|Introduction & Specifications|
Calling the Alienware M18x R2 a laptop is like referring to a Harley Davidson as a bicycle. Both have handlebars and ride on two wheels, but when the rubber hits the road, the Harley's going to leave a Schwinn in the rear-view mirror. So it goes with the Alienware system we abducted from Dell. Technically, it's a gaming laptop, but more accurately, it's one hell of a desktop replacement that leaves lesser systems in the dust.
Large and in charge, the 2012 model M18x retains the same spacious 18.4-inch LCD panel from last year. The display features a Full HD 1080p (1920x1080) screen resolution, which is nothing to write home about compared to the Retina Display Apple's been putting in its latest MacBook Pro systems, but underneath the hood it's an entirely different ballgame. Now sporting Ivy Bridge hardware, the system Alienware sent us came equipped with an Intel Core i7 3820QM processor clocked at 2.7GHz (up to 3.7GHz via Turbo) and two Kepler-based NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M graphics cards in SLI. It's a potent one-two combo made all the more powerful by a pair of Samsung PM830 256GB SATA 6Gbps solid state drives (SSDs) in RAID 0 and 16GB of fast DDR3-1600 memory.
This isn't a system designed for boardroom meetings or jaunts to the local Starbucks, not unless one or the other is hosting a LAN party. At right around 12 pounds, portability is sacrificed to the gaming gods in exchange for pure pixel pushing power, with a price tag that reflects its beastly innards. As configured, the M18x runs in the neighborhood of $4,400, though cost of admission into this elite club starts at $2,000. Either way, it's an expensive proposition by today's standards.
Is it worth the coin? Whether you're genuinely interested in learning the answer to that question or simply want to lust over an audacious luxury in the land of mobile, keep clicking, we have plenty to show you.
There isn't much Alienware neglected to include in the M18x we received. If forced to nitpick, a Blu-ray burner (as opposed to a reader) and large mechanical hard drive for storage chores would have rounded out an otherwise obscene spec sheet. And by the way, both of those items can be configured into the build.
One thing we should note is that Alienware is no longer offering the Intel Core i7 3820QM processor. Since receiving this system, that option has been bumped up to a Core i7 3840QM, also a quad-core part with 8MB of cache but clocked 100MHz faster at 2.8GHz to 3.8GHz (Turbo).
|Software & First Boot|
Armed with a pair of speedy Samsung 830 Series SSDs configured in RAID 0, this Alienware system simply flies, which becomes evident the moment you press the power button. Starting from a cold boot took just 24 seconds to get into Windows, and around 46 seconds to completely load all the modules in the taskbar. Powering down took just a hair over 10 seconds.
Alienware, once a boutique system builder that stood on its own two tentacles, is now Dell's premium brand, beamed up to the bulk OEM six years ago. The Alienware subsidy maintains its own portal on the Web and continues to cater strictly to gamers and enthusiasts with high-end systems. Keeping with that spirit, Alienware rigs like the one reviewed here are almost completely devoid of third-party software. A handful of utilities are scattered about, none of which are filler programs, but essential to hardware they're tied to or the feature-set of the M18x.
One of those software items is Qualcomm's Atheros Killer Network Manager. An optional upgrade on the M18x R2 is a Killer Wireless-N 1103 network adapter, an $80 up-sell with 3x3 MIMO and various technologies designed to squeeze every ounce of performance out of your wireless connection. The network manager isn't essential, but it does provide a graphical overview of your network.
CyberLink's PowerDVD software is also included. It supports the playback of Blu-ray discs, DVDs, VCDs, and a number of video and audio file formats. By default, M18x R2 systems ship with a slot-loading DVD burner, though you can upgrade to a Blu-ray reader (as ours came configured with).
One of the unique features of the M18x, and several Alienware systems in general, is the ability to customize the lighting scheme. There are nine different lighting zones, each of which can be individually configured. The included FX software allows you to preview your funky color scheme before committing to them, as well as create and save themes. You can even set up a lighting scheme for system events, like when a new email arrives.
What you see in the picture above are the macro keys. There are five macro keys along the left side of the keyboard, plus a profile toggle switch that cycles between three profiles. All this is customizable via the included software as well.
If you're in need of a time waster, the bundled webcam software provides plenty of fun and silly filters to play with. As is usually the case with these things, once the novelty wears off, you might never cycle through the effects again, but in the meantime, well, the above speaks for itself.
As for the hardware, the M18x sports a 2.1-megapixel Full HD webcam with dual digital microphones.
|Design & Layout|
The Alienware M18x comes in two color options, including "Space Black" and "Nebula Red." Black is selected by default, though there's no charge to switch to red if that's your preference. Your color choice affects the top panel and the two side bezels.
At right around 12 pounds, the M18x R2 feels as solid as a Mack Truck, and would probably hurt just as much if you were to run into this thing at full speed. The construction is solid and the beautiful 18.4-inch panel is super sturdy and not the least bit flimsy. There's no flex like you'll find on some Ultrabooks that weigh a fraction of the amount, and though Alienware's not pitching this system as a "rugged" notebook, we have no doubt it can take a beating, and certainly withstand the daily grind of hardcore gamers.
