14 March 2009

Alienware M17

CrossFireX laptop deals superior graphics performance

WITH ITS $1,999 PRICE TAG, Alienware's M17 can hardly be considered a budget notebook. But it is reasonably priced compared with the company's higher-end offerings, so you can get capable gaming performance without breaking the bank. Along with the slimmed-down price tag, the M17 also offers some firsts for Alienware's notebook line: ATI's CrossFireX graphics power, DDR3 RAM, and a 64-bit operating system.

The M17 shuns the popular high-gloss finish found on other gaming rigs for a more subtle matte black that has a soft, rubbery feel and is scratch- resistant. Alienware's gills and silver alien head with blue backlighting adorn the lid, which opens to reveal a stunning 1,920x1,200-resolution, 17-inch display. The high-res screen, featuring Alienware's Clearview technology, delivers bold colors and a crisp, clean image, making it ideal for gaming and watching DVDs.

Embedded in the upper bezel, you'll find a 2-megapixel Webcam and dual microphone array. Using CyberLink's YouCam software, you can use the camera to record video, capture snapshots, and add special effects to your clips and photos. The camera is a cut above the usual 1.3-rnegapixel offerings, but its image quality is grainy.

The M17's black keyboard deck is spacious and uncluttered except for a fingerprint reader and a touch sensitive media-control panel. Backlighting (you can turn it off or change colors) gives the full-size keyboard and numeric keypad a cool look and makes controlling the action in the dark easy.

The touch pad and mouse buttons are comfortable and responsive; you can fine-tune their sensitivity—as well as create and select power plans—via the Alienware Command Center. The utility also helps you manage the AlienSense face-recognition application, which works in conjunction with the Webcam. You can configure AlienSense for Face Login as well as Continuous Security, which automatically locks the system when the user's face is out of range of the Webcam.

The camera and software worked quite well together on our tests and had no problem with identification. Audio, however, was disappointing. A pair of speakers mounted on the front edge of the system and a subwoofer built into the bottom provided adequate output, but we expected more bass from the subwoofer.

The choice of connections was much more impressive, including three USB ports, a combo external SATA (eSATA)/USB port, VGA and HDMI video outputs, a Fire Wire port, a Toslink optical audio output, and headphone and microphone jacks. A volume dial is tucked away on the right, and ExpressCard and flash-memory slots are mounted on the left.

Our review unit came with a multiformat DVD burner, but if you want to take full advantage of the high-res display, you can order the optional Blu-ray drive for another $300. The 160GB hard drive comes loaded with Windows Vista Home Premium (64-bit), Cyberlink PowerDVD, and Nero 7 Essentials; you also get a user's guide and an AlienRespawn disc.

Our test system was configured with a 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo P8400 processor and 3GB of RAM. It also came with a dual ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics solution running in a CrossFireX configuration.

In terms of productivity work, the M17 was merely average, turning in a score of 3,502 on Futuremark PCMark Vantage. On our Windows Media and imnes-encoding tests, the M17 turned in scores of 6 minutes and 40 seconds and 4 minutes and 19 seconds, respectively, both of which are among the slowest we've seen for this class of notebook. Results from our Cinebench 10 tests were similar: The M17's score of 4,597 lagged behind the competition.

The M17 shone, however, in graphics performance. Its Futuremark 3DMark Vantage score of 5,752 using the Performance preset blew past the Lenovo ThinkPad W700 workstation, and its Futuremark 3DMark06 score of 10,183 was second only to the Toshiba Qosmio X305. Both of those systems, incidentally, are more than twice as expensive as the M17. The M17's score of 22.2 frames per second (fps) on our Company of Heroes DirectX 10 test was good but couldn't match the Qosmio's score of 31.6fps. It handled the DirectX 9 version of the game with ease, though, averaging 74.9fps.

Battery life was pretty much what we expected from a desktop replacement with a big, high-res screen: 1 hour and 22 minutes on our DVD-rundown test. Chances are you won't be lugging this behemoth around all that much, anyway. A brilliant high-resolution display, solid graphics performance, and a sub-$2,000 price tag make overlooking the M17's laws easy. If you've always dreamed of owning an Alienware Notebook but couldn't justify the exorbitant price, this system is for you. —John R. Delaney

Computer Shopper March 2009


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