Saturday

Alienware M14x R2 Review


If you're a serious PC gamer looking for a smaller, lighter gaming notebook chances are you've considered the Alienware M14x. This futuristic-looking 14-inch laptop might seem like a prop from a sci-fi movie, but it actually packs an Intel Core i7 "Ivy Bridge" processor, two storage drives, an optical drive, and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics. In short, this laptop delivers a very capable and very fun gaming experience for people who don't want to haul a larger 17-inch gaming rig.

For those readers who aren't familiar with the brand, Alienware is Dell's custom gaming notebook brand. Acquired back in 2006, Alienware has a history of making stylish notebooks and desktops loaded with the high-performance components that gamers need to dominate the latest and greatest games. The Alienware M14x R2 is the update to last year's M14x, a notebook that we considered too underpowered for its size and weight. Is the revision of the M14x any better? Let's find out.




Design
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As we mentioned earlier in the review, Alienware notebooks look like something out of a sci-fi movie and that design ID has long been a key feature to these gaming laptops. While the look is unique to Alienware it isn't exactly new. The M14x R2 might have a range of the latest technologies inside but a new exterior looks identical to the original M14x. Imagine if the F-117 Stealth Fighter was put into a blender with a Darth Vader's helmet and some multi-colored LEDs and you'll have some idea of what an Alienware notebook looks like.
The new M14x still has excellent overall build quality with a combination of metal and plastic parts. Most of the exterior contact points (lid, palm rests and keyboard surround) are plastic while the lower half of the chassis is made of magnesium alloy covered in a "soft touch" rubberized paint. In short, the M14x R2 feels solid.
While the 14-inch laptop footprint certainly takes up less space in a bedroom or college dorm room the massive thickness (roughly 1.5 inches) makes this notebook thicker than most budget 17-inch laptops. The reason for that chunky chassis is simple; Alienware designers needed a place to put all the high-end components and cooling systems needed for the processor and graphics.
Still, with the lower TDP of the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors and NVIDIA Kepler graphics, Dell's engineers could have packed the same processor and graphics card into a much thinner design. We probably would have needed to sacrifice the optical drive and maybe one of the two storage drives, but the result would have been a thinner, lighter notebook with the same performance. Just look at the 11-inch gaming notebooks based on the the Clevo W110ERF such as the Eurocom Monster 1.0 or the Origin EON11-S. These tiny laptops pack the same processors and graphics offered in the M14x at a similar price point. More on that later in the review.
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Despite the cool shape of the chassis, it's the AlienFX LED lighting system that most people usually notice first. The colors of almost every light on the notebook can be changed to virtually any color. In fact, you can even set the lighting to a combination of multiple colors or strobe between the entire rainbow of colors. Of course, you can also shut off all of the lights if you don't desire unwanted attention.


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The bottom of the M14x takes a page looks clean and simple with a fully integrated battery. To access the components like the RAM, storage drives or wireless cards you have to loosen two screws and push the bottom panel back. There is also a new heat shield that protects the RAM that has to be removed with an additional screw if you want to upgrade the memory. You'll have to remove the battery if you want to access the optional mSATA SSD or the wireless card.


Display


The new M14x has the same screen options as the original; either a 14.0" High Def (1366x768) display with WLED backlight or a 14.0" High Def+ (1600x900) display with WLED backlight. Both displays feature a highly reflective "edge to edge" glass covering which helps improve contrast and looks good in dark rooms but causes distracting reflections and glare under most indoor lighting or outside under sunlight.
In the past we playfully suggested that Dell's Alienware designers think all Alienware customers live in their parents' basements with the lights turned off (one of the few environments where the reflective screen isn't a problem). However, when you consider that the majority of companies offering custom gaming notebooks now offer optional matte screens it's unacceptable that Alienware still isn't offering an alternative to the reflective display.
Our test configuration came with the 1600x900 resolution display. Color saturation was high at the default settings (the 1600x900 panel on our M14x review unit last year suffered a lack of default saturation) but the colors can be adjusted. Viewing angles on this TN-type panel are fine side-to-side however the picture distorts when viewed off-angle vertically. Again, the glossy cover placed in front of that actual screen is even more reflective than a standard gloss-coated display; you will notice the reflections of any lights in the room (including the AlienFX lights) and when the screen is shut off it looks like a mirror.
The M14x R2 uses the same Klipsch-branded speakers and the previous generation notebook. The stereo speakers located on either side of the screen hinge just above the keyboard push sound up and toward the user. This makes in-game music and sound much more enjoyable ... particularly when compared to laptops that have downward-facing, lap-firing speakers which suffer from muffled sound. Audio quality is generally good with some hint of bass coming from the speakers and no obvious distortion until you increase the volume to about 85-90 percent.

