Review Alienware Area-51 m15x Gaming Notebook
The empire strikes back.
Alienware announced a compact high performance notebook a long time ago. But although it was already available in the USA for quite a while, it is just now finally coming to Europe. The Area-51 m15x notebook makes Alienware the first producer that offers a 15" gaming notebook with a 8800 GTX graphics card and Intel Core 2 extreme processor. This is also the current maximum of what's possible in the compact multimedia class.
Compared with other Alienware models we tested so far, the Area-51 m15x looks very simple and discreet, at least as long as the various LED lights aren't activated. The display lid and the base unit are kept in a silver-grey plastic frame. We especially liked the seamless workmanship of this part, which creates a compact impression of the notebook.
The geometrical and simple shape perfectly fits the colour scheme. The most outstanding details are firstly the two openings on the left and right of the keyboard, which contain the loud speakers, and secondly the central display hinge. But the Area-51 m15x becomes the center of attention only after turning on the LED illumination. The LEDs are very effective due to the unobtrusive case design, especially if other light sources are dimmed.
One can tweak the illumination of the Area-51 m15x with the Alien FX Lightning software in the command center. Various different colours or separate areas can be chosen for the light effects. The laptop distinguishes different areas of illumination, like the light pipe around the display in the shape of a small gap that emits light, the illumination of the hot keys, as well as the touch pad and keyboard. Our test sample had a keyboard without illumination however.
Another interesting gadget to personalise the m15x is the aluminum plate on the bottom of the notebook, on which up to 23 characters chosen by the soon to be owner, are engraved by laser. The text is translated into alien characters and also added to a foil which is put on the touch pad.
Ah yes, don't forget the well known alien face on the display lid, which is illuminated as well. It starts to pulsate if the notebook is put into standby mode, which is also called "breathing" by Apple. The Alienware m15x unfortunately fails to do this smoothly, so that it looks more like it is clearing it's throat.
We also had to clear our throat on closer inspection of the case, which makes a compact and robust impression at first due to the design, but clearly disappoints in the actual test. Holding the notebook, lifting it, or applying a bit of pressure, always results in creaky noises, which seem to be the norm with the m15x. Especially bad in this regard are the display and display hinges.
Although the display is with 12 millimeter not exactly slim, it seems to be very susceptible to any kind of pressure or twisting. Just opening and closing the display is apparently already too much for the notebook and results in loud creaking and squeaking. Furthermore, deformations and even colour changes on the display are noticeable.
The hinge itself failed to make a good impression as well. Even though the resistance while adjusting the display is acceptable, the noise it creates and the wobbling of the display after it is put into the desired position is clearly not. Considering it is a compact notebook, which can be carried around, those problems are rather serious.
Especially the creaking noises while working with the notebook overshadow the impression of the m15x. The only average haptics of the plastic parts also fail to change this fact. The low quality is particularly hard to understand if one considers the current price of the Alienware Area-51m15x in our configuration of 2.799.- Euro.
The front and the back side of the notebook stay clear of connections. On the front right side of the notebook is a card reader (7in1) followed by an ExpressCard slot (54mm). Both slots are closed by well shaped flaps. Rubberplugs or plastic dummies are thus unnecessary.
Further back is a HDMI port, which allows a full digital transfer of image and video data. After that comes an USB 2.0 port and a Firewire 1394b (9-Pin) interface, which is a bit unusual for notebooks. Completely at the back is a Kensington lock.
The left side of the m15x is occupied by the power supply, LAN port, two USB 2.0 ports and audio connections (microphone, earphones). All those ports were located at the back half of the left side, which concentrates various cables and prevents annoying cable tangle. The Area-51 m15x has thus not only an extensive enough interface equipment, but also very good alignment of the available ports.
The DVD multi drive is located on the left side on the front. The SmartBay slot could also be equipped with another optical drive, like for example a Blu-Ray drive . Another possibility would be to put an additional hard disk or battery into the SmartBay slot of the m15x.
As opposed to other drives, the Optiarc AD-5540AD doesen't have a reject button on the drive itself. Instead, it can be opened with the key combination FN+F8.
The m15x has also various integrated communication modules. The gaming notebook offers a Gigabit Ethernet module made by Broadcom for fast transfers over local networks, as well as a wireless LAN card by Intel, standard4965AGN. A Bluetooth 2.0 module provides wireless communication with various extra devices.
Alienware offers only a Kensington lock regarding security, but at least this allows to fix the notebook to a table or other heavy items on LAN parties, to prevent thieves from stealing the notebook.
Included in the shipment of our Alienware m15x test sample was a small leathercase containing the rather short user manual, a thin protection cover, recovery and driver CD, as well as Nero 7 Essentials. Further included was a mouse pad in Alienware design made by Func, which turned out to be very suitable for gaming in our tests (in combination with a Logitech MX510 mouse).
