Alienware Area-51 m15x notebook review

When we think of elaborate high-end gaming computers, there is one name that always comes to mind, inevitably it has to be Alienware.

For years Alienware has been producing machines that cater to gamers and enthusiasts desires, coupling some of the industry’s most radical designs with top of the line PC hardware. You could easily spend thousands of dollars in one of these machines, an idea which has not always appealed to the enthusiast crowd, but as a prove of how viable Alienware’s business is, it was acquired by PC manufacturing behemoth Dell in 2006, about ten years after its foundation.

We have been fortunate enough to test some of these computers over the past few years. Back in 2005 we tested the Aurora ALX desktop which prominently carried its Athlon X2 badge, at the time one of the fastest desktop processors on earth. Then in August 2006 we checked out theAurora m9700 gaming notebook, the first notebook to ever use Nvidia’s SLI technology.

Unfortunately as impressive as this looked on paper, the Aurora’s SLI implementation that relied on two GeForce 7900GS graphics cards was crippled by an underpowered processor. At the time the 2.4GHz AMD Turion64 processor was simply not fast enough to push FPS near the level of a desktop system.

 

Since then little has changed on the notebook gaming front, as we are yet to see a product that can deliver an outstanding level of performance, or at least enough to match a moderately powerful gaming desktop PC.

Then there is the issue of heat, which affects all notebook computers, but particularly those intended for gaming. And we have tested quite a few that suffer from stability issues for that reason.

When Alienware introduced the Area-51 m15x we were obviously keen to check it out, while remaining skeptical at the same time. Like past Alienware products the Area-51 m15x specifications are impressive, really impressive, making us even more eager to see how it performs.

Our review sample came configured with the new Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 “Penryn XE” mobile processor and a GeForce 8800M GTX (512MB) graphics card.

In short, this is the combination of the fastest possible mobile CPU and the fastest mobile GPU out there. Of course, this won’t come cheap as the retail value of our review sample was $4770, but as we found when reviewing the Aurora m9700, there is much more to the Area-51 m15x than just impressive specifications (as a side note, Alienware quotes $1,499 as the base configuration price for the Area-51 m15x).

The build quality of a laptop is just as important and this is typically an area where we typically haven’t seen Alienware products falling short. Furthermore, there are details on the inner and exterior design that a product in this price range better have. Having that said, let’s take a closer look…

xternal design
The Alienware Area-51 m15x is an extremely slick looking notebook thanks to the glossy silver paint job. Though the silver “Ripley” lid design is actually quite bland, we still liked it.There is a small alien head on the lid that lights up when powered on, so that’s a nice touch.

Compared to the design of the much older Aurora m9700, it’s clear the direction Alienware has taken with the Area-51 m15x which is more subtle and has less of that “extreme gamer” feel.

Actually there are two available lid designs for the user to choose from. Our sample featured the Ripley design, while the Skullcap design is more like what we saw with the Aurora m9700.

 

 

Unlike many other notebooks that use a glossy surface, the Area-51 m15x doesn’t appear to be a finger mark magnet. The notebook weighs in at just seven pounds and measures 14.55” long, 10.73” wide and 1.30” tall, making it quite compact for a powerful mobile gaming solution.

The lid does not use a latch to keep the laptop locked down, rather the hinges that it is fitted to are very stiff, ensuring that it stays closed. While there is no real problem with this type of design, when opening the lid it was necessary to hold onto the laptop for extra leverage. We also noticed that when opening the lid the Area-51 m15x does tend to make quite a lot of creaking and groaning noises.

At the front of the Area-51 m15x there are no ports or connectors, which is not entirely uncommon for a notebook computer. Now, what had us really puzzled was that when moving around to the rear there were again no ports or connectors! All that we found was the battery and two air-vents on either side of it.

 

Obviously we had to find something on the sides. Moving to the right we found a 7-in-1 card reader and an Express Card port. Further down there is a single HDMI port, which also supports DVI via an optional dongle, along with a single USB 2.0 and Firewire B port.

 

Turning the Area-51 m15x around to the left hand side we have a few more ports along with what Alienware calls the smart bay. The smart bay can be used to mount a number of external devices which include a second battery, an additional hard drive, or an optical drive. There are also two audio ports (headphones and microphones), along with two more USB 2.0 ports, a single Gigabit LAN port, and the power connector.

