Alienware M11x R2: New and Improved Ultraportable Gaming

When the original M11x was announced, heads turned and everyone was impressed with just how much performance Alienware managed to cram into the small chassis. In fairness, while the LCD is a standard 11.6" size, the chassis is actually far closer to a 13.3" laptop than it is to 11.6" ultraportables. Still, no one else is coming anywhere near the performance level of the GT 335M GPU in anything smaller than a 14" chassis. We really liked the overall concept, but the first revision had a few areas where we wanted to see improvements. First and most importantly, the switchable graphics were good for battery life, but getting updated drivers on such designs has been difficult at best. With NVIDIA's Verde driver program releasing regular driver updates for everything but switchable graphics, we really wanted an Optimus enabled design. Second, the Intel Core 2 CULV processor was nearing the end of the road, with various Arrandale ULV processors nearing release and promising improved performance and Turbo Boost. The final item that prevented us from giving the M11x an Editor's Choice award was the lackluster LCD along noise and heat levels that were often distracting.

So the revised edition is here and it's looking to address the above concerns. NVIDIA Optimus Technology? Check. An Arrandale i7-640UM processor? Roger that. A high contrast LCD? Um… no. But still, two out of three isn't bad. The GPU is the same GT 335M, so performance shouldn't be any different in that respect. However, the GT 335M was likely more GPU than the overclocked CULV processor could feed, so just because the GPU is the same doesn't mean gaming performance won't improve. The i7-640UM processor has a stock clock speed of 1.20GHz, but now we're looking at two cores plus Hyper-Threading, and clock-for-clock Arrandale processors have outperformed the old Core 2 Duo parts. Add to that the ability for the 640UM to Turbo Boost all the way up to 2.27GHz and we're looking at potentially 50% more performance from the CPU (give or take).

The design hasn't really changed at all from the exterior. Our review sample for the original M11x came with a sliver chassis. We thought it looked decent, but the black R2 model we received definitely has a stealthier look. The lid has a rubberized paint texture that almost feels soft to the touch. If we had a choice, the black chassis wins quite easily. Oddly, the new touchpad (or at least the current Alienware drivers) lack support for both multi-touch gestures and chiral scrolling, though it does support pinch-to-zoom. We'll have to see about swapping out the provided driver for a Synaptics reference driver, as we miss the scrolling gestures. The keyboard is also going to feel a bit small for some, but the customizable colored backlighting is still a great feature to impress your friends.

We're still working on benchmarks, so all we can do for now is present some initial results. We'll skip with graphs and charts and save those for the final review. For now, here's what we can tell you. PCMark Vantage shows an improvement of 36% while most of the 3DMark results improve by 5-15%. Oddly enough, our initial testing has generated slightly lower scores in PCMark05 and 3DMark03, but we're running on the shipping NVIDIA 189.69 drivers rather than updated 256/257 series drivers and we've only completed a few test runs. We did try Alienware's Beta 257.30 drivers, but we experienced problems with the various Futuremark tests and out of memory errors. We're not sure yet whether the problem is the drivers or something in the Alienware software shipped on the system, or perhaps the BIOS just needs a few tweaks. In normal use, the M11x R2 certainly feels snappier than the original, and the upgrade to Arrandale and Optimus are the real story. Battery life results will have to wait, as we're busy testing other things right now, but the M11x should easily last upwards of seven hours for lighter loads.

There is one area that actually got substantially worse with the new release, unfortunately: pricing. While the first M11x was available starting at just $900 and is now shipping for just $800, the M11x R2 starts at $950. Upgrade to 4GB RAM and the 500GB 7200RPM hard drive and the original M11x goes for $1000; the same upgrades on the R2 bump the price to $1150, and if you want the faster i7-640UM (as opposed to the i5-520UM that runs at 1.067GHz stock and up to 1.833GHz Turbo Boost) like our review unit you're looking at $1300. $300 extra for performance that should be 10 to 50% faster is reasonable, especially since you get Optimus Technology thrown into the mix. If you can't wait, there's a quick ship "Fast Track" version with the i5-520UM, 4GB RAM, and a 250GB hard drive that ships in 48 hours for just $1050. If you're thinking of adding an aftermarket SSD down the road anyway, that would be the one to get. Stay tuned for the full review next week, and feel free to ask questions in the comments section in the meantime.

