Review of Alienware’s Area-51 m17x

by Charles P. Jefferies Reads (56,048)
  • Pros

    • Phenomenal gaming performance
    • AlienFX LED lighting system
    • Solid build quality
    • Fantastic screen
    • Good keyboard & touchpad
    • Input & output port selection
    • Modular bay (SmartBay)

  • Cons

    • Sky-high price
    • Loud fans
    • Keyboard flex
    • Weight (11 pounds)
    • Dismal battery life (66 minutes as tested)


by Charles P. Jefferies

The Area-51 m17x is Alienware’s highest-end gaming notebook. Notable features of this all-black monster include an Intel Core 2 Extreme processor, dual Nvidia GeForce 9800M-GT graphics cards, and a 500GB RAID 0 array. It is one of the most powerful machines we have tested here at NotebookReview.com.

Click here to buy direct from Alienware.com

Our review unit has the following specifications:

  • 17-inch WUXGA (1920×1200) glossy display
  • Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 (2.8GHz/ 4MB L2/ 800MHz FSB) processor
  • Dual Nvidia GeForce 9800M-GT 512MB graphics cards in SLI
  • 4GB DDR2-667 RAM
  • 500GB RAID 0 (2x 250GB 7200RPM Samsung) hard drive
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit
  • AlienFX lighting and backlit keyboard
  • Internal TV tuner & remote control
  • Alienware Orion messenger bag

As of writing, the Area-51 m17x starts at $3,849; our configuration totals $5,899. Note that our test unit includes several costly items such as the Intel Extreme processor and RAID 0 array. The m17x is only available from Alienware directly.

Build and Design

This all-black monster is one of the largest notebooks I have tested. It is 2.1 inches thick and tips the scales at 11 pounds. The physical design of the m17x is traditional – there are no fancy curves or other design elements. It has a box-like design with rounded edges. The rubberized matte black finish of the Area-51 m17x lends it a high-end feel and look. The only glossy finish to be found on the m17x is on the borders of the LCD.

In addition to being one of the largest, this notebook is also one of the most solidly-build notebooks I have tested. The entire base of the notebook is inflexible. The palmrests do not budge under pressure, and neither do the other surfaces surrounding the keyboard. The base of the notebook does not bend when twisted, and the lid resists twisting better than the majority of 17-inch notebooks. The m17x’s lid is thicker than most. Pushing in on the back of the lid does not yield any ripples on the screen unless extreme pressure is used. The hinge holds the display in place well; there is some display wobble, though it takes effort to induce (such as shaking the table where the notebook is sitting). Given the size and weight of this display, I think the wobble is reasonably kept under control. The display does not have any latches but is instead held closed by a pair of small magnets.

The lighting system, called AlienFX, is what makes the m17x stand out from the crowd. Five areas of the notebook feature LED backlighting:

  • Keyboard
  • Touchpad
  • Touch buttons
  • Alienware logo below display
  • Alien head power button and emblem on back of display

Each zone can be changed independently to one of 12 colors. In addition, it is easy to completely disable AlienFX by pressing [Fn] + [F11].

Overall, the design of the m17x is traditional yet attractive; it has a quality finish and feel. The machine is solid and well made.

Display

The m17x comes standard with the only display available, a 17-inch glossy widescreen with a WUXGA resolution (1920×1200 pixels). The picture quality of this display is stunning – colors are vibrant and the brightness level is high. This screen is ideal for gaming, high-definition video, and general use. The crisp contrast makes reading text easy. Viewing angles are excellent from above and side-to-side, however like a typical LCD, the picture darkens viewed from below. The backlighting is generally even, with only a hint from the bottom of the screen.

On the whole, the m17x definitely has one of the best displays I have seen on a notebook

Speakers

The m17x has two stereo speakers and a two-inch subwoofer. The sound quality is slightly above average for a notebook, and they get reasonably loud. The subwoofer adds some needed low-end. The sound system on the whole is unremarkable however not disappointing.

Heat and Noise

The cooling system is important on any notebook, but on a notebook packed with high-powered components like the m17x, it is mission critical. Fortunately the m17x’s system is up to the task. The notebook has several rather large fans that draw air in from numerous perforations on the bottom of the notebook and two additional air intakes under the palmrests.  The entire back of the notebook is lined with exhaust vents, which throw out extraordinary amounts of hot air. The cooling system does a remarkable job of keeping two video cards, a high-powered processor, and two hard drives under control:

I ran the m17x under continuous full load for in excess of five hours and experienced no issues. The top of the notebook never got warm; the back of the notebook where the vents are got toasty due to all the hot air running above it. The m17x’s cooling system is well-designed; each video card has its own heatsink and fan.

The downside of the m17x’s effective cooling system is the noise it creates. Even at idle, the fans run fast and have a distinct whine. Under full load, the noise increases due to more air moving out the back, however the whine does not intensify. The m17x is not a notebook to be using in areas where quietness is important.

The verdict of the m17x’s cooling system boils down to necessity vs. nicety. It is absolutely necessary that a notebook like the m17x have an effective cooling system; quietness takes a second place to functionality. No doubt, the noise level of this notebook will be a deal-breaker for some.

