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Alienware M14x Gaming Notebook Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Not that long ago there was a relatively long list of “boutique” PC manufacturers like Voodoo, Hypersonic, Falcon Northwest and Alienware but after years of slow attrition, only a few remain. Even the venerable Alienware was taken over by Dell. While many decried the loss of one of the foremost independent gaming PC companies, the former “bastion of beige” has been able leverage their supply channels and massive marketing budget to continue Alienware’s tradition.

One of the most significant things Dell did to revitalize the Alienware name was the expansion of what used to be a very limited and exclusive product lineup. Sure, ultra high end custom designed rigs are still available and they still cost an arm and a leg but lower end computers are now available at some very accessible prices.

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The M14x is regarded by many to be the notebook to get if you are looking for gaming on the go and it actually starts at a reasonable price of around $1100. Naturally, “portable” is a loose term considering this small 14” laptop weighs in at a hefty 6.5 lbs and as with most Alienware products, it can be optioned out to a point where it will beggar all but the most well heeled gamer. But the M14x does start out with a solid base upon which you can build a dream notebook.

For this review Dell sent us a mid-tier M14x which houses one of their most popular configurations. It has a 4 core, 8 thread i7 2630QM standard voltage Sandy Bridge processor, 8GB of 1600MHz memory, a quick 500GB 7200RPM hard drive, the standard 1600 x 900 screen and most importantly an NVIDIA GT 555M graphics processor with Optimus and 3GB of memory (though a 1GB version come standard with most configurations). In their base configuration, Alienware has now substituted the 2630QM with a 2670QM which offers similar performance (it is 200MHz faster) at an identical price point.

For good measure, a wireless HD transmitter and the upgraded Intel dual band WiMax supporting series-6250 network card were also thrown in. And the price for all of this gaming goodness? About $1600 but when on sale we’ve seen this configuration go for just under $1500. So while it isn’t all that expensive in the grand scheme of things, our configuration certainly isn’t cheap for a 14” notebook either.

If performance upgrades are your thing, be prepared for some treats. In addition to the specs of our review unit, a 2860QM processor can be yours for $350. Want Sound Blaster X-Fi audio software or a drool worthy SSD setup? That’ll be $20 and $500 respectively. Just about the only thing that isn’t upgradable is the graphics processor due to the chassis’ internal cooling limitations and a fully decked out M14x with all of the bells and whistles will run you a cool $2500.

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Our M14x unit just happened to come in a highly photogenic metallic red (or Nebula Red as Alienware describes it) but is also available in a standard matte black finish. With that being said, the exterior may look a bit frail but the paint seems to be applied thick enough that most scratches will rendered invisible and there is a slightly textured finish so it won’t slip out of your hand.


There is certainly a lot of plastic on Alienware’s M14x but the build quality here is really second to none and the exterior design isn’t all that bad either. The gently angled front and rear panels slim down its substantial 1 ½” thickness and end up making some space for the interesting (yet completely non-functional) illuminated front “vents”.

Unfortunately this sloped design and a rear-mounted power connector makes for a lesson in frustration as you fumble around looking for a way to plug the M14x in. The illuminated power cord looks cool but it doesn’t help in this task either. Sure, flipping it over isn’t all that hard but the sharp front edges can scratch a laminated desk very easily.

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Opening up the lid we see a colour scheme that seems straight out of Dell’s Vostro line with a sea of matte black surfaces but there is more here than what first meets the eye. The keyboard, trackpad and front “lip” are covered in a supple finish that adds grip while absorbing any light, thus eliminating unwanted reflections. This also makes for a highly durable surface which –much like the ASUS U36SD we reviewed- absorbs scratches and doesn’t bat an eye when liquid is spilled.

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If you want something that won’t stand out in a crowd we recommend you avoid the red finish since it really does make a bold statement and every viewable surface is covered in it. Even the M14x’s underside screams “performance” with a pair of large vents for the heatsink’s intake and exhaust. There’s also a personalized, numbered plaque that can be engraved with your own message (or name) for no additional charge.

