System Review: Ivy Bridge lands on Dell’s venerable line of Alienware gaming laptops.
From the outside there’s little to differentiate Alienware’s R2 version of its M14x laptop, but inside it’s a generational leap from the original. Designed around the recently released mobile Ivy Bridge processors, it’s a desktop replacement at heart, eschewing the push towards ultra-thin and light laptops that’s dominating the mobile computing space at the moment.
Being able to pack enough performance for serious gaming into a 14in laptop is a challenge, though, something made clear when one looks at the specifications for the M14x. It is available with a variety of processors, from the reasonable to the ludicrous, yet it tops out graphically with a GeForce GT 650M.
Given that NVIDIA has sneakily rebadged a bunch of its old Fermi GPUs to bulk out the 600M lineup, we’re at least happy that the 650M is based upon Kepler, but it’s slightly disappointing that you can’t opt for a higher end GPU in the M14x – if you want more power you need to look at the larger M17x and its RADEON HD 7970M.
In the CPU stakes, however, there are no such limitations, with the M14X available in specifications from a more than competent Core i5-3210M all the way up to the monster in Intel’s mobile line-up, the Core i7-3820QM. This can be paired with up to 16GB of DDR3, and hard drive configurations range from 1TB mechanical drives to 256GB SSDs.
This massive range of customisation means that you can get an M14X for anything from $1,499 up to $3,575. Our testing has been done on a high end model, which has the Core i7-3820QM, 16GB DDR, 256GB SSD and an Atheros Killer Wireless-N adapter, all of which cost a premium over the standard model.
This is all packed into the familiar, robust Alienware chassis. While the actual look has the potential to be somewhat polarising, one can’t fault the build quality of these laptops. The 14in 1600 x 900 screen looks crisp and clear (although sadly covered in glare catching glass), the rubberised palmrest is comfortable, and the keyboard is actually fairly decent for a classic scissor-switch design. As is the way with these models, you can customise both the keyboard backlighting and the other highlights on the laptop via Alienware’s software.
In terms of performance the M14x isn’t going to run Battlefield 3 at Ultra settings, but we were able to achieve playable framerates at high detail. It scored P1993 in 3DMark, and running our Unigine test at the native 1600 x 900 resolution resulted in an average framerate of 15.5 fps. Tweaking down the tessellation to normal and reducing AA resulted in a much smoother average of 26fps. We were able to run Diablo 3 quite happily with everything except shadows maxed out, sitting at 50fps most of the time, but with playable framerates even when dipping during the more chaotic moments of gameplay.
It does get a little loud when the fans spin up to accommodate such moments of frenetic clicking, but that’s one of the prices you pay for such a powerful laptop. It also makes for quite a battery sucking machine, so you won’t want to be far from a power point when using it (thankfully a new generation of gaming Ultrabooks is starting to appear, if you want to balance mobility with gaming).
There’s a lot to like about the M14x R2, however we’d suggest that the system we reviewed is overkill. Ultimately the limiting factor to performance is the GPU, so you could happily get by with any of the Core i7 options on offer - the Core i7-3820QM comes with a $499 price premium over the Core i7-3610QM, which will be more than ample for gaming on the laptop. You can probably also save a little when it comes to the RAM, and you’ll likely want to look into the hard drive based configurations rather than the SSD.