over 6,100’ Alienware claims…” What they missed however was the ability to overclock the m11x in the bios.  A super simple procedure of F2-ing to reach the bios and changing the”OverClock” setting (under Advanced) from “Disabled” to “Enabled” handles overclocking the CPU from 1.3Ghz to 1.73Ghz.  This 33% speed increase is quite noticeable and is required to hit (and exceed) Dell’s claimed 06 marks.  Note: using the overclock option almost ensures the fan will be active in Intel graphics mode.  Using the GPU will kick the fan on as well, but you already knew that going into any gaming laptop.

3D Marks 06
C2D 1.3 Ghz Intel 674
C2D 1.73 Ghz Intel 737
C2D 1.3 Ghz Nvidia 5605
C2D 1.73 Ghz Nvidia 6429

Real world gaming is always the most grueling part of any review, but I suffered through it for you.  ;)  This thing can actually play Crysis at native resolution.  Stock CPU, it can handle the low settings without problems at 1355×768 and looks quite nice doing it.  Overclocking allows a bit more eye candy but not enough to enable full medium settings.  Less ridiculously intensive games do much better at native resolution:

  • Unreal Tournament runs fine at default (high) settings.
  • Far Cry 2 can be played at medium settings when overclocked.
  • Call of Duty 2 can be played at maximum settings which includes an in game 4x AA and generally see between 50-80 FPS stock or 60-90 FPS overclocked.
  • The original Call of Duty is old enough that it can’t support the native wide screen res and forces you to drop back to 1024×768.  With max setting and nHancer set 4×4 AA and 16x AF you generally get 70-200 FPS without overclocking but intense action with large explosions can cause a dip down to 30 FPS at these extreme settings.

The overclocking is noticeable in CPU intensive tasks such as video encoding or calculating prime numbers.  I ran wPrime several times after a reboot and took the best time.

wPrime 32M in Seconds
i7 Core 3.21Ghz (Desktop) 8.97
m11x C2D 1.73Ghz 55.7
Adamo C2D 1.4Ghz 62.4
m11x C2D 1.3Ghz 68.2
Asus Atom 1.8Ghz 125.7
Asus Atom 1.6Ghz 134.4

Besides CPU, the other common bottleneck in ultralight computers is often slow hard drives.  SSDs can greatly improve this area not only in data transfer speeds but also in access time.  A note on the HD Tune results for the m11x that was not overclocked:  You will notice the abysmal 7MB/sec minimum.  Running the test 3 times I got the spikes of slowness 2 out of the 3 times.  Now those spikes will happen on not-completely-sanitized machines when the antivirus or some other background process grabs a few clock cycles or hit’s the disk momentarily.  So they are to be expected and should not be inferred to mean bad, bad things.  You will notice this very low min did little to change the average speed of the drive compared to the overclocked tests.  However, after using the m11x for a week, I can attest to the real world reflection of these results.  The m11x for the most part is adequately  zippy even considering the fact that I’m accustomed to my ultra-fast workstation.  However at times it seems the slower CPU and HD bog down at the same time and performance grinds to a halt for an agonizing second or two.  Consider your normal notebook taking a “union break” and pretending it’s a netbook for a few seconds and then returning to normal.  Perceived speed is relative but the difference is there even compared against itself.  The good news is that I have not yet seen this happen while the CPU is overclocked.  Granted you can still overtax the CPU easily with intensive tasks but that is a different matter.  OC’d it doesn’t seem to have the odd random slowdown.








in millisec

Intel 2nd Gen SSD 205.7 236.9 230.6 0.1
Adamo OEM SSD 97.0 137.5 103.1 0.3
2x WD Black RAID 0 (speed) 111.4 218.4 179.4 11.6
WD Green 40.2 100.0 73.5 13.3
m11x overclocked (7200rpm) 43.2 102.1 77.8 18.1
m11x (7200rpm) 7.4 101.0 76.3 19.2
Asus 1000ha 1.5 57.8 34.4 19.7

The chart above is arranged by access time as that often is a more noticeable in how fast a computer feels.  Fast transfer rates can help during an a program install or copying a large video file.  Fast access time helps everything – especially launching applications where many small files must be brought together to load the program.  For this “speed feel” test Gimp was used as it is a big slow program to load which gives a nice worse case test and makes it easier to time with a stop watch.  The test was repeated several times and the best time was taken.  However only the first launch after each reboot was used as after that cache skews the results (for instance a 2nd launch following the first for both the Adamo and the m11x completed in under 8 seconds when caching all but eliminated hard drive speeds from the equation)

