Alienware Aurora M-7700 Review (pics, specs)

by Charles P. Jefferies Reads (79,605)

by Charles Jefferies, Philadelphia, PA

Overview + Introduction


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The Alienware Aurora M7700 is the most powerful notebook on the market, bar none. It features an expansive 17″ display and all the power of a high-end desktop. At 12.5 lbs, it isn’t exactly a traveler’s companion, and at $4,317, it isn’t exactly cheap. But, if you have the wallet, this machine will deliver power beyond anything previously thought possible in a laptop.

The configuration for this machine is as follows:

  • AMD Athlon FX-60
  • 17″ WXGA+ Matte
  • Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX
  • 1GB DDR400 dual-channel RAM
  • 80GB 7200RPM Serial ATA hard drive
  • 8X DVD+/-RW DL drive
  • Windows XP Professional
  • Atheros 108Mbps SuperG internal wireless card
  • 12-cell battery
  • 1 year AlienCare warranty

Reasons to Purchase

The sheer size and weight of this machine limits it to desktop use. A prime reason for purchasing a system such as this is so one can unload a desktop machine for something smaller’. With the power available in the Alienware Aurora M7700, individuals can replace their desktops with no decrease in performance. You wouldn’t have as many cables as you would with a desktop, nor would you have the space taken up. This is an excellent system to bring to a LAN party.

The Aurora is a superb gaming system, thanks to a 256MB Nvidia Go7800GTX graphics card — currently the fastest on the market — and an AMD Athlon 64 FX processor. But this monster can do more than just games. The M7700 is a multitasker’s dream machine, featuring a supremely powerful Athlon FX-60 processor. Encoding and mathematical calculations pose no problem for the seemingly endless amount of power this processor has. 
One other group I can see who would obviously use this system to great effect would be video enthusiasts. The M7700 features (up to) two internal Serial ATA hard drives, and can be configured with a RAID array, a very rare feature in a laptop. Both hard drives must be identical to enable this feature. There are two types of RAID arrays that can be configured on this system – with a RAID 0 array, both hard drives (if you opt for them) are used as one, single drive. The data is “striped”, or distributed equally, between the drives. For example, two 80GB 7200RPM hard drives would function as a single 80GB, 14,400RPM hard drive. Loading is much faster, and so are access times. The other type of RAID array available is a RAID 1 array, designed for data security.  Both drives store data in parallel. This is often called mirroring’. Should one drive fail, the other drive will take over, and the system will continue to function as before.

Purchase Options

The Alienware Aurora M7700 is available directly from Alienware, on their website. Configuring your custom machine is easy and simple.

My unit’s grand total came out to be $4,317 as equipped. That’s right, read it again. $4,317. That’s a heavy chunk of change, but why so much? Let’s take a look at what is included with this M7700. The notebook starts at $2,179 for a base configuration. The processor alone in this system, the AMD Athlon 64 FX-60, was a $1,170 upgrade from the base single-core AMD64 3200+, and the video card, the 256MB Go7800GTX, was another $452 upgrade from the “base” 256MB Go6800. Without those two upgrades, the total system cost is around $2,700.

Worth it? Depends. If you have the cash and absolutely need the world’s fastest laptop today, you won’t come off disappointed. I believe the system is worthy of retailing for $4,317, but it isn’t necessarily worth it. Getting the AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 is a HUGE amount of money. It’s the fastest AMD processor out there, and when you are at the pinnacle of power and performance, you pay a premium. Given a choice, I would have knocked the processor down to a lower model of the Athlon X2 series (by all means get the X2 if you are getting this system), then opted for 2GB of RAM, a larger hard drive, and the higher resolution display.

Build + Design


The Aurora M7700 as seen from the front (view large image)

Initial impressions:  Upon opening up the black Alienware box and taking out the M7700, the first thought that came to my mind was  “Wow!” — the “wow” factor coming from a combination of “I’ve never picked up a laptop this heavy!”, “I’ve never seen something so big!”, and “This is so cool!”.

