Alienware Area-51 m15x Review

by Charles P. Jefferies Reads (187,616)

by Charles P. Jefferies

The Area-51 m15x is the newest high-performance gaming notebook from Alienware. It packs components typically found only in the largest of desktop replacements into a slim 15.4-inch form factor and still manages to be a practical machine on the road. Let’s take a closer look.


The Alienware Area-51 m15x is a 15.4-inch high performance notebook targeted specifically at gamers. It is in the desktop replacement category and weighs seven pounds. Our review unit is configured as follows:

  • 15.4″ WideUXGA 1920 x 1200 LCD (1200p)
  • Alienware AlienFX System Lighting
  • 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800M GTX
  • Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 2.8GHz (6MB Cache, 800MHz FSB)
  • 4GB Dual Channel DDR2 SO-DIMM at 667MHz – 2 x 2048MB
  • Intel Turbo Memory (1GB)
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit
  • 200GB 7200RPM (16MB Cache)
  • 320GB 5400RPM (8MB Cache) Smart Bay
  • 2x Dual Layer Blu-ray Disc Burner (BD-R, DVD±RW, CD-RW)
  • Internal Intel Wireless 4965 a/b/g/Draft-N Mini-Card
  • Internal High-Definition Audio with surround sound
  • AlienFX Illuminated Keyboard

As of writing, the m15x starts at $1,799; a $1,499 configuration is in the works. Our test unit as configured is around $4,500. The most expensive options on it are the Extreme processor ($900), 8800M-GTX ($500), Blu-ray burner ($400), 1200p display ($300), and 320GB Smart Bay ($300). Expect to spend close to $3,000 for a balanced configuration.


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Build & Design

I have never seen another notebook like the m15x, it is truly something else. The m15x is an entirely new design for Alienware; it is both striking and ultra-modern. The m15x is covered in gobs of glossy plastic – the entire unit is shiny and reflective. The majority of the surface is metallic silver, while only the area surrounding the lid bucks the trend with deep glossy black trim. Most of the bottom is made of an all-black metal alloy. The physical shape of the notebook is rather plain and has no radical curves. All of the corners on the m15x are rounded off. The machine has a soft feel to it and definitely should not be treated roughly; during my time with the system, the glossy plastic remained scratch-free. This notebook should definitely be kept away from all rough and abrasive surfaces, and should only be cleaned with a microfiber cloth.


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The m15x has a solid feel to it but it is not the most solid notebook I have tested. There is some flex in the palmrests and around the keyboard area but fortunately it is minimal. The base of the unit is rigid and has a strong internal frame. One part of the notebook that could be more solid is the display. The hinges should be stiffer because the display wobbles too much for my liking. Also, pushing on the back of the display yields ripples in the picture.

By far the most stand-out visual feature of the m15x is the AlienFX System Lighting. The following are different lighting zones:

  • Alien Head (on the back of the display)
  • Power Button
  • Light Pipe (around the edge of the display)
  • Alienware Name (below the display)
  • Quick Touch Controls
  • Touchpad
  • Keyboard

 


Alien head (view large image)

Main lights (view large image)

Light Pipe (view large image)

Not a light, but cool. (view large image)

Each zone is individual and can be changed to a rainbow of different colors. Alternatively, AlienFX can be turned off. There is no way to adjust the brightness of the lights. I find the lighting system to be most impressive on the m15x, both in the way it looks and how well it has been implemented. The Alienware Command Center is an excellent piece of software and is easy to navigate. Below is a screenshot of the software:


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Overall, the m15x is a sturdy machine but not durable and could use some extra strength in some areas. Without a doubt, the m15x is a head turner and everywhere I took this notebook I received a lot of compliments and stares. The build quality of the m15x is top notch and Alienware clearly put a lot of thought and effort into creating the user experience.

Screen

Alienware offers the Area-51 m15x with a WXGA+ (1440×900 pixels) “ClearView” glossy display as standard and a matte WUXGA (1920×1200 pixels) as an upgrade; our test unit is equipped with the latter. The WUXGA screen has pleasing picture quality for games, movies, and general usage. I watched a Blu-ray movie on it and was impressed at the detail in the picture. The backlighting is generally even; there is slight leakage at the bottom but it is not noticeable when looking at anything but a pure black screen. Viewing angles are impressive – side-to-side is near perfect as the picture does not distort, and from above the picture is more than acceptable. From below there is some darkening and distortion but it is much better than average for an LCD. The clarity of the display is good though a matte display typically does not match a glossy display in this area. Contrast levels are balanced and not overly saturated; again, not quite as good as a glossy display, but unlike the glossy displays that are on the majority of notebooks, matte displays have no reflections and are much easier to clean.


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By far the most impressive aspect of this display is the resolution. WUXGA is the highest available resolution on notebooks at the moment. The amount of screen real estate that this resolution offers is amazing and can greatly help productivity. The high resolution can also give gamers the edge in games where long-distance viewing is important. It is capable of displaying full 1080p HD quality, and as I noted, Blu-ray movies look great. I have not tested the WXGA+ display and thus cannot judge it, but I recommend opting for the WUXGA display based on resolution alone.