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This is first and foremost a gaming notebook and Alienware has made it a point to include every conceivable connector. The left hand side holds a VGA port, outputs for both HDMI 1.4 and DisplayPort, a single USB 2.0 connector, TWO headphone jacks (perfect for watching movies with your significant other or playing multiplayer games) and a mic input, a 9 in 1 card reader and a SIM card slot for this notebook’s WAN options.

The right edge meanwhile houses a slot loaded DVD drive (Blu Ray isn’t an optional), two SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, a LAN jack and the arbitrary Kensington lock.

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You know it from the hit CSI TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters: the iconic glowing Alienware logo that graces their laptops puts in an appearance here as well. If you want to stand out in class or at a LAN party, here’s your chance to mesmerize the competition and elicit envious stares from pretty much everyone.
 
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SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Touchpad

Keyboard & Touchpad


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The M14x’s keyboard is actually one of the best we’ve seen on a notebook. It eschews the chiclet style layout we’re used to seeing on more expensive notebooks and instead uses a hybrid mechanical design which gives absolutely perfect feedback. Gaming in particular is a dream come true since the keys are well spaced and the material used on the palm rests prevents slipping by repelling sweat. The arrow pad is also set apart from its neighbors so you won’t be getting things mixed up when games get hot and heavy.

Just above the keyboard is a small alien head which serves as an on / off button and a battery charging indicator. Unfortunately, this means there’s no way to tell if the M14x is charged without lifting the lid since the pulsing head can’t be seen any other way.


When it comes to typing, things could be a bit better. At first, we found our accuracy was adversely affected by the odd beveled keys and relatively small target areas but this was easy to become used to after a few hours of use. Just be prepared for a shock since the throw distance is closer to that of a mechanical keyboard than what we’ve come to expect from notebooks.

There are some other noteworthy additions here as well. Alienware’s designers have been able to fit a handy row of keys (including Home, Page Up / Down and End) along the right hand side without sacrificing the size of the essential Enter, Backspace and right Shift buttons.

Meanwhile, above the Backspace key there are some secondary functions which are unique to the M14x. The AlienFX toggle turns on and off the keyboard / trackpad backlighting while the TPad function turns off the touchpad. The Pause key also pulls double duty as a quick launch button for Alienware’s AlienFX software.

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The trackpad is about what we’ve come to expect from high end gaming notebooks. It offers up a large, highly responsive and tactile surface that’s just the right texture for touch input accuracy. Throughout testing it hardly ever picked up a mistaken palm brush even though a location close to the left palmrest could have meant a disastrous experience. The two physical keys need to be singled out as well since they need just the right amount of pressure to register an input and perfect.

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Say hello to one of the most flashy notebook keyboards known to man. With the AlienFX software the LED backlighting can be changed to an almost infinite number of colour combinations. Want a blood red keyboard? No problemo. How about a combination of white and blue? That’s just a few button clicks away. Even the backlighting around the trackpad can be changed.

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While this feature may look cool, it does have some significant limitations as well. There is a lack of dimming so it is either on or off and let me tell you, it isn’t subtle and can become downright distracting when your keyboard is lit up like a Christmas tree. Alienware hasn’t even included a light sensor so the keyboard will drain bucket loads of battery power if you use the M14x outside on a sunny day and forget the backlight is turned on. With that being said, it sure does look wicked, doesn’t it?
 
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SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Upgrade Options

Screen Quality


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Other manufacturers claiming to own the crown in the sub-15 inch gaming notebook category need to take note of the high resolution, 1600 x 900 screen on the Alienware M14x. It may still be equipped with a TN-based panel, have a mirror like glossy finish and may not boast the 120Hz 3D capabilities of its bigger brothers but this is actually one of the best screens we’ve seen on a notebook. For gamers, the lack of a 120Hz refresh rate may be disappointing but our in-game experiences were devoid of any ghosting.

