|Introduction and Specifications|
Hard-core gamers are all about squeezing the best performance they can out of their rigs, while ensuring that the visual quality of the games they play are at the highest settings possible. As desktop PCs typically have access to higher-end components than notebooks--and are also far more configurable, upgradable, and tweakable--the vast majority of gamers opt for desktop systems. But with the increased performance potential of today's notebook components and their portability (LAN party anyone?), high-end gaming notebooks are becoming increasingly popular with the gaming crowd.
That said, you still won't see the same performance potential from a gaming notebook over a gaming desktop; and you'll typically pay more for the same level of performance from a notebook. Take for example the Eurocom M98NU XCaliber gaming notebook. Not counting the just-launched Intel Core i7 Mobile processor family, the M98NU XCaliber uses the speediest mobile CPU available (the 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9300) and a pair of the fastest mobile GPUs (the Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M in SLI mode). The M98NU XCaliber also comes with 8GB of 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM, two hard drives (one of which is an SSD), a Blu-ray drive, an 18.4-inch display, an integrated webcam, a biometric fingerprint reader, Bluetooth, and a 7-in-1 card reader. With such a fully-loaded system, its lofty $5,720 price tag is somewhat understandable.
To keep things in perspective, a (relatively) similarly-configured Alienware Aurora ALX desktop gaming system easily costs over a $1,000 less. Then again, try dragging an Aurora ALX to a LAN party and see how far you get. Also, just because the M98NU XCaliber we tested and reviewed here costs well over five grand, doesn't mean that you'd necessarily have to configure your notebook the same way or spend as much. Using Eurcom's online configurator, we were able to get the price of the M98NU XCaliber down to just $2,175--albeit eschewing in the process the vast majority of components that make the unit such a compelling mobile gaming machine. Also using the configurator we managed to generate a system price that was nearly $10,000--but do we really need three 512GB SSDs and a Blu-ray burner? Eurocom's president, Mark Bialic, tells us that most customers "buy this model with lower specs," within the $2,499 to $3,499 price range. And if you are lucky enough to live near one the stores where Eurocom products are sold, Bialic claims that some configurations can be found for as much as 10-percent less than they sell direct from Eurocom.
Direct Price (as tested): $5,720, Starting at $2175
Eurocom sent the M98NU XCaliber to us just prior to the official release of the Core i7 Mobile processor family. Since the Core i7 Mobile release, Eurcom has also started selling a Core i7-based notebook--the W870CO Cheetah--which could be configured similarly to the M98NU XCaliber (except that the W870CO Cheetah can only use a single GPU).
|Design and Build Quality|
The M98NU XCaliber comes with a stylish-looking, black glossy lid, which is unfortunately prone to collecting fingerprints and dust. The system weighs in at 13.0 pounds and measures 2.73x17.28x11.77-inches (HWD) at its highest section; the unit is thinnest at the front, where it is only 1.73-inches high. The lid features a design element that lights up when the notebook is on.
The notebook's 18.4-inch display is flush with the black matte bezel, giving the LCD a sleek look. The webcam is located above the LCD, flush with the bezel. At the top left of the keyboard are LED status lights for hard disk activity, num lock, caps lock, and scroll lock status. Across the top of the keyboard are touch-sensitive controls for the LED color toggle, Webcam toggle, Bluetooth module toggle, Silent mode toggle, WiFi module toggle, Web browser launch, sound-effects equalizer, volume mute, and volume level. The LED color toggle button controls whether the system's LED lighting stays the same color or changes color: The LED lights are located in the lid's design element and in the front and back speaker grills; the lights can change color every three, five, 10, or 15 seconds, and light up dark blue, red, green, yellow, purple, light blue, and white. Silent mode reduces fan noise and increases power conservation features.