Taking off the protective plastic reveals a beautiful dark blue case, both inside and out. The paint job is shiny enough that you can easily see your reflection in it, and will definitely turn heads no matter where you go. You almost don’t want to touch it, as if it is a genuine work of art. The glossy case attracts dust and fingerprints easily, so make sure you have a soft microfiber cloth handy.

Weight and dimensions: Some may say power can come in small packages, but after using this, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want power, it comes in big packages. The Alienware M7700 is massive, tipping the scales at a full-fledged 12.5 pounds. It is 2.1″ high, 15.6″ wide, and 11.7″ deep. Overall, the laptop is a large, rectangular box, and has no curves anywhere on its chassis. Only the corners are rounded off on the front side.


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The lid of this notebook is the coolest part of any notebook I have seen, and certainly unique. Across the back of the lid at the top is inscribed “ALIENWARE” — it lights up evenly in a soothing blue color. Right below it, an Alien head logo (which doesn’t look cheap, cheesy, or bad at all) is also backlit in the same blue color. Very cool! I stared at the back of the display for five straight minutes when I first saw it.

Complaints about weight/size? I have none. If you are buying this system, be prepared to deal with the weight and size. It’s not something you would want to move around, and definitely not a LAPtop. Putting the M7700 on your lap is more or less impossible — you can’t help but block a cooling vent (it is critical that this computer gets proper ventilation), it is much too heavy, and downright impractical to use on anywhere but a desk surface.


The Alienware M7700 is very thick, 2.1″ with the lid closed (view large image)

Build quality: For those who do not know, the Alienware M7700 is a rebadged Clevo D900K — Clevo is a Taiwanese notebook manufacturer that makes notebooks for Alienware. The M7700 is the second Clevo system I have used. Plastic used in the case is very sturdy — thick and high quality. It does not flex. Nothing on this notebook says cheap’ in any way, shape, or form. Obviously, Clevo did not make the plastic thinner in order to make the system feel lighter — there would be no point to that, now would there?

My efforts to get the chassis (base) of the notebook to flex under pressure were futile — the M7700 is about as solid as they come. It’s literally solid as a rock. I also attempted to flex the lid by grasping it by the corners and twisting it back and forth. The display panel is so large, it is natural for it to flex just a bit. The actual panel itself only gave way very little. My final flex test’ was to push in the back of the screen. Alienware’s special lid design makes it impossible to even get a slight quiver. Impressive. On either side of the display are two “rubber grips” which actually work quite well if you need to move it, and add to the unique look of the system.


The lid of the M7700 is very cool indeed! (view large image)

One disappointing aspect of the build quality was the display latches — they don’t feel sturdy at all. They need to be beefier — they feel as if they could break without that much effort. Also, when the display is closed, it never fully closes — you can still move the display lid up and down when it is latched closed a few millimeters.

Display


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There is little or no light leakage on the display (view large image)

If there were one complaint I had about this notebook, it would be the display. It’s just your average matte LCD panel. Viewing angles are average — you can see the image on the screen fine from either side, but it does get noticeably darker, and some colors are distorted. From the top, it’s about the same, but the overall screen looks brighter from above. The bottom viewing angle is better than some notebooks I have used, but it still gets darker. Even when viewing from the front, the sides of the display are a bit darker due to the viewing angles.

The contrast is good, but nothing special. Brightness is also average — I would have enjoyed a few more nits. It has seven brightness settings.

The display suffers from a “sparkle” effect, where you can see the individual pixels glint (that’s the best way I can describe it). It’s most apparent when viewing a white screen, such as a word document.

My final and most prominent complaint about the display is the resolution. This is a 17″ display, powered by an Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX, and it only has a WXGA+ 1440×900 resolution? First of all, WXGA+ is a waste on a 17″. I’d expect at least a WSXGA+ to take advantage of the huge screen size. And second of all, the video card is capable of far higher resolutions than WXGA+ for gaming purposes.  

