Review: Alienware M17x gaming laptop

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DSC_0077Short Version: Billed by Alienware as “the most powerful laptop in the universe,” the M17x is simply an amazing piece of hardware. It combines the latest in hardware with an extremely high-quality finish to create a laptop that is incredibly fast and well-designed. Unfortunately, it also might be the most expensive laptop in the universe.

Long version: The M17x is Alienware’s latest laptop, and they really went all out on this one. It’s a powerhouse of a gaming laptop, and runs pretty much everything I could throw at it flawlessly. From a performance standpoint, you definitely get what you pay for with this machine.

Here are the specs on the version that they sent us for review:

Processor: Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad QX9300 2.53 GHz (that’s the 12mb cache version)
OS: Vista Home Premium 64-bit
Video Card: Dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M, 2GB running SLI
LCD: 17-inch WideUXGA 1920×1200 (at 1200p)
Memory: 4GB dual channel DDR3
Hard drive: 1TB total (2x 500GB 7,200 RPM Raid 0)
Optical drive: Slot-load dual layer Blu-ray combo with DVD writer

As you can see, it’s a very strong machine. Yes, you pay for this level of performance, but if you want something that will give you the hardware-level edge over your competition, this is the machine to do it. But the hardware is only half the story. This machine has the looks to impress as well. Alienware built the case out of anodized black aluminum, which makes it feel like one hell of a sturdy unit. They also added some new touch controls across the top of the keyboard, in addition to the typical indicator lights. The touch strip allows you to eject the optical media, turn the volume up and down, turn off the wifi, and activate or deactivate the “Command Center” (more on that later) and the discrete graphics mode. This is rather handy, and except for some obvious exceptions, standard on most laptops nowadays.

The battery life on most gaming laptops is pretty bad. Alienware has managed to avoid this issue for the most part by adding a discrete video card to the motherboard. What this means is that when you unplug the power from the machine, it automatically disables the dual Nvidia cards and switches you to the onboard video. This results in a significant hit to performance, but it also adds about an hour and a half to two hours worth of battery time. The bad thing is, if this happens on accident while you’re in-game, your framerate will drop to almost a standstill. You also have to be cautious not to accidentally hit the button on the touch strip that does the same thing. I spoke with Alienware, and they said that currently, there isn’t any way to disable that particular button.

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The overall appearance on the M17x is outstanding. The aluminum case looks very nice, and gives the laptop an almost automotive feel. It does add to the weight, but honestly, this isn’t intended to be a portable laptop that you carry around everywhere. Alienware also went all out with the lighting. They’ve put LEDs under the keyboard, behind the speaker grill, and underneath the touch strip above the keyboard. The really fun part is that you can change the color of the LED’s from in the Command Center, and there are different zones which allow you to vary the color of the lights from one side of the keyboard to the other. Personally, I turned all the LEDs red while I played some L4D in the dark, which gave the whole experience a particularly creepy air.

The Good: Alienware’s M17x laptop is an extremely powerful gaming machine. It’ll run your favorite games with no hesitation, and then ask for more. The Nvidia chipset performs brilliantly, and makes even the newest games (I tried Batman: Arkham Asylum) an absolute dream to play. The full size keyboard also makes it a great laptop for schoolwork, or whatever else you might decide to use it for.

The Bad: There are a couple of things I wasn’t fond of. That touch button that disables the Nvidia cards is really a pain. The weight is also an issue. The thing weighs 13 pounds with the power adapter. But we already knew that it’s not a computer for road warriors. It’s also extremely expensive. The system we were sent to review has an MSRP of $3898. Is it worth it? Yes. And honestly, if you are looking at Alienware, you’re not expecting it to be cheap anyway. Also, it comes with Vista. If you wait a bit, though, 7 will probably be the default.

Bottom line: If money is no object, and you want a semi-portable machine that will provide you with destktop-level gaming performance, buy the M17x.

Update: Disaster! While taking pictures this morning for the review, the system quit booting. After multiple attempts, the recovery CD finally did work, but it was quite the hassle. I blame Vista, and think that waiting for Windows 7 (or installing Ubuntu, which would fly on this thing) would be the way to go.

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