Review: The little engine that could
Obviously there was enough space for improvement and about a month ago Alienware came out with Alienware MX 11 R3, packed with a second generation Core processor, in our case a Core i7 and a brand new graphics chip called Geforce 540M.
The first impression once you open a box is that the notebook is lighter than the MX11 R2 but once we used a scale, we figured out that it weights almost identically the same. It’s a 2.0kg laptop (4.4 lbs) and its dimensions are identical to the R2, Height: 32.7mm (1.29 inches), Depth: 233.3mm (9.19 inches), Width: 285.7mm (11.25 inches). It has an 11.6-inch display in 1366x768 and you will see below that this graphics card and notebook can come good with games including Crysis 2.
The GeForce GT540M graphics features 2GB of memory and Optimus, and you can also choose a 1GB graphics card in some configurations. The Geforce GT 540M works at 672MHz and it has 96 shaders. It is based on NM12P-GS core, 40nm and it is one a representative of DirectX 11, shader model 5 generation from Nvidia. Shaders work at 1344MHz and the memory is 128 bit and works at 900MHz, in our case GDDR5. It is a 35W TDP part that usually goes in 14- to 15-inch notebooks if not bigger, but it’s great to see such a GPU in such small notebook.
The R3 can be equipped with up to 16GB of DDR3 and the tested variant has 4GB. It is based around the Core i7 2617M, a CPU that works at 1.5GHz and with Turbo it jumps at 2.6GHz, all with a 17W TDP, which is quite impressive.
The sample was equipped with an SSD drive from Samsung and this 256GB drive was doing a great job beating the heck out of the traditional hard drives. The biggest issue is as you can imagine that it comes at a high price. The R3 also packs a 2.0 Megapixel video and picture camera with dual microphones, works really well with Skype and the tested model was coming with Wireless display support Wi-Di as all of them were coming with Intel Wireless, with optional Wimax. The machine has Bluetooth 3.0 but this thing is optional as well. One thing that we were missing was a support for 3G modems, something that chaps in the USA are getting as an option.
The one on the left is the MX11R3 and we had a chance to test MX14 also packed with second generation Core i processor as well as Geforce GTX 555 mobile graphics. Stay tuned we will review this one too, and for the sake of better understanding the speed of MX11, we have included MX14 scores and two additional Asus models in the charts.
The LED backlit display supports 1366x768 resolution and plays 720p video just fine, but we hate the fact that it's a glossy screen as it doesn't do well under direct sunlight, or in well lit environments. We would have preferred a matte panel and this was our biggest issue with R2. Unfortunately this hasn’t changed with R3.
The front side has two glowing lights that look cool but do nothing. It takes care of looks and we’re used to such eye catching details from Alienware designers.
One of the many great things about this notebook is its keyboard. It's very comfortable to use, and it's not too noisy, so it won't be a nuisance even in a very quiet environment, say a library.
The front side has two cool glowing lights that look cool and do little. It takes care of looks.One of the many great things about this notebook is its keyboard. It's so comfortable to use, and it's not too noisy, so it won't be a nuisance even in a very quiet environment, say a library.
The touchpad is big and rather good, but there is still no support multitouch which is a shame in this day and age. It does what it's supposed to and you can scroll on it, which is nice, but does not make up for the lack of multitouch.
Alienware also came up with keyboard backlighting that can be changed. It is not just that, you can change the colour of the Alienware logo, front facing lights, and even the WLAN activity LED. As we said, this is something we’ve grown to expect from Alienware
Illuminated keys are an attractive feature, especially for many young people who like to do stuff in the dark, away from prying eyes and nosy parents. You will be able to see what you type which comes handy. Once you get bored with any particular colour you can simply change it and use another. Of course, you can turn all the lights, as well as Alienware's FX software off. We love it and if you have or have seen Alienware notebook this should not be new to you. The company has been using this trick for quite some time, but it still looks cool.
