If you're a serious PC gamer looking for a smaller, lighter gaming notebook chances are you've considered the Alienware M14x. This futuristic-looking 14-inch laptop might seem like a prop from a sci-fi movie, but it actually packs an Intel Core i7 "Ivy Bridge" processor, two storage drives, an optical drive, and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics. In short, this laptop delivers a very capable and very fun gaming experience for people who don't want to haul a larger 17-inch gaming rig.
For those readers who aren't familiar with the brand, Alienware is Dell's custom gaming notebook brand. Acquired back in 2006, Alienware has a history of making stylish notebooks and desktops loaded with the high-performance components that gamers need to dominate the latest and greatest games. The Alienware M14x R2 is the update to last year's M14x, a notebook that we considered too underpowered for its size and weight. Is the revision of the M14x any better? Let's find out.
Build and Design
As we mentioned earlier in the review, Alienware notebooks look like something out of a sci-fi movie and that design ID has long been a key feature to these gaming laptops. While the look is unique to Alienware it isn't exactly new. The M14x R2 might have a range of the latest technologies inside but a new exterior looks identical to the original M14x. Imagine if the F-117 Stealth Fighter was put into a blender with a Darth Vader's helmet and some multi-colored LEDs and you'll have some idea of what an Alienware notebook looks like.
The new M14x still has excellent overall build quality with a combination of metal and plastic parts. Most of the exterior contact points (lid, palm rests and keyboard surround) are plastic while the lower half of the chassis is made of magnesium alloy covered in a "soft touch" rubberized paint. In short, the M14x R2 feels solid.
While the 14-inch laptop footprint certainly takes up less space in a bedroom or college dorm room the massive thickness (roughly 1.5 inches) makes this notebook thicker than most budget 17-inch laptops. The reason for that chunky chassis is simple; Alienware designers needed a place to put all the high-end components and cooling systems needed for the processor and graphics.
Still, with the lower TDP of the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors and NVIDIA Kepler graphics, Dell's engineers could have packed the same processor and graphics card into a much thinner design. We probably would have needed to sacrifice the optical drive and maybe one of the two storage drives, but the result would have been a thinner, lighter notebook with the same performance. Just look at the 11-inch gaming notebooks based on the the Clevo W110ERF such as the Eurocom Monster 1.0 or the Origin EON11-S. These tiny laptops pack the same processors and graphics offered in the M14x at a similar price point. More on that later in the review.
Despite the cool shape of the chassis, it's the AlienFX LED lighting system that most people usually notice first. The colors of almost every light on the notebook can be changed to virtually any color. In fact, you can even set the lighting to a combination of multiple colors or strobe between the entire rainbow of colors. Of course, you can also shut off all of the lights if you don't desire unwanted attention.
The bottom of the M14x looks clean and simple with a fully integrated battery. To access the components like the RAM, storage drives or wireless cards you have to loosen two screws and push the bottom panel back. There is also a new heat shield that protects the RAM that has to be removed with an additional screw if you want to upgrade the memory. You'll have to remove the battery if you want to access the optional mSATA SSD or the wireless card.
Ports and Features
The M14x R2 has the same exterior port selection as the original M14x ... and it's a very good selection of ports for a 14-inch laptop. This Alienware laptop includes two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port that supplies power even while the notebook is in sleep mode, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, Ethernet, memory card reader and slot-loading optical drive. The only item that's missing is an ExpressCard expansion slot but fewer and fewer notebooks include an ExpressCard slot these days. All picture descriptions are left to right.
Front: AlienFX lights
Rear: AC power jack and Heat exhaust vents
Left: VGA, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, USB 2.0, microphone jack, two headphone jacks and memory card reader.
Right: Slot-load optical drive, 2x USB 3.0, Ethernet and Kensington lock slot
Screen and Speakers
The new M14x has the same screen options as the original; either a 14.0" High Def (1366x768) display with WLED backlight or a 14.0" High Def+ (1600x900) display with WLED backlight. Both displays feature a highly reflective "edge to edge" glass covering which helps improve contrast and looks good in dark rooms but causes distracting reflections and glare under most indoor lighting or outside under sunlight.
In the past we playfully suggested that Dell's Alienware designers think all Alienware customers live in their parents' basements with the lights turned off (one of the few environments where the reflective screen isn't a problem). However, when you consider that the majority of companies offering custom gaming notebooks now offer optional matte screens it's unacceptable that Alienware still isn't offering an alternative to the reflective display.
Our test configuration came with the 1600x900 resolution display. Color saturation was high at the default settings (the 1600x900 panel on our M14x review unit last year suffered a lack of default saturation) but the colors can be adjusted. Viewing angles on this TN-type panel are fine side-to-side however the picture distorts when viewed off-angle vertically. Again, the glossy cover placed in front of that actual screen is even more reflective than a standard gloss-coated display; you will notice the reflections of any lights in the room (including the AlienFX lights) and when the screen is shut off it looks like a mirror.
The M14x R2 uses the same Klipsch-branded speakers and the previous generation notebook. The stereo speakers located on either side of the screen hinge just above the keyboard push sound up and toward the user. This makes in-game music and sound much more enjoyable ... particularly when compared to laptops that have downward-facing, lap-firing speakers which suffer from muffled sound. Audio quality is generally good with some hint of bass coming from the speakers and no obvious distortion until you increase the volume to about 85-90 percent.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The M14x has a fairly traditionally-styled keyboard similar to the other Alienware notebooks. It has four-zone customizable LED backlighting via the AlienFX system lighting. The keys have a slight concave shape and a rubbery non-slip surface. Key travel is quite good and require only moderate actuation force (the amount of pressure it takes to depress a key); so resting hands won't push down the keys ... a good thing since gamers regularly rest their fingertips on the keys during game play.
There is some moderate flex towards the keyboard's center, however this does not affect typing feel. Overall the keyboard feels great and makes for a satisfying typing experience. As an added bonus, the keyboard is about as quiet as notebook keyboards come.
The large Synaptics touchpad is responsive and has an excellent matte non-slip surface. The edges are backlit - another part of the AlienFX lighting system. The two discrete touchpad buttons have very good tactile feedback with soft, quite clicks when pressed. As usual, the team at Alienware did a fantastic job designing a keyboard and touchpad input that gamers can really use.
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