 

 

 

Flipping the Area-51 m15x over exposes the underbelly where a number of air vents can be found. This notebook also features four large rubber feet that keep it mounted high off the desk to allow sufficient air-flow to pass under it. There is also a cool little plaque that states who the notebook was built for, which is a nice touch, particularly when spending in excess of $1500.

 

The Area-51 m15x comes configured with either a 15.4″ WideUXGA (1920×1200) or 15.4-inch Widescreen 15.4″ WXGA+ (1440×900) LCD supporting Clearview technology. Our sample featured the 1920×1200 screen and this kind of resolution on a 15.4” screen makes using Windows difficult without increasing the text size. However, given this is strictly a gaming notebook, the 1920×1200 resolution will work nicely, particularly when powered by a GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card.

 

This notebook features Alienware’s “AlienFX System Lighting”, part of this is the illuminated keyboard. The AlienFX System Lighting supports several colors, with blue being the default. The configurable lighting zones include the alien head logo on the lid, the Alienware name below the LCD screen, the keyboard, touchpad, QuickTouch controls, and the power button.

 

The keyboard has been nicely set up, we found the keys to be slightly larger than standard as this is a full size keyboard, which made the Area-51 m15x painless to use. The touchpad also looks good, and while it works like any other, we have no complaints about its use either. The screen seemed to be well protected when the lid was closed and avoided being marked by the keyboard, for example.

 

Above the keyboard users will find the power button which is of course a small alien head, the QuickTouch controls for Bluetooth, Wireless, Command Center and Stealth Mode Battery Control. There is also the QuickTouch Volume Control along with a number of indication lights. A 2.0MP web camera has been positioned just above the LCD which blends in nicely.

Internal design
The internal workings of the Alienware Area-51 m15x are fairly typical for that of a 15.4” notebook, though they have managed to make everything fit rather well.The GPU and CPU are cooled separately, though the latter shares its cooler with the Intel GM965 chipset.

The Area-51 m15x can be configured with a number of different CPUs and GPUs, but as previously mentioned our sample came equipped with the fastest possible configuration, which means we get to test in full how well this gaming laptop can perform, and how well does its cooling can keep up, too.

 

Turning the Area-51 m15x upside down, and removing the back plate shows two blower-type fans that are designed to draw cool air in from under the notebook, push it over the heatsinks, where it then exits from the rear.

The fan on the left cools the heatsink that is connected to the CPU and chipset via a single copper heatpipe. The fan on the right side is dedicated to cooling the heatsink covering the GPU, again using a single copper heatpipe.

 

 

Sitting snug between the chipset and GPU are two dedicated SO-DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR2 memory. These memory slots are very easy to access making the installation of additional memory painless. Below the SO-DIMM slots is an internal Intel PRO Wireless 4965 b/g/n mini-card with integrated Bluetooth 2.0 which is part of the standard configuration.

Although the Area-51 m15x is not designed for users to make their own upgrades, we found it quite easy to remove the CPU and GPU. The hard drive, which is located at the front of the notebook, is also easy to remove should you want to upgrade it.

Technically the Area-51 m15x only supports a single internal hard drive, while a second removable drive can be installed into the Smart Bay. Keep in mind that the Smart Bay Swappable hard drive is an optional extra and a 320GB drive will cost an extra $300 from the manufacturer.

 

Finally, in the top right corner of the Area-51 m15x is a removable CMOS battery, along with a rather interesting card.

This little card is called “Intel Turbo Cache Memory” and if you are willing to spend an additional $50 this 1GB memory card is designed to accelerate data transfer speeds. Our fully-equipped sample also carried this card, though we are not entirely convinced that it is necessary. Also to keep in mind, this feature is only supported by Windows Vista.

Standard and optional configurations
The Alienware Area-51 m15x is special in the sense that it is the first and currently the only product to support the GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card and Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor in a 15.4-inch notebook.Due to the obvious thermal issues involved when pairing such high-end hardware together, no other manufacturer has attempted to pull this one off in such a confined space.

Our test system featured Intel’s flagship mobile CPU, the new 45nm Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor, which operates at 2.8GHz, 6MB Cache and 800MHz FSB. However, there are cheaper options to choose from. After all, the Core 2 Extreme X9000 costs an additional $900 over the base processor which is a Core 2 Duo T8100 processor operating at 2.1GHz with a 3MB Cache.

For just $150 it is possible to upgrade this to a Core 2 Duo T8300 processor that works at 2.4GHz. Other options include the Core 2 Duo T9300 at 2.5GHz for $250, or the Core 2 Duo T9500 at 2.6GHz for $525.