Overall, I’m very disappointed with the display. It’s not a terrible panel, just your average display. I’d expect a better screen to grace a $4,000+ machine. I have only two compliments for the display — it is evenly lit, with little or no leakage, and it is very easy on the eyes. Not once did I get tired of looking at it, nor did I feel any strain. I used it for hours on end without issues. If you get the M7700, I highly recommend opting for the higher-resolution, glossy WUXGA 1920×1200 panel. Definitely worth the upgrade.

Speakers

In general, laptop speakers are tinny, with no bass and low volume. But this is no ordinary laptop, and it doesn’t come with your average speakers. The M7700 features four full-size, surround-sound speakers with an integrated subwoofer. Two are on top on either side of the keyboard facing up, and two are on the front panel, below where your wrists rest, facing forward. You can literally use this laptop as your stereo. I turned it on full blast, and played through various pop, rock, and classical tracks. Even at the highest levels of sound, there was no distortion. I also played through popular game titles — gunshots were rendered very realistically, I was impressed. The reason these speakers don’t distort as ordinary speakers would is because they are big — they aren’t just flat speakers, they go back into the notebook. The speaker ‘cones’ are large, and it makes a difference.

The M7700 features a special sound technology called SRS WOW. It extends the sound horizontally — virtual surround sound. It works surprisingly well. While watching movies, it actually sounded as if gunshots were going off behind you, or an airplane just flew by your left side.

The audio chip itself is AC’97. That left me kind of disappointed; I would have liked to have the high-definition audio.

Headphone jack: I was frustrated at the headphone and microphone jacks on the Alienware. It’s difficult to put in a jack, and the same goes for taking out. It never felt as if you were going to damage the notebook or your headphones, but I found it annoying after a while.

The headphone jack quality was very disappointing. Surprisingly, there is zero bass through it — I tried hooking it up to my external speaker system, and my Bose Triport headphones. Even when I turned up my 200-watt subwoofer to the maximum power, I still received very little bass no matter how high I put the volume. My Bose Triport headphones have their own bass synthesizers, and normally deliver great depth — but nothing through the jack on the M7700. I checked all the settings for the sound — nothing would solve it. Frustrating! Also, there is a decent amount of static. Not that I didn’t expect that, since a huge amount of electricity is surging through this notebook at all times, but it still degrades the audio clarity slightly. The headphone jack is well below average for a notebook. I recommend getting a cheap USB sound device or a higher-end Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook for a good sound experience with headphones and/or external speakers.

Performance

This machine was built for performance. That’s the number one reason to buy it — no other laptop on the market will deliver the performance that this one will.

Equipped with the fastest current computer processor on the market, the AMD Athlon 64 FX-60, it is unstoppable for any task. The core clock speed is 2.6GHz — extremely fast for an AMD chip. It is dual-core, meaning that there are two execution cores on the same chip. It vastly improves multitasking and anything that is multi-threaded, such as Photoshop and others.

It’s not only the processor that matters for performance — the hard drive and RAM are also important, and for 3D, the video card.

Hard drive: Boot-up times are exceptionally fast; I timed it to when I was logged on to be about 23 seconds. Loading times for games, Photoshop, etc are especially helped by an 80GB 7200RPM Serial ATA hard drive. The maker of the drive is Hitachi, a well-respected and high-quality manufacturer. My Alienware only came with a single drive; you can have an additional one for storage purposes, or you can get identical drives in either a RAID 0 (for highest performance) or RAID 1 (for data security) configuration.

RAM: This unit came with 1GB (2 x 512MB sticks) of fast DDR400 (PC3200) RAM. Running regular applications and multitasking was no problem, but in more intense games such as Quake 4, there was some “skipping”, because the system had to use the Page File on the hard disk for memory; it was out of the main RAM. If you are a gamer or run applications that require a lot of memory, I  recommend getting the full 2GB this system can take; it’s well worth it. At least get 1GB.

System hangs/pauses: Unheard of. I never ran something that phased this system. The processor obliterated anything I threw at it. Even calculating 32 million digits of PI and running BattleField 2 at the same time was easy. I could not tell there was a program running in the background, thanks to the dual-core FX-60.

