Alienware M11x R2: New and Improved Ultraportable Gaming

When the original M11x was announced, heads turned and everyone was impressed with just how much performance Alienware managed to cram into the small chassis. In fairness, while the LCD is a standard 11.6" size, the chassis is actually far closer to a 13.3" laptop than it is to 11.6" ultraportables. Still, no one else is coming anywhere near the performance level of the GT 335M GPU in anything smaller than a 14" chassis. We really liked the overall concept, but the first revision had a few areas where we wanted to see improvements. First and most importantly, the switchable graphics were good for battery life, but getting updated drivers on such designs has been difficult at best. With NVIDIA's Verde driver program releasing regular driver updates for everything but switchable graphics, we really wanted an Optimus enabled design. Second, the Intel Core 2 CULV processor was nearing the end of the road, with various Arrandale ULV processors nearing release and promising improved performance and Turbo Boost. The final item that prevented us from giving the M11x an Editor's Choice award was the lackluster LCD along noise and heat levels that were often distracting.

So the revised edition is here and it's looking to address the above concerns. NVIDIA Optimus Technology? Check. An Arrandale i7-640UM processor? Roger that. A high contrast LCD? Um… no. But still, two out of three isn't bad. The GPU is the same GT 335M, so performance shouldn't be any different in that respect. However, the GT 335M was likely more GPU than the overclocked CULV processor could feed, so just because the GPU is the same doesn't mean gaming performance won't improve. The i7-640UM processor has a stock clock speed of 1.20GHz, but now we're looking at two cores plus Hyper-Threading, and clock-for-clock Arrandale processors have outperformed the old Core 2 Duo parts. Add to that the ability for the 640UM to Turbo Boost all the way up to 2.27GHz and we're looking at potentially 50% more performance from the CPU (give or take).

The design hasn't really changed at all from the exterior. Our review sample for the original M11x came with a sliver chassis. We thought it looked decent, but the black R2 model we received definitely has a stealthier look. The lid has a rubberized paint texture that almost feels soft to the touch. If we had a choice, the black chassis wins quite easily. Oddly, the new touchpad (or at least the current Alienware drivers) lack support for both multi-touch gestures and chiral scrolling, though it does support pinch-to-zoom. We'll have to see about swapping out the provided driver for a Synaptics reference driver, as we miss the scrolling gestures. The keyboard is also going to feel a bit small for some, but the customizable colored backlighting is still a great feature to impress your friends.

We're still working on benchmarks, so all we can do for now is present some initial results. We'll skip with graphs and charts and save those for the final review. For now, here's what we can tell you. PCMark Vantage shows an improvement of 36% while most of the 3DMark results improve by 5-15%. Oddly enough, our initial testing has generated slightly lower scores in PCMark05 and 3DMark03, but we're running on the shipping NVIDIA 189.69 drivers rather than updated 256/257 series drivers and we've only completed a few test runs. We did try Alienware's Beta 257.30 drivers, but we experienced problems with the various Futuremark tests and out of memory errors. We're not sure yet whether the problem is the drivers or something in the Alienware software shipped on the system, or perhaps the BIOS just needs a few tweaks. In normal use, the M11x R2 certainly feels snappier than the original, and the upgrade to Arrandale and Optimus are the real story. Battery life results will have to wait, as we're busy testing other things right now, but the M11x should easily last upwards of seven hours for lighter loads.

There is one area that actually got substantially worse with the new release, unfortunately: pricing. While the first M11x was available starting at just $900 and is now shipping for just $800, the M11x R2 starts at $950. Upgrade to 4GB RAM and the 500GB 7200RPM hard drive and the original M11x goes for $1000; the same upgrades on the R2 bump the price to $1150, and if you want the faster i7-640UM (as opposed to the i5-520UM that runs at 1.067GHz stock and up to 1.833GHz Turbo Boost) like our review unit you're looking at $1300. $300 extra for performance that should be 10 to 50% faster is reasonable, especially since you get Optimus Technology thrown into the mix. If you can't wait, there's a quick ship "Fast Track" version with the i5-520UM, 4GB RAM, and a 250GB hard drive that ships in 48 hours for just $1050. If you're thinking of adding an aftermarket SSD down the road anyway, that would be the one to get. Stay tuned for the full review next week, and feel free to ask questions in the comments section in the meantime.

