Alienware M15x notebook review

Alienware is one of the most distinctive brands of PCs there is, thanks to interesting attention to detail. Fortunately a move into the Dell family has not destroyed this line of gaming PCs and the M15x still has the traits of something special. From the packaging to the accessories (hat, mouse mat, even the manual is gorgeous) to the customisation of the notebook itself, you feel like you are getting something exclusive.

The exterior design of the M15x makes it one of the most distinctive notebooks on the market, but even with a screen size of 15.6-inches, it is still a big notebook and is never exactly going to be portable, unless portable to you means heading to a LAN party. It weighs a healthy 4.2kg and measures 360 x 284 x 38mm.

The design is aggressive and angular with the sort of detailing you'd expect on a Lamborghini: slatted front speaker grills are backed with a honeycomb mesh and backlit. The backlighting covers the keyboard, trackpad as well as illuminating the logos and branding running across the screen. It's all customisable too.

The Alienware Command Center gives you access to features that make the M15x really distinctive. Broken down into four areas, they cover FX, Fusion, Touch and Sense. FX will let you customise the backlighting colours, so you can having things exactly as you want them, even breaking the keyboard down into four zones.

Fusion is essentially the power manager, Touch controls the touchpad and Sense lets you use the webcam for face recognition to lock and unlock your notebook based on your presence. It all works well, unlike many custom interfaces added to a PC.

Sitting at the core of the M15x is an Intel Quad-Core i7-Q720. It may only be clocked at 1.6GHz, but as a quad-core processor it can ramp up the performance to handle pretty much anything you throw at it. Our review model had 4GB RAM, whilst graphics were handled by the Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M, powerful enough to handle the likes of Crysis on high settings, so it's good for most modern games.

All that power shows itself with the general running of 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, which is incredibly slick. For general office tasks, the M15x is a dream machine as applications open and close with pace and multitasking causes barely a hiccup.

It also has no problems dealing with HD content and we threw various forms at it from camcorder footage to downloads and again, the M15x handled it with no problems at all. We tried a couple of HD clips simultaneously and both played back smoothly, so this is a great multimedia centre if you have HD footage you want to watch.

Some might be disappointed then that the Blu-ray drive is an optional extra, so if you want one you'll have to select it from the configuration at the time of purchase, which will add £99 on to the purchase price. In the same vein, if you want a Full HD display, you'll need to pay an extra £80 to get it.

The M15x we had on test featured the standard 1600 x 900 pixel resolution display. It has a glossy finish and looks sensational when playing back video or gaming. It is reflective, naturally, but the likelihood is that if you are buying this as a gaming laptop, then you'll be expecting to position yourself away from windows or at least have a decent blind to cut out unwanted reflections.

The finish to the display is also a credit to Alienware. We often talk about the edge-to-edge display on the MacBook, and here the M15x displays the same thing: you don't get that cheap-looking plastic bezel that blights so many laptops. The bottom of the display also features the customisable backlit Alienware name, but you can turn that off if you find it distracting.

As a gaming PC the keyboard is a core element and again, Alienware have got it so right. The response is fantastic. It has a great action and the backlighting is amongst the best quality we've seen on keyboard. There is no sign of flex either, so it is a pleasure to use, whether you are gaming or bashing out documents.

The touchpad is a slightly different story. The backlit edging is a nice touch and it is of a good size, but the finish doesn't make it a nice trackpad to use. Not that you would use it often if gaming is your primary function for the PC, but it still seems to be a weak area in an otherwise impressive design. The bottom button bar also feels a little light in its action, whereas the rest of the M15x is meaty and substantial.

The sound quality is good, better than your average notebook, but lacking any real delivery of bass. If you are remaining portable or want a clear desk then the on-board speakers will suffice, but a better result will be gained through a decent set of peripheral speakers or a gaming headset.

In terms of wireless connectivity the Alienware M15x comes with Wi-Fi a/g/n and Bluetooth adapters built-in. For physical connection you have Gigabit Ethernet, VGA and DisplayPort for hooking up to an external display, USB, FireWire and a multi-card reader on the left-hand side of the chassis. The right-hand side gives you another USB, a combined USB eSATA port, mic/line-in and dual headphone sockets, the slot-loading DVD drive and an ExpressCard 54 slot.

Battery life, as you might expect, is nothing to shout about. With the extended battery we found we would only get 2 and a half hours from the M15x and that's without really putting it under any stress. Throw in a DVD and you'll struggle to get 2 hours from it, which might not see you to the end of the film.

We like the practical touches on offer here. You can put the M15x into Stealth mode via the touch controls running across the top of the keyboard. This throttles the CPU and GPU and does make the PC quieter - if you are only doing a little browsing and don't want the fans blowing hot air out the back then it keeps things under control. We also like the fact that Fn shortcuts will let you turn off all the Alien FX, so if you are watching a film, you don’t have to look at all the glowing red bits too.

Verdict

We love the Alienware M15x for being an unadulterated gaming rig that is so exuberant. It's difficult not to be drawn to it's over-the-top looks and attention to detail. But you do pay for it. The lowest spec (which is still fairly impressive) comes in at £1199. The configuration reviewed here comes in at £1578, and that's not even the top spec.

That's the biggest issue we have with the M15x. At the prices you are being asked to pay, things like a Full HD display and Blu-ray player should be standard. Sure, if you only want to play games and don't care about HD movies off a disc, then you shouldn't pay a premium for the drive, but with Alienware you already are paying that price.

If you are looking for a desktop replacement model that will deliver the power to satisfy your gaming needs, then the Alienware M15x is a distinctive proposition. Rival machines may offer you better value for money, but won't necessarily pull together such a customisable premium package.