The M98NU XCaliber has a full-sized keyboard that includes a three-row numpad. The keyboard is sturdy with only the keys toward the center of the keyboard displaying a bit of flex. To the left of the keyboard is a set of eight programmable hotkeys--the manual calls these "Game Keys." Below the keyboard is a wrist rest that is about 5-inches deep. Centered on the wrist rest is the 3.75-inch (diagonal) touchpad, and below that are the touchpad buttons and the biometric fingerprint reader. The touchpad is framed by a blue light, which does not change color. Below the buttons and fingerprint reader is a small LED indicator for power and battery status. The entire top section (with the LED status and LED touch-sensitive controls), as well as the bottom section that surrounds the keyboard (the wrist rest, touchpad, buttons, and fingerprint reader) are all flush with the notebook’s chassis.
The front of the notebook includes a second set of LEDs that show power and battery status, located in the center, above an IR receiver. (The IR receiver is for use with the remote control that comes with the optional TV tuner. Our unit did not include a TV tuner.) Most of the front of the unit is occupied by two speaker grills. Behind each grill are LED lights that change color along with the design on the lid. The back of the notebook houses the DC-in jack and another pair of speaker grills, which also have LED lights inside that change color.
The left side of the M98NU XCaliber has DVI-out, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI-out, and mini-FireWire ports. Also located on the left side of the unit are the 7-in-1 card reader slot, the ExpressCard 34/54 slot, and Blu-ray drive (which does double duty as a DVD+/-RW drive). The right side of the unit houses four audio jacks, a CATV antenna connector (which doesn't work on our unit, as it lacks the optional integrated TV tuner), an eSATA port, a USB port, an eSATA port, a lock slot, and the power button--the eSATA port can also be used as a USB 2.0 port as well.
In addition to three vents located on the bottom of the unit, there are also two user-accessible component compartments, and a subwoofer. One compartment is located beneath the battery and houses one of the system's 2.5-inch hard drive bays--which in the case of our unit, is a 120GB SSD. The battery is held in place by three flathead screws. The other compartment is accessible after removing two Phillips-head screws and contains two 2.5-inch hard drive bays--our unit had one of the two bays occupied by a 500GB drive. It is possible to configure the M98NU XCaliber with a fourth hard drive, which would be installed in place of the internal optical drive. Depending on the hard drive configuration, the M98NU XCaliber supports RAID 0 and RAID 1.
If the M98NU XCaliber looks familiar to you, it is because this model is actually manufactured by Clevo, and is sold by other OEMs. AVADriect sells an identical unit, which it calls the Clevo M980NU Core 2 Gaming Notebook.
Unlike some systems that come pre-loaded with applications--many of which are useless to most users (often called "bloatware" or "crapware")--the M98NU XCaliber thankfully comes with few extras pre-installed. In fact, the bundled CyberLink PowerDVD and CyberLink DVD Suite aren't even pre-installed--if you want to watch Blu-ray movies or burn discs, you'll have to manually install the CyberLink software yourself from the included disc. A simple application ("BisonCap") comes preinstalled for accessing the webcam, and the installed Upek Protector Suite 2009 takes advantage of the notebook's biometric fingerprint reader. A simple "Game Key Configuration" app is included for recording key macros for the notebook's Game Keys; and a "Set Color Key" app resides in the taskbar for setting the interval for which the notebook's LED lights change color.
For everyday use, to say that the M98NU XCaliber's 2.53GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9300 processor, 8GB of RAM, dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M GPUs, and 120GB SSD are overkill is an understatement. No matter what mainstream tasks you throw at this system, it is more than capable. When we played the Blue-ray version of I Am Legend, the system's CPU utilization never went above 20-percent, while the Iron Man DVD never peaked above 10-percent. It was only when played back the 1080p QuickTime trailer for Zombieland that we saw CPU utilizations head up to about 40-percent. Note that these percentages are the maximum we saw, and the average CPU utilizations during playback for these different video types were actually lower.
Image quality while watching these movies, as well as during game play, was excellent--being driven by the dual Nvidia GPUs and displayed on the 18.4-inch 1920x1080 screen. The display is glossy, which can suffer from distracting reflections, depending on the lighting environment under which it is being used.
