|Introduction and Specifications|
|The term “laptop” can only be loosely applied to the nearly 9.39-pound Alienware M17x--you don’t exactly want to have the thing perched on your lap for any extended period of time. But you know what? Who cares. The M17x is a powerful and (mostly) portable gaming rig, and Dell can call it anything they want; awesome by any other name is still awesome.
The M17x has been in Dell’s Alienware lineup for a while, but now it’s been refreshed with the latest and greatest in mobile components, packing an Ivy Bridge CPU and the newest NVIDIA Kepler-based mobile GPU. The Intel Core i7-3720QM (2.6GHz/3.6GHz Turbo, 6MB cache) is one of the highest-end mobile processors in Intel’s Ivy Bridge lineup, taking a backseat only to the Core i7-3820QM.
Here's a quick look at the beast in action before we dig into the particulars...
Dell paired the Intel chip with NVIDIA’s smokin’ hot GeForce GTX 680M (2GB GDDR5) GPU for a massive one-two gaming punch. In addition to an intense of amount of graphics firepower, the 680M includes NVIDIA's Optimus technology. Optimus is switchable graphics technology that intelligently and automatically alternates between the battery-friendly integrated graphics (in this case, the Intel HD 4000 series) and the more powerful discrete GPU for a balance of performance and battery life.
The M17x is further outfitted with 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, a beautiful 17.3-inch WideFHD 1920x1080 WLED display, and a host of I/O ports including four USB 3.0 and HDMI in/out. Although the storage drive is a solid, if somewhat modest, 500GB (7200RPM) SATA drive, it’s paired with a 32GB mSATA drive for SSD caching and a nice boost in performance.
What’s under the hood is always most important, but Dell definitely didn’t ignore the exterior; let’s have a closer look...
|Design & Layout|
|To be frank, the Alienware M17x is not a graceful-looking machine with sleek lines, and it’s not very power friendly, either; it’s like a big, powerful, gas-guzzling armored car that can plow through anything in its path. For a machine fitting that description, though, the M17x does have some attractive attributes.
The first and most eye-catching is the lighting scheme, which gives the otherwise fairly mundane big black box a fetching look. The backlit keyboard is a strong start, and the touchpad rimmed in a thin blue LED both looks snazzy and also serves to help users easily locate the touchpad and mouse buttons in any light. The media buttons above the keyboard area, silver alien head power button (which is itself a cool feature), “Alienware” text below the display, and big front intakes are all lit by LED lights, as well. There’s also an Alienware logo on the back of the display that glows white.
If blue isn’t your thing, there are 9 total color zones (4 of which are on the keyboard itself) that you can switch to 20 different colors, including a dark mode with no lights at all, and you can save any schemes you create.
The keyboard area is spacious and includes a full-size QWERTY layout with a numpad, although Dell did do a bit of creative juggling by sliding the directional keys under the right Shift key and moving the PrtScr, Pause/Break, Page Up/Down, Home, End, and Insert keys to the left of the function keys and above the numpad. Thus, the layout is a little off of you’re a typist or an accountant, but otherwise it’s a smart use of space. One slight complaint we have is that we’d prefer that the palm (well, forearm and palm) rest area was angled downward slightly. The typing experience isn’t quite as comfortable with the edges of the chassis digging into our wrists, although if you’re gaming with just your left hand on the keys and your right on a gaming mouse, the beveled edge just below the touchpad and mouse buttons makes for a more comfortable session; the rubberized finish on that area of the chassis helps, as well.
Above the keyboard area and off to the right is a row of unique buttons that includes the usual volume up/down, mute, and play/FF/rewind/skip media controls as well as an eject button, WiFi toggle button, and a dedicated button that launches the Alienware Command Center. Although they look like touch keys, they’re all actually physical buttons; it’s a neat trick, because the buttons keep a low, glowing profile, but they offer tactile feedback when you press them or need to find them with your fingertips without taking your eyes off the screen.
The most striking feature of the M17x is the front grills. The twin glowing eyes house the speakers and also suck in air to cool the notebook’s burly components; the design looks to be identical to that of the M18x we reviewed last year, and at the time we thought they reminded us of the Batmobile or a muscle car hood’s intake. We’ll stand by that description.
Although the low end leaves something to be desired, the M17x’s speakers exceed what we normally expect from a notebook. Mids and highs are rather crisp and clean even at a high volume, but the lack of meaningful bass response is obvious--in other words, your machine gun fire will sound great, but explosions will be lackluster.