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Two of the highlights here are the M14x’s colour reproduction accuracy and good contrast ratio. We’re not talking about true RGB gamut or the near perfect black level performance seen from higher end screens but for a gaming notebook, the results were surprising to say the least. Its white levels also showed just the right amount of warmth without becoming overly saturated or dull.


Audio Quality


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We were wishing for great things out of Alienware’s partnership with the auditory masterminds at Klipsch and boy did our hopes come to fruition. Colleagues stared in open mouthed disbelief at the M14x as it put on a show by faithfully reproducing everything from Mozart to Moby to explosions in Battlefield 3.

The treble from its two speakers was pure and uncluttered while the bass was surprisingly robust and like nothing we’ve ever heard from a notebook. The rich bass is due to a dedicated under-keyboard subwoofer which is neatly tucked away within a padded metal enclosure. There was some high frequency sibilance and a bit of distortion when we pushed the volume above 75% but that was to be expected.

So there you have it: yet another surprise from the M14x. So much so that this notebook can now be counted as our new benchmark for audio quality from a portable device.


Upgrade Options


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Alienware has made it extremely easy to upgrade their M14x by allowing the underside to be removed by unscrewing a pair of captured screws and then sliding off the laptop's backplate. Once that's taken care of, you get clear access to the memory (which is under a perforated metal plate) and battery while the hard drive can be found under the optical drive.

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For those of you wondering, a pair of Hynix 4GB 1600MHz CL10 were installed on our sample but the layouts of the other M14x models is slightly different with a single 4GB module being installed on the 4GB version while the 6GB layout comes with a 4GB / 2GB combination. The HDD meanwhile is a Seagate Momentus 500GB 7200RPM unit which can easily be replaced with a larger capacity drive or an SSD.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Included Software

Included Software


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We’re used to seeing a laundry list of bloatware installed on notebooks but it seems like Alienware has really kept things to a minimum in this category. Aside from the Alienware Command Center, there isn’t much that’s been preinstalled and the Windows startup footprint is remarkably small at 897MB.

The Steam game download service was installed on our unit but this is actually an option in Alienware’s online system configuration tool rather than a preset inclusion on every M14x. There is also software for the installed accelerometer (to ensure the hard drive will be preserved if the system is dropped), WirelessHD module and a few other pieces of hardware but the glut of pointless utilities most other pre assembled notebooks include is for the most part MIA.

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The Alienware Command Center is where all the fun happens since it acts as a central hub for the M14x’s built in features. While we already looked at the AlienFX lighting options, there are two additional items here as well: AlienFusion and AlienTouch.

AlienFusion acts like a form of power management software which will allow you to create and save custom power consumption profiles. The interface may look deceptively simple but literally every aspect of this notebook’s power distribution can be defined. For the most part AlienFusion works well but we did encounter some instances where it didn’t save our requested settings.

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AlienTouch’s uses are quite straightforward as well: it allows you to modify the touchpad’s settings. Everything from sensitivity to double click recognition to palm detection can be changed and while this may sound like a clone of Synaptics’ Touchpoint software, we can tell you it is much more user friendly and allows for infinitely more options.

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Windows already includes its own backup and restore software but its results are usually hit or miss so Alienware has taken it upon themselves to do things right. The AlienRecovery console grants us a quick and easy interface for system recovery and backing up our important files and settings. Unfortunately, its reminder panel does tend to pop up at the most inopportune times.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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The M14x's Wireless HD

A Closer Look at the M14x's Wireless HD


WirelessHD isn’t something that we normally see in most notebooks but Alienware’s configuration tool allows for a supporting integrated transmitter to be added as a standalone option. Since our unit included one, we decided to check it out.

This technology is supposed to transmit HD audio and 1080P video signals over a dedicated 60GHz data link between devices, thus eliminating cable clutter. Even though the number of devices which support it is currently limited, with the backing of big players like Samsung, LG and Sony, it is only a matter of time until WirelessHD becomes more widespread. Until such a time when transmitters and receivers are built into more devices, adaptors are available and we used a Vizio model to bridge our Samsung UN55D8000 TV to the M14x.