The top panel has a slab of anodized aluminum that covers the display, which gives way to a rubberized coating along the top edge. That same rubber treatment extends to the wrist rest and wraps around the LED-backlit keyboard. It's very comfortable, and while not totally immune to fingerprints, it doesn't attract them nearly as much as a glossy finish would.
There are a couple of intake vents on the front, both of which glow whichever color you have configured. We like the aggressive molding and overall curves of the notebook, all of which come together to form a futuristic theme. The other thing that's visibly evident from the moment you unbox the M18x is its thickness. It's slightly tapered, measuring 2.15 inches high in the rear and 2.09 inches high in the front.
In keeping with the futuristic theme, the keycaps all have tapered edges that slant downwards, almost bumping into each other. It's a bit of a modified chiclet design, and a little more space in between keys would go a long way towards increasing the comfort level when hammering out lengthy breakup letters, angry emails to your boss, or whatever else you may need to type to get rid of whatever it is that interferes with your game time. Gaming, after all, is what the M18x R2 is all about. That's not to say the keyboard is uncomfortable to type on, it just doesn't rank as our favorite mobile plank. Otherwise, it offers decent key travel and is relatively quiet, so you can game into the wee hours of the morning without waking everyone up.
Underneath the keyboard and sitting slightly to the left is a sizable touchpad that supports multi-touch gestures (you have to enable it in the Synaptics software) like pinch-to-zoom and both horizontal and vertical scrolling (this also must be enabled). For any type of real gaming, you're obviously going to want to invest in a mouse, but for navigating Windows and general use scenarios, the touchpad is up to the task.
LED backlighting is applied liberally throughout the M18x, including the entire keyboard and around the touchpad. If you're not into the whole light show theme, you can disable the LEDs altogether.
Unfortunately, the sound emitted from the 2.1 speakers doesn't have the same flair as the overall aesthetics. The speakers get loud enough to fill a room, but the audio being pumped out is a bit hollow and suffers from a serious bass deficiency. You're much better off pairing the M18x with a quality headset or outputting sound to external speakers.
On the left side of the M18x, from left to right you'll find a Kinsington Lock, RJ-45 GbE port, VGA port, HDMI 1.4 output, mini-DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 ports, and four audio ports (S/PDIF, microphone, and two audio outputs). Note that the USB ports are not color coded blue, but they do in fact operate at the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 specification.
Flipping over to the opposite side, there's a slot-load Blu-ray reader / DVD burner combo drive sitting beneath an ExpressCard slot, 9-in-1 memory card reader, two more USB 3.0 ports (for a total of four), eSATA / USB 2.0 combo port, and HDMI 1.3 input.
Kudos to Alienware to sticking all the connectivity ports on the sides of the M18x rather than utilizing the rear of the chassis where it's not as convenient. All you'll find on the back is the power connector for the included 330W AC adapter and several exhaust vents. You'll hear the fans on the inside ramp up when putting the system under a heavy load, especially GPU intensive chores, but it's not a high-pitched sound or overly obnoxious.
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
To kick things off, we fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This 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. Most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
It hardly seems fair to toss the M18x R2 into the ring with other gaming laptops we've reviewed, but as lopsided as the results may be, it underscores how far over the top Alienware built this thing. It also highlights the advance of technology. The updated R2 model in our possession nearly tripled the PCMark Vantage score compared to an older model Alienware M18x built around Sandy Bridge and wielding a pair of Radeon GPUs. Part of that strength comes from the system's pair of Samsung SSDs, which push IO throughput in this particularly disk-sensitive benchmark.
Equally obscene in the laptop space is the PCMark 7 score our M18x system returned. We've seen higher scores before, but only from enthusiast-grade desktop rigs, never from a laptop. Notice the balanced performance in the categorical breakdown PCMark 7 provides, which indicates the M18x R2 is equally suited for any task you throw at it, be it gaming or productivity chores.
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11. 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 Performance preset option.
Wielding a pair of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M GPUs in SLI, the M18x cut through 3DMark 11 like one of Dexter's blades through slicing through a helpless body. The GTX 680M is the fastest GPU on the planet, and the M18x benefits from having two them push pixels around like a schoolyard bully. The system also benefits from a quad-core Ivy Bridge processor and dual SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration, but by and large, 3DMark 11 is highly influenced by the graphics subsystem.
When we re-ran 3DMark 11 with the Extreme Preset, the M18x again performed like a high-end gaming desktop, which is entirely appropriate considering the hardware. What this tells us is that the M18x has the legs to keep up with demanding titles for a long while to come. That's encouraging when you're dropping over four large on a system.
|SiSoft Sandra & Cinebench|
|We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
As part of this year's refresh, Alienware upgraded the M18x R2 to Intel's Ivy Bridge platform, and our review system came to us with an Core i7 3820QM processor. It's a quad-core chip that runs at 2.7GHz, and up to 3.7GHz via Turbo. It also has 8MB of Smart Cache. It's a higher end chip in Intel's mobile line-up, and that's reflected in the Sandra's Arithmetic and Multimedia tests.