As to audio quality, we were initially underwhelmed by what we heard coming out the M98NU XCaliber's five speakers--two speakers on the front of the unit, two on the back, and a subwoofer located on the bottom of the unit. However, once we started tweaking the speaker settings--including changing the sound settings from the default Stereo setting to 5.1 Surround--we started to like what we heard, but we were still disappointed by the unit's bass response... Until, that is, we turned on the Dolby Natural Bass setting and cranked it up to the highest setting. Once we had the audio settings the way we liked, we were impressed by the quality and loudness of the audio for music, movies, and games, as well as okay bass response. The quality still doesn't compare to what you would get from a set of decent powered speakers, but it still outshines anything you'll hear from most other notebooks.
|SiSoft SANDRA and PCMark Vantage|
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009 SP4, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 SP4 suite: Processor Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and Cache and Memory.
As expected, the M98NU XCaliber puts in a very strong showing on all the SiSoftware's SANDRA tests. Of the comparison systems that SANDRA automatically generates, only the 2.0GHz Core i7 920XM has notably faster performance than the M98NU XCaliber's 2.53GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9300 on the Processor Arithmetic test. On the Processor Multi-Media test, the M98NU XCaliber is actually a bit speedier than the Core i7 920XM processor--this is likely due to the QX9300's greater total amount of on-die cache. On the Cache and Memory test, the M98NU XCaliber is leaps and bounds ahead of all the comparison systems--but considering that all the comparisons are notably lower-end dual or single-core processors, it's not really a fair comparison. On the Memory Bandwidth test, the M98NU XCaliber falls behind the ATI Xpress 1250 chipset--which is curious as the 1250 is intended for lower-end, low-power systems and devices (also, there aren't many 1250-based notebooks available to begin with).
Next up we ran the M98NU XCaliber through Futuremark's PCMark Vantage system performance metric. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded (up to three simultaneous threads), so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a multi-core processor.
We ran into a strange issue with PCMark Vantage on the M98NU XCaliber. It ran fine when SLI was disabled; but when we enabled SLI, it would either provide significantly lower scores or not provide a score at all because the test failed. We even tried updating the graphics driver; but that did not solve the problem. So the scores you see above are from the benchmark running on the notebook with SLI disabled. If the benchmark was working properly on the system with SLI enabled, you would likely see a higher Gaming score--and, subsequently, an even higher PCMark score.
Regardless, the M98NU XCaliber performs very well on this test suite--even without SLI enabled. In fact, the M98NU XCaliber even outperforms the Alienware M17x, which uses the same 2.53GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9300 processor. The 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo X9000-based Dell XPS M1730 does a bit better than the M98NU XCaliber--but mostly because it gets a much higher Gaming score as a result of its dual Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTX GPUs running in SLI mode. Had we gotten the test to work properly with the M98NU XCaliber's SLI mode, its Gaming and overall PCMark score might very well be higher than the that of the M1730.
|LAME MT and X264 Encoding|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we converted a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.
The M98NU XCaliber couldn't quite keep up with the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo X9000-based Dell XPS M1730. This test takes advantage of only up to two processor cores and is very sensitive to raw processor speed; so it's not a surprise that the M1730's faster CPU clock give it the edge over the M98NU XCaliber.
The x264 benchmark measures how fast a system can encode a short, DVD quality MPEG-2 video clip into a high-quality H.264 HD video clip. The application reports the compression results in frames per second for each pass of the video encoding process, and it is threaded so it can take advantage of the additional resources afforded by multi-core processors.