Perhaps the next if not the most important component in a gaming laptop is the GPU. The most expensive (and best performing option) is the Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX 512MB graphics card which sets you back ~$500. However, for $350 less it is possible to downgrade to the 8700M GT, while the base model is the 8600M GT, which is the typical GPU offered on powerful yet non-gaming oriented desktop replacement laptops.

 

The default memory configuration is two DDR2-667 512MB modules, for a total of just 1GB. For gaming we wouldn’t recommend anything below 2GB, which will cost $150 extra, while 4GB of memory will cost an incredible $350 more. As mentioned before, for an additional $50 there is also the option to include the Intel Turbo Memory (1GB) card for those running Windows Vista.

There are a myriad of possible storage configuration on the Area-51 m15x, from the base 120GB SATA hard drive that spins at 7200RPM, all the way up to a 500GB drive that gets slowed down to 5400RPM. The largest drive that spins at 7200RPM weighs in at 320GB, featuring a 16MB cache and an extra $275 price tag. There is also a SSD option available, which basically means you get the works as far as configuration goes, no other manufacturer gives you these many options.

Those that wish to include a second removable drive can do so using the Smart Bay feature. There are five possible capacities to choose from a 120GB drive ($150) up to a 500GB ($400) hard drive.

It should be noted however that the Smart Bay comes loaded by default by an 8x dual layer burner in the base configuration. You can upgrade this to a LightScribe drive for a small fee, or exchange it for a dual layer Blu-ray disc reader for $300, or a 2x dual layer Blu-ray burner for $400 extra.

On board there is a 7.1/5.1 digital high-definition integrated audio solution that drives two internal speakers, which were surprisingly good when compared to the average notebook speakers. Still, most gamers are probably going to plug a powerful set of headphones into the Area-51 m15x. That being the case, if the integrated audio does not cut it for you, then spending another $100 on an external Creative X-Fi Xtreme audio card might be the go.

The AlienFX Illuminated keyboard, which we have to say looks very cool, is unfortunately an optional extra for which gamers are required to fork out another $50 (still not too bad).

The standard 15.4” LCD supports a 1440×900 resolution (720p) which may be the best way to go if you want to keep things sane about Windows font settings and overall usage outside gaming. For an extra $150 you can get the higher res panel that provides a native WideUXGA 1920×1200 resolution (1200p) as featured on our review sample.

Notable accessories that you can buy as extras include the HDMI to DVI-D adapter for those wanting to use DVI ($20), and a secondary Smart Bay 6-cell battery that will cost $150.

Test system specs
Anticipating what could be a controversial topic on how we tested and compared the Alienware Area-51 m15x, the fact is there are only a handful of products that come close to the specs offered by this notebook.Having the most powerful mobile CPU and GPU on-board is quite the statement, and given the price range for this product, our reasoning was that the benchmark is no longer to beat other lesser and less expensive notebooks, but see how it compares to desktop PCs carrying up to date processors and a powerful enough graphics cards.

We built three desktop systems for comparison. The first one basically resembles our PC Buying Guide’s recommendation for a budget PC costing ~$800 (Core 2 Duo E7200 & GeForce 9600 GT), while the other two are more powerful quad-core systems that use a GeForce 9800 GTX, and still cost a fraction of the Area-51.

You can see fully detailed specs below, including those of the Alienware system…

 

Alienware Area-51 m15x Notebook PC
– Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 (2.80GHz) LGA775
– 4GB Dual-Channel DDR2 SO-DIMM at 667MHz
– Intel Turbo Memory (1GB)
– 15.4″ WideUXGA 1920 x 1200 LCD (1200p)
– Dual Layer Blu-ray Disc Reader (BD-ROM, DVD±RW, CD-RW)
– Samsung 250GB 7,200RPM (8MB Cache)
– Samsung 320GB 7200 RPM (16MB Cache) Smart Bay
– Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTX (512MB)
– AlienFX Illuminated Keyboard – Exclusive Design
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (32-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Desktop PC
– Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 (2.53GHz) LGA775
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus P5Q Deluxe (Intel P45)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9600 GT (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 Desktop PC
– Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 (2.66GHz) LGA775
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus P5Q Deluxe (Intel P45)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9800 GTX (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)
– Intel System Drivers (9.0.0.1)

 

