Synthetic benchmarks like PCMark and 3DMark help provide a rough idea of how one laptop performs compared to another, but playing actual games is the only way to know how a gaming notebook performs with specific games. While we're on the topic of real-world performance, stop and consider how notebooks perform when they're plugged in and how they perform on battery power. Most gaming notebooks "throttle back" the graphics card (GPU) and sometimes even the CPU when you unplug the power cord. This is great for battery life but horrible for gaming performance. The M11x R3, like the previous M11x models, continues to provide maximum CPU and GPU performance even when it's unplugged. The end result is that the in-game performance benchmarks listed below are an accurate indication of what you'll experience with the M11x regardless of whether you're playing with the laptop plugged in or unplugged.
The M11x R3 uses the new Nvidia GeForce GT 540M card which is a nice step up from the GT 335M card used in the M11x R1 and M11x R2. Alienware offers the M11x R3 with GT 540M graphics in two configurations with either 1GB or 2GB of dedicated GDDR3 memory. Our system came with the 1GB configuration but results should be similar to the 2GB configuration in many games. The Nvidia graphics also include automatic switchable graphics in the form of "Nvidia Optimus technology" so the M11x R3 can automatically switch between the high-performance graphics card and the built-in Intel integrated graphics to give you the best combination of performance and battery life.
We decided to test three games with the new M11x R3. To give you some idea what we're looking for, we typically want the frame rates during game play to stay above 30 frames per second (FPS) in order to provide fluid play and replicate cinema-like motion.
Left 4 Dead 2 might be getting old but it's still a popular first-person shooter. The original M11x with overclocked SU4100 processor managed to be perfectly playable even when all those zombies rush on the screen at once. Th M11x R2 with Core i7 processor did an even better job keeping the frame rates up during attacks by zombie hordes. In the case of the new M11x R3, the Nvidia GeForce GT 540M graphics and second-generation Intel Core i5 processor work together to deliver fantastic game play with absolutely no noticeable lag or stutter.
Mass Effect 2 is an enjoyable sci-fi action game that combines elements of a role-playing game and a shooter. The original M11x handled this space adventure with only a few dips in frame rates and the M11x R2 did marginally better. Here, the M11x R3 proves that it can not only deliver similar game play results, but it can do so at higher resolution and higher detail/effects settings.
The Witcher 2 is a graphics-entense sequel to the action/fantasy role-playing game The Witcher. This game is quickly becoming notorious for stressing high-performance PCs. The new M11x R3 with Core i5 processor didn't have quite enough muscle to provide smooth game play at the full screen resolution of 1366x768 with high detail settings, but the frame rates are much more playable if you lower the screen resolution and/or lower the detail settings. In any case, the M11x R3 starts to show its weakness in games like the The Witcher 2 on high settings.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, the Alienware M11x is a laptop that is essentially in a class all by itself. Although there are many 11-inch netbook alternatives on the market, none of them come close to delivering the gaming performance of the M11x. Likewise, although there are several 14-inch and 15-inch gaming notebooks on the market with significantly superior specs, none of those massive gaming notebooks offer the battery life, compact size and comparatively light weight of the M11x.
If you compare the M11x R3 to other 11-inch notebooks then the Alienware is the clear winner as long as you're willing to pay a few hundred dollars more for all that extra performance and those cool features. If you compare the new M11x to some of the 15-inch and 17-inch gaming notebooks that are priced between $1,100 and $1,800 then the M11x looks horribly underpowered ... just keep in mind that you're talking about comparing an 11-inch laptop to much larger gaming monsters.
Bottom line, if you want a compact, 11-inch laptop that can still play virtually any game on the market there is no other choice than the Alienware M11x.
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* Ratings averaged to produce final score
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