On the I/O side of things, Dell has not disappointed; there are four total USB 3.0 ports (2 per side) as well as a USB 2.0/eSATA 3Gbps combo port, 9-in-1 media reader, LAN port, two line out audio jacks, a S/PDIF and headphone jack, and mic in. Video ports include HDMI in and out ports, VGA, and mini-DisplayPort. We particularly like the slot-loading ODD design, which houses a dual-layer Blu-ray reader/DVD+/-RW/CD-RW drive.
Although the battery is just a 9-cell Lithium Ion (90whr), it keeps the machine running for well over an hour under a moderate load--which is to say, it’s not terrible for a gaming notebook containing components of this magnitude. It’s also worth noting that the power adapter is slimmer than what we saw on previous Alienware models, and doesn’t get as hot as you might expect after long periods of time.
As we’ve noted with past Alienware notebook displays, there’s a bit more glare than we’d like on the M17x’s 17.3-inch WLED screen, and we’d almost prefer a plastic bezel to the shiny glass that frames the screen, but otherwise it’s gorgeous. The color depth and richness are good, black levels are striking, and text is crisp but warm (read: easy on the eyes); we admit, when we put the machine through some graphically intense paces, we sometimes found ourselves marveling at the rendered details instead of playing the game at hand.
|Alien Command Center and Experience|
|Dell doesn’t pack its Alienware notebooks full of bloatware, thankfully, but there is some very handy alien-themed software on board in the form of Alien Command Center, AlienRespawn, and AlienAutopsy.
The latest version of Alien Command Center adds an AlienAdrenaline section to the existing AlienFX, AlienFusion, and AlienTouch areas. AlienAdrenaline is a feature that lets you create “modes” for your various installed games that kick in when you launch them; for example, you can set a media player to come on, VoIP chat to initiate, and even launch an AlienwareFX State.
If you’re particular about the touchpad controls on your machine, AlienTouch is pretty cool. In this area of Alien Command Center, you can adjust the tapping functions, sensitivity (for example, you can make it so that the touchpad reacts nimbly to your finger but mostly ignores your accidental palm movements), and scrolling features.
AlienAutopsy is on board to be a resource for accessing help (such as forums, the manual, and so on), service and support, and updates that come straight from Alienware. You can also create backup media, set Internet proxy settings, and poke through detailed system information.
The final prong of the Alienware pre-installed trident of software is AlienRespawn, which as you might have surmised from the name is a backup/restore program. (Although you can set backup media from AlienAutopsy, AlienRespawn is a fuller-featured application.) The basic backup/restore features are there, although to unlock its full functionality, you’ll need to drop $39.99 for the upgrade.
|SiSoft SANDRA and ATTO Disk Tests|
|Test Methodology: As you'll note in the following pages of benchmarks, we've compared the Alienware M17x to a few different machines. In every test case, we tried to leave each notebook as delivered to us from the manufacturers. This meant, after any pending Windows updates were installed, we disabled Windows update and also disabled any virus scanning software that may have been installed, so it wouldn't kick in during benchmark runs. That said, it's virtually impossible to ensure identical system configurations between notebooks; so we'll caution you that reference scores from the various test systems are listed in order to give you a general feel for performance between these similar class of machines and not for direct, apples-to-apples comparisons.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2011 suite (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance).
The M17x performed admirably in the CPU tests, and it posted a downright impressive score in Memory Bandwidth with 20.31GB/s, a score that borders those we saw from full-size custom gaming rigs not very long ago. In the Physical Disks test, we see a weakness in the M17x--that notebook-size hard drive isn't as hot as the rest of the rig's components, even with the mSATA SSD helping out.
ATTO is another "quick and dirty" type of disk benchmark that measures transfer speeds across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and graphs them out in an easily interpreted chart. ATTO's workloads are sequential in nature and measure raw bandwidth, rather than I/O response time, access latency, etc. This test was performed on formatted drives with default NTFS partitions in Windows 7 x64.
Just for kicks, we ran the M17x through ATTO's read/write test to see how it would fare. It's interesting that the read/write speeds are so similar. While these scores are respectable in their own right, they don't come close to matching the numbers we've seen from some of the latest ultrabooks; again, the storage configuration is letting the M17x down.
|PCMark 7 and PCMark Vantage|
|Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite. 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.
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
The M17x delivered a solid score in PCMark 7. Did it blow us away? No, but the score reflects an overall solid system. The powerful CPU and GPU pull the load, and the memory and hard drive/SSD cache drive don't appear to weigh the system down too much.
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.
The performance gains afforded by the Ivy Bridge processor, SSD cache and GeForce GTX 680M GPU are striking in this test, putting the M17x well out in front of the field. Note that our system, with a lone 680M GPU, blasted past the M18x systems with SLI and CrossFireX setups.
|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.