The Alienware Area-51 m15x offers a standard keyboard without additional number pad, which is not surprising for a 15.4 inch notebook. The lack of layout experiments, 18x18mm standard keys and the generous enter and space keys, make typing intuitive and adjustments unnecessary.
Typing on the keyboard, which offered a soft stroke and good resistance, was very pleasant as a result. Another positive feature is the quiet typing. The keyboard was also robust, even punctual pressure didn't cause much deformation of the keyboard unit, which is especially handy when playing fast games that often lead to strong pressure on single keys in the heat of the moment.
The individual keys seem a bit overloaded, because of the coloured border every key has, which emit light on models with integrated keyboard illumination (38.- Euro extra).
The touch pad is optically very well integrated into the look of the Alienware m15x. It is evenly built into the surrounding case and offers a single continuous touch pad button. The main weakness of the pad is the smooth surface. Alienware included two stickers with rough surface with the notebook that can be put on the touch pad, in order to improve handling. Most users will probably prefer the rough surface, which leads to the question why the pad wasn't equipped with that surface from the beginning.
Compared with the original surface, handling was clearly better after putting the sticker on the touch pad.
The single touch pad key was apparently also produced to please the eye, and not to be user friendly. The continuous button has a very large dead area in the middle (about a third of the total width!), and can only be pressed properly on the left and right edges. We thus highly recommend to use an external mouse, which should be the not a question for a real gamer anyway.
A touch sensitive panel above the keyboard of the m15x provides additional control of the notebook. The term "touch sensitive" is in our opinion not very accurate however, because the symbols require the finger to rest on them for a rather long time to actually react.
Especially annoying in this regard is the adjustment of the volume. A lot of patience is required to get the desired volume.
Alienware currently offers two different displays for the 15.4 inch models. They differ in supported resolution and type of display surface. The choice is between a 1440x900 pixel WXGA+ display with ClearView technology (glossy surface) and a 1920x1200 pixel WUXGA display with matte surface and HD compatible resolution.
Our test sample was equipped with the high resolution WUXGA display (LPL1801) and was instantly loved because of it's non reflecting surface. This is unfortunately rare, since multimedia notebooks hardly ever offer matte surfaces. It is thus impressive that Alienware went against the common trend, and offers their high end display with an eye friendly surface.
Fears that the matte display might not be able to compete with glossy displays regarding brightness, colours or contrast, quickly disappeared after a couple of tests. The WUXGA display achieved a very good maximum brightness of 191.3cd/m2 in the central display area. The illumination of the panel is with 87.6% significantly above average.
The measured minimum brightness (black value) of the display was 0.37cd/m2. This, together with the maximum brightness of 191.3cd/m2, resulted in a maximum possible contrast of good 517:1 . Subjectively, the display is always sharp and with good contrast.
Rather untypical for a gaming notebook, but possible nonetheless, is the outdoor use of the Alienware Area-51 m15x . The dim display surface and the high brightness of the display allow outdoor usage with proper image quality.
The dim WUXGA display offers enough viewing angle stability in vertical and horizontal direction for a sufficiently large working area. The image does hardly change even if the horizontal viewing angle is very flat. Deviations from the optimal viewing angle in vertical direction have a bigger effect however, and overshadowing of the display happens quickly if the viewing angle gets flatter. But this shouldn't be much of a problem in stationary use.
Video: viewing angle of the display
Alienware praises the Area-51 m15x to be the first 15" notebook with Geforce 8800M GTX graphics. This is correct, but it is very likely that other producers will follow soon. Clevo for example, exhibited a 15.4" model at the last Cebit, which is planned to be equipped with a Geforce 8800 graphics card. We look forward to a direct competitor to the m15x, but it will play in a separate class until then.
The hardware of the Area-51 m15x reads like the wish list of a gamer to Santa Claus: nVIDIA Geforce 8800M GTX with 512MB GDDR3 video memory and Intel Core 2 Extreme processor with 2.8GHz and 6MB L2-cache are the fastest possible configuration of the m15x. This not only marks the top components of the m15x series, it is also the maximum possible performance of 15.4" notebooks. No series notebook is currently available that matches the performance of the Area-51 m15x.
A first glimpse at the impressive performance gives the 3D Mark benchmark tests. 15805 points in 3D Mark 05 and 9217 points in 3D Mark 06, catapult the Alienware notebook to the top. Even the former top dog in the ranking, the Dell XPS M1530, has to content itself with the second place far behind the m15x.
