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Alienware M18x Gaming Notebook: Tale of Two GPUs
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Date: Oct 04, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction & Specifications
Big, bad and unapologetic. These three words accurately describe the Alienware M18x. Unapologetic about its size, this is a desktop replacement notebook that almost defies the entire category of portable machines. Sure, it's portable, in the sense that you can move it from room to room or perhaps pack it up for a LAN, but you're not tossing this bad boy into a dainty backpack or laptop tote. No, the Alienware M18x steps into the ring weighing in at nearly 12lbs (11.935) and thumbs its nose at would-be competitors. Though mobile components are humming along inside its rugged metal frame, Dell's Alienware division gives gamers and performance enthusiasts the choice to configure a machine with fastest technologies money can buy currently in notebooks.

To that end, in our efforts to evaluate Alienware's new gaming Goliath, the company decided to send us two machines.  We hemmed and hawed; with all that gaming prowess at our fingertips, how would we get any real work done?  Such is the perilous line we walk some days in the lab.  Regardless, the dynamic M18x duo we received for testing were both configured with identical base builds, an Intel Core i7-2630QM quad-core at the helm, but with different graphics subsystems. One M18x came strapped with a pair of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M GPUs in SLI, ready to throw down.  The other machine came packing heat with dual AMD Radeon HD 6990M GPUs in CrossFire, just as angry and twitching to do battle.

Want to watch the benchmark sparks fly?  We did too.  Follow along and stay close.  This is going to get a bit dicey.  First let's fire up a video preview for you to relax with...



Alienware M18x Gaming Notebook
Specifications & Features
CPU
2nd Generation Intel Core i7-2630QM Processor 2.0-2.8 GHz, 6MB Cache
Operating System
Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit
LCD
18.4" Glossy Display 1920x1080
Chipset
Intel HM67
GPU
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 x 2, AMD Radeon HD 6990 x 2
Audio
Internal High-Definition 5.1 Performance Audio with WavesMAXX Audio (Standard)
Speaker
2.1 Speaker configuration audio Powered by Klipsch®
Memory
6GB DDR3-1333 (as tested, non-standard configuration)
HDD
7500GB SATA 7200RPM Seagate HDD
Optical Drive
8x SuperMulti DVD±R/RW Slot Load Optical Drive
LAN
10/100/1000 Mbps Gigabit Ethernet
WLAN
Built-in 802.11b/g/n WLAN Card
Card Reader
9-in-1 Media Card Reader
Webcam
3.0 Megapixel HD Video and Picture Camera with dual digital microphones
USB
USB 2.0 Port with PowerShare Technology, USB 2.0 x 2, USB3.0 x 2
Bluetooth Option
Internal Bluetooth 3.0
Video Port
VGA (15-pin, D-Sub), HDMI 1.4, Mini-DisplayPort
Audio Port
(2x) Audio Out 1/8" Ports, (1x) Audio In / Microphone 1/8" Port (retaskable for 5.1 audio)
Keyboard
4-Zone, multi-color RGB, 82 key keyboard with AlienFX lighting controls
Battery Pack
12 Cell Lithium Ion 97whr
Dimension
12.68”(Depth) x 17.17”(Width) x 2.13”(Height)
Weight
11.935lbs (starting)
Manufacturer Warranty
1 Year Limited Warranty (Optional up to 4 yrs.)
Price *
$2599 - $3299 As Tested w/ 4GB DDR3-1600, $2799 - $3499 w/ 8GB DDR3-1600
  * Dell offers a $200 price promotions from time to time on this configuration

It's almost ominous, isn't it?  Our test systems came loaded for bear, complete with Intel Sandy Bridge Core i7 2630QM processors, 6GB of RAM, 750GB Seagate hard drives, USB 3.0 connectivity and of course, the fastest mobile graphics processors on the planet currently.

This notebook is the quintessential desktop replacement machine. It's big, built like a tank and powerful. Let's dive in for a closer look.

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Design & Layout
To say the M18x is built for speed would be an understatement.  Though Alienware does pack power efficient notebook components inside, this machine is optimized for performance and a robust computing experience with top-shelf features, size and weight be damned.

 

The keyboard area of the M18x is roomy and comfortable.  Key caps are slightly beveled toward the center of each key creating a striking surface that conforms to your finger tips.  Key travel is relatively deep and though this is still a membrane keyboard, tactile response is solid and pronounced. 

The keyboard is backlit and has four individual lighting zones. There are also four other lighting zones that can be controlled with Alienware's AlienFX control software. We won't delve into AlienFX again here.  We've covered it extensively in the past and encourage you to check out our recent coverage of the Alienware M14x to get a flavor for it, if you're unfamiliar. 

