The Alienware M11x R3 is the third version of the world's smallest and lightest gaming notebook. Equipped with your choice of the latest second generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors and Nvidia GeForce GT 540M graphics, this high-performance 11-inch notebook is arguably in a class all by itself. Keep reading to see if the latest M11x gaming laptop is worth your money.
Our review unit of the Alienware M11x R3 features the following specifications:
Last year, the Alienware M11x and its updated "Revision 2" (M11x R2) version both received the NotebookReview.com Editors' Choice Award for delivering a great combination of build quality, performance, and battery life at a reasonable price. Dell's Alienware team regularly commented on the fact that the M11x was the best-selling Alienware notebook of 2010. It's no surprise then that the engineers at Alienware were eager to improve upon their success with the Alienware M11x R3.
If you're familiar with the original M11x and M11x R2, then you'll surely notice that the M11x R3 is virtually identical to its older siblings. Likewise, anyone familiar with the other gaming notebooks in the Alienware family should instantly recognize the angular design, "Stealth Black" soft touch finish and AlienFX LED lighting that have become the hallmark of Alienware design. In many ways the designers at Alienware tried to make this 11-inch notebook look like a tiny twin of the 15-inch M15x or the 17-inch M17x.
That design descision (to make the M11x look like other Alienware gaming notebooks) has probably single-handedly contributed to the "love it" or "hate it" attitude toward the M11x that many people have expressed in our discussion forums. On one hand, you immediately recognize that this is a gaming notebook designed to play games and have fun. On the other hand, hardcore gamers recognize that you can't fit extremely high-end gaming hardware inside an 11-inch notebook and they criticize the M11x for being not being a "real" gaming notebook.
Despite those divided opinions, the design of the M11x carries the same boxy shape as other Alienware laptops. Most laptops have a tapered edge that starts out thick near the center of the notebook and gets thinner as you move to the outside edge. The chassis of the M11x R3 (like previous M11x notebooks) doesn't have that tapered edge because Alienware engineers needed all that space for the discrete graphics card, extra cooling, and the integrated battery. The integrated battery is also something to keep in mind when talking about the thickness of this notebook. The M11x might seem thick with its height of 1.29 inches, but many 11-inch netbook alternatives with extended life batteries are actually thicker than the Alienware M11x R3.
Speaking of the bottom of the notebook, the M11x is likewise stunning even from underneath. The bottom panel is largely flat and smooth with speaker grill holes for the downward-firing stereo speakers, the cooling fan intake, and battery meter. If you're interested in upgrading the internal components on your M11x you'll be happy to learn that all user-serviceable parts are located under a single access panel on the bottom of the notebook.
Ports and Features
The selection of ports on the M11x R3 is nearly identical to the port layout on the M11x R2. Keep in mind that your external display connections are the DisplayPort and the HDMI port ... no VGA here for those old monitors and projectors. The Alienware M11x R3 includes two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, FireWire, a 3-in-1 media card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, all of the standard audio jacks, and the previously mentioned HDMI and DisplayPort connections.
You don't get a built-in optical drive with the M11x and we're not upset about it. Not only would a DVD or Blu-ray drive have taken up space and made the notebook heavier and more power hungry, but most consumers are downloading content rather than using disks. Alienware even pre-installs STEAM on your M11x when you place your order. For those of you who aren't familiar with Steam, it's an online store for PC games. Using the Steam software you can browse the online Steam Store and purchase almost any PC game which you then download and install on your PC.
Alienware still includes a DVD restore disk with the M11x rather than including a bootable USB flash drive or SD card. You can buy an optional external DVD drive at the time of purchase, but anyone who doesn't will be unable to use the restore disk unless they already own an external optical drive. Come on, Dell, stop using DVDs with notebooks that don't have DVD drives.