This result is not very surprising, and a comparison with various all-round multimedia notebooks seems almost pointless . The Alienware Area-51 m15x is a high performance machine, which would sacrifice everything in favor of performance. This idea was also applied when choosing the hard disk : A Hitachi (HTS722020K9A300) with a speed of 7200r/min and a capacity of 200GB. The most outstanding feature is of course it's performance. In the HDTune test it achieved excellent transfer rates of up to 70.5MB/sec and an exceptionally low access time of only 15.2ms. This result makes the hard disk one of the best of it's class.
The m15x uses both available memory slots for RAM, which can hold up to 4096MB and supports dual-channel mode. Our test sample contained two 1024MB DDR2 PC5300 memory modules. Additionally, a Intel Turbo Cache module is available.
Apart from all the pushing to achieve maximum performance, the m15x also has a very interesting feature: The user can switch between the Geforce 8800M GTX and an integrated Intel graphics chip (BinaryGFX), by simply pressing the key combination FN+F7. Even though this makes a system restart necessary, it gives all the benefits of an integrated graphics card, like significantly lower temperatures, and thus quieter fans, as well as much lower energy consumption.
The performance of the test sample convinces in the PCMark 2005 benchmark test as well. The m15x moves with 7669 points ahead to the top of the multimedia class once more. But that is not all. Even performance giants like for example the Dell XPS M1730 (still with Merom processor) are beaten by the m15x in this test. The main reason is the powerful Core 2 Extreme processor, which is fully utilised in this test.
This result is supported by the Cinebench R10 benchmark test. The Alienware Area-51 m15x manages top results in rendering and shading again. Actually, the Alienware m15x could also be used professionally for graphics and calculation intensive applications, but it's main strength will always be games.
|3DMark 2001SE Standard||37829 points|
|3DMark 03 Standard||30307 points|
|3DMark 05 Standard||15805 points|
|3DMark 06 Standard||9217 points|
|PCMark 05 Standard||7669 points|
|Shading 32Bit||5174 Points|
|Rendering Multiple CPUs 32Bit||5818 Points|
|Rendering Single 32Bit||3072 Points|
Probably the most important advantage of the Alienware m15x is the performance when running current games - at least this is what Alienware says. We obviously take this announcement as an invitation to immediately test Crysis performance on the Alienware m15x.
The Area-51 m15x provided a good impression of it's performance. With a resolution of 1024x768 pixel and medium details, it achieves about 45 frames per second (fps) in the benchmark. Increasing the resolution to high details lets the result drop to below 30 fps. When playing the first single player level with 1024x768 and high details, it ran with 20 - 40 frames per second . The game was playable, but had frequent frame drops.
The m15x also achieved good results in the performance test of the real time strategy game World in Conflict with medium details (DirectX9). It managed an average of smooth 47 fps even on the maximum resolution of 1920x1200 pixels.
Changing to DirectX10 on the other hand, puts even the well equipped Alienware m15x under pressure. While it manages acceptable 31 frames per second with a 1024x768 resolution, it drops to 19 fps in native resolution (1920x1200).
This result changed in the practical test of a multiplayer game (2 vs. 2, map Seaside), which was sufficiently playable with 20-40 fps, despite DirectX10 and native resolution. But for LAN battles with more opponents it would be a good idea to reduce the resolution or detail level.
A mandatory test candidate is of course also the currently very popular multiplayer first person shooter Call of Duty 4 - Modern Warfare . The practical test of the first single player mission with a resolution of 1024x768, anti-aliasing deactivated, other settings on default, resulted in frame rates between 50 and 90 fps.
An increase of the resolution to 1920x1200 pixel reduced the frame rates slightly to 40-90 fps. But even with those settings the game was smoothly playable and looked excellent.
The Alienware Area-51 also successfully passed the Unreal Tournament 3 practical test. The observed frame rate (map Heat-Ray, details standard - level3) with a resolution of 1024x768 and native resolution of 1920x1200, stayed between 60-65 fps. Only an increase of the details to level 6 (world and textures), slowed the frame rate a bit down to 40-60 fps. But the game is still smoothly playable with those frame rates.
Our last test sample was Supreme Commander - Forged Alliance. In the practical test of the real time strategy game we played a four player multiplayer game with a resolution of 1024x768 and medium details, and observed a frame rate of 25-30 fps. The game was even with the maximum resolution of 1920x1200 pixel with 20-25 fps playable.
Note: Various forums discuss currently about a Bios update of the m15x, because the first m15x notebooks that appeared in the USA had apparently problems with heat sensors, which caused performance drops.
Our test sample already had the Bios version vX30P3, which should fix the issues and we also didn't notice anything during the game tests. Just in case some users still have problems, Alienware offers another Bios update to version X32RC1. For more info and download, go here.
