Sunday, 3 June 2012

Hardware: Alienware M18x Gaming Laptop

I've been using the M18x for the last 6 months. That time has spoiled me, particularly because I've been able to play so many games on it. It's to the point that even if there's a menial computing task I need to do, like posting this review, I'll use the M18x rather than my seemingly limp desktop PC (which is equiped with a Zotac GeForce GTX 560Ti). My desktop PC is fine and dandy and should serve for another couple of years when it comes to gaming, but with the M18x it's like having access to a flying sports car. I'd rather be driving/flying it than driving my reliable road-based mini-van.

Even before I played anything on the M18x, I was impressed with the way the unit looks. The screen is huge and gorgeous, the keyboard lights up in various user-assigned colours (which sounds ridiculous that this would be a feature but it's an extra that doesn't go unnoticed by anyone looking at the unit), it just looks cool. The kind of cool that not only says "expensive!" but also "fast!"

Then there's playing the games. For the record I've played:
Cranking the detail settings for the likes of Arkham City, Saints Row: The Third, and Crysis could bog the framerate down into the mid-teens depending on what was happeneing onscreen. Dialing the detail back a notch solved the issue. While that may sound counter-intuitive -- hey man, I just paid $2,000 for a laptop (more on that ridiculous notion later), I want it to run everything with maxed-out settings -- it's hard not to be impressed at the amount of detail, graphical glitz and sharpness, and solid framerate such a minor tweak can provide.

Some of the differences between "max" and a notch below are only noticeable if a side-by-side screenshot comparison is done. That's not something anyone, except those reviewing the performance of the M18x, will do. While playing, who would notice that the game's running at 4X MSAA rather than 8X MSAA?

Keep in mind that this was with the "stock" unit. Some options like the SSD hard drive and increased RAM (both installed at extra cost) would undoubtedly afford a little extra horsepower to (potentially) keep up the framerates on the most graphically intense titles.

That's the best part of the M18x. Game developers spend thousands of man hours on each game they produce to look awesome and the M18x allows all those details to combine to something that is spectacular to look at. Case in point: I become addicated to F12 while playing games through Steam. If I didn't have Fraps running in the background to take screen grabs automatically, I'd be reaching with my pinky to press F12 about every 30 seconds. And that's not a habit that has waned over the last 6 months.

Calling the M18x a laptop is stupid. In form it's a laptop, sure -- the screen closes like a lid -- but it's really a desktop replacement. Besides the obvious PC power it represents, it's also a heavy all-in-one entertainment unit.

Besides an HDMI out port, it also features an HDMI in port. I played Mass Effect 3 (on Xbox 360) almost entirely through the M18x. The only issue I ever noticed was a slight flicker of the screen when nothing was being displayed.

This feature was of particular use for me since there's only one TV in my house. If my wife wants to watch The Cosby Show, it poses no problems to play some console games. And because I sit closer to the M18x than the TV, the effective size of the screen is actually much larger than the 30" TV we have.

The included optical drive is Blu-Ray (and DVD compatible) so you're set for movies as well.

I've decided that part of the bulk of the M18x has to be connected to the sound system packed into the unit. The payoff is good. It has a slight tinny quality but even when it was turned to the maximum setting I wasn't getting the kind of distoration and ear-bleeding pops I might have expected. Besides, with an array of options for headphones these days, it renders the point moot.

Six months has given me time to identify the downsides of the M18x.

The first, is that it's heavy. And big. (This took me seconds to figure out.) The M18x is not something you'd want to tote around for any length of time due to the weight. And good luck finding a carrying case for the darn thing. If this makes any sense, it's easily transported but not that portable.

Without being plugged in, I was able to run down the battery in about 30 minutes playing Skyrim with the settings close to maxed out. For non-gaming tasks, there's a feature that allows the user to turn all that extraneous hardware off, which extends the battery life dramatically. The external power supply is relatively big and I ran into a issue a few times where the plug that runs into the power supply came loose and fell out. I chaulk this up the fact multiple people have had their hands on this review unit. It boils down to checking the connections after the unit has been moved because if it's stationary (i.e. on a desk) there's no problem.

The M18x runs hot. I don't think it could light anything on fire, but it certainly gives off a lot of heat. Having it on my lap certainly warmed up my legs, so I'd recommend a well-ventilated flat surface to use it.

And that about sums up the complaints, which are entirely predictable.

At a base price of $2,000 buyers are getting a lot of PC power with a great amount of flexibility when it comes to overall use. It's a competitive gaming machine but it's also a great tool for productivity (be sure to mention this to your significant other) and other entertainment purposes. The form factor is larger than a laptop but as a replacement for a desktop PC that allows this kind of flexibility, the M18x is worth checking out.

- Aaron Simmer

Complete Specs:

3rd Generation Intel® Core™ i7-3610QM processor (6MB Cache, up to 3.3GHz w/ Turbo Boost 2.0)

Operating System
Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium, 64bit

18.4 inch (467.36 mm) WLED WideFHD (1080p) display (1920 X 1080)

8GB6 DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz

Hard Drive
500GB 7,200 RPM SATA 3Gb/s

Video Card

1 Year Basic Service Plan

Primary Battery
96WHr 12-Cell Primary Battery