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Alienware M14x R2 review

Laptops & PCsReviews
7/10
by Matt Safford, 07 Aug 2012Reviews
Alienware M14x R2 review

Until recently, the Alienware M14x was the middle child in the company's gaming laptop line-up, falling between the ultraportable M11x model and the much larger M17x and M18x machines. (The number in the names corresponds to the notebook’s screen size.) That's changed in 2012, however.

With the most recent refresh of these popular gaming laptops, now integrating the latest mobile CPU and graphics technology (namely, Intel's Ivy Bridge processors and Nvidia's Kepler graphics), Alienware decided not to update the little M11x. That leaves the laptop we're looking at here, Alienware's M14x R2, as the company's current-generation entry-level gamer.

With gaming laptops, what's entry-level is relative, of course. The starting price for the M14x R2 is £999, shipping with an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, a GeForce GT 650M graphics chip (based on Nvidia's latest graphics architecture, Kepler), 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive.

As you'd expect from any Dell machine, however, the Alienware M14x R2 is customisable to the max. We looked at a review unit outfitted with a slew of upgrades: A faster Core i7 CPU, a 32GB mSATA solid-state drive (SSD) for faster boot times and game loads (paired with a larger 750GB hard drive), 8GB of RAM, and the same GT 650M graphics chip, but augmented with twice the dedicated memory (2GB). The laptop also had a screen upgrade that bumped up the resolution to 1,600 x 900, as opposed to the £999 model's rather ordinary 720p (1,366 x 768) panel.

All those extras certainly mean a more powerful machine, and they illustrate the level of customisability available in the line. In the case of our test model, though, they also pushed up the price by £345, to £1,344. That edged the machine into the price range of some larger 17-in offerings, such as Alienware's own M17x. For only £50 more than this M14x, you can pick up the equivalent spec on the M17x, but with a step up on the graphics card front (to the GTX 660M), and of course you also get that much bigger display. Chuck in another £60 on top of that, and you can have a full HD 17in screen, rather than 1,600 x 900.

Of course, what you’re losing out on is portability, as the M17x weighs a lot more than the M14x’s 2.9kg. The M14x is certainly a solidly built and impressive system, but it's a bit pricey for what you get when it comes to an upgraded model such as our review machine. So if you’re thinking of beefing things up with the M14x, you might well want to look at the M17x, unless portability is the major concern. The base spec M14x, however, is still considerably cheaper than the base spec M17x (to the tune of £300 less).

Design

If you've seen Alienware's recent laptop designs, the new M14x will look awfully familiar. Just like its larger counterparts, it's available in either "Nebula Red" or "Stealth Black." Both colours feature a soft-feeling finish that's decent at keeping fingerprints at bay, though it's still prone to some smudging.

As always, Alienware's iconic alien head logo lives on the outer lid, and another doubles as the power button on the inside, above the keyboard. While the design here isn't new, we like the look for a gaming machine – the branding isn’t subtle, but it leaves no doubt what this laptop is intended for and who made it. The build quality of the chassis feels quite solid, with one exception: The glossy plastic panel that protects the LCD screen feels a bit flimsy. (We'd prefer glass). In addition, the screen surface is more prone to glare and reflections than we'd like.

Also, don't let the 14in screen (the typical display size for what we classify as "midsize" or "thin-and-light" laptops) fool you: This is a hefty laptop for its size. It might be light compared to the 4.3kg M17x, but 2.9kg is still a lot to lug around. Plus, these days, when ultrabooks are edging toward half-an-inch thickness, the M14x's 1.5in height won't win it any love from consumers eyeballing svelte laptops. Of course, the Alienware is certainly a more powerful computer than the average ultrabook. But just know that there's nothing thin or light about the M14x – or gaming laptops in general, for that matter.

Like previous Alienware laptops (as well as much of the gaming laptop competition these days), the M14x R2 comes equipped with customisable chassis and keyboard lighting. From within the laptop's lighting interface (the Alienware Command Centre), you can choose from 19 different backlight colours and apply them to nine different zones on the body, including four on the keyboard, the ring around the touchpad, and lights on either side of the front edge of the laptop. You can also customise how they change: For example, you can specify that they switch colours or blink on their own, or even signal when you receive new e-mail.