The alien head placed at the back of the lid changes the colour from blue when plugged in, to yellow when unplugged and you can of course it's totally programmable. The downside can be the slow software that might take some time to start, but LED color changes are almost instantaneous.
The power adapter is styled with an LED indicator ring that lets you know that the notebook is charging, all seen from R2 and earlier models.
Both Displayport and HDMI outs are part of the design, but the M11x lacks a VGA out. Although people might think it's cool to have Displayport, we don't see much need for both Displayport and HDMI. HDMI is a must have nowadays. The lack of a traditional VGA connector might be an issue for some users as well, especially if there’s need to connect the R3 to a projector, but it is hardly a machine for PowerPoint presentations anyway. Next to it on the left hand side you will also find a single USB 2.0, Gigabit LAN port, dual memory card reader, all equipped for SD and even micro SD slot. Let’s not forget the Kensington lock as it is still there.
Since most phones today except the iPhone have microSDHC cards inside, you can do some quick transfer via this integrated reader. There is also a small 1394 Firewire port for cameras that many video enthusiasts can find attractive for speedy content transfer.
The right hand side has two USB 3.0, microphone, aux and two speaker analog ports. You can share your movie sound without a splitter, which is a great option for people who fly a lot. USB 3.0 support is a nice touch. USB 3 gets you to 60 80 MB per second when coming from a USB 3 enabled hard drive, and this marks a great improvement over USB 2.0. Naturally USB 3.0 can get even faster, but this was enough to make us happy. All in all we haven’t seen any changes to the ports since MX11 R2, all is the same.
Still there is something new to report, as Alienware has decided to use somewhat better speakers. We were already happy with the speakers from R2 but this time around Alienware has included Klipsch speakers but honestly it the R3 didn’t sound much better than R2, but then again we were quite happy with R2 sound to begin with. They just made it a bit better.
Battery life has seen some amazing improvement over the R2. In office mode, with wireless LAN off and brightness to minimum, we got almost 13 hours of plain old word and basic office productivity. This is roughly two times as much as with R2. Considering that there is a discrete GPU inside this is an exceptional achievement, but we still miss a replaceable battery. It is still not there and according to Battery Eater the MX11 has a 4545mAh battery. Once you turn on the W-Lan and browse the internet you can still get some 7 and a half hours, some mild improvement from R2. Gaming kicks the batteries butt, as with Crysis 2 and everything set to max, you have an hour to enjoy some action. Serious gaming needs a plug, period. A nice thing is a battery checker that can tell you how much battery is left even if the notebook is off.
Once you start gaming the notebook will get quite loud, and definitely even louder if you are plugged in a power outlet. It also pumps a lot of hot air and the top of the keyboard becomes a bit hotter. We measured around 40 Celsius on the numeric part of the keyboard and at the exhaust fan, while normal temperate in office mode was around 27 degrees Celsius.
Since you have some great speakers, you will only notice a fan on an extremely silent scene, and if you are bothered, just use a pair of good headphones. This is the best 11.6 gaming machine in the world, so it has to come with some compromises such as integrated battery and loud fan under load. In office and power saver modes, you barely ever hear the fan, it’s almost silent.
After all this is a gaming notebook that can look nice in the hands of students at the university and school kids will definitely like to show off the Crysis 2 FPS on their latest rig. Nvidia has made a piece of software called Optimus that can switch off Intel Sandy Bridge integrated graphics and use Nvidia Geforce 540M when you play games, and this software works just fine amakes a big difference. When you don’t play games, Intel HD graphics is usually enough and it also needs less power than Nvidia’s gaming GPU.
Over the past few weeks we have tested a few notebooks with discrete graphics card and for now all tested had Nvidia GPUs inside, with the hope that we will get some AMD models soon.