Lighting accents aside, the speakers behind the front grill area of the M18x actually sound just about as good as it looks.  Reminiscent of the Bat Mobile, or the air intake of a muscle car hood, the front speaker ports offer a fair degree of sound output in the midrange and high-end but lack bass punch, in general.  For notebook speakers, they're not actually half bad, though you won't be replacing your headphones anytime soon.
 
Ports-a-plenty and then some, including HDMI output and input

The M18x also packs just about any I/O option you could want, including a pair of USB 3.0 ports, eSATA, an SD card slot as well as an Express Card slot and both HDMI output as well as HDMI input.  Our system came configured with an 8X slot load DVD-RW combo drive but other options, including Blu-ray, are available as well.

   
The bottom side of the M18x has venting that, while under gaming conditions really has no business being on your lap. It gets warm down there, as you'd expect with a pair of screaming fast GPUs inside, as well as a punchy quad-core Intel processor.
 
The 12-cell Lithium Ion battery in the M18x is a chunky block and you can essentially think of it as a battery back-up with the ability to game for about an hour or so on a full charge.  More details on battery performance later.  The M18x's AC adapter brick is also rather large and puts out about 330 Watts if you can believe that.  It gets warm to the touch under use but keeps within reasonable limits.


Alien vs Predator - DX11, 1920x1080, 4X AA and all the eye candy turned up...

The 18.4 LED backlit display on the M18x is just gorgeous.  The panel has edge-to-edge glass that does occasionally throw a bit of glare at certain angles but other than that, image quality is just plain stunning with this machine.  The colors are vibrant, with deep blacks and scenes rendered that just seem to pop.  Desktop viewing with text is sharp with excellent contrast and color uniformity.  We really can't say enough about the M18x's display.  It's easily one of the nicest screens we've set eyes upon in a notebook form-factor.
 
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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 M18x 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 8 lighting zones of the M18x 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.


Switchable Graphics and/or Optimus Not Enabled - Reboot Required

One small downer that we didn't expect to stumble upon was the fact that neither the NVIDIA GeForce-based M18x or the AMD Radeon-based M18x we tested offered dynamically switchable graphics solutions.  As you can see in the above Steam screenshot, with a simple key combination, you can switch between integrated and discrete graphics but a reboot is required.  This is likely due to the multi-GPU configurations we tested, though Dell informed us that currently even single GPU configurations of the M18x, based on NVIDIA or AMD GPUs, do not support existing dynamic switching technologies.
 
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PCMark 7 and PCMark Vantage
Test Methodology and Setup Notes:  We'd like to touch upon how we tested each of our Alienware M18x configurations that we delivered for review.  In all benchmark test conditions, with the exception of our battery tests, systems were plugged into their AC Adapter with power plans left at default as set from the factory.  All power sleep and standby modes were disabled, as were screensavers and Windows update.  The machines were setup with all benchmark tools and software and then the hard drives were defragmented.  Systems were rebooted before each test run as well. 

** Please note NVIDIA Verde graphics driver version 280.26 (WHQL) and AMD Catalyst 11.8 (WHQL) drivers were used for testing.  These were the latest graphics drivers publicly available for this notebook at the time of testing.

Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, recently released this spring. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. Here's what Futuremark says is incorporated in the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment suite, the two modules we have benchmark scores for you here.

Futuremark PCMark 7
General Application and Multimedia Performance
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
Storage
  • Windows Defender
  • Importing pictures
  • Gaming

Video Playback and transcoding
Graphics

  • DirectX 9

Image manipulation
Web browsing and decrypting

The Entertainment test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance in entertainment scenarios using mostly application workloads. Individual tests include recording, viewing, streaming and transcoding TV shows and movies, importing, organizing and browsing new music and several gaming related workloads. If the target system is not capable of running DirectX 10 workloads then those tests are skipped. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given an Entertainment test score.


M18x with Dual Radeon HD 6990M CrossFire


M18x with Dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M SLI

Both of these test were performed with the notebooks set to either CrossFire or SLI mode in their respective graphics control panels.  The base PCMark 7 scores are a bit on the underwhelming side, likely due to the standard notebook hard drive employed in our builds.  The Entertainment scores are solid however and as you can see, the two solutions are neck-and-neck with AMD's CrossFire setup taking the lead by a small margin.

 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated General Desktop Performance
Next up, we ran our test systems through Futuremark’s previous generation total-system performance evaluation tool, PCMark Vantage. 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.  Since we have a large database of scores for this test, we felt it would be good to give you additional reference points to compare to.