To be sure, plenty of people would call these lighting possibilities gaudy – and it's definitely easy to achieve an impressively ugly concoction if you configure every zone to a different colour – but if you don't like the lights here, you can switch them off. Then again, the body lighting is a big part of what makes an Alienware laptop unique, and it's hard to argue with customisability when it comes to aesthetics. We suspect many gamers would appreciate being able to, say, switch all the lights to red when playing Diablo III, and change to something less sinister, like white, when playing Portal 2.

Getting past the pretty lights to the laptop's ports, there's a lot to like, especially for a laptop of this size. The left edge houses a trio of video-out ports, in the form of VGA, HDMI, and mini-DisplayPort. Also on that side is a trio of audio jacks (headphone, mic, headset), and an always-appreciated flash-card reader slot. Also on this side is a single USB 2.0 port that's powered even when the system is asleep or off, handy for charging gadgets.

On the right side sits a pair of speedier USB 3.0 ports, the ethernet port, a Kensington-style cable-lock slot, and the opening for the slot-loading optical drive. In our review unit, the drive was a standard DVD burner; you can upgrade to a Blu-ray drive for a hefty £140 extra. Bear in mind, though, that the 14in screen (even our upgraded one) isn't 1080p, so unless you usually connect your laptop to a 1080p HDTV, you won't get the best possible resolution from your Blu-ray discs.

On the front, two lighted grille areas give the design some extra retro-future flair. Note that they're purely decorative. They may look like air intakes, but the real intakes on the M14x are found on the laptop's underside.

Features

As we noted in our Introduction section, our review unit shipped with an upgraded 1,600 x 900 resolution screen. The resolution boost was a £40 upgrade over the standard 1,366 x 768 option. We'd recommend this upgrade, particularly if you plan to use your laptop fairly regularly for web browsing and productivity as well as gaming.

Just as with the larger M17x, the M14x R2's LCD panel is bright and crisp, with no major viewing angle issues. As we’ve already mentioned, though, the glossy plastic overlay on top of the screen may add some protection against damage, but it also introduces some serious glare and reflection issues. If you're gaming in a room that's well-lit by the sun or overhead lights, expect to spend some time finding just the right angle to minimise reflection related distractions.

Moving on to the input devices, we found little to complain about here. Because of the machine's size, no separate number pad is present, but the keys aren't cramped, and they offer a pleasing amount of resistance and travel, without feeling stiff. We did detect some keyboard flex when typing, but because the rest of the laptop feels so solid, it didn't bother us much. If you're looking for a game-ready laptop that can double as a productivity machine for banging out term papers or TPS reports, the M14x, or any current-generation Alienware laptop, should be on your short list. Their keyboards are much more pleasing than the shallow key-toting affairs found on most ultrabooks, or the cramped confines of most netbook keyboards.

While most users will opt for a traditional mouse when playing a game, the M14x's touchpad is a solid performer for those times when you aren't gaming. It supports multi-touch gestures like pinching to zoom and rotating photos, though you'll have to enable the features first by digging around in the software settings. Once we enabled them, we found that they worked pretty well, though Apple laptops still have an edge when it comes to touchpads and navigation. The M14x's mouse buttons are separate from each other, as well as from the touchpad itself, which facilitates easy left and right clicking.

Configuration options

We’ve already discussed the M14x R2's configuration options to some extent earlier on, but we'll add here that our review unit was also upgraded to a gaming-centric Killer Wireless-N 1202 Wi-Fi chip, which was £15 extra over the standard Intel Centrino wireless chip. If you're very serious about your gaming, and want to be sure your hardware isn't contributing to your fragging failures, you might want to consider the Killer chip. Most users, however, will likely find they can live without it. Bluetooth 4.0 is also on board the M14x.