Depending on how the Area-51 m15x is run, it has two completely different noise levels. In office mode with little load it is possible to run it virtually silent. Two options make this possible: Either the stealth mode, which lowers performance of the m15x and can be activated by pressing a hot key above the keyboard, or by switching from powerful Geforce graphics card to the slow integrated Intel graphics chip. These options significantly reduce the noise level during undemanding tasks like internet surfing or typing, to quiet 32.8dB(A), which is an excellent result.
This quietness quickly changes to loud fan noise under load without any attempt to reduce performance and activated 8800M GTX graphics. The noise level of the m15x ranges, depending on game or application, from 43.3 dB(A) up to a maximum of 50.6 dB(A) if both cores and graphics card work at the limit. The fan noise can be described as unpleasant loud at this point. But gamers will probably be able to ignore the fan screaming, considering the performance the notebook offers.
32.8 / 34.2 / 37.6 dB(A)
||35.7 / dB(A)|
||43.3 / 50.6 dB(A)|
min: , med: , max: (15 cm distance)
The surface temperature also reflects the performance of the Area-51 m15x. Although the upper side of the base stays with 43.4°C at reasonable levels, the situation looks different on the bottom side around the central area, which heats up to a very hot maximum of 51.4 °C. It is thus important to always put the notebook on a flat and solid surface to guarantee proper airflow, especially if the notebook is often under load.
(±) The maximum temperature on the upper side is 43.4 °C / 110 F, compared to the average of 40 °C / 104 F, ranging from 21.6 to 68.8 °C for the class Gaming.
(-) The bottom heats up to a maximum of 51.4 °C / 125 F, compared to the average of 42.8 °C / 109 F
(±) The palmrests and touchpad can get very hot to the touch with a maximum of 36.4 °C / 97.5 F.
(-) The average temperature of the palmrest area of similar devices was 28.9 °C / 84 F (-7.5 °C / -13.5 F).
The m15x offers two speakers, located on the left and right above the keyboard, which produce clear sound. Although we wished for a bit more sonority and more bass for music replay, the sound quality is sufficient.
Although mobility isn't so important for a gaming notebook like the Alienware m15x, it is actually capable of mobile use away from the power plug as long as only undemanding applications are used.
Important in this regard, apart from acceptable case size and weight, is the battery life. The m15x has an ace up it's sleeve that helps a lot - the option to switch to integrated graphics. The test of the maximum possible battery life (BatteryEater readers test) shows the difference: While the notebook runs for only 138 minutes with activated Geforce 8800M GTX graphics, despite having all energy savings activated (energy saving profile, stealth mode activated, minimum display brightness, WLAN and Bluetooth deactivated), it manages 223 minutes with the same settings after switching to integrated graphics.
Battery lifetime under load with dedicated graphics card (BatteryEater classic test) is only 77 minutes.
Acceptable is the battery life when watching DVD's. The m15x runs for 124 minutes with integrated graphics card, and is thus able to show a complete movie with average length.
Even better is the result in the practical WLAN test (integrated graphics,energy saving mode, brightness level 6 out of 7), with a battery life of 170 minutes.
|Off / Standby||0 / 0 Watt|
|Idle|| 35 / 50 / 53 Watt|
105 / 126 Watt|
Alienware makes with the Area-51 m15x a big step forward in the compact gaming segment. Somebody who is looking for high performance among 15.4" multimedia notebooks will quickly notice a distinct lack of competition for the m15x .
The biggest weakness of the Area-51 m15x is the case of the notebook. The plastic parts don't convey high quality, neither regarding feel of the surface nor stability , not to mention the constant creaking noises when handling the notebook.
Although the m15x only offers a small amount of ports, everything a gamer needs is available. Especially the alignment of ports impressed during the test. So did the excellent keyboard, which is ready for a successful gaming career.
A strength of the Alienware Area-51 m15x is certainly the display, which offers a high resolution, good brightness and illumination, as well as excellent contrast and a matte surface, which prevents annoying reflections.
There is not much more to say about the performance. An increase in the 15.4" class would currently only be possible, if a producer managed to put two Geforce 8800M GTX graphics cards in one 15.4 inch notebook, which seems highly unlikely for several reasons. The m15x offers thus awesome gaming performance, although a reduction of the detail levels in DirectX10 games might be necessary, if one wants to play at native resolution.
Another important point that speaks for the m15x is the low noise level in office and internet mode, because the notebook offers the possibility to switch between dedicated and integrated graphics , which significantly reduces the noise. This obviously doesen't help in high performance mode, which results in a very loud notebook when using demanding programs.
The integrated graphics chip also helps to extend the battery life of the Area-51 m15x to acceptable levels, which makes mobile usage possible.