Benchmarks

I ran PCMark05, 3DMark05, 3DMark06, SuperPI, and HDTune to showcase this machine’s performance. Minimal processes were running in the background, and I fully tuned up the system by defragmenting the hard disk, using TuneXP, and disabling unneeded services. There were 33 processes running in the background when I ran the tests. Each test was run at least three times to ensure that I got reliable results. The video card drivers were the LaptopVideo2Go Nvidia Forceware 84.20′s.

SuperPI:

SuperPI speaks for itself.

Notebook Time
Alienware (AMD Dual Core FX-60)  1m 23s
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo)  1m 15s
 Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s
 IBM ThinkPad Z60m (2.0 GHz Pentium M)  1m 36s
 Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)  1m 48s
 Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  1m 52s
 Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
 HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 39s
 Asus V6Va (Pentium M 1.86 GHz)  1m 46s
 Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)  1m 18s

PCMark05

Detailed Test Results

 System Test Suite
 HDD – XP Startup  6.77 MB/s
 Physics and 3D   161.74 FPS
 Transparent Windows   1226.98 Windows/s
 3D – Pixel Shader   271.86 FPS
 Web Page Rendering   3.17 Pages/s
 File Decryption   44.64 MB/s
 Graphics Memory – 64 Lines   1562.09 FPS
 HDD – General Usage   4.85 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression   2556.29 KB/s
 Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding   369.11 KB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit   155.59 Pages/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression   29.49 MPixels/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression   7.2 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption  23.94 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD – Virus Scan  28.59 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency – Random 16 MB  9.61 MAccesses/s
 System Test Suite  5597 PCMarks

3DMark05

Notebook  3DMark 05 Results
 Aleienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX)  7078 3D Marks
 Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)  1659 3DMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2530 3D Marks
 Quanta KN1 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 128mb)  2,486 3DMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2536 3D Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4157 3DMarks

3DMark06

3DMark06 is the latest in FutureMark’s lineup of 3D benchmarks, and has replaced 3DMark05 as the standard benchmark. I’ve seen competing notebooks with Pentium M’s and Go7800GTX graphics cards offer similar 3DMark05 performance to the Alienware, but when it comes to 3DMark06, the Alienware’s AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 allows it to pull ahead by a significant margin. The reason behind this is because while 3DMark05 relied on the graphics subsystem alone, 3DMark06′s score is calculated using both the CPU and graphics score.

Before, in 3DMark05, the CPU tests had nothing to do with the games, and really quite useless since they demonstrated nothing that would be done in real life. In 3DMark06 things have changed, and the CPU tests are closer to real 3D games than ever before. Keep in mind that the CPU tests aren’t designed to resemble today’s games — they are supposed to resemble tomorrow’s, which will be much more complex and dependent on the CPU. 3DMark06′s CPU tests are optimized for today’s advanced dual-core processors, and that’s why the Alienware easily out paces notebooks or even desktops powered by single-core processors, no matter how high-clocked they are.

Take a look at the CPU score above for the FX-60 — 1940. I also benchmarked my Sagers Pentium M 1.86GHz processor using 3DMark06, as well as my Dell desktops 3.2GHz Pentium 4 HT (Northwood) processor, just to show how much of a difference there really was.

Dell Dimension 8300 (Pentium 4 3.2GHz w/HT, Northwood core, 2GB Corsair XMS DDR-400, Radeon 9800XT 256MB, XP Profssional, Catalyst 6.2)

And my Sager NP-5320 (Pentium M 1.86GHz, 2GB DDR2-533 OCZ, ATI MR X700 256MB, XP Home, Catalyst 6.2)


 
Now that’s impressive — the AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 is barely under three times as fast as the 3.2GHz Pentium 4, the same going for the Pentium M 1.86GHz. Of course, it is not a fair comparison, but still is interesting to see nonetheless! Here’s a CPU-Z screen shot for the tech-savvy crowd:

Gaming Benchmarks

Given that the primary purpose of the M7700 is to please the gaming crowd, I ran benchmarks on a few popular titles.