The Alienware laptop has four Intel processor options, all of them current-generation (Ivy Bridge) offerings. The dual-core Core i5-3210M chip that comes in the base model should be fine for those mostly concerned with gaming. The quad-core Core i7-3610QM in our review unit is better for productivity, a bit faster when it comes to single-threaded applications, and not that much pricier at an extra £60. If you're really convinced you need as much speed as you can get (say, for high-end video editing or other fully threaded tasks), you can step up to a Core i7-3820QM CPU with a maximum clock speed of 3.7GHz, but that will add a wallet-frightening £490.

Other upgrade options at the time of purchase include adding up to 16GB of RAM (£200 extra) or opting for one or even two SSDs. (The latter would be configured in a RAID array for either extra speed or data redundancy.) Again, though, these boosts can be pricey. For example, stepping up to purely solid-state storage can add as much as £830 to the asking price.

As far as graphics go, your options are surprisingly limited, considering that this is a gaming laptop. The constraints are likely due to the size of the laptop and the limited space for heat dissipation. You can opt for the GeForce GT 650M in either a 1GB flavour (that's what you get in the base model) or a 2GB one for £50 more. (That's what came in our review unit.) Both chips are midrange options in Nvidia's line-up, with more powerful GT 660, 670, 675, and 680 mobile variants outpacing them further up Nvidia's current GPU line.

The larger Alienware laptops offer much more powerful graphics options, and the M14x seems limited in comparison. Of course, with a lower resolution screen than the 1080p panels found on larger laptops, the M14x R2 has fewer pixels to push, so its graphical demands aren't quite as heavy. But, as we'll see in testing, some of today's games can push this laptop pretty close to the limits of smooth playability.

Productivity and media performance

In our test configuration, the M14x is certainly impressive for its size, especially when it comes to productivity performance. It can't always compete with pricier, higher-end 17in gaming laptops, nor should it have to. But because the M14x is a bit of an unusual screen size for a gaming laptop, when it comes to testing, we’ll be comparing it with last year's smaller M11x, as well as a £2,100 configuration of the new M17x R4 we’ve previously used (boasting a Core i7-3720QM processor and a GeForce GTX 680M graphics solution). Finally, we’ll also pit it against MSI's GT70 0NC, a slightly more modest £1,600 machine that also sports a 17in screen, and is powered by a Core i7-3610QM and a GeForce GTX 670M.

Again, we didn't expect the M14x R2 to keep pace with those big machines, given its smaller size and £1,344 price in our configuration. But, as we'll see, it did pretty well in some areas, while falling well behind in others.

Running PCMark Vantage, the M14x recorded a score of 11,399, blowing away last year's smaller M11x which achieved half of that (5,649). It also pretty much kept pace with the big 17in boys, well, certainly the GT70 which posted a score of 13,653, with the M17x hitting 15,152. Clearly, the M14x is up to the task when it comes to everyday productivity.

The Cinebench 10 3D rendering test showed the M14x right up there on a score of 21,309, compared to the M17x’s 23,384, and it beat out the GT70’s 20,848. The M11x was way behind on 5,425.

Our Windows Media Encoder benchmark, where a 3 minute video is converted to DVD quality, saw the M14x right up there with the M17x and GT70 once again. It took 1 minute and 47 seconds, just a second slower than the GT70, and not far off the M17x’s time of 1 minute and 38 seconds. The M11x took over 5 minutes.

Gaming performance

As you saw on the previous page, the M14x R2 held its own during our productivity and CPU-centric tests. Gaming, however, is where the M14x showed its limitations. It's certainly a capable gamer, and the notebook will be able to handle many of today's demanding titles at maximum settings. But the GeForce GT 650M graphics chip, even with the 2GB memory upgrade in our configuration, is still a midrange offering, so some game titles will require you to dial back the details to achieve smooth frame rates.

