Gaming laptops don't need to be great hulking brutes. They can be small and (relatively) light while still giving you the power you need, like the Alienware M11x which packs a Sandy Bridge Core i7 and an Nvidia GT540M graphics card into an 11.6-inch frame with alien looks - and a keyboard that might have been designed by aliens.
Alienware devices have a distinctive look, with dramatic angles and recessed lights you can configure to glow in different colours and patterns. The matte black plastic case (also available in red) has gloss highlights - though these will need polishing if you want to keep the M11x looking ship shape. That same gloss surrounds the reflective screen, and there's a strip along the front of the notebook, around the headlight-like illuminated panels. There's even a metal plaque underneath that you can have engraved with your name. Overall there's something a little disconcerting about the M11x's fit and finish though, as it feels a little on the cheap side.
This is a game machine without an optical drive, so if you're not using a service like Steam, you're going to need to invest in an external optical drive. That's not surprising, considering just how small the M11x is, not much larger than a high-end netbook. Squeezing in a DVD or Blu-ray drive would be impractical. However there are plenty of ports, with two USB 3.0 ports on the right, and a powered USB 2.0 port on the left along with a small IEEE 1394 connector. Other connectors include Display Port and HDMI, as well as a Gigabit Ethernet connector on the left. And separate speaker and headphone ports on the right. While most of the M11x's connectors are each side of the notebook, the power socket is on the back, along with a large cooling vent. There's another large vent underneath, with a large illuminated fan.
We weren't impressed with the M11x's keyboard. While it was distinctive, with a tuneable backlight, we found it uncomfortable to use. It was small and cramped, and while the keys had plenty of travel the flat surfaces made them awkward to use. They're an odd shape too, much longer than wide, which can be difficult when trying to find the right key combination for a game. The standard WASD movement keys are marked with characters from an "alien" alphabet, all part of Alienware's science fictional trappings. There's even a key marked with a flying saucer that can be used to manage the system lighting effects, along with another to quickly turn them on and off. Other special functions, like media controls, are on the function keys.
The touchpad isn’t huge but it’s large enough to use comfortably, the ridged surface is comfortable, and its slight recess makes it easy to quickly locate. It's a Synaptics pad, and while it doesn't have the full range of multi-touch features of some of the pads on the market, you do get support for pinch zoom and two finger scroll. The buttons are large, with a good positive action.
Display and performance
Games need a good screen, and the M11x's 1366x768 screen has plenty of contrast, and responds well. It's bright and clear, and works well for both games and video. Video performance is good too, with deep blacks and plenty of definition with a streamed 720p movie, thanks to the GeForce GT540M, which is a strong mid-range graphics card and comes with 2GB of graphics memory in this system. Games run well, at consistently high frame rates even at full screen resolution, even on battery, and multimedia content plays well.
Overall performance is good, much as you'd expect from a Core i7 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium. There's a lot packed into this small machine, and it's impressive that the cooling fan runs as seldom as it does - especially when running 3D games. Sound quality is good, with a pair of large Klipsch speakers under the front of the machine, with good quality sound for both games and media.
Battery life from the 8-cell 63Wh battery is surprisingly good. We ran a mixed load of games, video, and downloads while connected to Wi-Fi and saw 4 hours 30 minutes of use. Part of that was down to the 256GB Samsung SSD, which meant we weren't using power keeping a disk spinning; you’ll notice the performance boost from this when loading games too. One thing to note: the M11x doesn't have a removable battery, so you'll need to carry the hefty power supply with you if you're planning on gaming on the move.
Alienware doesn't bundle much software with the M11x. You'll get tools for the webcam, and to help manage power plans and handle touch sensitivity while playing games, as well as controlling lighting effects. Set the multicolour LEDs to give your M11x its own look, with the option of pulsing or morphing colours. You can choose your own colour scheme or pick one from a library of predefined lighting effects. You also get Alien Respawn, a gaming-themed system restore and backup tool - but you'll need to upgrade from the free to the paid version to get the most from this tool.
Squeezing a gaming machine into an 11-inch form factor is a challenge, and it's not quite clear if Dell has succeeded with the Alienware M11x. It's certainly powerful enough, but you're going to miss the optical drive - after all, most games still come on CD and many use a disk as part of their copy protection. It's also not as light as it might be, weighing in at about 2kg thanks to the battery - around the weight of a similarly configured 15-inch device. Still, you do get Core i7 performance, and the Nvidia graphics card adds 3D video and gaming support. However it's the awkward keyboard that really marks the M11x down, making a gaming notebook feeling more like a gaming netbook.