Far Cry

Settings: 1280×1024 resolution, Ultra settings, 4X Anti-aliasing, 8X antistrophic filtering.
Level: Fort
Average FPS 74
Level: Carrier
Average FPS: 76

Although Far Cry is now a somewhat dated game, it’s still graphically dazzling and provides a good benchmark. I did not use the built-in benchmarks; those are not entirely accurate, because the processor is not doing any work, such as calculating physics, gunshots, etc. I ran through the entire level myself and averaged the frames per second (FPS) to get the most accurate results. The results for Far Cry are nothing short of amazing — nearly eighty frames per second on the absolute highest settings!

F.E.A.R.

Settings: 1152×864 resolution, Maximum settings (both Video card + CPU)
Notes: I ran three benchmarks on this, each with different settings. All settings were at their highest values with the exception of anti-aliasing and Soft shadows.

Level: Interval 03, “Escalation”

Settings #1: 8X antistrophic filtering enabled
Average FPS: 80

Settings #2: 8X antistrophic, 4X anti-aliasing
Average FPS: 59

Settings #3: 8X antistrophic, Soft Shadows enabled
Average FPS: 58

Keep in mind that it is impossible to use both anti-aliasing and soft shadows at the same time, hence why I did seperate benchmarks.

The performance of this game is nothing short of breathtaking. FEAR is currently one of the most demanding 3D titles, and will give any GPU a hard time. The Alienware Aurora M7700 didn’t have any problems with this game, however, achieving eighty frames per second average without anti-aliasing and soft shadows enabled, and just shy of sixty frames per second with soft shadows or anti-aliasing enabled. The graphics at the extreme settings I benchmarked were a wonder to behold — the detail was incredible. As I did in Far Cry, I also did not use a built-in benchmark, but rather ran through the level several times myself to get more accurate results.

Other benchmarks: I had also run Star Wars: BattleFront 2 and Quake 4 on this system, but I am not going to use either as an official benchmark — I could never get the framerates to go above sixty FPS on Quake 4 and eighty in BattleFront 2 for some reason. Vsync was disabled in both the game and desktop. I experimented with three different sets of drivers and nothing fixed the issue.

To just give a general rundown — Quake 4 at “High” settings, 8X AF was unstoppable on the M7700 — the framerate stayed at 60FPS the entire time, sometimes dropping into the mid-50′s during an intense firefight. I beat the entire game on the machine, and never was disappointed with the performance. Enabling 4X anti-aliasing pushed the ‘average’ (capped at sixty) to 46FPS, although it would have been higher had my framerate not been capped.
 BattleFront 2 was equally impressive, and I averaged anywhere from 66 to 79 FPS (capped at 80FPS) through six levels at maximum settings, with light bloom enabled, 4X anti-aliasing and 8X antistrophic filtering.


Keyboard + Touchpad

The keyboard on the M7700 is full-size, and includes a number pad, which is a rarity on a notebook. I found the keyboard to be very comfortable and enjoyable to type on — there is no flex evident; if you press harder than you normally do while typing, the keyboard will give in a bit, but since you don’t hammer down on it normally, it’s not an issue. It did not flex at all in any of the corners, only in the center from the D to Enter key. Again, it only flexes when pushed down upon with effort. The number pad does not flex. The keyboard has a nice sound to it — it sounds as if the keys are hitting rubber, no “clickety” noises. The feedback is good — typing on this is slightly softer than a normal keyboard. Key travel is pretty uniform with a normal laptop. Overall — don’t expect the keyboard to be much different from a regular keyboard. It’s a bit softer, but that’s about it.

There is one complaint I have about the keyboard, and that is that you have to use the arrow keys in place of Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End — apparently, there wasn’t enough room on the keyboard to put them separately. Pressing the Fn (function) key in combination with one of the arrow keys allows them to be used for those keys. It can be a bit annoying, but it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me.


The keyboard of the M7700. (view large image)

The touchpad: now, you’re going to be using an external mouse with this machine the vast majority of the time, but in a pinch, there’s the touchpad. I really enjoy using the touchpad on this machine. It feels extremely solid. The surface is slightly textured to make it easier to track. The buttons make a muted click when pushed down; sounds high-quality.