Flanking the fast Ivy Bridge processor is 16GB of DDR3-1600 memory and two performance-oriented Samsung 830 256GB SSDs in RAID 0. Sandra benched the storage at a little over 880MB/s (read), which is insanely fast. More important than the synthetic measurement is the actual response when buzzing around Windows and loading programs, both of which the M18x excel at.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores 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 is a notoriously punishing benchmark designed to evaluate a system's worthiness for professional level chores, like CAD and 3D content creation. More recently, we've seen systems show they're up to the task, though they're typically high-end desktops. Once again, the M18x R2 shows it can run with the big dogs, posting one of the higher scores we've seen in Cinebench, and certainly the strongest numbers posted by a laptop.
|Gaming Performance: Far Cry 2, Metro 2033, and Just Cause 2|
Far Cry 2 is a far cry from being a taxing benchmark, but due to its age, we've amassed a barrel full of benchmarks to compare systems with. That said, we may finally hit a performance wall. Dropping down from a 1920x1080 resolution to 1280x720 barely increased framerates, which hovered right around 175fps. Suffice to say, two GeForce GTX 680M GPUs in SLI is more than enough to handle literally any older DirectX 10 titles.
Metro 2033 is one of those titles that scales fairly decent with multiple videocards, which plays right into the hands of the Alienware laptop. What's really remarkable, however, is that the M18x R2's framerates at 1920x1080 is nearly as high as an older M17x running at 1280x720.
As technology evolves, so too does Alienware's gaming laptop line, and Just Cause 2 provides a good opportunity to see how performance scales over time. This same model laptop with a single GPU from a couple of generations ago is 50 percent slower than the one we tested here.
|Gamin Performance: Lost Planet 2, Aliens vs Predator, & Batman: Arkham City|
We consider Lost Planet 2 to be one of the more important benchmarks when evaluating gaming performance because it does a great job of highlighting the cream of the crop. It wasn't that long ago when an Alienware system struggled to push out playable framerates in this test but with the M18x R2, there's horsepower to spare.
It's going to be another generation or so before a system can creep past 100fps at 1920x1080 with all the eye candy and DX11 features turn on in this benchmark but the M18x R2 keeps it silky smooth at almost 70fps even with 4X AA on.
Batman: Arkham City is another one that we recently added to the fold. In this test, the M18x R2 is able to blow past 100fps with IQ settings cranked up.
|Let's be real, you don't purchase a system like the M18x R2 with the expectation of great battery life. If it can stay on long enough to plug the cord back into the wall after accidentally tripping over it, you should consider it a win. Nevertheless, this is still technically a laptop, so it's worth examining. Here are the results from our Battery Eater Pro tests.
One thing to keep in mind here is that the M18x R2 is driving a larger size display than your average gaming laptop, which are typically 17.3 inches or 15.6 inches in size. We've even seen some gaming notebooks trend towards the 11.6-inch category. With an 18.4-inch display, the M18x R2 inevitably draws more power than smaller size systems. Factor in the dual GPUs and fast CPU, and you can see why it conks out after just over an hour.
Of course, battery life will vary depending on your particular setup and usage habits. What's more, you can disable the discrete GPUs and switch to the integrated graphics to improve battery life, if desired. That could come in handy if you're toting this thing on a business trip with the intent of getting some work done before settling in for a evening of fragging from the confines of your hotel room.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Fittingly enough, performance from the Alienware M18x R2 is out of this world. Born into this world as a notebook, its creators turned the M18x into a burly desktop replacement that trounced all over the competition. No big surprise considering it's crammed full with two of the fastest mobile GPUs on the planet (2 x NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M in SLI), a speedy Intel Core i7 3820QM processor, 16GB of DDR3-1600 memory, and two Samsung 830 256GB SSDs in RAID 0. This thing was built for the fast track, and it delivered across the board.Straight and to the point, if you're looking for a no-compromises desktop replacement, the Alienware M18x R2 has your name written all over it in big, bold, neon letters. This is the system to get if you don't care about trivial things like portability (it weighs 12 pounds, after all), price (and costs around $4,400), and battery life (dual GPUs...'nuff said). Make no mistake, this is a gaming PC that's every bit as powerful as a high-end desktop, but with the benefit of a built-in display and form factor that makes it relatively easy to lug to LAN parties. Yes, it's four or five times as heavy as an Ultrabook, but its shape and weight are both far less unwieldy than packing up a desktop tower on a trip across town.
We'd also be remiss not to point out that Alienware's M18x R2 line begins at $1,999, which is less than half the price of the one configured here for this review. The hardware in this configuration is comparably tame, but still rather potent, consisting of an Intel Core i7 3630QM processor, 6GB of DDR3-1600 memory, 500GB hard drive, and GeForce GTX 660M GPU with 2GB of graphics memory. The point is, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to game on an 18.4-inch laptop; you can spend just an arm, maybe.
As configured, obviously price is a negative, and it's one of the few. Our only other complaints deal with the hollow sounding speakers, and the fact that the keyboard could be a tad more comfortable, though it's a serviceable plank for daily typing chores. Otherwise, the Alienware M18x R2 is a fine, if not rare specimen.