On a happier note, Alienware is finally using USB 3.0 on the Alienware M11x R3 so owners can connect high-speed external storage to this notebook. With that said, let's take a quick tour around the M11x R3:
Front: AlienFX lights and speaker grills
Rear: Display hinge, AC power jack, and heat vent
Left: Kensington lock slot, DisplayPort, HDMI, USB 2.0, Ethernet, Media card reader, and FireWire
Right: Dual headphone jacks, one microphone jack, and two USB 3.0 ports
Screen and Speakers
The 11.6" LED-backlit screen on the M11x R3 is identical to the screen on the original M11x and M11x R2, which appears identical to the screen Dell uses on every 11-inch laptop. With a resolution of 1366x768 this display has as much screen space as entry-level full-size notebooks. Still, we wouldn't mind seeing a 1600x900 resolution option in the next generation of Alienware notebooks. The display panel looks great, with good color reproduction and very even lighting thanks to the LED back light. Contrast is average, and varies depending on the vertical viewing angle. The viewing sweet spot is very narrow (+/- 15 degrees), so if you move your head just a little bit the screen will appear too bright during dark scenes in a game. Conversely, move your head or tilt the screen in the opposite direction and dark scenes look almost completely black to the point you can't make out fine details in a game. Bottom line, you have to tilt the screen in the perfect position and keep your head absolutely still. If Alienware doesn't offer a higher resolution screen next year then maybe they'll at least offer an IPS display panel with better viewing angles.
Beyond the limited viewing angles, our only significant complaint about the screen on the M11x is the lack of a matte screen option. Glossy screens look cool when you see them in a store or when you first take your laptop out of the box, but glossy screens also cause obvious reflections on the screen and make it much more difficult to see what's on the screen when you're under strong indoor lighting or direct sunlight. Dell really needs to offer a matte screen option on this notebook since it's designed to be taken everywhere ... and you can't always control your lighting environment when traveling.
Speaker quality is far above average for an 11-inch notebook and the maximum volume output is both loud enough to fill a large meeting room and clear enough to be heard without obvious distortion. Although the stereo speakers on the M11x are downward-firing drivers located on the bottom front edge of the notebook, Alienware engineers also designed two small sound channels into the chassis to direct sound forward through the two decorative LED panels on the front on the notebook. So despite the fact that most of the sound is directed down there is also some sound being thrown forward at the user. Although the M11x has two excellent headphone jacks you might be perfectly happy with the built-in speakers on this laptop.
For many years Alienware notebooks have used a distinctive keyboard design with adjustable LED backlighting so you can view the keyboard in the dark. The M11x R3 continues this tradition with arguably the best keyboard we've used on an 11-inch notebook. In general, the keyboard uses individual keys with a traditional shape that is slightly curved in the middle of each key. Key spacing is quite good and each key has the perfect amount of feedback with minimal side travel.
The big difference between this keyboard and the keyboards on other 11-inch notebooks is that the keys have excellent LED backlighting with a transparent key frame and key labels using a futuristic font that looks like something out of Star Trek. More importantly, the support frame beneath the keyboard is rock solid. We couldn't get the keyboard on this M11x to flex even under severe typing pressure. Likewise, the matte plastic palmrests will handle hours of game play without bending or squeaking plastics. Typing noise is minimal, with no loud "click clack" noises while typing. The only complaint we have with the keyboard is that the matte paint on the keys doesn't like natural skin oils. You'll have to wipe down the keyboard from time to time or some of the keys will start to look oily ... particularly the W, A, S, and D keys if you're a heavy gamer.
The Synaptics touchpad is both pleasing and depressing at the same time on the M11x. If I was using this touchpad on any other notebook I would be absolutely thrilled. The honeycomb textured surface makes for an ideal touchpad texture (allowing for smooth, controlled finger movement) and the drivers seem perfectly calibrated straight out of the box for minimal lag and precision tracking. The touchpad buttons have soft, springy movement with quiet clicks, though the full touchpad button press might be a little too deep for my taste. Indeed, this is a great touchpad. Unfortunately, this is a gaming PC, and touchpads ... well, they suck when gaming.
Any gaming enthusiast will tell you that you MUST use an external mouse when gaming. Sure, the M11x is an ultraportable laptop and people generally use touchpads for typical activities, but the main reason people are buying this machine rather than one of the many cheaper 11-inch netbooks on the market is that you can play games on the M11x R3. Dell really should include a quality wireless mouse or even a small wired gaming mouse as "standard" equipment with the M11x R3. I feel even more stongly about this now that Dell has raised the starting price of the M11x R3 to $999 compared to the $799 starting price of the original M11x.
Performance and Benchmarks
How do you fit a high-performance processor from a bulky gaming notebook into an 11-inch laptop? The secret is low-voltage processors. The new second-generation Intel Core i5 and Core i7 low voltage processors provide performance similar to last year's standard-voltage notebook processors but with lower power consumption and less heat. At the time of this writing the M11x R2 with the older Core i3 330UM processor is still available on the Dell website for $699, but a few hundred dollars extra gets you the newer, faster CPU options.
