Introducing an Ultraportable Demon

We've been keeping track of Alienware's M11x series since the very first one landed and have had the privilege of testing each one. The move from Penryn to Arrandale in the R2 netted a substantial boost in performance at the cost of some battery life, though that issue was mitigated somewhat by the introduction of NVIDIA's Optimus graphics switching, replacing the more finicky software-based GPU switching in the first generation model. With the vastly improved power consumption and efficiency of Sandy Bridge, do we have a true successor to the last two models?

From first impressions, it certainly looks that way. Everything in the M11x R3 has gotten a healthy boost--everything, that is, except the screen. So spoiler alert there: the one big change we were hoping for, our last major complaint about the M11x in the R2, still remains present in the R3. Yet the move from Arrandale to Sandy Bridge has yielded dividends in other notebooks, and the GPU has received a stellar upgrade from the old GeForce GT 335M. And as a final bonus, Alienware is packing USB 3.0 in the R3.

Alienware M11x R3 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2617M
(2x1.5GHz + HTT, 32nm, 4MB L3, Turbo to 2.6GHz, 17W)
Chipset Intel QS67
Memory 2x4GB Hynix DDR3-1333 (Max 2x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M 2GB DDR3
(96 CUDA Cores, 672MHz/1344MHz/1.8GHz core/shader/memory clocks, 128-bit memory bus)
Display 11.6" LED Glossy 16:9 1366x768
(AU Optronics AUO305C Panel)
Hard Drive(s) Seagate Momentus 7200.5 500GB 7200-RPM HDD
Optical Drive -
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 802.11a/b/g/n
Audio Realtek ALC665 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Mic and dual headphone jacks
Battery 8-Cell, 14.8V, 63Wh battery
Front Side Speakers
Left Side Kensington lock
USB 2.0 (Chargeable)
MMC/SD/MS Reader
4-pin FireWire
Right Side Dual headphone, mic jacks
2x USB 3.0
Back Side AC adaptor
Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 11.25" x 9.19" x 1.29" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.4 lbs
Extras 2MP webcam
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
USB charging
Klipsch speakers
RGB configurable backlit 82-key keyboard
Warranty 1-year limited warranty (available up to four years)
Pricing Starting at $999
Priced as configured: $1,419

Much like in our review of the Alienware M14x, right out the gate I'll tell you that most of the upgrades to the base system aren't going to seem worth it. Our review unit comes equipped with the fastest processor Dell makes available in the M11x R3, the Intel Core i7-2617M. For just a 17W TDP it's a remarkably capable piece of kit, able to turbo up to 2.3GHz on both cores or 2.6GHz on a single core, and it promises to be a major improvement on the i7-640UM the previous generation sported. The alternative choice, for $200 less, is the i5-2537M, which takes a 300MHz hit to both turbo clocks, comes with a slightly slower 1.4GHz nominal clock, and 1MB less of L3 cache. Given the low resolution screen, it's hard to really swallow a $200 upgrade to the faster i7.

That's especially true when you realize the CPU and GPU are tied together into two specific combinations: you can get either the i7-2617M and 2GB DDR3 NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M, or the i5-2537M and 1GB DDR3 NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M. That extra gigabyte of video memory is a waste on a part like the GT 540M, whose 96 CUDA cores and 128-bit memory bus are ill-equipped to take advantage of the extra space. The 540M ships at spec, with 672MHz on the core, 1344MHz on the shaders, and an effective 1.8GHz on the DDR3. This is a massive improvement on the GT 335M that the M11x R2 shipped with, running more than 200MHz faster on the core while offering an additional 24 shaders. It also brings support for DirectX 11 and has performance around the AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5650, just as we requested in our review of the R2.

The last notable upgrade is the inclusion of USB 3.0: the two USB ports on the right side of the M11x R3 are now USB 3.0 instead of the 2.0 used in the last generation.

Essentially what we're left with is a very healthy improvement to the system itself along with better connectivity. Unfortunately we're still missing out on the better screen--something Alienware otherwise gets right with their M14x, M17x and M18x. Other than the heavy rejiggering of the M11x R3's insides, though, the shell itself remains unchanged and in line with the rest of Alienware's notebooks: glossy black accents on the speaker grilles along with edge-to-edge gloss for the screen, a backlit keyboard, and a smooth rubberized texture on the plastic shell. The design has gone largely unchanged from the very first iteration, so our thoughts there still apply. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and while I personally still take some issue with the intake on the bottom of the notebook, at least the parts included in this version should generate less heat than the two previous generations.

The Fastest Ultraportable on the Block
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  • Tchamber - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    This is a lot of performance for a 11" computer. When i look at laptops at my local electronics superstore, i always think that 1080 resulution on even a 15.6" screen is too uch, everything is so small i invariably change to lower resolutio. If you need that though, hp offers it on their website. And this is written on my ipad, and it's no substitute for my m17x :) i hate typing on this thing.
  • sviola - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Well, you should look into Sony Vaio's line of notebooks. My wife has a SR model (the updated line is call SB now, if I'm not mistaken) and its screen is very good. Rivals with Apple's offering.
  • werewolf23 - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    Try the Lenovo W520, 15" and beats the M11 in every regard.
  • plewis00 - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    I had the M11x R1 and it was pretty good apart from the hinges snapping three times in a year (in a lawsuit with Dell over that), but the screen was utterly appalling, it actually hurts my eyes it's that bad.

