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).
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.
- Pretty compact for a gaming laptop
- Solidly built with a smart keyboard
- Did well under productivity tests
- Reasonably capable for gaming
- Can't fully handle some top-end games
- No option for a meatier graphics card