|Introduction & Specifications|
|There's something about the allure of a gaming notebook. Even mainstream users, not necessarily hellbent on frame rates and decked-out designs, can relate to a powerful notebook with striking good looks. It's no wonder that products like Asus' G73 series of notebooks and Alienware's M series, have been some of the most viewed pages of our mobile computing section here at HotHardware.com. Similarly, Dell's recent announcement that they were expanding the Alienware M series line, to flesh out 14-inch and 18-inch versions, was met with a fair bit of buzz as well. The 14" model especially caught our eye, striking a nice size and weight compromise between the soon to arrive 18" behemoth and the rather svelte M11x we looked at not long ago.
So, of course we reached out to Dell for a review unit and Dell was good enough to respond in short order with their new middleweight contender.
The Dell Aienware M14x is a 14-inch notebook designed in typical Alienware fashion, with rugged, impeccable build quality, adorned in custom lighting with a striking design that's driven by the latest CPU and GPU technologies from Intel and NVIDIA. Here's the spec sheet rundown for our eval unit...
Speaking of which, our system came bundled with Vizio's new Wireless HD video/audio transmitter kit, which is capable of outputting up to 1080p signals from the notebook's HDMI port, wirelessly to an HDTV, with less than 2ms latency. And since the technology is embedded in the M14x unit itself, there is no bulky dongle to mess with. However, the notebook we tested didn't have this feature enabled, so we unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to test it out. If the technology works according to its specs and is anything like the WHDI kits we looked at not long ago, it should be a really nice add-on to get your multimedia and gaming moves on with a big screen HDTV.
Let's get a closer look at the M14x itself...
|Design & Layout|
|With its red lighting enabled, the M14x looks a bit like a mini Batmobile. Though for our nostalgic taste, that's a good thing. The M14x system we tested came built with a flat "Stealth Black Soft Touch" finish as Dell calls it, though a Nebula Red option is also available. Regardless, both options provide a very rugged rubberized finish that is fingerprint and scratch resistant. And it feels great and looks great too...
Batmobile, Knight Rider, whatever works for you but this is one eye-catching machine. The front grill area of the M14x, however, serves no functional purpose and is just there for show. Other larger versions of the M series by Alienware sport speakers behind those grills but the M14x places its Klipsch speaker drivers above the keyboard area, on either side of the Alien head power button and there is a third speaker port on the bottom side of the system, underneath the touchpad area. We should note that the Klipsch speaker system build into our unit is also one of the best sounding audio solutions we've ever heard in a 14-inch machine.The spatial effects of the M14x's 2.1 system provide a very full sound, especially considering the size of the hardware that is reproducing it.
In terms of expansion and IO ports, the M14x has just about anything you could possibly look for in a notebook, save perhaps for eSATA, though frankly we're not going to miss that too much. There are a pair of USB 3.0 ports here, as well as HDMI 1.4 output, VGA, Mini DisplayPort, a microphone input, a pair of headphone ports, a 9-in-1 Flash card reader, Gigabit Ethernet and an 8X slot-load SuperMulti DVD/RW drive. There's an obligatory Kensington lock port on board as well but have you ever used one? Neither have we.
The keyboard area of the M14x is a fully backlit affair that can be enabled or disabled at the toggle of a button. There are also dozens of lighting colors to choose from via software, in four separate zones across the keyboard itself. There are 5 more lighting zones on the machine, including the touchpad, front grills, the Alienware logo and other locations, all of which can have colors customized in software. More on this later. The M14x's keyboard itself is a very high quality setup with great tactile response and comfortable shaped key caps that provide an extremely comfortable typing experience. We literally could fly on this thing and no matter how hard we mashed those keys, there was zero give in the keyboard area.
Underneath the M14x, the rugged and functional design quality continues, with large vents underneath that do get a bit warm under heavy workloads and while gaming. The M14X isn't a lap toaster though; thankfully the midrange components inside are relatively power-efficient. We will note that the turbine intake fan you can see in the shot above here does emit a rather loud audible whine when the system kicks into a 3D game engine. This wasn't too much of a buzzkill for us but if you're the type that is looking for quiet acoustics in a gaming notebook, the M14x isn't going to be the answer. One other small shortcoming of the M14x, that is becoming more commonplace lately with smaller form-factor notebooks, is that its battery is not user-accessible. The 8-cell battery in the M14x is self-contained and cannot be removed or replaced.
Beyond that, style and substance would pretty much describe the M14x. This is a well-built machine with great styling and a fit and finish that competes with any of the best of breed notebooks on the market currently.
|Alien Command Center and Experience|
|Alienware's Alien Command Center software suite has been bundled with their M series of notebooks for a while now and the M14x also sports this package. There are three primary sections of the Command Center: AlienFX, AlienTouch and AlienFusion.
