E3 2010: Alienware M11x Core i7 Hands-On Review (with Video)

by J.R. Nelson Reads (57,682)

Alienware introduced the original M11x at CES this year with Pentium Dual-core and Core 2 Duo processors.  While the notebook was originally envisioned using the slightly stronger Intel Core 2010 chips, Intel hadn’t yet put these chips out on the market – and Dell wanted to get the M11x out the door in enough time for CES.

The Alienware M11x occupies a unique niche within the computing realm: a gaming ultraportable.  Some might even call it a netbook, but the notebook really sits on a different level of performance entirely.  Our original review of the M11x was very positive: we even awarded it an Editor’s Choice.  One of the cons, however, was the fact that the notebook had very limited processor options.  In fact, it only had two – the Pentium Dual-core SU7300 @ 1.3GHz (like our review unit) or the Intel Celeron SU4100 @ 1.4GHz.

Alienware is rectifying that situation with the recent release of new processors for the M11x – Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 models.  The Core i5 and Core i7 models are available in the U.S. right now.   The Core i3 models are currently only available in Asia; you can even go onto the Asia Dell website and check them out.

I actually found an Alienware M11x equipped with an Intel Core i3 ultra low voltage processor sitting in the Alienware booth here at E3.  Surprised, I mentioned this to Dell and before any benchmarks could be run, I was taken upstairs and the notebook was swept away. Despite being available in another country, companies like Intel don’t like it when one of their partners accidentally makes certain products available too soon.

Despite that, we still got some hands-on time with the M11x notebooks equipped with Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs. As product manager Joe Olmsted points out, gamers who upgrade to an M11x with the improved processors can expect a certain number of improvements to performance, though increased framerates likely won’t be one of them.

Faster.  Sort of.
I ran wPrime, which exclusively tests CPU performance, on both a Core i5 and a Core i7 version of the Alienware M11x.  It’s one of the benchmarks that was run on the Pentium Dual-core version of the M11x NBR originally reviewed, so it’s an easy point of comparison between the different chips.

Alienware M11x CPU wPrime 32M test
Intel Core i7-640UM 39.47s
Intel Pentium Dual-core SU4100 (overclocked) 52.15s
Intel Core i5-520UM 55.37s
Intel Pentium Dual-core SU4100 66.24s

Dell was quick to point out that these notebooks were – technically – still just engineering units, which means that there might be some unforeseen quirk affecting performance that wouldn’t be found in the shipping versions.  It’s unlikely, however, and the wPrime results we got today should be similar to the ones users can expect on finished versions.

Both chips, despite having worse clock speeds than the Prenium Dual-core SU4100 (PDC: 1.3GHz, Ci5: 1.066GHz, Ci7: 1.2GHz), showed their might in the CPU benchmark.  The Core i5 finished the test 11 seconds earlier than the SU4100, and the Core i7 finished it almost 27 seconds faster.  Interestingly, though, the overclocked SU4100 actually beat out the natively-clocked Core i5.  Both the Core i5 and Core i7 versions are themselves overclockable, but we weren’t able to test it out today.

Games today are largely – though by no means exclusively – GPU-bound.  That means that modern games tend to be constrained more by the performance limits of the graphics card than the processor.  As a result, most games that fare well on the Pentium SKU of the M11x will fare just as well on the Core i7 version.  Games that run poorly will probably still run poorly – with a few notable exceptions.


One of the games Jerry, who reviewed the Pentium dual-core-equipped M11x, found ran poorly on the gaming ultraportable was Shattered Horizon.  It seemed like the GeForce GT 335M graphics within the machine churned out levels with no issue, but the math-intensive CPU calculations posed a serious problem.  In fact, the average framerate sat somewhere around 20fps with regular drops down into the single digits.  In a word, it was unplayable.

Hopefully, that’s where chips like the Core i5 and Core i7 shine. Unlike the Core i3, these two chips also feature Intel’s Turbo Boost technology.  Turbo Boost monitors chip utilization and when applications are invoked that only stress one of the two physical cores, it automatically and invisibly overclocks that core.  That way, games and other apps that don’t multithread well can still take advantage of the additional clock speed.

Additionally, users who pick a model configured with a Core i5-520UM (and presumably the Core i3-330UM when it inevitably launches) can take advantage of the NVIDIA Optimus graphics technology.  Optimus makes transitioning between Intel’s on-die integrated graphics and the discrete GeForce GT 335M seamless.

The increased CPU capability, for what it’s worth, does come at a price.  Two, in this case. Firstly, the new models are more expensive: the Core i5 M11x is an additional $150, with a $949 starting price; the Core i7 is an additional $300, coming in with a $1,099 starting price.  That’s a pretty big pill to swallow when options such as the HP Envy 14 are available for just $999 (granted, it’s larger, but still).

Additionally, the more powerful CPUs will have a noticeable impact on battery life.  In the original review, battery life was found to be just as impressive as the rest of the notebook – right around seven hours.  Dell mentioned that the Core i7-equipped M11x can be expected to get right around five and a half hours or so.

Regardless of the cost, the Alienware M11x is still in a class composed of, well, itself.  The new chips are definitely faster – the Core i7 especially – and even though they’re cost more in terms of money and battery life, they do make a noticeable difference.  The Core i7-based Alienware M11x felt extremely snappy, with zero menu lag and quick dialog boxes; the extra CPU power will also likely come in handy in smoothing out CPU-intensive games like Shattered Horizon.

Be sure to check out NotebookReview early next week for our full review of Alienware’s M11x, replete with a Core i7-640UM processor.  We’ll cover more in-depth tests then, including the same popular games tried out on the Pentium version of the notebook as well as a full suite of battery tests.




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