Keyboard and Touchpad

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The M14x has a fairly traditionally-styled keyboard similar to the other Alienware notebooks. It has four-zone customizable LED backlighting via the AlienFX system lighting. The keys have a slight concave shape and a rubbery non-slip surface. Key travel is quite good and require only  moderate actuation force (the amount of pressure it takes to depress a key); so resting hands won't push down the keys ... a good thing since gamers regularly rest their fingertips on the keys during game play.
There is some moderate flex towards the keyboard's center, however this does not affect typing feel. Overall the keyboard feels great and makes for a satisfying typing experience. As an added bonus, the keyboard is about as quiet as notebook keyboards come.
The large Synaptics touchpad is responsive and has an excellent matte non-slip surface. The edges are backlit - another part of the AlienFX lighting system. The two discrete touchpad buttons have very good tactile feedback with soft, quite clicks when pressed. As usual, the team at Alienware did a fantastic job designing a keyboard and touchpad input that gamers can really use.

Ports and Features
The M14x R2 has the same exterior port selection as the original M14x ... and it's a very good selection of ports for a 14-inch laptop. This Alienware laptop includes two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port that supplies power even while the notebook is in sleep mode, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, Ethernet, memory card reader and slot-loading optical drive. The only item that's missing is an ExpressCard expansion slot but fewer and fewer notebooks include an ExpressCard slot these days. All picture descriptions are left to right.
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Front: AlienFX lights
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Rear: AC power jack and Heat exhaust vents
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Left: VGA, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, USB 2.0, microphone jack, two headphone jacks and memory card reader.
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Right: Slot-load optical drive, 2x USB 3.0, Ethernet and Kensington lock slot


Alienware M14x R2  following specifications:
  • 14-inch glossy "edge to edge" full HD display (1600x900 resolution)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Intel Core i7-3610QM quad-core processor (6MB Cache, up to 3.3GHz w/ Turbo Boost 2.0)
  • Intel HM67 chipset
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M w/ 2GB GDDR3 dedicated video memory using NVIDIA Optimus technology
  • 8GB DDR3-1600 (2x 4GB)
  • 750GB 7,200 RPM SATA HDD + 32GB mSATA Caching SSD
  • Killer Wireless-N 1202 wireless network adapter
  • Internal Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
  • Integrated 720p webcam
  • Slot-load DVD burner (Matshita DVD+-RW UJ8A7)
  • 8-cell Li-ion battery (63WHr)
  • Weight: 6.48 lbs.
  • Dimensions: 1.49 x 10.17 x 13.27 inches
  • 1-year limited warranty
  • Starting price: $1,099
  • Price as configured: $1,604
Our review unit of the Alienware M14x R2 has several key upgrades that add an extra $500 to the base price; the Core i7 processor, 1600x900 resolution screen, 8GB of RAM, and 750GB hard drive with mSATA SSD caching drive all added to the cost of the notebook.
Performance and Benchmarks
Gaming PCs require greater performance than any other category of consumer PCs. The M14x R2 packs some noteworthy improvements over the original M14x including a 3rd-generation Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, an all-new graphics card based on the NVIDIA Kepler GPU core with NVIDIA Optimus technology (automatically switching between the discrete graphics and the built-in Intel graphics to give you high performance when gaming and extra battery life the rest of the time). Those technologies combined with 8GB of system memory are pretty good, but my favorite feature is actually the 750GB hard drive combined with a 32GB mSATA SSD. The HDD and SSD work together as a single hybrid drive to give you the storage capacity of a hard drive (essential for a library of the latest games) and the startup speed of a SSD.
Without comparing it to other gaming notebooks, the Alienware M14x is an extremely powerful system that can handle playing even the latest games like Max Payne 3 or Mass Effect 3 at high detail settings at the screen resolution of 1600x900 with fast frame rates.
Unfortunately, the Alienware M14x also has to compete against other gaming notebooks priced between $1,000 and $2,000. As of this writing every custom gaming notebook maker that sells Clevo-based laptops is offering an 11-inch notebook that also packs a 3rd-generation Intel Core i7 quad-core processor and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics ... essentially the same performance as the M14x R2 but in a MUCH thinner and lighter shell. Similarly, you can buy 15-inch and 17-inch gaming notebooks in the same price range as the M14x R2 but those larger notebooks have more powerful graphics cards and often better screens.
The fact that NVIDIA's new Kepler-based graphics cards have lower thermals than the previous generation cards should have (in theory) allowed Alienware to put at least an entry-level GTX card into the M14x rather than being limited to the GT class. Right now we would have a hard time deciding to buy this instead of a larger notebook with better specs at the same price.
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 benchmark measuring overall system performance in Windows 7 (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark 11 measures overall graphics performance for gaming with DirectX 11 (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark and ATTO storage drive performance tests:

Gaming Performance
In terms of in-game performance the Alienware M14x averaged around 55 frames per second (fps) in Mass Effect 3 running at 1600x900 resolution with detail settings on high. The average frame rate in Max Payne 3 was 23 fps at 1600x900 at high settings (DX10). When you consider that a feature film plays at 24 frames per second the M14x R2 is doing a great job. That said, there are more powerful gaming notebooks in the 15-inch and 17-inch class that are available for the same amount of money.
While we're on the subject of things that matter to PC gamers, we should mention that, at the time of this writing, Dell restricts the drivers that can or cannot be installed on the M14x R2 and we couldn't update the NVIDIA drivers to the latest version available on the NVIDIA website. This means the GeForce GT 650M graphics may encounter problems with new games but you cannot easily install the latest drivers.
Heat and Noise
The M14x R2 pushes hot air out the single exhaust vent on the back of the chassis. The two large intake vents on the bottom of the notebook provide the air for cooling. At idle the cooling system switches between total silence and light fan noise that is just loud enough to be heard by someone sitting next to you in a quiet room. Once under full load, however, the noise level increases quite dramatically; it sounds like a very fast rush of air and a low-pitched fan spinning very quickly. Unfortunately, the volume of the fan and fast-moving air is loud enough that someone might hear it even if they are in another room nearby.
The top of the chassis mostly remains lukewarm with only one or two hot spots. The bottom center of the chassis didn't get quite as hot as last year's M14x so it isn't too hot for "laptop" gaming while you're waiting to board a flight. That said, most M14x owners are likely to leave this notebook on a table for extended periods of time while playing games.
Battery Life
During our standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active, and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds), the M14x delivered2 hours and 31 minutes of battery life from its 8-cell battery. This is surprisingly much worse than the original M14x which delivered exceptional battery life in the same test. It's also worth mentioning that the AlienFX lights were turned off for the test, so if those had been on the power drain would have been even more substantial. We repeated the tests multiple times so we can only assume that the hardware in the new M14x either consumes more power than the previous generation or there is a driver issue causing excessive power consumption. Still, 151 minutes isn't that much worse than a typical gaming notebook.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
Conclusion
The Alienware M14x R2 is a perfect example of why it's so tough to compete in the gaming PC market. Technology moves so fast that you not only have to make sure you're keeping pace but you have to watch out for what the compeition is doing in the same space.
While Alienware can arguably lay claim to the title of "best 14-inch gaming notebook" the M14x R2 is as thick and heavy as many 15-inch gaming notebooks from other manufacturers ... and those notebooks have better performance. As if that wasn't bad enough, there are thinner, lighter and cheaper 11-inch gaming notebooks available with nearly identical in-game performance and hardware (minus the 1600x900 screen resolution, mSATA drive, and DVD drive).
As it is now, the Alienware M14x R2 finds itself in the dominant position of a small niche in the gaming market. If you're looking for a 14-inch gaming notebook with an awesome design, cool LEDs, lots of storage customization options, and an optical drive then the M14x R2 is the best choice.
That said, the same amount of money can buy a smaller, lighter gaming notebook (if you're willing to sacrifice a few features) or a larger, more powerful notebook (if you're willing to sacrifice portability).