… and as Alienware claims, this is NOT a netbook! Sitting side-by-side with my Lenovo s10 the Alienware m11x seems large, and given that it weighs twice as much as the Lenovo it also FEELS much bigger. But compared to my 15″ Macbook Pro or the HP Compaq 15″ laptop I use at work, it looks and feels quite small. That is exactly what Alienware was going for – a high performance system in a portable package. So while I have only had a short time with the system, here are a few initial thoughts about the m11x as a ‘gaming netbook’ …
I was going to do some sort of ‘video unboxing’, but lack of patience led me to rip everything out as soon as I could, which in turn revealed a very utilitarian package consisting of the m11x laptop in a soft cloth sleeve, AC adapter, utilitarian manual and restore disk. So instead I just tore it all open and charged the battery for a while.
This is my basic configuration:
Upon startup, after some standard Windows stuff – and I must note that Win7 does a really good job of making the new user ‘getting started’ experience quick and painless – the m11x immediately allows you to log into your Steam account (or create one) and ‘installs’ the included copy of Portal. Then you can configure some other stuff, but in general the ‘time to productivity’ is quite short.
Of course, like any good PC gamer should, I already own Portal. Unfortunately there is no option to ‘gift’ the new copy, it simply disappears. From here on out it is pretty standard Windows installation, device management, and so on.
In terms of games, I stuck with Steam initially and downloaded Greed – Black Border (2009 sci-fi action RPG), Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age Origins. That is about 50GB of gaming – and all from the last few months. None of the games will run on a netbook (well, Greed would install and launch … but ‘run’ is an overstatement!).
So my first test was Greed – Black Border. I would like to say I chose it because it is the only one I hadn’t already played, but the reason was simple – Greed is relatively small and I didn’t want to wait for either Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age to finish downloading. I had only played a small amount of the game previously, but enough to know what sort of performance I got on my Macbook Pro in Bootcamp … which I would term as solid but with signs of poor optimization. When I first launched Greed, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach – the game ran like crap.
Then I thought – I bet the system ships with the Intel GMA 4500M HD integrated graphics system enabled. So I press the F6 button to do the ‘Binary GFX’ switch, and am told what I need to quit so the system can swap graphics mode. After exiting Steam and Firefox, I am able to change graphics modes.
Restarting Greed at that point was an entirely different experience – every aspect was faster and better looking, even just the loading screens. It felt like a different computer, and when the game started, I was stunned at the performance – it ran smooth with all settings set to maximum without any issues. I played for a while, but decided I was really more interested in seeing how Bioware’s latest and greatest shooter-RPG ran on the system.
Mass Effect 2 actually does a pretty decent job of scaling itself to whatever hardware you have to offer, so I figured it would run well, but was amazed at just HOW well it ran. Again I noted that all settings were maximized, and the graphics were simply stunning. The m11x promises a ‘true 720p HD experience’, and from the opening cutscenes I was amazed at how well the system handled all of the action.
In terms of build quality … let’s just say that this is clearly NOT an Apple product. Nor is it up to the fit and finish of my Lenovo netbook. It is solidly built without any creaks or case separation, but on the front I noticed a metal piece that looked almost like a bit of a spring hanging on by a corner. The system also feels fairly ‘plasticky’, though with how much it weighs I suppose that is a reasonable compromise.
One question I have been asking myself as I awaited the arrival of the m11x was ‘is this the end of the Netbook Gamer’? Well, I have several more articles in progress, so the series will continue on for a while regardless, but honestly I am not sure how the two systems will fall in terms of my usage.
But in a very short time period the Alienware m11x has proven to be powerful and versatile and has earned itself a prized place as the first stop for any new games I will play in the near future.