My gripes: this is a huge machine; the keyboard on it is all the way up under the display. I was not really fond of this setup — to make it more ergonomic, the keyboard should have been pushed back an inch and a half toward the front, then the two speakers which reside on either side of the keyboard should have been moved to under the display. I’m not sure what impact it would have on looks, but it would make it more comfortable.

Media buttons: under the display, there are four buttons: (left to right) E-mail, default browser, Media player, and the on/off button. They are made out of a very nice aluminum with texture so they are easy to find. They are not lit up. The power button has a ring around it, which lights up a cool neon blue — the same color of the Alienware logo on the back. On the front of the machine are the media controls for the MP3 player. You can have this machine off and still listen to music when you use it. Nifty. There are buttons (left to right) for: on/off, back, forward, shuffle, play/pause, stop/eject, minus and plus volume. The LCD display is in the middle, and tells the time when the system is off. When you use the MP 3 player, it shows the time, track, etc. I didn’t find the clock that useful, since I have to bend backwards to read it. It’s easier to just look at the system tray. But it looks cool!

Status lights: The status lights reside on the bottom of the display and above the keyboard. Above the keyboard, there are status lights for: media card reader, hard disk, number lock, caps lock, and scroll lock. They light up in blue, the same uniform color as the rest of the LEDs/lights on the system. Nothing much to say about them. On the bottom of the display are lights for the power, battery status (yellow when charging, not on when on battery, and bright blue when charged), and wireless/Bluetooth. I wouldn’t have much to say about these but I found them very annoying — they are incredibly bright — in fact, they light up the middle of the keyboard easily in total darkness, and emit light throughout the room. They are always blaring. I learned to ignore them, but I think I might put a strip of tape or something over them to cover them up.  

Heat + Noise


The massive back cooling vent of the M7700 is five inches wide and one inch high. (view large image)

This is a very important section. Cooling on a system such as this is critical. The M7700 is cooled down by no fewer than four large fans. The main three are nice and quiet most of the time, but the video card fan, which is under the left palm rest, is the loudest — you can hear it anytime, anywhere when it comes on (frequently). Sometimes it is always on, depends on the room temperature. If the fan had a larger diameter, it would be quieter. I wish that had been done — I don’t blame Alienware for this, rather the manufacturer of the notebook, Clevo. I’m not fond of the placement of the video card either — it’s under the left palm rest, and jets superheated air straight out the left side. It can get annoying — I wish it were in the back. The noise and placement wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me, but it is worth it to mention nonetheless.


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The laptop itself does not actually get hot as you might expect. It is warm at the most. The keyboard gets warm, but nowhere near bordering on uncomfortable -  far from it. Nowhere on the surface of the laptop gets that warm. Above the left palm rest is a bit warmer than the rest of the laptop because that’s where the video card is. The entire surface of the machine is pretty much uniform in temperature; that tells me the heat is being distributed very well. Kudos to the designers for that.

All three of the main fans port their exhaust out of the massive back vent. It is very nicely done. The air coming out of there isn’t actually that hot, but rather a breeze (yes, the vent is big enough to produce that) of warm air. I’d often look behind my laptop to see my cat sitting there when I was playing games because it is nice and warm — quite amusing!

Finally — the bottom of this laptop does not get hot at all. It stays at room temperature, believe it or not. That’s quite a feat; you would expect it to be toasty under there. Not even under the processor or RAM does it get warm. The only place it gets mildly warm is in the vicinity of the GPU. It doesn’t feel hot, but it isn’t exactly cool. Most impressive. I ran this laptop for hours on end at maximum speed, and it never got any hotter than it normally is. This is the best-engineered cooling system I’ve seen to date.

Input + Output Ports

You name it, the M7700 has it. Let’s take a tour:


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Front: Speakers on either side, media controls for the MP3 on either side of the clock//LED display.