    Then while we're told that there are no good 11" 'netbook-sized' screens, as much as I hate to admit it, the screen on the Macbook Air 11" is truly stunning - in fact one thing Apple is worryingly consistent with is the quality of their screens, sure you pay a premium for it but just as when I moved from the Dell XPS 15 with base 768p screen to one with the B+RGLED 1080p one, I'm starting to think the difference is justified.

    I wonder if anyone fancies trying to replace the M11x screen with one from a Macbook Air 11"? As long as Apple hasn't pulled off any proprietary rubbish with the screen, which I guess is unlikely as they're almost all industry-standard. Any ideas?
  • S0me1X - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    4.4 pounds and 1.3 inches thick? For comparison:
    - Macbook Pro 13 is 4.5 pounds and 0.95 inches thick.
    - Thinkpad T420s is 4.0 pounds and 1.05 inches thick.
    - Macbook Air 11 is 2.4 pounds and 0.68 inches thick (the only ultraportable in this list)

    Ultraportable should be reserve for notebooks under 3.5 pounds (preferably under 3) and 1 inch thick.
  • Sazar - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    It is a gaming ultra-portable. None of the items you have listed are gaming products. Apples and Oranges.

    Btw, if you want the thinnest ultra-portable out there, get your hands on a Dell Adamo XPS.
  • redchar - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    I disagree. There aren't really any laptops out these days that are thick enough that they would cease to be portable. It's not like decades ago when they used to make brick-thick 'portable' computers. 1.3 inches does not stop the m11x from being portable, in the same way that the macbook air being .68 inches thick does not make it any more portable. Whether or not someone is able to carry their laptop with them should never come down to whether or not it can fit in a manila envelope. What IS important, I believe, is screen size. 17" mammoth laptops are hardly portable, as screen dimension really makes laptops a lot less portable than simply a fraction of an inch difference in thickness. Likewise, I own an m11x r1, and sure, it is relatively heavy for its size, but only relatively. It is not heavy to the point that it is unportable. If someone is unable to carry it around simply because it weighs 4 pounds then that's a real problem - and I'm no body builder.

    So for me, I consider laptops around 12" screen size or under to be 'ultraportable', as screen size ultimately decides whether you can or cannot stuff it in whatever luggage you have, or how comfortably it will fit under your arm on-the-go. Companies should be less worried about thickness - to a point - as with the m11x that thickness goes to good use with performance and battery life.
  • Guspaz - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    That's the problem, though, this isn't really an 11.6" laptop. The chassis could easily fit a larger screen; a 12.5" screen should be no problem. It's not as bad as some laptops (like the ridiculously enormous bezel on the Lenovo X1), but it underscores how silly the screen in the m11x really is. Not only is it smaller than it should be, it's a TN panel. Not only is it a TN panel, it's a *bad* TN panel.

    Is 1366x768 enough for an 11.6" (or 12.5") screen? Probably, but with Sony putting 1920x1080 screens into 13.1" laptops, it wouldn't be unreasonable to see something slightly higher. 1600x900? Or something a bit less, but still more tan 1366x768?
  • redchar - Friday, July 22, 2011 - link

    The resolution is perfect as is. You want to keep the framerate of games decently high, and thats one way to do it.
    I notice that the bezel is pretty large, and I feel that it could fit a 12.x size screen in it, but I don't mind -too- much as I can't think of a better laptop for the size, at least for my purposes. The 11.6 is probably there either because its popular, or for the ability to claim it as the fastest 11.6 laptop.
    Sure, a TN is disappointing, but alienware doesn't really target people that care about screen quality. It's not that there is no reason to have a nice display to match the laptop, but it's not on alienware's priority list. Personally I don't care too much, either. It's a portable device, and so I'm not expecting perfection.. so if I had to choose, I would put up with bad screen quality over bad performance. The m11x is a powerful little machine, so I am willing to put up with the poor display after everything else it gives me.
    But as the review did say, since everything else is nearly perfect, it's not too much to ask for a better display in the future, huh?
  • LordanSS - Saturday, July 23, 2011 - link

    I always see people complaining about the screens being TN on these gaming notebooks... some asking for IPS or some other higher quality option. But these are gaming notebooks, and I ask you: what about the screen response times?

    3ms-5ms GTG response times are common on TN panels, but ISP ones usually are on the 10ms+ range (like that Apple Cinemadisplay they just released, 12ms). Ghosting becomes a real issue at that point, if you are *playing a game*, like a First Person Shooter, with very fast-paced action or image movement.

    I'm sorry, but as far as *gaming* goes, TN is much more than adequate. If you want to do work or watch movies, I agree that a different tech would be more apropriate, but like I said before: this is a *gaming* notebook.

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