AMD Phenom X4 9850 Desktop PC
– AMD Phenom X4 9850 (2.50GHz) AM2+
– x2 Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 Module(s)
– Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe (AMD 790FX)
– OCZ GameXStream (700 watt)
– Seagate 500GB 7200RPM (Serial ATA II)
– Asus GeForce 9800 GTX (512MB)
Software
– Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (64-bit)
– Nvidia Forceware (174.74)

Final thoughts
Almost two years after reviewing a flagship notebook like Alienware’s own Aurora m9700 SLI, it seems little has changed in the notebook world if you are a gamer. Although the Area-51 m15x is considerably more powerful than the Aurora, it still suffers from many of the same problems we complained about back then.The performance of the Alienware Area-51 m15x is impressive for a notebook, we will give it that much. However, when compared to a budget desktop gaming system, it did not fair all that well and for the most part it was slightly slower.

As noted before, there are obvious implications on why we shouldn’t be comparing a notebook to a desktop system, but having that said, we feel that the comparison needs to be made.

As we see it, the Area-51 m15x is intended to be a desktop replacement for LAN goers. Rather than packing up your desktop case, LCD screen, keyboard, mouse, and cables, it is much easier and nicer to simply unfold a notebook and get it on.

Unfortunately for gamers this has become a bit of a pipe dream, as most notebooks are grossly underpowered, and those that come close, like the Area-51 m15x, cost a small fortune. This leaves gamers with the obvious choice of an expensive mobile notebook, or an affordable less convenient desktop, and this is a choice you will have to make.

 

Considering that our Core 2 Duo E7200 desktop system costs about $800, I could personally put up with the minor inconvenience of having to carry a bit more hardware to my next LAN.

Since the Area-51 m15x is designed exclusively for gaming, there is something that has me a little baffled. At 15.4” the LCD screen makes reading text a serious chore with the 1920×1200 resolution, and without any tweaks the Windows Vista start button measures just 6mm wide.

This makes me wonder why anyone would want such a powerful 15.4″ notebook. Using the high-performance profile, the notebook drains a single 6-cell battery in under 30 minutes. This is about long enough to boot up the computer, load Unreal Tournament 3, join a game and maybe get in a few kills. Obviously the Area-51 m15x is smaller and lighter than the Area-51 m17x, but at three pounds more are you really going to sacrifice the extra LCD real estate? Another way to go would be keeping the 15.4″ screen but choosing the less expensive WideXGA+ 1440×900 LCD.

The other problem that this smaller design presents affects the cooling as we found the Area-51 m15x to be quite a hot little unit. When at idle the CPU would sit at 51 degrees, the GPU 56 degrees and the HDD 38 degrees. Then when stressed the CPU reached 93 degrees, the GPU 88 degrees and the HDD managed to hit 47 degrees.

Reaching a maximum temperature of 93 degrees for the Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor is not good, and over long periods could potentially damage either the CPU or the motherboard. Although we did not suffer from any problems during the few weeks our testing lasted, this is where a good warranty may have to kick in eventually. Alienware offers a 1-year limited warranty with on-site and 24/7 phone support with the notebook, then a 2 or 3-year extension for an added cost of $200 or $300, respectively.

Battery life is not great, though this is to be expected for any gaming-oriented notebook. Using two 6-cell batteries we got about 55 minutes of gameplay using the high-performance profile, and just under two hours (1:50 minutes) using the not preferred balanced profile – a single battery would last half as long. Also with a single battery installed, the Area-51 m15x lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes when sitting at the Windows Vista desktop.

Alienware is generally known for their excellent build quality, though we found the Area-51 m15x to be a little flimsy for our taste. The LCD screen would flex far more than we would have liked when opening the Area-51 m15x and to make matters worse it sounded like an old wooden ship. Furthermore, our sample had a crack under the webcam, which was no doubt caused by the flexing of the LCD when opening the lid. The rest of the notebook seemed quite solid, with the only apparent weakness being the lid.

Of course, one of the hardest things to look past is the price tag, as our sample configuration cost $4770, and at this price it does not include a carry case or even a mouse. However, a more sensible configuration will cost roughly $2600 by our estimations. This includes the 1920×1200 resolution LCD, Core 2 Duo T8300 processor, GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card, 2GB of DDR2 memory, 160GB 7200 RPM hard drive, and a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate edition.

Overall the Alienware Area-51 m15x is a good gaming notebook, and for those wanting the most compact gaming solution possible, it’s probably one of the best out there. But as we have mentioned, the Area-51 m15x is far from perfect, and while it manages to cram a lot of powerful hardware into a limited space, it does nothing to correct the numerous issues that plague gaming notebooks.

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