Aside from the CrossFireX configuration in the Alienware M18x system that produced an anomalous OpenGL score, the M17x once again cleaned up. It bested the field by a modest margin in the OpenGL test, but that Ivy Bridge chip demolished the competition, coming in nearly two full points ahead of the rest of the group.
The M18x with dual Radeon HD 6990Ms narrowly edged out our M17x, and the M17x just barely beat the M18x with twin GTX 580Ms; however, the gap between the M17x and both of the aforementioned systems is more or less within the margin of error for this test. More impressive is the enormous delta between the M17x's 680M and the M18x's solo 6990M and 580M.
|Game Tests: Metro 2033, Far Cry 2|
|Next we fired up some high-end game engines to allow the Alienware M17x to stretch its legs with leading-edge game titles and rendering effects at play.
We suppose there's bound to be a weak score here or there, and the Metro 2033 test is apparently it. Although the M17x fell to the two dual-GPU configurations, it still posted far better scores than any other single-card setup in the group.
Here we see both how a dual graphics configuration can deliver strong results at high resolutions and also how one really fantastic GPU can take the cake. In the higher-res test, the M17x scored just about on par with the two dual-graphics M18x systems, although at a lower resolution our system outpaced them handily.
|Game Tests: Lost Planet 2, Just Cause 2|
The results for Lost Planet 2 are significant, because as you can see from the weak framerates posted by many of the systems, it's a tough test that separates the men from the boys. At the higher resolution, only our M17x and the two dual-GPU systems comfortably produced playable framerates; of the three, the M17x came out on top once again.
There's a big jump from the single-card setups to the dual-card setups, but there's another leap up to the gaming prowess demonstrated by the M17x. At this point, our rig just laughed at Just Cause 2 and put up over 200 FPS at 1280x720.
|The Alienware M17x is a large desktop replacement notebook that is not built with battery life performance in mind, and the model we tested packed some of the most powerful GPU and CPU technologies currently on the market with what could only 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.
The downside to running all those beefy components is that the battery in these mobile monsters can't power things for very long. The M17x's 9-cell battery was just about equal with most of the field, although the Maingear and ASUS G74SX systems wrecked the curve.
Bear in mind how widely battery life can fluctuate. You can extend a battery's charge by opting for more efficient power profiles, not to mention simply manually adjusting things like screen brightness; and of course, less demanding tasks such as word processing or Web browsing won't suck the life out of the battery as fast. We test these systems essentially as-is, so there's room for improvement on these times.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: When you have a killer CPU/GPU combo like the Alienware M17x does with the Intel Core i7-3720QM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M, you know you’re going to have a wickedly powerful system, and indeed, the M17x is an impressive specimen. Except for a couple of aberrations, this rig beat out the competition handily, even over systems with dual GPU configurations.
The only trouble is with the storage setup; the 500GB (7200 RPM) hard drive, even bolstered by the mSATA SSD cache drive, is somewhat pokey in comparison to some other mobile systems we've tested.
It’s not hard to throw together a system with every top-of-the-line component possible and call it the best. All you have to do is ignore budget issues and the sky’s the limit for what you can build. What is far more difficult is building a high-performing rig that deftly balances performance and a reasonable cost, and that is mostly what Dell has done with this configuration of the Alienware M17x.
Obviously, Dell didn’t skimp on graphics, rolling with the highest-end NVIDIA mobile GPU available; on the other hand, they didn’t bother with a second GPU in an SLI configuration, which would add a lot to the price tag. On the CPU side, though, opting for the excellent Core i7-3720QM instead of the slightly higher-spec’d Core i7-3820QM saves nearly $200 on the build, and the although the configuration we tested could have had more memory on board, looking at the benchmarks, it wasn’t really necessary.
However, pairing an HDD with a 32GB mSATA caching drive, while facilitating significant cost savings, was a misstep with a machine of this caliber. We’d prefer to drop a little more cash to upgrade to larger SSD, which is indeed an option when you’re configuring an M17x.
One thing that Dell did absolutely right, though, is include the Alien Command Center and other themed software. Those programs feel mature and it’s pleasing to be able to customize a notebook so much without digging around through Windows menus. The lighting scheme is just right, and the front intakes are (still) a very cool feature, although we weren’t big fans of the palm/forearm rests.
In the end, the Alienware M17x is a phenomenal gaming rig that outstrips most of the stiffest competition at a relatively reasonable price. Sure, $2,469 is steep, but the system could easily have cost hundreds of dollars more, and looking around at the competition, that price is probably just about where it should be for what you’re getting. Aside from a few minor complaints concerning ergonomics and storage, the Alienware M17x is a killer refresh of the line that any gamer would be glad to show off.