Lusting After Alienware's M11xR2

Alienware recently released a revision of the M11x, 11.6" gaming "netbook." The updated model, M11xR2, features a more powerful Intel i5 or i7 processor, as well as NVidia's latest Optimus technology. The old M11x is being liquidated at many retailers, which begs the question - which model is right for you?

Old vs New

There are two main differences between the M11x and the M11xR2: Optimus technology and an optional Intel Core i5/i7 CPU. The R2 starts at a low $800 with a 1.3GHz Core 2 Duo processor overclocked to 1.73GHz, 2GB of DDR3 RAM and NVidia’s 335M graphics card. This is mostly identical to the M11x, except that the R2 has Optimus standard.

Graphics processing in notebooks/netbooks has thus far been like a manual transmission on a car. To conserve power or get better performance, you have shift the graphics processing unit (GPU) on and off yourself through an options menu. Optimus makes your computer into an automatic transmission, with pedal shifters if you’re feeling frisky.

The computer will switch gears, so to speak, so you never have to worry about accidentally leaving the GPU on for simple word processing. As with any automated system, there are downsides. Optimus doesn’t always switch when you might prefer, and perhaps not as efficiently as a human being can, so there is a degree of sacrifice in performance and mileage.

Users who want unconditional control over their netbooks may become aggravated by Optimus and the slightly higher level of battery-drainage, compared to the M11x. Most people simply want their PCs to work though, making it hard to complain about a portable netbook that can play games, still deliver over five hours of battery life, and control the GPU for you.

Put it to the Test

I tested the i7 model with 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD, and it performed marvelously. Running on Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, the M11xR2 bustled along doing just about everything, be it productivity applications like Microsoft Office, watching HD Youtube clips, or playing Metro 2033. The weak point with the original M11x was the CPU, a weak Core 2 Duo which fared well enough for web browsing but suffered when it came to games. With the R2, the weak point is the GPU. Although the 335M will play any of today’s games without breaking a sweat, it is getting outdated.

I played a number of games, including Batman: Arkham Asylum, Metro 2033, Crysis Warhead, Grand Theft Auto IV, Shattered Horizon. Batman ran fine at full spec, though Crysis Warhead and Metro 2033 required adjustments. Even with an overclocked, Intel Core i7 CPU, it was impossible to push either game significantly past medium graphical settings, which is still quite impressive for a netbook.

Options

I recommend upgrading to the i5 or i7 model with at least 4GB of RAM, which should provide another two years of solid performance. The Core 2 Duo may save you $150-$300, but the older chip is significantly weaker and can’t be overclocked as safely as the i5 and i7. The 256GB solid state drive (SSD) will boost performance far beyond the 7200RPM HDDs (250GB, 320GB, or 500GB), but at the cost of $500. At the very least, steer clear of the terrible 160GB 5400RPM HDD.

Alien vs. Alien

The M11x is intended for a specific type of user: someone who wants to be able to game anywhere, without sacrificing too much power and keeping the weight down, size to a minimum and battery life to a maximum. With the other Alienware laptop models, the M15x and M17x (15” and 17” respectively), portability all but flies out the window. Both the M15x and M17x can be more accurately described as desktop replacements than laptops.

Both the M15x and M17x are bigger and bulkier than competing models. Even the M11x is large compared to most 11” netbooks. For the best gaming performance, look towards the M17x, starting at $1800. The M15x starts at $1200, which is actually cheaper than the M11xR2 I tested. Both base models of the M15x and M17x are powerful gaming solutions, but again, at the expense of portability and battery life.

Final Call

Alienware is the first PC gaming company with a mobile solution for every gamer. Even the cheapest model, the M11x at $800, will suffice for most gaming needs. For the small size and weight of the machine, and the excellent battery life, it performs marvelously, though you should invest in the better CPU and more RAM.

Alternatively, if you have cash to spare and ultra-portability isn’t your main concern, you should consider the M15x. It is just small enough to carry around in a bag, unlike the M17x, and much less expensive too.

The M11x and M11xR2 are the best choices for a combination of ultra-portability and performance, with Optimus giving the M11xR2 an edge, even if you think you’re one of those stubborn PC gamers who must control everything.

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James Pikover
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