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  • iamkyle - Sunday, July 4, 2010 - link

    "Our review sample for the original M11x came with a sliver chassis."

    There should be options! Like rda, bule, geren, ylelow, and wihte. All the colours of the rianbow!
  • iamlilysdad - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    I ordered mine almost the first day it was available. I opted for the i7 version, 4gb RAM, 250gb hard drive, and bluetooth. Mine has locked up on me at least once a day since i've had it. Have you guys noticed anything like this with your review unit? I've updated the drivers, but haven't given alienware a call yet. Just wondering if mine is an anomoly or if others have noticed this problem too.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    Yes. There's a utility called Dell Wireless Tray or some such that has a massive memory leak. I used ProcessExplorer at one point and it said it was using 500MB+, but when I killed the process I went from 3.3GB of memory used down to 800MB. I used MSConfig.exe to disable that particular service/startup item and that fixed the problems I experienced.
  • iamlilysdad - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    Awesome. Well not the problem, but that u experienced it and found the fix. I will try that when i get home. Thank you very much for the information. I'm not saavy enough to figure out the problem but i do know about msconfig.
  • iamlilysdad - Wednesday, July 7, 2010 - link

    Well it hasn't locked up near as much (once since I stopped the Dell service from running), but when i leave the laptop on and close the screen it will stay off when i open it again. It takes a hard reset to get it turn back on. I will have to get on the phone will Alienware to figure out the issue. It's really annoying to not be able to leave my laptop on when it's plugged in.
  • Akv - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    The combination of the words Ultraportable and Gaming seem a bit odd to me.

    I prefer to buy a cheaper laptop, and put the remaining money in a better graphic card for my desktop.
  • Ddust - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - link

    How about the Hinges problems? I read & saw in person those M11X hinges are really bad. After a while it start to squeak. Eventually getting louder & louder. I cant wait to see you guys. Hope they fix it for next one.
  • twcom001 - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - link

    I ordered mine. Now waiting like a child on X-mas eve. I'm eager for your recommended driver choices. I'd been holding out since January based on the rumored I-5 and I-7 upgrades.
    I ordered the I7 with the 7200 drive. I'll be looking for a dedicated AW MX 11 group, a mini gamers, pimp my MX 11 theme, complete with recommended updates, gear and accessories. Turn it into a cult machine.....Well cant wait for the test results. This is the first place I've found to start finger tip testing the upgraded version, for that I'm a fan for life. Staking out the UPS man in NYC
  • Thermogenic - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - link

    I've followed this release closely, and many on the forums have had lots of problems. The two most common I've seen that are unique to the R2 are:

    1) Significantly lower battery life (8hrs for R1 vs 6hrs for R2)
    2) Optimus issues

    To a lesser degree, there seem to be heat issues as well, namely that the GPU will get overheated and go into a low power (i.e. performance killing) state to save itself.

    The Optimus issues will likely work themselves out over time, but I think if you are more interested in the battery life, the R1 is the much more attractive option. Gaming performance will be better on the R2, but it's in the 5-10% range for most games (higher for CPU bound games).
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - link

    I haven't had any driver issues with the update... the bigger problem is the Dell Wireless Tray icon going nuts and sucking up memory! But that's easy enough to kill off and I haven't had problems testing since doing so. As for battery life, I measured 7.3 hours idle and 6.3 hours Internet. In the same tests, the original M11x managed nearly 9 hours idle and 7.1 hours Internet.

    As for performance, application performance is generally around 10-20% better, but gaming performance is largely a wash. Out of the tested games, only DiRT 2 shows a noticeable improvement (around 20%). Other titles like Empire: Total War are even a bit slower on the R2, though it's not enough to concern me. The driver differences might explain some of the changes, since I've seen plenty of games where performance dropped over time on NVIDIA drivers. Remember that the release drivers are often the best optimized, since the manufacturers are actively working on making things work. After that, mostly it seems like the reference drivers from ATI/NVIDIA focus on validation for laptops, so there are times when a valid optimization gets removed.

    Anyway, full review coming in the next day or two...

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