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Right side: Only the DVD drive(s) — it can take up to two, mine has one installed — and a lock slot


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Back: Cooling vent, power in, serial port, parallel, DVI-D, PS/2, 56K, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, CATV (TV Tuner required), and S-video, the latter two covered by a rubber protector.


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Left side: S-video, 4 x USB 2.0, 2 x IEE 1394 Firewire, SPDIF, Line-in, microphone, headphone, 7-in-1 media reader with rubber filler in (detail below)


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The media reader reads basically everything, including Compact Flash!

Power adapter

This is a very special case — the power adapter is not just a brick — it’s a full-blown cinder block.

See it compared next to my standard 90W adapter for my Sager:


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It’s truly massive, weighing in at 1.5 pounds and supplying 220W of power to the M7700.

Wireless

My M7700 came with an internal Atheros 802.11 Super G 108Mbps wireless card. I found it to be superb. My normal laptop has an Intel PRO/Wireless 2915. It’s up to speed; I don’t have any real issues with it. But the Atheros in the Alienware is noticeably more responsive. Range is good — I surfed anywhere in my house with ease. I didn’t had any problems connecting to a network, nor did I have any speed drops or lost connections. For those wondering, I have a Netgear 802.11b/g router with Comcast Internet.
 
The video card fan is in the top left corner, the three main fans below. The solid black circle is the integrated subwoofer.

Battery

Nobody is going to buy this system for the battery life, nor will people be on it that often. The M7700 comes with a huge 12-cell battery, the largest available in a laptop. I expected to get around forty-five minutes to an hour of life, since after all, it has a desktop processor, graphics card, 17″ display, and four fans. What I expected and what I got were two different things. With the brightness at level four out of seven (seven being the brightest), wireless on, and surfing the Internet the entire time, I timed the battery at 1:27. I am quite pleased to get that much. I would classify the time as “respectable”.

Operating System + Software

The M7700 unit I used came preinstalled with Microsoft’s Windows XP Professional. That’s a $99 upgrade from the XP Home it comes standard with.

Software: it didn’t come with much, just a few essentials — Nero OEM suite, an AlienGuise program, using which you can modify your desktops theme (I liked that a lot), and CyberLink PowerDVD. It’s a small but highly useful set. All the CDs were included with the system, including the OS and Nero discs.

One other bit of software I should mention is the Alien Respawn Recovery discs — it’s an option when you buy it, and helps restore your system (better than System Restore you get with Windows) when there’s a problem. I never tested it, but if you want to get back on track if your system crashes due to a virus, etc, then it’s a worthwhile option to get.


The Alienware M7700 next to my Sager NP-5320 (15.4″) notebook. (view large image)

Customer Support

I am happy to report that I experienced zero problems while in possession of the machine. It performed flawlessly the entire time. I ran intensive games and benchmarks on it for hours on end, and it never faltered in performance.

In case you do have a problem, Alienware offers both online and over the phone technical support.

My unit came with a one-year on-site warranty. The standard is 90-days. I think that is a bit out of place on a system like this. A 90-day warranty standard on a $4,400 investment? As a matter of fact, I think the warranty should have been two years for that price. If you want a 2-year warranty, that’s a $165 upgrade, and to go to three years, $265. All of the warranties are on-site.

Alienware also offers a support program called “Alien Autopsy”, where their technical support team can connect to your computer and diagnose it. It costs an additional $49.


Complaints

My number one complaint is the screen, I explained more in detail under the display section. It’s just an average panel, and for the amount of money this costs, I’d expect it to be both higher-quality and higher resolution. The video card is an ultra-powerful Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX; at a 1440×900 resolution, it can’t stretch its legs. I strongly suggest getting the high resolution 1920×1200 (WUXGA) display for $251, it is well worth the price and you won’t regret opting for it.

Second — the keyboard placement. It is placed all the way up below the display, leaving a huge area between you and the keys. It’s not really a problem, but you do have to reach in order to get to it. I would feel more comfortable if the keyboard were closer. For better ergonomics, the keyboard needs to come back an inch — inch and a half.