Alien Command Center - AlienFX
AlienFX allows you to control the 9 lighting zones of the M14x that we spoke of earlier. As you can see, a jog wheel is available to select colors from for each of the zone individually if you so choose. The keyboard area has four divided zones itself, which could come in handy for certain gaming situations and key-mapping functions.
Alien Command Center - AlienTouch
AlienTouch allows you to adjust the sensitivity of the multi-touch capable touchpad area. We're pretty thankful for this functionality as we often find ourselves accidentally bumping the touchpad on some machines, sending our cursor into a frenzy and wreaking havoc on the desktop.
Alien Command Center - AlienFusion
AlienFusion is where you control the machine's power plan and there is a fair bit of granularity here, with control of things like PCI Express link power under certain power profiles. There are three preset power profiles (Balanced, High Performance and Power Saver) or you can create your own custom profiles. Regardless, AlienFusion goes above and beyond simple Windows Power profile settings and really lets you dial the machine in at the power settings that make the most sense for you.
Alienware M14x Windows Experience Rating
Finally, before we dig into the benchmark numbers, here's a quick look at what Windows thinks of the M14x. With a total available score of 7.9, the M14x scores rather competitively versus other 14-inch machines in its class. The lowest subscores here are listed as the graphics and hard disk tests, though a 5.9, for notebook-built components in these areas is still respectable. Next, let's look a bit deeper into performance with a few full-fledged benchmark datapoints.
|SiSoft SANDRA and PCMark Vantage|
|We started our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). These are low-level synthetic benchmark modules that showcase raw throughput in these four critical subsystem areas.
SANDRA shows impressive performance for the Core i7-2630QM quad core CPU in the M14x, as it handily beats out a similarly clocked previous generation Core i7 X940M quad-core as well as the 3.2GHz Turbo Boost speeds of the Core i5-2520M dual-core. Memory bandwidth oscillated around the 18GB/s mark for our 4GB DDR3-1333 configuration, which is pretty solid for dual-channel performance, and the 500GB 7200RPM Samsung hard drive on board the machine scores about in line with competitive drives from Seagate, Western Digital and Hitachi.
Next we ran Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This semi-synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
PCMark Vantage paints a compact picture of performance here between these similarly configured notebook competitors. The Alienware M14x is able to just edge out the top spot here but if you really wanted the machine to break away from the pack in this general desktop application benchmark, just go for an SSD upgrade option in the configurator on Dell's site.
|Cinebench and 3DMark 11|
|Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on the company's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
Cinebench shows that the M14x is empowered with a well-balanced CPU and GPU pairing here versus this similar class of notebooks we've tested along side it. On the GPU side, the M14x's GeForce GT 555M almost catches the higher-end GeForce GTX 460M in MSI's notebook and puts up the second best score of the group. On the CPU side of the equation, the M14x dropped in right about where we expected, surpassing the dual-core Core i7 systems here and pulling up right along side the other Core i7-2630QM based notebook in our test group.
3DMark 11 gives us our first view of raw gaming performance and this DX11-based benchmark drops the M14x in right about where we expected. The M14x pulls up just behind the more powerful GPU-driven MSI GT680R, with its 192 CUDA core-based GeForce GTX 460M, versus the 144 CUDA core-based GeForce GT 555M in the M14x. Conversely, you can see how much more powerful the M14x's GeForce GT 555M is versus the GeForce GT 525M in Dell's XPS 15z thin-and-light notebook.
|Game Tests: Metro 2033, Far Cry 2, Lost Planet 2|
|Next we fired up some high-end game engines to allow the Alienware M14x to stretch its legs a bit doing what it was built for, gaming on the go.
Metro 2033, even in DX10 mode, is a bone-crushing gaming benchmark, with its heavy use of physics and particle effects, as well as complex shaders and modeling. If you've ever seen the game in action, the visuals are impressive. Here, though it was just able to break through the playable 30fps mark, the M14x beats out these mainstream systems with its more gamer-target graphics engine.
Far Cry 2 is an older, far less demanding title and the framerates scale accordingly. Here we see the spread between discrete and integrated graphics is maintained, with an over 2X performance delta, and the M14x breaks out a bit further from the pack, again due to its more powerful GPU.