Gimp Load Time in Seconds
i7 Core Desktop, Intel SSD 2.8
Adamo C2D 1.4Ghz, OEM SSD 10.0
m11x C2D 1.73Ghz, 7200 HD 15.9
m11x C2D 1.3Ghz, 7200 HD 18.4
Asus Atom 1.8Ghz, 5400 HD 25.4

Even with the faster 7200rpm HD option from Dell and a faster CPU clock speed, the Adamo’s even faster SSD allows for a significantly zippier user experience in Windows.  Dell offers an SSD upgrade but unfortunately it’s $570.  Now the good news is that it is 256GB which is large as SSDs go.  The bad news is that OEM SSD – as seen in my Adamo – don’t tend to live up to the Intel benchmark of SSD speed.  However, drives are not that difficult to upgrade, so you can always grab a top performing SSD later and spread out the payment pain a little as well.

Finally battery life.  I am still running a battery of tests (heh heh) but I can report that the battery is quite strong.  In fact, I believe that the majority of the weight difference between this machine and other “thin and lights” is actually battery weight not the GPU or fans. At the request of my friend Brad over at liliputing, I have run battery tests on HD video use first.  Interestingly, the results are almost identical with the Core2Duo running stock or overclocked. Apparently the power draw of the CPU running 60-80% is the same as the CPU being overclocked and running 50-70%.  The back light was way too dark at the lowest setting but was quite nice at the 2nd of 8 setting so it was used.  Although the differences between the rest of brightness levels does not seem to be very much, especially considering there are only 7 (not dark) settings. Wifi was on and sound was at 30% for this test. As the m11x has no CD/DVD drive, an iTunes HD video seemed a likely candidate for quick and easy video on the go.

  • iTunes HD Video Battery Test: 10% warning with 22min windows estimate at 3:32 or 3hr 54min total
  • iTunes HD Video Battery Test (OC’d): 10% warning with 24min windows estimate at 3:31 or 3hr 55min total

Or enough time to watch 6 Psych episodes with time to spare.  From general use, I can also tell you’ll see 2+ hours of gaming and 6+ hours of light, gentle use.  I flesh will out those numbers with further testing and include them in my complete review in the days ahead.

m11x-and-1000ha.jpg m11x-and-adamo.jpg thin.jpg

Until then let me just say that the balance between power (CPU & GPU), portability, and battery life in the m11x makes it quite a compelling offering.  It is well worth the extra money over the many CULV Thin and Lights out there.  As it is alone in it’s offering of an overclocked CPU and a best in class GPU (true mid-range for gamers), it is easy to call this the most powerful 11″ notebook you can buy.  For the power user wanting a bit more, an upgrade to an speedy (non OEM) SSD could make this thing really rock at a still cheaper than some price.

Alienware m11x Heartbreak And First Impressions

Dell Adamo, Alienware m11x, Asus 1000HA lined upSo I must admit that when Dell announced an 11″ sized Alienware laptop starting at just $799 – I was sold.  The fact that I got an additional 10% off from work made it an even sweeter deal!

Rumored to launch Feb 5th, only the pre-order page launched – though a few days early. So I was forced to wait for the ship date of March 1st or so it seemed – until two days ago Dell informed me that my new toy had shipped out and I would get it a week early.  As the hours past slowly waiting for the FedEx man that would never come – heartbreak set it.  Three conversations with Dell later – turns out they lost my laptop between the factory floor and shipping door.

“Oh that’s what that box in the hallway was…”

Anyway, delayed a day but no worse for the wear, I received my m11x today.  I’ve never been one for unboxings and really everyone knows what it looks like already.  The real question is how does it perform – not just in gaming but as anything from a portable work horse to a video entertainment device.  A full review and comparison to the Dell Adamo 13″ (another recent acquisition when it’s price dropped below a grand) is in the works but first off some first impressions.