Speakers

The Alienware m15x has two speakers located at the left and right corners of the notebook below the display. These are the typical laptops speakers we have all come to love – they are rather tinny and have no bass. The speakers are not particularly loud either; I feel they could use a volume boost. Alas, it is rare to see speakers as a selling point of a notebook. Those looking for audio quality should hook the m15x up to external audio equipment. The headphone jack is of good quality and distortion-free.

Processor & Performance

Please see the Alienware Area-51 m15x gaming benchmarks and performance page.

Heat & Noise

There are two fans in the m15x: the fan on the left takes care of the heat generated by the processor, and on the right side the heat generated by the GPU. When the m15x was originally released, it had overheating problems with the 8800M-GTX graphics card. The GPU produced too much heat for the notebook’s thermal system to handle and the GPU had to underclock itself to keep cool, which greatly reduced gaming performance. Alienware came out with a fix shortly after customers started reporting problems. The fix was to make the GPU fan spin faster when its temperature reached a certain level, which required a BIOS update. It was a simple yet effective fix and I am pleased to report that the m15x overheating issues are a thing of the past. All new m15x notebooks will come with the new BIOS and will not have any overheating issues.

Below are images with the external temperature readings listed in degrees Fahrenheit:


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One practical feature of the m15x is its ability to switch between graphics cards. The m15x actually has two graphics cards: the dedicated Nvidia card and the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100. Switching between them requires pressing Function + F7 and restarting. Alienware calls this feature “Binary GFX”. When the X3100 is in use, the dedicated graphics card is turned off and the notebook uses far less power. It helps give the m15x its impressive battery life, which I will talk about later.

While gaming, the fans are without a doubt audible but have no high-pitched sounds and are not annoying. The m15x will easily be heard in a room if the fans are on full-tilt. There is some motor noise but it mostly sounds like a rush of air. More hot air exits the notebook out of the right side because that is where the graphics card is located. For general usage, the notebook is quiet enough not to be noticed. At idle, the m15x is lukewarm though the bottom is toasty – this is not a machine to use on a lap. The surface of the notebook while gaming is not much warmer that it is at idle. This notebook runs cooler than I expected.

The m15x has an innovative feature called “Stealth Mode”, which underclocks the processor, graphics card (if the Nvidia graphics card is active), and puts the fans at a low speed or off to minimize power consumption and noise. It can be activated by pressing the touch control button for it below the display. This feature basically turns the m15x into a silent machine, which needless to say is a handy feature while in lecture halls, libraries, meetings, and so on.

Keyboard

The m15x’s keyboard is comfortable, quiet, and (drum roll, please) it lights up! The backlighting not only looks cool but is useful for those late-night gaming sessions. The m15x is one of the few notebooks available with a backlit keyboard. The keys all feel individual and have good travel – not too much, not too little. They have pleasing tactile feedback; when depressed, there is enough padding to make the keys feel springy yet controlled. The keys are covered in an almost rubberized surface, which is a nice touch (pun intended) because the keys will not wear like traditional plastic keys. The design of the m15x’s keys is quite different from that of a normal notebook – the font looks like it came from another planet.


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There is one downside to this keyboard, and that is the noticeable flex on the bottom right-side near the arrow keys. The flex starts around the right shift key. Whether or not this is a con is dependent on the customer’s uses. For those feeling adventurous, there is a DIY fix for the flex:

http://forum.notebookreview.com/showpost.php?p=3124376&postcount=15

Proceed at your own risk.

Touchpad

The m15x has a large, functional touchpad with an attractive design. The touchpad is completely flush with the palmrest; by running a finger over its surface blindfolded, one could not tell where it started and ended. However, it is easy to see where the touchpad ends because there its boundary is marked by LED backlighting running around the edges courtesy of AlienFX.


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The touchpad works as expected but I have two complaints. The first is that it is slippery – it can be a drag to use (literally) if one’s fingers are even the least bit moist. Secondly, the vertical and horizontal scrolling bars are not marked and I found myself scrolling when I did not want to. On the bright side, there are elements I like about the m15x’s touchpad. This largest plus for the touchpad is that by pressing Function + F12 it can be toggled on or off. The system automatically turns it off if an external mouse is plugged in, which is a convenient feature.


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The m15x does not have traditional buttons for wireless and so on – it has touch controls only. Although they add to the sleekness and modern appeal of the m15x, their implementation leaves something to be desired. The volume slider is difficult to use at best, and all of the touch controls require a lot of pressure.

Input & Output Ports

All descriptions are given left to right.

Left Side


Power jack, Ethernet, 2x USB 2.0, headphone, microphone, Smart Bay (view large image)

Right Side


7-in-1 Media card reader (SD/MS/MSPRO/MMC), HDMI, USB 2.0, IEEE 1394B 9-pin Firewire port, lock slot (view large image)

Front


Infrared receiver (view large image)

Rear


GPU & CPU exhaust vents (view large image)

 

I am pleased to see a large variety of ports on the m15x. It has the expected plus a few rarities, such as HDMI and even more so, the 9-pin powered Firewire port.