Unlike the LAME MT test, the X264 HD Video Encoding test can utilize more than two cores and it is also more sensitive to the amount of available processor cache. On the first pass of this test, the M98NU XCaliber not only puts in the best performance, but it manages to even beat a 2.0GHz Core i7-920XM-based notebook. The first pass is not as processor-intensive as the second pass, however; so when the processor is truly pushed to its limits, the M98NU XCaliber comes up a bit behind the Core i7-920XM system. Still, this indicates that the M98NU XCaliber has strong potential as a mobile HD video-producing workstation.
|Cinebench R10 and POV-Ray|
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It is very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
The results here are an excellent example of the overall performance pecking order of the three high-end mobile processors represented. The newest kid on the block and the highest-end of the bunch--the 2.0GHz Core i7-920XM--is at the top; with the 2.56GHz Core 2 QX9300 in the middle; followed by the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo X9000. This test's results go to show that not all processor-intensive tasks are a function of pure CPU speed--other factors play a part as well, such as the number of cores (the Core i7-920XM has four physical execution cores and four virtual cores via Hyper-Threading, for a total of eight cores) and the amount of available cache. While its performance might not quite beat the Core i7-920XM-based system, the M98NU XCaliber's very strong performance is not far behind it.
POV-Ray, or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'all-CPU' and 'single-CPU' benchmarking tool on the test machines, and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.
The performance of the three notebooks represented here in the POV-RAY chart mirror what we saw with the Cinebench R10 chart above. The M98NU XCaliber's performance falls between that of the 2.0GHz Core i7-920XM-based notebook and the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo X9000-based notebook--with the M98NU XCaliber not far behind the Core i7-920XM on multi-threaded performance (as we discussed in our coverage of the Core i7-920XM processor, the Core i7 920XM's strong suit is actually its single-core performance).
|Futuremark 3DMark Vantage|
Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10. 3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware. We tested the M98NU XCaliber with 3DMark Vantage's Performance and Extreme preset options. As the Extreme preset uses a resolution of 1,920x1,200 that exceededs the native screen resolution of the M98NU XCaliber, we conducted this particular test with the notebook sending its video out to an external display.
With a very fast processor and top-of-the-line dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M mobile GPUs in SLI mode, the M98NU XCaliber's performance on the 3DMark Vantage test is, not surprisingly, very impressive. But it doesn't get top honors on the most-grueling preset the test offers, however: Using the test's Extreme preset, the Alienware M17x actually beats it by a decent margin. The M17x has the same processor and GPUs in as the M98NU XCaliber; which just goes to show that you can't always predict performance by looking at only specs (the M17x also has 1TB RAID 0 array and used a different graphics driver version).
Unfortunately, with 3DMark Vantage's Performance preset, we didn't have results from any dual-GPU notebooks to compare the M98NU XCaliber to; so the M98NU XCaliber's dominance in the chart above needs to be tempered by the lack of true comparison systems. But what we can take away from these results is that with a less-aggressive 3D workload (at least less aggressive that the Extreme preset), the M98NU XCaliber delivers excellent performance.
We also ran the above two tests with the M98NU XCaliber's SLI disabled, so that it only used one of its GPUs. With the Extreme preset, the M98NU XCaliber scored 2284 on the test; with the Performance preset, we got a score of 6478. Not that you would typically disable SLI mode, but it's always good to get a sense of what sort of performance you can expect when you run games and apps that don't take advantage of SLI.
|Gaming: ETQW and Far Cry 2|
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (ETQW) is based on a radically enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg--and then some. In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two. ETQW also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures. The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory. Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and ETQW looks great, plays well, and works high-end GPUs vigorously. The game was tested at several different screen resolutions with all of its in-game options set to their maximum values with soft particles enabled, in addition to 16x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering. When we set to the in-game screen resolution to 1,920x1,200, the M98NU XCaliber's video was output to an external display.
We originally wanted to run the ETQW test with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering, but our results at the different resolutions were too similar to each other (in the 75 to 80fps range); this told us that our settings were being limited by the CPU and therefore not allowing the dual GPUs to operate at their full potential (this is what is commonly referred to as "CPU limited"). So we had to crank up the quality settings to 16x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering in order to get the frame rates to scale with the resolution. Unfortunately, doing so meant that we had no other notebooks to compare the M98NU XCaliber's ETQW performance too.
