My first four hours with the M17x conjured feelings of being baffled by a vicious Monkey Island puzzle. The bewilderment kicked off with Dead Space -- I noticed that the frame rate was taking a dive whenever the screen flooded with scythe-handed aliens. I chalked it up as a game-related issue because our review unit has an MSRP of $4,669. It’s loaded to the gills with new-age gadgetry, and like all other Alienware products, it’s made specifically with games in mind. But subsequent tests with other games revealed the same chugging. No way, right?
Here’s something fascinating about the M17x laptop: it has three video cards. One of them is an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M. It’s not meant to be the muscle. It’s reserved for mundane tasks so the machine won’t gobble power or run at blitzkrieg speed when Twitter or whatever is due for a glance. The other two cards are integrated and can be accessed through a toggle and a soft restart. I didn’t realize that. Like a fool, I was attempting to play Dead Space and Crysis with the solo card. The solution to the dreadful puzzle was in front of me the entire time -- a regular red herring, if you know what I mean.
The three video cards puzzle solution is a brilliant parallel for what this laptop is all about: profuse power for gaming. Alienware calls this thing the “most powerful 17-inch laptop in the universe,” and barring an alien civilization possessing something better, I’ll tentatively agree with the boast. Here’s why: our review unit is outfitted with an Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad QX9300 2.53 GHz processor with dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280M, 2 GB SLI-enabled video cards. It also packs two 500 GB hard drives, 8 GB of dual-channel RAM, a Blu-ray drive and a host of ports, outputs, and inputs for USB devices, surround sound, and video. Also, it has a cute little web camera mounted on the screen.
In short, it can run Peggle: Deluxe ... in roughly 1,400 separate windows.
Our review unit is almost the best of the best of the current line. Alienware offers other M17x laptops at more competitive prices starting at around $1,729, each with differing amounts of the stuff mentioned above in the specification listing.
On top of the power is a beautiful design. It rivals the alluring simplicity of an Apple product. The M17x is a bulky and heavy thing, but the angular accent at the front end of the unit gives it the illusion of a sleeker appearance. Covered in anodized aluminum with “Lunar Silver” shine, our review unit impresses. The dark matte black on the keyboard and glossy black on the trim around the 1920 x 1,200 screen, as well as the fans in front, enhance the overall appearance. Nerds can roll in style with this.
It also has an LED keyboard, fans, touchpad, and ... power cable. With Alienware's first-party software, you can customize all the lights and literally make the thing look like a Christmas tree.
While making the keyboard and touchpad pink tickles me, I'm not a fan of how either of them feels. The buttons are too big and raised a bit too high for my tastes. The touchpad needs serious work. It has a series of rubber grips that catch the finger and complicate simple movements. The click feedback seems a bit cheap as well.
With that over -- and notice my issues were small -- let’s move on to what this thing does.
We’re not interested in doing traditional benchmark tests or comparing the M17x with other laptops. We’re reviewing this laptop based on its performance with various games. The target audience for this beast is the hardcore gamer who wants (some) mobility without taking a processing or rendering hit. Because we don’t all jump on the latest games, I put together a mix of the top games on the digital download service Steam to test this thing out on. The list of titles includes: BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Dead Space, Cryis, Left 4 Dead, and Street Fighter IV.
Each entry has the same format. I’ll list the screen resolution, the general settings I’ve applied and then the frame rate. Note that I’m pushing every game -- unless I see an issue -- to its highest settings. This is an expensive laptop with a ton of power. Every game runs fine on (generally) “Medium” or below settings. Every screengrab was pulled directly from the game on the settings discussed.
Even Andrew Ryan would be pleased with the laptop’s performance. On 1920 x 1,200 at the highest settings, BioShock moved at a blistering 80-120 frames per second. The only dips were during the very beginning (the fire and water scene) and an epic confrontation with a few clever Splicers. BioShock is a golden oldie, but isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to water effects. Rest assured these look great.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
At 1920 x 1,200, this other golden oldie ran a little jagged on its highest (read: “Normal”) settings until I remembered to click the option for dual video cards and turn down the anti-aliasing to 2x. After that, it ran between 90-100 FPS with frequent dips during real-time loading sections. On the lowest settings it ran like a, uh, very expensive dream.
I’ve been told that Crysis is a terrible bit of software to do a PC benchmark with. Its outrageous ability to still push PCs to the limit after its 2007 release is remarkable, which is why I gave it a spin with the M17x. On the “Very High” settings with 16x8Q anti-aliasing, I was rocking between 19-24 FPS. The turtles and world looked beautiful, but I could almost count the frames when I went to shoot a few island natives. On “High” with 4X anti-aliasing, the game plodded along at a steady 28-30 FPS. On “Medium” with 2X anti-aliasing, it rolled at 45-50 FPS.
I was relieved after discovering that the laptop had three videocards. After the switch, Dead Space ran essentially perfectly. Widescreen (1920 x 1200, of course) makes Isaac look like he has scoliosis, but this curved-back protagonist rocks Necromorphs at a steady 55-60 FPS at the highest settings with a few stumbles when the screen fills. Turning down the anti-aliasing killed even the slightest jerking.
Too bad he doesn’t run faster on the lower settings. I tried.
Left 4 Dead
The M17x peformed the best with this title, hands-down. On the highest settings with a 1920 x 1200 resolution as well as 2x anti-aliasing, I was rocking between 90 and 100 FPS. It didn’t even slip as I tripped car alarms and walked into the middle of several zombie mosh pits.
Street Fighter 4
SF IV runs at a smooth 60 FPS at 1920 x 1200, allowing for complete domination on par with the console experience. I also turned on a variety of different effects and didn't notice a stutter, even when I did forty lariats in a row. Of course, playing the game with a keyboard is complete suicide, so feel free to invest in a joystick before you jump in.
The M17x has a high price tag and weighs as much as a bag of bricks, but I came away from the experience believing it to be one of the best gaming computers I’ve ever used. Obviously, our review unit was tricked out to the max, but even the base model has plenty of power. If you’ve got the cash and are looking for a premium gaming laptop, this thing is definitely worth a look.
Plus, Peggle: Deluxe runs at 100 fps. No other computer in the galaxy can do that.
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