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  • synaesthetic - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    You can put the 330M back to *stock* clocks without much trouble, but I have heard of lots of heat issues with trying to OC the 330M in the Vaio Z. Also you must remember that Sony undervolts all its discrete GPUs so that gives you less OC room to play with.
  • Johnmcl7 - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    Similarly I'd like to see a review of it as the spec is absolutely jaw dropping, particularly looking at the quad SSDs and the dual graphics cards - it's something that AT tends to do well but instead I've just been doing a lot of forum reading on this.

    I was all set for a Z11 but couldn't get the quad SSD model here at all and now the Z12 is out, prices are up and spec is down - I could stomach £2,200 for the i7 quad SSD model as I know I'll get a lot of use out of it but the same spec Z12 is now coming in at £2,700 which is just too much.
  • aferox - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    I've had a Vaio VPC-Z11KGX/X for a couple of months now, and would certainly highly recommend it. Expensive, but fast and very light. The SSDs are amazing. It will play Fallout 3, for example, smoothly with fairly high settings. I don't play much in the way of shooters, so can't write about graphics-heavy games. I regularly run genetic statistics programs on it. It feels solid - definite aura of quality. Weight is a big factor for me. I sometimes walk to work and back (a fair distance), and an extra pound or two can add up. Having the optical drive in the laptop is a big plus, since it is one less "extra." Many ultralights can kill you weight-wise when you add external drives etc. I'd say this is the most exciting laptop I've had in the last 10 years, and I would also be interested in a review.
  • dumpsterj - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    ordered mine the 28th , ships the 8th of this month or so. not a single good review of this new revision out yet, Make yours the first !!! I cant wait lol. I think its smaller than that ocz mousepad i won.
  • buzznut - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    I agree, I have been waiting for reviews of the new revision. I am getting one for fall and getting rid of my 15 inch beast. I am torn as I would rather not pay the extra for minimal performance boost, however I've heard the i5 and i7 were faster and actually better for battery life. Improved battery life would be a big seller for me.

    I think I would be inclined to go for the i5 to save a few dollars.
    I'm hoping by sept prices will fall a bit. If the i5/i7 show reasonable enough improvement, I am sure I can convince my wife!

    Thanks for doing the article, I am sure there are many others that will appreciate the full review on this very hot product.

    My question is that on the alienware site, they list the m11x as having vga, display port and hdmi out. For the i5/i7 machines, they don't list the vga port, just the other two. May not seem like a big deal but every classroom I have been in on campus takes vga, and i will certainly be doing a number of presentations. I'd rather not have to carry around a dongle that I will most likely lose! (the day of the presentation seems a sure bet)
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    You are correct: there's no VGA port on the M11x R2 -- you can see it in the image gallery. Why they dropped that I couldn't say. There also was no HDMI->VGA dongle in the package (or DP->VGA), so you'd have to buy your own. If you need VGA, that's a bit of a bummer. Hopefully, more projectors will start including HDMI and make this a non-issue down the road; I'd really like to see VGA go away now.
  • Lerianis - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    Yeah, VGA is really a dinosaur tech that shouldn't even be included on new laptops anymore. I mean, all the computers I have bought in the past 3 years have had a HDMI connector on the graphics card on them, unless they were bargain basement laptops that I got for a 'school computer'.
  • buzznut - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    Perhaps it is getting a bit long in the tooth, but I'm sure you know VGA is still widely used. There are 20,000 students at Metro and 40,000 total on auraria campus. I have been in most of the buildings and VGA is still used in all the classrooms. I've never seen dvi, and my guess is half the staff have no idea what HDMI is.

    I think you can see where there is still a need for vga outputs on devices..
  • jfmeister - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    I was one of those who was waiting for the refresh to come. Most of all features were updated, except 2 that I consider important; still no DirectX11 GPU and LCD needs improvement. It's been a year that DirectX 11 GPU are available; I would have expected Alienware to give the opportunity to select another GPU than the same old same old 335M. At the price they are selling the R2, I would like my investement to last a bit longer.

    Thanks to the incredibly bad Dell French customer service (called them 3 times to buy an M11x R2 and each time I was told they would call me back, to then find out that they never took my order) I now find myself waiting again for at least a Dx11 GPU and in the mean time, while 11.6 inch for World of Warcraft on the road seems a bit small, I will keep an eye on a possible 13 inch model from Alienware, using the same chassis as the M11x.
  • Lerianis - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    NEVER call to do an order with any company with an online ordering thing. Just do it online, make meticulous records (including a printout of the final 'before click to buy' window with all of the specs of your computer), and don't bother with phone support.

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