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Once WirelessHD is enabled via the M14x’s wireless toggle button, a link can be set up between the host computer (a notebook in this case) and the destination device by opening the WirelessHD software and beginning the “handshake” sequence. After both transmitters are bridged, it is simply a matter of mirroring your desktop onto the receiving device.

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Our experience with this wireless setup was (believe it or not) perfectly seamless and we were able to stream a full 1080P video without any hitches between the M14x and our TV. Even with about 20 feet separating the transmitters, HD video and 5.1 sound were recreated faithfully. It takes one hell of a technology to impress us but Alienware’s WirelessHD integration did just that. Not only is it forward looking but the ease of use surpasses any of the other wireless implementations we have seen in the past.

There was however one minor issue. Due to the M14x’s 1600x900 resolution, perfect scaling on a 1080P HDTV was impossible without modifying a few items in the TV’s menus.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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12,841
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Montreal
Another Look at NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology

Another Look at NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology


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We’ve looked at NVIDIA’s Optimus technology a number of times since its introduction but over the last 18 months it has undergone some additional optimizations to ensure full compatibility with today’s changing PC landscape. At its heart, Optimus still allows for the seamless switching between a notebook’s integrated Sandy Bridge processor and a dedicated, higher performance NVIDIA discrete GPU. The result is of course increased efficiency and longer battery life as we discovered when first using it on a mid tier ASUS UL50:

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The M14x on the other hand is geared towards a more discerning gaming crowd which means it packs a higher end graphics processor and one of the most powerful notebook processors currently available. This means Optimus will certainly have a hard time reigning in power consumption so let’s see how it does in a few tests.

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Basic tasks like word processing and web browsing are where Optimus shines since it shuts off the power hungry discrete GPU so the system can use the efficient integrated controller instead. The difference in battery life is significant to say the least.

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In slightly more heavy usage patterns where the discrete GPU is enabled for Flash processing and the odd game, battery life is still significantly better with Optimus enabled. However, the real strength here is the seamless progression between integrated and discrete: the screen doesn’t even flicker as the processing handoff is done.

There are plenty of technologies out there which promise a lot but don’t end up delivering. Optimus on the other hand delivers on its promises and has become a highly sought after technology in the mobile market. It allows NVIDIA’s mobile graphics processors to offer the best possible performance without having an overly negative impact upon battery life. It is a perfect example of a technology which is invisible an end user but can have a significantly positive impact upon someone’s computing experience. To be honest, we really can’t think of going back to the days when Optimus wasn’t offered.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.

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The system benchmark results were right around where we expected them to be considering this notebook’s specifications but they are still very impressive considering the M14x is compact enough to fit in most carrying bags.

Some interesting items of note did however rear their heads. It seems like the massive 8GB memory ended up benefiting the wPrime score while the small number of pre-installed programs and bloatware. The 7200RPM hard drive also allowed it to edge past some of the other notebooks in our list. Unfortunately, the shut down time really wasn’t all that great for some reason.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.

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With a quad core, eight thread processor and GT 555M graphics card the M14x was really able to shine in these tests. It was only bested by the much larger ASUS G74SX on a regular basis.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI to a 1080P HDTV.


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With such a powerful set of specifications, it is no wonder the M14x simply flew through our entertainment benchmarks without any issue. To be honest, these are lightweight tests that shouldn’t stress higher end notebooks in the first place.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.


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The M14x’s performance in this test can be summed up with a single word: Flawless. Granted, our unit did come with the upgraded Intel wireless card (with MIMO technology) but this is the first time any notebook has aced this test. Every one of the files we sent over the various network hubs worked without an issue and the Windows wireless network center actually picked up our colleague’s network….from a block away.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.

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The GT 555M is a middle of the road graphics card and it returns respectable results through the basic gaming tests we did. Don’t expect to be playing games at ultra high detail settings with AA enabled but most current and past titles will be completely playable. Just remember that this isn’t the M14x’s native resolution. For that, check out the next page.
 
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