3DMark 11 is an obvious place to start, and the M14x benched 3,654 on the Entry setting, 2,259 on the Performance setting, and 754 on Extreme. It wasn’t too far behind the GT70, which scored 4,973, 2,977 and 926 respectively, but the M17x left it for dust with scores of 9,237, 6,048 and 2,083. That’s to be expected, though, seeing as the tested configuration of the M17x costs £750 more. Overall, this is a decent performance from the M14x, it’s just a real shame there isn’t the option to step up the graphics card on the notebook, as that would really make quite a difference.

The lack of better chip options is especially disappointing because when it comes to real-world testing, the M14x R2's performance has some limitations when dealing with the toughest titles.

In our Just Cause 2 benchmark, which tests real-world, real-game DirectX 10 performance, the M14x R2 easily stayed in playable frame rate territory, averaging 52.4 frames per second (fps). That equalled the GT70 which hit 53 fps, but do note we were testing at the native resolution of the laptop’s panel, so the M14x was running at 1,600 x 900 compared to the MSI notebook’s 1,920 x 1080. In other words, the GT70 had more graphical kick, with more work to do. The M17x showed true power, and even at full HD it pulled 95 fps out of the hat. The older M11x managed just 29.6 fps.

Then we rolled out the DirectX 11 Heaven (v1.0) benchmark test, one of the most demanding gaming tests we run. The M14x struggled, dipping to 23.6 fps, which is below the traditional 30 fps threshold for reasonably smooth gaming. Again, it was almost level with the GT70’s 24.7 fps, but the latter was pushing more pixels at its higher full HD resolution. The M17x achieved an impressive 44.9 fps at full HD, whereas the M11x bumbled along at 12.1 fps.

Things weren't any better for the M14x when it came to testing with Aliens vs. Predator, the most punishing test title we use, and another that runs under DirectX 11. In that test, the M14x only managed 22.4 fps at its native 1,600 x 900 resolution.

What does all this tell us? Even in our amped-up test configuration, the M14x R2 will struggle, in some cases, to run the most demanding games on the market at its native resolution with in-game detail levels set to high. That will become increasingly common as newer, more graphically exacting titles become available later this year and beyond.

We don't consider that to be a major failure, given the laptop's price and its compact nature, and if those things are more important to you than the highest detail settings, it's a fair sacrifice for portability. But we still wish Alienware had found a way to offer a more powerful graphics chip as an option. As it stands, there's no way to configure the M14x to be a true high-end gaming performer. To do that, you'll have to step up to the larger M17x.

Battery life

Battery life is one area where the M14x R2's smaller size and lower-end graphics helped it shine. In our battery rundown test, in which we play a DVD movie on a loop until the battery dies, the M14x outlasted the 17in gaming machines.

It powered to a time of 3 hours and 56 minutes, beating out the GT70 which lasted 3 hours and 13 minutes, and the M17x which managed 2 hours and 48 minutes.

Don't expect close to four hours of battery life from the M14x if you’re gaming the whole time, of course, but there's no denying you'll get more time away from the mains with the M14x than with many larger-screened gaming laptops. That's a good thing, considering the battery is sealed in place with this model. You can't swap it for another one, as is the case with the larger M17x R4.

Verdict

There's certainly a lot to like about the Alienware M14x R2 in terms of portability, its productivity performance, and the build quality. It also has a great keyboard for a gaming rig, and it starts out at a relatively modest £999. That’s all well and good, but the machine’s gaming performance is limited by its sole-option Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics (albeit in either 1GB or 2GB variations). The laptop’s performance is good enough for high-end gaming today, but on some titles you'll have to dial back some settings or drop the resolution a bit.

And with our review machine configuration weighing in at £1,344, we feel that the M14x R2's asking price is a bit steep for what’s inside the machine. Certainly compared to what you get with a slightly upgraded M17x, for only around a hundred quid more (namely, a better GT 660M graphics card, and a bigger, full HD resolution display). Of course, the M17x is hardly very easy to lug around…

So, if you're looking for a machine that's capable of serious gaming (with some acceptable limitations) while also remaining fairly portable, the M14x R2 is a good option, especially if you want a quality keyboard and loud speakers for those times when you aren't gaming.

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