Here PCMark Vantage shows the M18x cleanly ahead of many of the comparison gaming notebook testbeds, including the ever-fabulous Asus G74SX series, which notably was configured with a more midrange graphics chip.  Beyond that, we see the two M18x configurations tested once again going head-to-head in the numbers, with a slight advantage again to AMD, though only marginally so.
 
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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 R11.5 64-bit
3D Rendering Performance

We should note that, though Cinebench doesn't actually benefit from multi-GPU configurations currently, we did test the systems with the technology enabled.  You can see the CPU scores are all pretty tight between the configurations but perhaps AMD has been a bit more diligent on tuning drivers for this application versus NVIDIA.

Futuremark 3DMark 11
Synthetic DX11 Gaming Performance


Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.

 


M18x - AMD Radeon HD 6990M CrossFire


M18x - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M SLI

3DMark 11 is squarely targeted at gaming performance obviously and we felt it best to give you the direct results page data in each of the tests as well.  As you can see it's a nip-and-tuck battle between the two M18x configurations, though versus the rest of the field it's a total blowout for the M18x.  Note multi-GPU scores are nearly two times that of their single GPU scores with the M18x, though in this test, AMD's CrossFire setup seems to scale a bit better.

 

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Game Tests: Metro 2033, Far Cry 2
Next we fired up some high-end game engines to allow the Alienware M18x to stretch its legs with leading-edge game titles and rendering effects at play.

Metro 2033
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. We tested the game engine using the Metro 2033 benchmark tool.




For Metro 2033 the advantage goes ever so slightly to the AMD Radeon HD 6990M, whether in single or dual-GPU mode.  Versus the other notebook configurations we tested, the Alienware M18x really steps out ahead.

Far Cry 2
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.



Far Cry 2 is an older DX10-based title and is also significantly less demanding on the graphics subsystem versus Metro 2033.  Here the M18x continues its benchmark busting ways versus the other machines.  Between our two graphics configurations, the dual Radeon HD 6990M CrossFire setup shows better multi-GPU scaling in this test but lower single GPU performance versus its NVIDIA-based competition.
 
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Game Tests: Lost Planet 2, Just Cause 2

Lost Planet 2
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Lost Planet 2

Lost Planet 2 is a third person shooter developed by Capcom. It is the sequel to Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, and takes place ten years after the events of the first game. The plot begins with Mercenaries fighting against Jungle Pirates, while featuring major boss battles, extreme terrain, and the ability to pilot mechanized armor suits. We tested the game engine using the stand alone benchmark tool.



The Lost Planet 2 DX11 mode benchmark is a extremely demanding test, as you can see, and all of the single-GPU setups struggle to get to playable framerates, though NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 580M has an easier time with it.  This game engine and title has generally tended to favor NVIDIA's architecture over the months that we've been testing with it. This is partly due to the benchmark's heavy use of tesselation and NVIDIA's more robust geometry engines.  Overall the NVIDIA-based Alienware M18x has approximately a 20 - 30% performance lead over the AMD-based machine, depending on configuration and resolution.

Just Cause 2
DX10.1 Gaming Performance


Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 was released in March 2010, from developers Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive. The game makes use of the Avalanche Engine 2.0, an updated version of the similarly named original. It is set on the fictional island of Panau in southeast Asia, and you play the role of Rico Rodriquez. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article using one of the built-in demo runs called Desert Sunrise. The test results shown here were run at various resolutions and settings. This game also supports a few CUDA-enabled features, but they were left disabled to keep the playing field level.




Just Cause 2 stacks things up tighter, especially when you look at the multi-GPU scores, with the advantage yet again going to NVIDIA.
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Battery Life
The Alienware M18x is an enormously large desktop replacement notebook that is not built with battery life performance in mind.  The M18x configurations we tested packed some of the most powerful GPU and CPU technologies on the market currently with only what could be considered an afterthought for power consumption.  Regardless, we wanted to see what battery life was like under moderately strenuous workloads.  Here are the results from our Battery Eater Pro tests.

Battery Life Test
Heavy and Light Workloads



The first thing you should consider here is that these test results are not absolute and vary based on battery size and possibly different power gating profiles at play, depending on how each configuration was setup.  Regardless, these tests were conducted with "out of the box" setups, with simple test constraints configured like screen brightness etc.  Here the M18x is at a disadvantage right out of the gate.  Though it has a rather stout 12-cell battery, it also must power an LCD that is considerably larger (and dare we say brighter and more vibrant) than the other notebooks we're showing in this test group. 