Alienware MX11X R3 and Asus N53S do use the same graphics, but for some reason Alienware doesn’t let you use the latest graphics drivers available from Nvidia.com, and we believe that slight performance win for Asus N53S was because of that. You can see that Alienware scores close to 1000 marks in performance part of the test and that in extreme conditions it also scores very close to a 15.6-inch Asus N53S packed with the same graphics but featuring a quad-core CPU. Alienware MX14 is hardly a fair adversary, since it has much better GT 555M graphics and a quad-core Core i7.
We are still sticking with Dirt 2 for game testing and MX11 has 57 FPS at mid testing and over 30FPS at high while at low settings it can punch a 69.5 FPS. It is usually the second fastest notebook at this test, and bear in mind that the other models are 14-inch and larger.
Aliens vs Predator
This classic game is basically unplayable at the display’s native resolution in DirectX 11 with everything at max settings. With 16X Anisotropic filtering and 1X Anti aliasing it scores 19.4 FPS, basically an unplayable score but once you turn the quality settings down you can get to around 30 FPS with this small notebook. You can see that even the much better equipped MX 14X you barely get a playable score, considering that 24 FPS is the stuttering threshold.
Despite being a DirectX 9 game and that the promised DirectX 11 patch is still not out, we have tested three out of our four notebooks with Crysis 2. We could not test the MX14 as EA lets you install a game that you have purchased on a maximum of three notebooks.
With 36.6 in our fraps test we can tell that the game was quite playable, all at high quality, and if you prefer frames over high quality graphics you can easily score even more. The surprise is that U30S with Geforce GT 520M can get decent Crysis 2 score and with lower settings can play it just fine.
Another DirectX 11 title, as this is the API of the future, Metro 2033 at default 1366x768 resolution and tessellation and Dept of field off can score a rather decent 40 FPS. We played the game and we can tell you that on MX11 R3 you get decent playback and no stuttering. Asus N53S a 15.6 notebook with quad core scores better and MX14 leaves everyone in the dust.
Lost Planet 2
Lost Planet 2 game can put a lot of stress on 96 shaders, in this test even with mid quality, no AA and blur on we get a miserable 11 FPS. You won’t be playing this game on any notebook with 15.6 and below size at any acceptable framer test anytime soon. At least not with this hardware and settings.
The SSD performance was astonishing and we’ve seen 240MB a sec with the tested Samsung drive.
No surprise here. Alienware’s MX 11X R3 powered with a new 17W miracle Core i7 2617 UM and equipped with decent Intel HD graphics and Nvidia’s GT 540M is the best gaming rig you can get in the compact 11.6-inch form factor. You will play just about any game available at decent settings. This includes Crysis 2, something that we honestly didn’t expect to run that fine on such a small notebook.
The SSD definitely speeds up the whole system and every installation of a 10+ GB big games, copying, reboot and waking up from hibernate can get much faster than with any HDD I’ve seen to date. One can argue that choosing the 256GB SSD drive might be a good idea, and to some extent we don’t disagree. However, Alienware wants some 500 USD for it and Alienware has even decided to drop the SSD option in Germany altogether, probably due to a low demand. Mind you, for 500 USD you can get a decent drive better than Samsung you get from Dell.
The machine with this particular SSD and configuration will set you back some 1800 euro, or exactly 1700 USD, while the same machine with 250GB to 320GB mechanical drives will cost close to 1300 euro or 1200 USD. The basic model based on the Core i5 2537M with 1.4GHz core clock and 2.3GHz Turbo clock, with a 2GB DDR3 GT 540M, 4GB of memory and a 320GB HDD goes for $999 with free shipping and German Alienware wants 1049 euro for a similar configuration. It’s a great notebook even without an SSD drive and if you can afford one, it might be a good idea.
This is the smallest notebook that can play Crysis 2 and get decent frames and get good scores in almost all DirectX 11 games around. It’s by no measure the lightest notebook around, but bear in mind that its beefy battery offers close to 13 hours in airplane business mode with WiFi off and low brightness.