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Review: Alienware M11x gaming PC laptop

What would be the perfect PC gaming laptop? For us it would have to be cheap, portable, able run all of our games at a solid frame rate on high graphical settings, all while keeping a solid battery life. Dell's Alienware division has come up with a gaming PC that, while not perfect, is certainly about as close as we have seen a gaming laptop get.

We are talking about the Alienware M11x which was first announced by Dell at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January and officially launched a few weeks later. Alienware let us take the M11x for a test drive and, in summary, we can say that we are seriously thinking of buying one of our own for our own gaming PC needs for travel, LAN parties or if you just want a way to play PC games on the couch.
The M11x itself has some compromises in its design, as with pretty much any laptop PC. However, the sum total of its parts lets it become a solid gaming PC. While the laptop has a number of optional upgrades and features, our review model contained an Intel 1.3GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300, a 500 GB hard drive (you can choose to get a solid state drive but be prepared for sticker shock ) and 4GB of DDR 3-based REM (upgradable to 8GB if you so choose) . The biggest hardware feature is the included Nvidia GeForce GT 335 M graphics processor with 1GB of memory. It's a DirectX10 compatible graphics chip that powers the Alienware M11x's performance.

We will state upfront that you can get a more powerful graphics processor in a laptop PC if you want. However, those graphics chips are typically inside what are known as "desktop replacement" laptops. They are big machines that weigh in excess of seven pounds or more. In other words, they are not really designed to be put into a backpack for travel.

The weight of the M11x, on the other hand, is about 4.5 pounds. It's certainly not an ultra-light laptop or netbook, but at the same time, the weight is not so heavy that you get dragged if you put it in your backpack. The system sports an 11.6 inch screen with support for resolutions up to 1366x728. The combination of the graphics processor screen resolution limit means that games played on the M11x will not look quite as good as on a regular desktop or even a "desktop replacement" laptop. But it also means that even graphically intensive games like Crysis can still be played at solid frame rate.

We played a number of games on the Alienware M11x including Crysis, Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2 and others. You won't be able to turn on all the high-end features like 4X anti-aliasing, but if you are willing to compromise a little by turning off shadowing (shutter) and anti-anti aliasing, you will be able to run just about any game at frame rates that are more than acceptable. It completely trounces the performance of a regular laptop with an integrated graphics chip inside.

So if performance is decent, how about battery life? After all there is no sense in getting a laptop, even a gaming PC laptop, that you always have to keep pulled in to play games. Thankfully the M11x allows you to switch between using the laptop's integrated graphics to the Nvidia GeForce GT 335 M by hitting the F6+Fn keys. With integrated graphics mode we were able to do normal tasks like web surfing, watching movies and word processing for about 6.5 hours. Playing Left 4 Dead 2 on the M11x with the battery and the Nvidia graphics chip hit the battery like a ton of bricks but we were still able to play the game at just over two hours on a single charge.

The laptop design, as you can see with the pictures, is not exactly sleek and thin. In fact, it's pretty blocky. However, there are some cool design choices from the AlienFX LED custom light system that allows you to not only see your keys in the dark (perfect for an all night session at QuakeCon) but you can change the light color to pretty much anything you want. The front of the M11x has two LEDs that look like evil alien headlights. Even the power button, which is an Alienware logo, can be useful. It lets you know if your battery power is about to die and changes color when it is recharging.

The laptop's keyboard is large enough so that it won't cramp your hands. Unlike a lot of netbooks, we found the M11x to be pretty comfortable to use. The only exception are the arrow keys, which for some odd reason are so narrowly placed that they're a total pain to use. That aside, the keyboard is very responsive and feel solid when you push them. The track pad is also fairly responsive, but we'd recommend plugging in a mouse for gaming.

One feature we love is the M11x's HDMI port. This is becoming more and more common on laptops nowadays and it allowed us to hook up the laptop to a large PC monitor or HDTV. Unfortunately, using an external display did not allow us to push the game's resolution settings up any higher. There are also VGA and DisplayPort connectors along with a three-in-one card reader. There are three USB ports including one on the left hand side that allows folks to charge up any USB device even if the M11x is turned off. It also includes a camera embedded in the top of the screen for video conferencing. The included 5.1 speakers sound good for a laptop of its size although we suspect many of you will be using the headphone jack to listen to games. Alienware can also include support for integrated 3G wireless support in the M11x as an option for those of you that will be using the internet without a WiFi connection.

Even with all that, there are some things that keep Alienware M11x from being a perfect laptop gaming PC. We were not particularly happy with the fact that the construction used plastic for much of the chassis. We feel that if you are going to travel with this laptop, as many people will do, it should be made of somewhat sterner stuff. Also, the 8-volt battery requires a screwdriver to take off the battery cover off in order to replace it.

Alienware included its AlienSense software with the M11x, which basically turns the integrated camera into a facial recognition security system. It sounds cool, but in practice, the software almost never recognized our head shape. So we ended up settling for plain old password protection. The M11x's screen is also highly reflective and glossy, so the glare made it almost impossible to see anything in sunlight. On a side note, Alienware provided a system recovery disc with the package, which is all well and good except the M11x does not have an integrated optical drive. If you want to use the system for installing software, watching DVDs, or activating the your system recovery disk, you will have to buy an external drive - which adds to the number of things that need to be carried around.

If you are looking for the best gaming performance out of a laptop PC, then you should browse some of the higher end offerings like the M15x or M17x. However, if you value a gaming PC that is very portable, plays games at decent frame rates, and has solid battery life, we would definitely recommend getting the Alienware M11x. While we have some constructive criticism of the product, the pluses for this rig far outweigh the minuses. The biggest plus is that our personal configuration came in at a more-than-reasonable price of $1,099. This is no netbook nor it is a desktop replacement. It is, in every sense of the phrase, "just right" (almost).
Final Verdict

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