Dell enjoyed overnight success with the Alienware M11x earlier this year. This 11-inch notebook outperforms many larger laptops and is priced below $1000. Unfortunately for Dell, consumers quickly started asking for an Alienware M11x with Intel Core i7 processors. Now, less than 6 months after the release of the M11x comes the M11x R2 with Intel Core i7 and Nvidia Optimus technology for automatic graphics switching. Is this the perfect M11x? The answer might surprise you.
Our review unit of the Alienware M11x R2 features the following specifications:
We reviewed the Alienware M11x a short while ago and the new "Revision 2" (R2) version of the M11x is virtually identical. Anyone familiar with the other gaming notebooks in the Alienware family should instantly recognize the design of the new M11x. In many ways the designers at Alienware tried to make this 11-inch notebook look like a tiny twin of the 15-inch M15x or the 17-inch M17x. A large part of that design heritage is the unique style of Alienware machines. Many laptops look all but identical when the lids are closed, but an Alienware laptop stands out thanks to the stylized lid with futuristic lines and a silver alien head logo. The biggest design change with the M11x R2 is the new "Soft Touch Stealth Black" finish. Compared to the old glossy black finish on the original M11x, the new exterior feels like it's coated in a rubberized protective layer similar to a business-class ThinkPad.
Also like a ThinkPad, the M11x R2 maintains the boxy design of the original M11x without a tapered edge like most notebooks. Laptops like the Dell Inspiron 11z or the HP Envy series get thinner as you move to the outside edges and thicker toward the center of the notebook. The chassis of the M11x doesn't do that because Alienware engineers needed all that space for the discrete graphics card, extra cooling, and the integrated battery. The integrated battery is also something to keep in mind when talking about the thickness of this notebook. The M11x might seem thick with its height of 1.29 inches, but if you buy the Dell Inspiron 11z or Lenovo IdeaPad U150 with 6-cell extended life batteries then they are actually thicker than this Alienware machine.
Another essential element of the Alienware design is the use of customizable LED lighting in key areas around the notebook. The first thing that most people notice is the gorgeous backlit keyboard and two front panels, but my personal favorite is the backlit alien head located above the keyboard. Using the AlienFX software included on the M11x you can set this logo to light up in a number of different ways to alert you of your battery status. I set the alien head on my original M11x to light up blue on AC power and red when it's running on battery power. This is a fantastic way to alert the user if the power cord is accidentally unplugged during a game. Two additional areas that light up on the M11x are the alien head on the back of the screen and the intake vent on the bottom of the notebook. These two areas, however, aren't configurable with the AlienFX software -- the vent uses the same lighting as the keyboard and the alien head on the screen lid is illuminated by the LCD when the laptop is running. US customers also still have the option of getting a personalized, laser-etched name plate on the bottom of the M11x R2.
Speaking of the bottom of the notebook, the M11x is likewise stunning even from underneath. The bottom panel is largely flat and smooth with speaker grill holes for the downward-firing stereo speakers, the cooling fan intake, and battery meter. If you're interested in upgrading the internal components on your M11x you'll be happy to learn that all user-serviceable parts are located under a single access panel on the bottom of the notebook. Accessing the CPU, graphics or the cooling fan is much more complicated, but most consumers honestly don't need to get to those inner workings.
Screen and Speakers
The 11.6" LED-backlit screen on the M11x R2 is identical to the screen on the original M11x, which appears identical to the screen on the Dell Inspiron 11z. With a resolution of 1366x768 you have as much screen space as full-size notebooks, meaning that menus and other items that need more vertical space are no longer a problem. The panel looks great, with good color reproduction and very even lighting thanks to the LED-backlighting. Contrast is average, and varies depending on the vertical viewing angle. The viewing sweet spot is very narrow, so if you move your head just a little bit you won't see an entirely black screen during dark scenes in a game. Instead, you either see some shift at the top or some at the bottom. Brighter colors don't have this problem and look fantastic in everything from viewing images to just browsing the web.
Once again, our only significant complaint about the screen on the M11x is the lack of a matte screen option. Glossy screens look cool when you see them in a store or when you first take your laptop out of the box, but glossy screens also cause obvious reflections on the screen and make it much more difficult to see what's on the screen when you're under strong indoor lighting or direct sunlight. Dell really needs to offer a matte screen option on this notebook since it's designed to be taken everywhere ... and you can't always control your lighting environment when traveling.