Beyond that, the times we pulled from Battery Eater Pro were about as expected.  These results are more representative of a modest strain on the entire system, including the graphics subsystem, hard drive and CPU.  Believe it or not, you could realize slightly better times under modest gaming conditions, though we experienced much lower frame rates with both CrossFire and SLI disabled and GPU clock gating in effect when on battery power.  Also, we measured well over 3 hours of up time with our standard web browser test at medium display brightness and running on the system's Intel IGP. 

Finally, with respect to power consumption, under heavy gaming testes, the dual Radeon HD 6990M powered machine pulled about 220 Watts at its peak consumption. The M18x, configured with a pair of GeForce GTX 580M GPUs in SLI, pulled about 240 Watts at its peak draw.  Both machines spiked an additional 60+ Watts if the machine was under a game load and also charging the battery.
 
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Performance Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary: The Alienware M18x performed admirably throughout every benchmark test, as we expected it to, frankly.  The system itself showed a nice balance of both CPU horsepower and raw gaming performance proportional to the high-end graphics setups we tested in each configuration.  With SLI or CrossFire enabled, the M18x blew all of our previous gaming notebook numbers out of the water, whether you consider AMD's or NVIDIA's solution.  Single GPU performance from the M18x was also significantly faster than any notebook we've tested to date. Again, not surprising, since these were the fastest, most powerful mobile GPUs we've tested to date in any notebook. 

Competitively, between the AMD and NVIDIA solutions we tested, the AMD Radeon HD 6990M CrossFire setup, in general offered better dual-GPU performance scaling, at least in the tests we ran.  However, NVIDIA's and AMD's solutions traded victories, depending on the game engine we tested in.  However, in single GPU performance, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M showed itself to be faster more often than the AMD Radeon HD 6990M, taking the lead in all but one of our game tests (Metro 2033).  Again, we'd offer that future driver updates can and probably will affect both single and GPU performance from both sides of the graphics equation.

 

The Alienware M18x is a notebook built for gaming and performance enthusiasts, plain and simple.  This isn't a machine designed to strike a balance in power efficiency or portability by any means.  Dell's Alienware division apparently built the M18x with one mission in mind--to deliver the best possible gaming and multimedia experience available in a self-contained, "desktop replacement" form-factor.  To that end, Alienware has delivered masterfully.

Over the years, we've watched the Alienware M series of gaming notebooks evolve.  Early on they were beefy, solidly built machines that still felt a little rough around the edges at times.  However, the recent crop of Alienware M series machines, from the diminutive M11x to the midrange M14x and now the big Daddy M18x, offer refinement, build quality and performance improvements that easily deliver best-of-class experiences for enthusiasts in their respective categories and sizes. The only caveat is price.

Though our test systems came strapped with dual-GPUs, you can obviously configure an M18x at much lower price points versus the $2600 - $3300 range that we were playing at. A quick scan through Dell's M18x configuration menus shows we can build an M18x for about $2100 currently, with an NVIDIA  GeForce GTX 560M, a 750GB 7200 RPM HD and 4GB of memory.  Comparatively, you can find a 17-inch Asus G74-SX, with the same CPU and GPU but with 12GB of DDR3-1333 (M18x uses 1600MHz memory), a pair of 750GB drives in RAID 0, and a Blu-ray/SuperMulti combo drive -- all for about $1700.  The trade-offs would be a smaller 17.3" LCD (not quite as high quality either) slightly less bling, along with more modest build quality/materials. In our opinion, you can't go wrong either way really.

That's a lot to digest, so we'll condense things down a bit.  The long and short of it is this; the M18x is one heck of a gaming notebook and if only the best will do, this big fella is definitely plush and cranked up for performance.  Though, if you're game for a higher-end dual-GPU build, you'll need to look hard at cost and feature options available. 

Currently, a pair of GeForce GTX 560Ms is a $300 up-charge over a single configuration (not bad).  A pair of Radeon HD 6990Ms in CrossFire is a $500 adder; also a reasonable premium if you consider how much faster they would be versus the 560 series from NVIDIA.  On the other hand, if you're swinging for the fences, a pair of GeForce GTX 580Ms in SLI will cost you a whopping $1200 more.  That is a huge price premium for what is currently a negligible if any performance boost versus AMD's CrossFire setup.  We asked both Dell and NVIDIA about this discrepancy.  Dell of course wouldn't take sides, saying pricing is what it is, so to speak.  NVIDIA didn't have an official comment to offer.

We'll let you decide for yourself, which configuration you feel is right for you in the end. For now, one thing is very clear.  The Alienware M18x is easily deserving of our Editor's Choice award.


  • Gorgeous good looks
  • Exceptional build quality
  • Top-shelf components
  • Great lighting and AlienFX
  • Beautiful 18-inch LCD
  • Killer performance
  • Pricey
  • Big and power hungry
  • Small range of GPU configurations


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