Wireless

Alienware equips the m15x with an Intel Wireless WiFi Link 4965AGN adapter, which supports the standard 802.11a, b, and g type signals and the new draft N standard. I had no problems to connecting to secured and unsecured (no, not my neighbor’s) networks. Range was good compared to my own laptop; the m15x picked up networks my laptop did not even see.

The m15x comes standard with internal Bluetooth 2.0; I do not own any Bluetooth devices to test it with, but I expect it would work as advertised.

Battery

This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the m15x – this is a gaming notebook that actually gets decent battery life. As I mentioned earlier, this machine actually has two graphics cards and a special low power, low noise “Stealth” mode. Using the integrated graphics in conjunction with Stealth mode and a Power Saver plan, I got the 10% battery left warning after two hours and thirty-five minutes. Needless to say I am more than impressed with the m15x’s life in the context that this is a high-performance gaming notebook. Now having a gaming notebook does not mean it is impractical to take it on the road. Most gaming notebooks with the same caliber components get between one and two hours of life at the most with a large 8- or 12-cell battery. The m15x beats them with a standard 6-cell, 5200mAh battery pack. It has the best of both worlds – powerful gaming performance and the energy-saving features needed to let users roam free of the wall. Below are screenshots of the Alienware Command Center software, where a variety of power-related settings can be controlled:


Basic (view large image)


Advanced (view large image)

To get even more life, Alienware offers a 6-cell Smart Bay secondary battery for the m15x, which extends the life another two hours according to forum members. M15x owners in our Alienware forum have been reporting between four and five hours of life with it installed.

Operating System & Software

The m15x comes standard with Windows Vista Home Premium and is also offered with Vista Ultimate and XP Professional. It is rare to see a notebook offered with XP these days since Microsoft is so aggressive with its Vista marketing; it is refreshing to see XP offered.

I did not have any issues with Vista Home Premium on our test unit; all of the supplied software including the Alienware Command Center and Nero worked without issues. I had no problems entering/resuming from standby, and hibernation worked fine as well.

Customer Support

Alienware offers a 1-year warranty with 24/7 tech support and onsite service with the m15x. Two- and three-year warranties are available for $200 and $300 respectively.

During my time with the m15x, I actually did have some problems as I mentioned earlier in the review. The graphics card was overheating and I could not benchmark the system properly. Alienware acted quickly on the situation and kept myself and other m15x owners in our forums updated around the clock as to what they were doing to fix the issue. Alienware’s official updates thread in our forums can be found here, and our coverage of the fix can be found here.

Conclusion

I have to be brutally honest – the Alienware Area-51 m15x is the best-rounded gaming machine I have tested. It really is. How Alienware managed to pack ultra high-performance components typically only found in the largest of desktop replacements into a 15.4-inch, 1.3-inch thin, 7-lb package and still manage good battery life I do not know. The m15x is both a fabulous gaming machine and a practical machine on the go. It can score almost 9,500 points in 3DMark06 yet get almost three hours of battery life with the standard battery. Throw a second battery in the Smart Bay and it gets nearly five.

And let us not forget about the looks – they do not appeal to everyone of course, but anyone can admit the m15x is like nothing else. Alienware put a lot of time and effort into this design and it shows. There naturally are downsides to this machine – the keyboard flexes some on the right side, the screen is a bit wobbly, the fans are louder than a typical notebook at full load, the speakers are unimpressive, and it costs a lot. Unless price is a barrier, I do not view any of the cons as deal breakers.

I will not hesitate to recommend the m15x to anyone looking for a near-perfect blend of reasonable portability and powerful performance. This machine is in a class of its own. Alienware unquestionably has a winner on their hands with the m15x.

Pros

  • Fabulous gaming performance – packs power typically only found in large 17-inch desktop replacements into a slim 15.4-inch form factor
  • Ability to transform from a high-performance gaming machine to a practical on-the-go companion
  • Great battery life for a gaming notebook: two graphics cards give the best of both worlds – integrated for battery life, and dedicated for performance. Standard battery life is about 2.5 hours and with the Smart Bay battery, 4 to 5 hours are possible
  • Stealth mode keeps the m15x silent
  • Sleek, striking design and AlienFX customizable lighting – this machine turns heads everywhere
  • Smart Bay functionality – use it for an optical drive, extra battery, or another hard drive
  • Beautiful display – high-resolution WUXGA screen is a gem
  • Nice keyboard – it is backlit, plus it feels great
  • Wide variety of ports – the usual plus HDMI and a 9-pin powered Firewire
  • Available with Blu-ray and Windows XP

Cons

  • The price – adding options brings up the price quickly
  • The keyboard flexes on the bottom right side around the arrow keys
  • The touchpad is not the best – too slippery and scroll zones are visually undefined
  • The screen wobbles – it should have stiffer hinges
  • The speakers are unimpressive – more volume and bass would be nice
  • Fans at full load are louder than expected
  • Touch controls are subpar – volume slider is not responsive and others require too much pressure




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