Third — the video card fan. It keeps the video card cool, but it is not nearly as quiet as the other three fans. If the fan had a larger diameter, it would have been quieter. It is on more than it is off; it comes on and off every minute or so. In some places it will run constantly. You can always hear it — I didn’t mind it, and got used to it after a while. The placement of the video card is also not so great. I don’t know if it could have been put anywhere else, but having it under the left palm rest can get annoying. The palm rest doesn’t get that warm, but the air coming out is scorching!

Fourth — the headphone jack. It’s poor, even for a laptop. No bass (mysteriously takes this away completely), some static/interference, and difficult to get a jack in and out of it. Definitely a disappointment on a forty-four hundred dollar machine.

Fifth — the three LED lights integrated into the bottom of the display. They are extremely high-intensity, and can get annoying. They are bright enough to light up the center of the keyboard, and even cast a bluish glow on the wall behind you. It’s especially annoying in a dark room.

Those are the five major complaints I have about this machine. I am not complaining about the weight — if you are buying this system, you should know what you’re getting.

Praises

One — Performance, performance, performance. This is the fastest laptop on the market, bar none. The Athlon 64 FX-60 is blistering. I found it impossible to choke up, it devoured every program (or multiple programs) I threw at it. Another important aspect — the Nvidia Go7800GTX 256MB video card. It’s incredible. I didn’t find a game I couldn’t play maxed out. Not even FEAR, currently one of the hardest games to handle, posted a problem. Combine a 7800GTX and an FX-60, and you have one of the fastest gaming systems available today, all in a “portable” (compared to a desktop, that is) package. The hard drive also contributed to performance. With a spindle speed of 7200RPM and going through an ultra-fast Serial ATA interface, access times are low, and games/applications load far quicker than on my 80GB 5400RPM drive in my usual laptop. It’s a worthwhile upgrade. For the best performance, get two of them in a RAID 0. And the RAM helped as well — low-latency DDR-400 dual-channel RAM is superb for a gaming system.

Two — Build quality. This is the most solid machine I’ve used recently. The plastic is nice and thick, and you can’t flex the system anywhere. The dark blue case is gorgeous — it’s not just a surface color, but has depth and style. It is so glossy that you can see yourself in it. The glowing Alienware logo and head on the back are one of my favorite parts of this machine; it gives the machine an undeniable cool factor.

Three — the cooling system. Dissipating heat on a desktop replacement such as this is extremely vital. With four cooling fans, expelling the heat is not a problem. A huge amount of copper is used for the vents and heat sinks, which shows quality. Cheaper systems use aluminum. The cooling system is indebted to the size of the laptop as well; there’s a reason this is 2.1″ thick. All that heat has room to move around, and the fans easily take care of it. My number one praise for the cooling system is that it keeps the entire laptop warm at most. The heat is evenly distributed. Most impressive is how the bottom of the laptop doesn’t get warm at all, but rather is cool to the touch — about the same as room temperature.

Four — keyboard and touchpad. The keyboard delivers great, solid feedback, and is a bit softer than most. I prefer that. The number pad is something I don’t know how I go without anymore. The touchpad, although it is not a big concern on a machine such as this, is a pleasure to use.

Five — the ownership experience. Throughout the time while I had this Alienware, I was very satisfied to be using it. It makes you want to say “THIS is my PC”. I was very proud to be using it.

In a nutshell…

Pros:

  • Blazing performance
  • Great LAN party machine
  • Superb build quality
  • Nice keyboard/number pad
  • Beautiful case
  • Remains cool
  • Did I already say performance?

Cons:

  • Low-end display
  • Costs over four thousand
  • Loud video card fan
  • Ergonomics could be improved
  • Sub par headphone jack
  • Annoying super bright LEDs

Conclusion

The Alienware Aurora M7700 breaks through the traditional barrier of mobile performance, and surpasses it. Unlimited power and potential don’t come cheap, nor do they come in small packages. It was a true pleasure to use this system for the time that I did, and I’ll miss every minute of it. For a system targeted toward hardcore gamers and performance enthusiasts, it won’t disappoint.


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