What these scores do tell us, however, is the type of performance you should expect from the game if you were to crank up every single one of the game's quality setting to maximum. While these frame rates aren't going to shame a high-end desktop gaming rig, they are very respectable and all still high enough to be playable--even the 31.3fps at 1920x1200. Keep in mind, however, that the notebook's native resolution is 1920x1080, so if you want to play games in resolutions that are larger than 1080 pixels in the vertical axis (such as 1920x1200), you'll need to hook the notebook up to an external display.
Similar to what we did with the ETQW tests above, we ran Far Cry 2 with most of the settings at their max in order to give an idea of what game play would be like at the three different resolutions we tested. And as we saw with ETQW, the frame rates were all playable, but not necessarily on par with a true desktop gaming rig.
|Battery Performance and Power Consumption|
Large form-factor, high-end gaming notebooks are not typically known for their battery performance. There are just too many power-sucking components for a battery to provide juice to for any significant amount of time--at least not without weighing the notebook down further with a ridiculously large and heavy battery. Being that the M98NU XCaliber has an 18.4-inch screen and dual high-end mobile GPUs, we didn't expect much from the M98NU XCaliber in terms of battery life.
As we predicted, the M98NU XCaliber's one hour of battery life is inline with the type of battery life we've seen from other gaming notebooks, such as the Alienware M17x notebook--which lasted only 4 minutes longer than the M98NU XCaliber.
We also wanted to get a sense of how much power the M98NU XCaliber consumes when it is plugged into a power outlet. Using a power meter, we measured power when the notebook was sitting idle (logged into the OS with no active foreground tasks) and when all four cores were busy with Cinebench's R10 multi-threaded workload.
When at idle, the M98NU XCaliber consumes about 65 Watts of power; while at load it consumes about 110 Watts. When powered off, it consumes only 1 Watt, and a mere 2 Watts when in sleep mode. These measurements were taken when the notebook was fully charged. When the notebook is actively charging it consumes 115 Watts when at idle, and 55 Watts when powered off or in sleep mode.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: It's difficult to single out any specific area where the M98NU XCaliber's performance stands out. That is because the M98NU XCaliber excelled at every test we threw at it. With few exceptions (see below), this notebook represents some of the fastest performance you can expect from a notebook--it would be an admirable companion for anyone looking for a mobile gaming machine. Of course, "mobile" is a relative concept, as the M98NU XCaliber weighs a not inconsequential 13 pounds and has a rather large footprint.
In addition to the M98NU XCaliber's impressive performance, it also offers excellent HD video playback as well as great-sounding audio--there aren't many notebooks out there that come with four built-in speakers and an integrated subwoofer. The caveat here is that we had to tweak the audio settings from how it was shipped to us, in order to get audio playback quality we were pleased with. Other stand-out features of the M98NU XCaliber are its stylish design, full-sized keyboard, integrated biometric fingerprint reader, and its impressive 18.4-inch display.
Some gamers will be disappointed, however, that even with such a large-sized display, the notebook's LCD does not support the popular 1920x1200 resolution. To display any screen resolution that has more than 1080 pixels in the vertical axis requires connecting the M98NU XCaliber to an external monitor--which, in some instances, negates the advantage of a portable gaming rig in the first place. It's heft and relatively short battery life are also not ideal, but typically come with the territory for high-end gaming notebooks.
There is no question that the M98NU XCaliber is an excellent machine for gaming, watching HD video, and for great-sounding audio (for music, movies, and gaming). But if you're willing to spend more than five grand for a notebook, make sure you do your homework before you commit to such a large purchase. Whenever you configure a system with top-of-line components, you almost always pay a premium for such components--you often wind up paying a lot for a relatively small gain in performance. Also, as the M98NU XCaliber is an OEM notebook from Clevo, you might want to check out other OEMs who sell the same model--they might have better deals or perhaps better warranty policies. Lastly, with Intel's Core i7 mobile processor now showing up in new notebooks, it is more than likely that there are even more powerful notebooks available than the M98NU XCaliber, for the same price or perhaps even less.