Our review sample of the M11x R3 came with the 1.40GHz Intel Core i5-2537M processor. This is the entry-level CPU option for the M11x R3 and comes with 3MB cache and automatically overclocks up to 2.3GHz thanks to Intel turbo frequency technology.
Speaking of automatic features, the M11x R3 also includes the new and improved Nvidia GeForce GT 540M discrete graphics card which is a significant step up from the GT 335M graphics found in the original M11x and M11x R2. The Core i5 version of the M11x R3 includes GT 540M graphics with 1GB of dedicated GDDR3 memory while the Core i7 option comes with 2GB of dedicated GDDR3. Both configurations of Nvidia graphics also include automatic switchable graphics thanks to the Intel HD integrated graphics and Nvidia Optimus technology. For those who don't know what Optimus is, it's basically a technology that allows the computer to automatically use discrete graphics when you need them (like when you're playing a game) and switch to integrated graphics when you don't need extreme graphics performance and just want maximum battery life.
In terms of day-to-day activities the new Core i5 processor feels "snappier" than either the overclocked SU4100 processor in my personal M11x or the older Core i7 processor in last year's M11x R2. In fact, in average applications like Microsoft Office or Internet Explorer you won't notice much difference between the Core i5 in the entry-level configuration of the M11x R3 and the Core i7 configuration that costs an extra $200. That optional Core i7 processor will provide a speed boost when playing some CPU-intense games, but that's the only time the difference will be obvious to most potential buyers.
We'll get to our in-game tests later in the review, in the meantime, here are a few synthetic benchmark tests to see how the M11x compares to other ultraportable notebooks as well as the earlier M11x models. We've also included benchmarks from the ASUS G53SW-A1, a 15-inch gaming notebook that is only a few hundred dollars more than the 11-inch M11x R3. As you can see from the charts below, the Alienware M11x R3 offers better performance than any 11-inch notebook we've reviewed to date.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 is the latest synthetic benchamrk measuring overall system performance in Windows 7 (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark Vantage measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark 11 measures overall graphics performance for DirectX 11 games (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
Heat and Noise
I spent a number of hours trying to come up with a polite way of describing the level of noise produced by the cooling fan inside the Alienware M11x R3. After all that time, the nicest thing I can say is that the M11x R3 sounds like a pulsating hair dryer. The simple reality is this: The vent fan inside the M11x has to either turn on (at a relatively high volume) and off in regular intervals while the notebook is idle or it turns on full blast (at extremely high volume) while you're gaming in order to keep the relatively high-performance Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors and Nvidia graphics cool inside such a small laptop.
All that fan noise means that dangerous heat isn't roasting your laptop components, but it also means that the M11x R3 might be disruptive in a quiet office or classroom environment. The external temperatures on the M11x R3 are a little warm but are still fairly "lap friendly" as long as you stay clear of the heat exhaust. All temperatures shown below are listed in degrees Fahrenheit and were recorded when the CPU and the discrete graphics were working hard playing The Witcher 2 for about one hour.
Thanks to the Nvidia Optimus switchable graphics inside the M11x R3, you don't have to worry about checking your laptop to see if you left your discrete graphics card running. This notebook automatically detects when you're running an application that needs the discrete graphics and if you don't need all that Nvidia horsepower then Optimus switches to the Intel integrated graphics to give you the best possible battery life. In our lab tests with the screen set to 70 percent brightness, Windows 7 set to a "balanced" power profile, and Wi-Fi on and loading a website every 60 seconds we obtained 7 hours and 49 minutes of battery life. This is well above the 6+ hours of web browsing time we got from the original M11x.
The integrated 8-Cell Lithium-Ion battery inside the M11x R3 is the same one used in the R1 and R2 models rated at 64WH and powered by a standard 90W power supply. Although we're talking about an integrated battery this is one of the most powerful batteries we've seen in an 11-inch notebook. Keep in mind that most 11-inch laptops have 6-cell or smaller batteries, so the 8-cell battery inside the M11x R3 is a strong advantage. The internal battery is also relatively easy to remove and replace using the instructions included in the user manual in the unlikely event that the battery ever develops a problem.
Another element of the battery that we really like to see is the one-touch battery indicator located on the bottom of the notebook. Five white LEDs let you know how much battery life is left and whether you need to bring your AC adapter with you when you go to class or that next office meeting. The battery meter works even when the laptop is powered off, so it's a fantastic way to check your battery status when you're in a hurry.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
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.