  • One thing that was not completely clear to me beforehand was the alien head on the lid – did it light up or not?  Well, it does but unfortunately it can not be controlled by fancy alien color control system.  So a partial victory there.  The rest of the unit you can color change to your hearts content.
  • The keyboard is quite different than both my desktop’s Sidewinder X6 keyboard and my netbook’s keyboard in feel, but I would describe it as “nice”.  I would have preferred full sized arrow keys, however, as I use them often when my using a notebook in my lap and surfing the web.
  • The screen which looks great keeps resetting the brightness level to the lowest setting even though I’m on the “balanced” power profile.  This could be some alienware setting I’m missing.
  • The sharp edge of the unit is a bit harsh on my wrists as I’m typing this post up.
  • The mouse buttons are smushy.  It’s not that they have a “bad” click but it is a much deeper click than one would expect. In fact it’s probably the deepest click buttons I’ve seen in the last several years.  Now it’s probably only depressing a mm more than normal but it feels more like 1/4″

The unit weight is interesting.  It is by far the heaviest of the three notebooks pictured, but it doesn’t seem much bulkier. I account for this because two things.  First you brain expects a certain weight based on the size of an object and second unbalanced weight seems much heavier to hold in your hand.  The 1000HA netbook is much smaller than the other machines but not much lighter, also it is back heavy because of the battery.  Both of these things make it “surprisingly” heavy. The Adamo is both larger and thinner so it really messes with your mind.  Some times it feels  “surprisingly” heavy sometimes  “surprisingly” light.  This has continued over a few weeks with it.  Both Dell’s are extremely well balanced weight wise.  So the m11x doesn’t feel light by any means but it doesn’t feel heavy either.  The chart below is based on my actual devices measured on a scale with 1 gram accuracy.

Dell  Adamo, Alienware m11x, Asus 1000HA stacked up

Alienware m11x 4.48lbs
Dell Adamo 4.05lbs
Asus 1000HA 3.16lbs

It doesn’t look it but the notebooks in the pic are lined up both in the back and left of the devices.

Desktop CPUs Pentium 4s To Core i7s & AMD Too – Is It Time To Upgrade?

Tech Report has put together a 18 page round up of CPUs from yesterday and today.  The comparison is nice as it includes OLD hardware to give you a real feel for what kind of speed bump a new desktop would actually give in the real world.

The real gold however is in a single page: the value proposition:

With the data plotted [overall performance per dollar], we can see a few other contenders that might join the Athlon II X3 and X4 processors as value stand-outs at higher performance levels, including the Core i5-750, Phenom II X4 965, Core i7-920, and even the Core i7-960.  The ghosts of the P4 670 and the Core 2 Quad Q6600 haunt our value scatter plot, as well, reminding us of the dismal CPU values in days past…

The inclusion of total system prices alters the complexion of our scatter plot somewhat, too, mainly by making the LGA775 and LGA1366 processors look less attractive. The cheaper chips lose their luster, as well. The Core i5-750 and i7-870 remain nicely positioned, while the poorer values include the Core 2 Duo E8600, the Q9400, and the Core i5-661.

Tech Report even goes on to include the various electrical costs of the difference chip & system power draws which further extends the Intel lead and creates a clear cut winner.  Ok a few winners:

  • To build a reasonably beefy machine for around $700 and what the maximum bang for your buck – get the Core i5-750.
  • For more performance without breaking the bank ($1000-1200) pick up an entry level i7 – either the i7-920 or the i7-870 (the high end cores are much more expensive but only marginally faster)
  • For more efficient, always-on systems such as a HTPC consider the core i3-530 which will be easier on your electric bill and quieter than the i5

I personally invested in a i7-920 machine this summer (overclocked at 3.21Ghz with stock cooling) and love it.  I can encode a 90min movie from DVD insertion to finished file in ~16 minutes.  In fact, the two most significant performance improvements I have seen in a quite while in my own usage are my i7 core and my more recent SSD upgrade on my boot/programs drive.

Alienware Gaming “Netbook” Launches This Weekend

dell_alienware_m11x.jpgDell showed off it’s smallest Alienware iteration at CES last month but details were scarce.  Now the leaks have been put together here for your enjoyment.  There was some anticipation when everyone believed the the pocket gamer would start at $999.  However the recent news of a $799 base price has a lot more people interested.  Of course Alienware has historically offered a few options to help customers up that base price.

Dell Alienware m11x specs:

  • Screen: 11.6″ 1366×768
  • Weight: 4.39lbs
  • CPU: 1.3Ghz Core 2 Duo SU7300 (also a Pentium SU4100 option)
  • GPU: NVIDIA GT335M GPU + switchable integrated graphics (most likely 4500HD)
  • Ports: 3 USBs, an HDMI, DisplayPort, mini FireWire, VGA and a SIM slot
  • Battery life: 6.5 hours with integrated graphics; 2 hours gaming

The m11x will be the first Intel CULV processor to be matched up to a discrete graphics card AND the first gaming rig in the 11″ form factor.

Get those credit cards ready!  :D