Speaker quality is far above average for an 11-inch notebook and the maximum volume output is both loud enough to fill a large meeting room and clear enough to be heard without obvious distortion. Although the stereo speakers on the M11x are downward-firing drivers located on the bottom front edge of the notebook, Alienware engineers also designed two small sound channels into the chassis to direct sound forward through the two decorative LED panels on the front on the notebook. So despite the fact that most of the sound is directed down there is also some sound being thrown forward at the user. Although the M11x has two excellent headphone jacks you might be perfectly happy with the built-in speakers on this laptop.
For many years Alienware notebooks have used a distinctive keyboard design with adjustable LED backlighting so you can view the keyboard in the dark. The M11x continues this tradition with one of the best, if not THE best, keyboard we've used on an 11-inch notebook. In general, the keyboard uses individual keys with a traditional shape that is slightly curved in the middle of each key. Key spacing is quite good and each key has the perfect amount of feedback with minimal side travel. The big difference between this keyboard and the keyboards on other 11-inch notebooks is that the keys have excellent LED backlighting with a transparent key frame and key labels using a futuristic font that looks like something out of Star Trek. More importantly, the support frame beneath the keyboard is rock solid. We couldn't get the keyboard on this M11x to flex even under severe typing pressure. Likewise, the matte plastic palmrests will handle hours of game play without bending or squeaking plastics. Typing noise is minimal, with no loud "click clack" noises while typing. The only minor issue we have with the keyboard is that the matte paint on the keys doesn't like natural skin oils. You'll have to wipe down the keyboard from time to time or some of the keys will start to look oily ... particularly the W, A, S, and D keys if you're a heavy gamer.
The Synaptics touchpad is both pleasing and depressing at the same time on the M11x. If I was using this touchpad on any other Dell notebook I would be absolutely thrilled. The honeycomb textured surface makes for an ideal touchpad texture (allowing for smooth, controlled finger movement) and the drivers seem perfectly calibrated straight out of the box for minimal lag and precision tracking. The touchpad buttons have soft, springy movement with quiet clicks, though the full touchpad button press might be a little too deep for my taste. Indeed, this is a great touchpad ... but it's a touchpad.
Any gaming enthusiast will tell you that you MUST use an external mouse when gaming. Sure, the M11x is an ultraportable laptop and people generally use touchpads for typical activities, but the main reason people are buying this machine rather than a Dell Inspiron 11z or an HP Mini 311 is that you can play games on the M11x. Dell really should have included a quality wireless mouse or even a small wired gaming mouse as "standard" equipment with the M11x.
Ports and Features
The selection of ports on the M11x R2 is mostly unchanged from the port layout on the original M11x. However, the switch to Core i5 and Core i7 processors did require one design change from Dell's Alienware team: the removal of the VGA port. The larger heat sink required for the higher performance CPUs means that one of the three video out ports on the M11x had to be sacrificed. Since most gamers user HDMI or DisplayPort with external monitors, Alienware engineers decided to lose the old VGA port. Students or business professionals who connect their laptops to old projectors might have a problem with this, but it's a minor sacrifice.
The Alienware M11x R2 still includes three USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, a 3-in-1 media card slot, Ethernet, all of the standard audio jacks, and the previously mentioned HDMI and DisplayPort connections. Yes, you don't get a built-in optical drive with the M11x ... and we're glad. Not only would a DVD or Blu-ray drive have taken up space and made the notebook heavier and more power hungry, but most consumers are downloading content rather than using disks. You can even choose to let Alienware pre-install STEAM on your M11x when you place your order on the Dell website. For those of you who aren't familiar with Steam, it's essentially like iTunes for PC gaming -- using the Steam software you can browse the online Steam Store and purchase almost any PC game which you then download and install on your PC.
Alienware still includes a DVD restore disk with the M11x rather than including a bootable USB flash drive, but I guess DVDs are cheaper. Hopefully anyone who needs to use the restore disk already owns an external optical drive.
We would still like to see either a combo USB/eSATA port or USB 3.0 on the Alienware M11x R2 so that owners can connect high-speed external storage to this notebook. Now that more USB 3.0 devices are showing up it's time that Alienware add USB 3.0 to its notebooks.
With that said, let's take a quick tour around the M11x R2:
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