Keyboard

The m17x has a full size keyboard and separate numpad. The keys feature a rubberized finish and are durable. The keyboard has a soft feel and keypresses are well cushioned. Key travel is normal for a notebook, and the sound is quiet and rubber-like. The keyboard unfortunately suffers from flex that is noticeable even under normal typing pressure; pressing one key down affects all the surrounding keys. The numpad does not have any flex. While I like the feel of the keyboard, I wish it had less flex.

Touchpad

The m17x’s expansive touchpad is flush with the palmrest, and it has the same matte rubberized finish like the rest of the machine. It is easy to track on with moist or dry fingers. The touchpad buttons are made of one piece of plastic; clicks are almost inaudible.

Input and Output Ports

This calls for a picture tour – all descriptions are from left to right.

Left Side:

Power jack, optical audio, S-video out, HD TV tuner, headphones, microphone, audio out, 3x USB, SmartBay modular bay

Right Side:

7-in-1 media card reader, ExpressCard/54 slot, USB, HDMI, FireWire B, FireWire A, Gigabit Ethernet, security lock slot

Front:

Not much here – only the IR receiver

Back:

Vents

The m17x has perhaps the most expansive range of ports I have seen on a notebook, including a rare 6-pin FireWire port.

The SmartBay deserves some extra attention. It is essentially a modular bay that can take a hard drive in place of the optical drive. Alienware included a 500GB version with our m17x. The SmartBay is hot-swappable, meaning the system does not have to be powered off to switch devices. It also features a SATA connection, ensuring the hard drive has an ultra-fast connection. A modular bay is a feature I would like to see on more notebooks since it adds both convenience and functionality.

Wireless

Alienware includes the Intel Wireless WiFi Link 4965AGN wireless card supporting 802.11a, g, and draft-n connections as standard along with internal Bluetooth. Range with the wireless Intel card was superb; I was able to pick up networks and connect at the fringe of their transmitting range without problems.
The Bluetooth also worked as expected with the included Bluetooth ExpressCard media remote.

Battery

The m17x has a 12-cell, 6600mAh battery pack. With the screen dimmed down in power-save mode and wireless off, I measured 66 minutes of battery life. The power draw of this system is immense. Needless to say, this is not the notebook for you if you value battery time.

Operating System and Software

Vista Home Premium and Ultimate (32-bit) are the two available operating systems.  I did not have any issues with Vista Home Premium on our test unit; all of the supplied software including the Alienware Command Center worked without issues. I had no problems entering/resuming from standby, and hibernation worked fine as well.

Carrying Bag

Part of our review unit’s price tag included Alienware’s new $90 Orion messenger bag. Given the extraordinary size and weight of the m17x, having a bag that fits it well and is comfortable to use is important.  The Orion has a main and a secondary inside compartment, and five external pouches. I found the bag to be a great companion for the m17x – the padding on the shoulder strap as well as on the bag itself are welcome while carrying 15 pounds worth of equipment. The nylon material is thick, durable, and well-made, and the notebook compartment is well cushioned. The zippers are of good quality. I highly recommend opting for this bag to those of you purchasing the m17x.

Orion Messenger Bag specs:

  • Exterior dimensions: 14” x 20” x 5.5”
  • Device compatibility: 19.1” x 13.25” x 3”
  • Weight: 2.85 lb

Customer Support

Alienware offers a 1-year warranty with 24/7 tech support and onsite service with the m17x. Two- and three-year warranties are available for $200 and $300 respectively. It is disappointing to see Alienware only offering a one-year warranty as standard equipment on the m17x; for a machine starting at $3,849, I think a three-year warranty should be standard at the very least.

Click here to buy direct from Alienware.com

Conclusion

The Alienware Area-51 m17x is a remarkable gaming notebook and a clear step forward for Alienware in terms of design and performance. It is packed to the gills with top-shelf equipment, most notably a pair of Nvidia 9800M-GT video cards. This is one of not even a handful of machines that can comfortably max out Crysis. It has the typical downsides associated with a portable desktop – loud cooling system, dismal battery life, and hefty weight, but it does everything else well. The $3,849 starting price is steep and out of reach for most, though the baseline configuration has the components that make the system worth buying. In this reviewer’s opinion, more could have been thrown in for the money, and for such an expensive system, not having a more comprehensive warranty is disappointing. To those who do have the cash for a system like this, you are getting an awesome machine that will get envious looks anywhere you go, but be prepared to sign a mortgage for it.

Pros:

  • Phenomenal gaming performance
  • AlienFX LED lighting system
  • Solid build quality
  • Fantastic screen
  • Good keyboard & touchpad
  • Input & output port selection
  • Modular bay (SmartBay)

Cons:

  • Sky-high price
  • Loud fans
  • Keyboard flex
  • Weight (11 pounds)
  • Dismal battery life (66 minutes as tested)

Performance and Benchmarks

Take a look at page two of this review for in-depth details on the performance and benchmarks for the Alienware Area-51 m17x.


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