In our Lost Planet 2 - DX11 test, which is also designed to break graphics engines into a hard sweat, we're showing you a different test group of machines, again with more robust GPUs under their hoods. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 and 470M series might be previous gen GPUs from NVIDIA but they're also a step up in terms of available graphics processing engines on board. Here the M14x trails by about 33% or so but it's also a different class of machine versus these full-up desktop replacement models we're showing here. None of the notebooks in this test are showing playable framerates per se, but this heavy-duty DX11 stress test shows the M14x does have some level of muscle for high-end gaming requirements. You'll just have to dial back the post processing and details in certain game engines.
|The Alienware M14x is a smaller-sized full-featured notebook and gaming machine that has a surprisingly tall order to fill. With its quad-core Intel processor and 144 CUDA-core NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M GPU, the M14x packs a bunch of horsepower in a relatively small footprint., which means thermal and battery capacity challenges of course as well. We fired up our usual run of BatteryEater Pro to stress test the system under a graphics and CPU workload but also added a much lower-powered test condition as well.
At the risk of looking like we're favoring the M14x here with a special test setup, we decided to give you an additional datapoint to consider in terms of battery life performance. First, if you look at the results from our lower uptime recorded in the BatteryEater stress test, you'll note that the M14x falls about mid-pack with these similarly configured machines -- about in line with the midrange machines and slightly ahead of the high-end configured systems (though MainGear's larger, heavier battery configuration allowed it to excel). Then, looking at the Reader and Web browsing test, where we run a script that scrolls through a text document while simultaneously hitting a web page in the background and refreshing every three minutes, you'll see that the variance is dramatic. Alienware claims the 8-cell battery on board the M14x will last up to 6 hrs and that's right about what we saw under this non-graphics intensive test condition.
Update - 7/18/11 - A Note on NVIDIA Optimus Technology:
We should also point out that the Alienware M14x employs NVIDIA's Optimus switchable graphics technology. At this point, NVIDIA and Dell, in this case, have the software so dialed in with Optimus and the GeForce GT 555M GPU on board the M14x, that users don't have to consider settings much, if at all. The technology just works. If a game or 3D rendering application requires graphics horsepower, NVIDIA's discrete GPU will kick into gear. If the application doesn't require it, NVIDIA's driver will intelligently shut down the GPU and allow Intel's integrated graphics core in the Core i7-2630QM to handle the workload for extended battery life. Users can also manually set programs and applications to run in specific IGP or GPU-enabled modes, by selecting and option in NVIDIA's driver control panel.
So, in short, under moderate gaming workloads, you'll see about an hour of battery life untethered. While browsing the web and checking email, you'll realize Alienware's "up to 6 hr" claim. And finally, we'd venture to say that watching HD video or a DVD on the machine will afford you untethered time somewhere in between, easily enough to watch a full-length movie.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Alienware designed the M14x with certain compromises that had to be accommodated. Obviously, this smaller form-factor of gaming notebook, in order to meet its thermal constraints, had to be configured with more midrange components. Performance-wise, what the system put forth was exactly what we expected.As we noted early on, gamer-class notebooks seem to get a lot of attention around here and elsewhere. And for good reason, top-shelf notebooks like Alienware's M14x are a pleasure to use for a number of obvious reasons. With the M14x you get absolutely impeccable build quality and great looks that will even turn heads of non-gamers or enthusiasts. The 14-inch high resolution display that was configured in our machine was very easy on the eyes and the M14x's keyboard, all backlit and ready for game time, was just as comfortable to use as the display was nice to look at. Performance-wise, the numbers told the story easily. This is one of the fastest 14-inch notebooks we've ever tested under any test condition, gaming or otherwise. Again, if you wanted to wring more performance out of this machine, the only upgrade we'd suggest is a fast SSD as the boot drive. At that point, you'd have portable gaming nirvana.
The M14x handily powered past mainstream notebooks with solid multimedia-targeted hardware on board with discrete GPUs even. Under gaming conditions, it surged past these competitive platforms even more so. Under heavy-duty gaming conditions, however, and versus full-sized desktop replacement gaming notebooks, the M14x doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with the big boys, though this was to be expected. After all, this is a 14-inch, 6.5lb machine and very portable as a result. It's not a road warrior solution for business travelers, but then again, it's not going break your back like some of the other boat anchor machines we tested it against.
On the downside, we weren't fond of the rather audible fan whine emitted from the M14x while gaming, but we've heard similar acoustic challenges in just about any machine with a discrete GPU in this size and weight class. That's no excuse but at this point, it's sort of comes with the territory. The other aspect to consider here is price. Though you can find similarly configured notebooks at lower prices, what we found was you'd have to make compromises with a lower resolution display, lower grade build quality and other lower grade component as well, like smaller batteries etc. All told the M14x, though definitely designed for the high-end market, actually offers a reasonable return on investment when you consider the total package.
If you're the type that doesn't want to compromise much on gaming performance and style but need a notebook in a reasonably portable size and weight, the Dell Alienware M14x is for you. And we liked it so much we're giving it an Editor's Choice.