Granted, I'm still using my X305 even after 3 years, and am still very happy with it - as the saying goes, you DO get what you pay for. But is it just possible, given today's void in the high-end notebook space by the likes of HP and Toshiba, that something out there could pique even my specific interest and lay claim to the notebook performance crown? Alienware's 18.4" M18x is a veritable behemoth brimming with speed and power, alongside a feature set models from other manufacturers fail to even come close to. Has Dell done it's homework? Let's take a look!
PROS: Extreme performance, quality solid build, large HD display, extensive connectivity and features, good battery life, easy component access/upgrades, full customization options, effective cooling, 0 dB silent mode
CONS: Price, size/weight, no IPS display, switchable graphics, underwhelming speakers, loud fans, problematic optical drive, flaky sound hardware, locked BIOS
Dell's purchase of Alienware first began to bear fruits in 2009 with the M17x, a 17" quad-core SLI notebook almost identical to my own X305. Two years and two revisions later Dell dropped dual GPU support on the M17x, introducing the larger 18.4" M18x to take on that role. The 2012 model, dubbed internally as M18x R2, offers the current range of high-end mobile Intel processors and ATI/nVidia graphics.
Dell offers pre-configured models, or you can totally customize components among multiple choices. Prices start at $1999 and top out at around $6400, not including extras and accessories. The M18x I am reviewing today is a CTO model configured as follows:
-Nebula Red external color
-Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
-Intel Core i7-3920XM overclocked to 4.1GHz
-18.4" 1920x1080 WLED display
-16GB DDR3 RAM 1866MHz 4x4GB
-Dual nVidia 2GB GTX680M in SLI
-768GB RAID0 SSD 3x256GB
-Slot-load BD player DVD/CD burner
-Intel 2230 wireless with Bluetooth
-Mars Red AlienFX lighting
-12-cell 96WHr battery
-MSRP $5424 (as configured) with discounts
Enthusiasts drool, but at $5400 casual users need not apply. This is a configuration that is designed for absolute maximum performance, to do what no other notebook being sold today can, and is priced accordingly. The only other higher-end components absent from my build were the 1.5TB 3x512GB SSD configuration (a $900 addition) along with the Killer Wireless 1103 3x3 WiFi (another $80). You may feel the need to spend the extra $980 - I didn't.
The immediate thing you notice upon first unboxing the M18x is it's sheer size and weight. Measuring in at over 17 inches wide by almost 13 inches deep and more than 2 inches thick, it makes even a 17" notebook appear small in comparison. An aluminum skin covers the entire lid, and continues around the rest of the chassis. It provides a solid built-like-a-tank feel typical of the best enterprise-class notebooks, and given it's hefty 12 lb weight, lends to the unit's sturdiness. The red anodized finish is impeccable and resists fingerprints along with light scratches better than any glossy plastic.
The 330W AC adapter supplied with the M18x is also gargantuan. Coming in at a solid 3 lbs and measuring 7.75x4x1.75 inches, calling it a house brick is no joke. That totals 15 lbs of mobile performance, almost a full 4 lbs more than my X305 with it's sizable adapter. Forget forking over for a gym membership, toting the M18x around all day will suffice.
Open the unit up and you are treated to an expansive 18.4 inch edge-to-edge borderless display. Yes, it's glossy, but Dell fortunately does offer a semi-gloss overlay as an option that you can use which will also help protect the screen from fingerprints. A power button sits center right below the backlit Alienware lettering, shaped like an alien head, with the "eyes" acting as a HDD activity LED. Media controls are also backlit and carved into an aluminum plate running across the top of the keyboard. To the sides and below the keyboard is a semi-gloss plastic surround. Meanwhile, the rest of the keyboard deck, including the large palm rest and trackpad, uses a rubber-like textured matte finish that not only feels good to touch, but masks fingerprints and skin oil incredibly well. The only piece of glossy plastic on the M18x is a thin detail strip running along the front edge below the speakers. This is a notebook every-day users will love to work on, as it is child's-play to keep looking clean.
As I showed in my Glamor Shots piece from last week, connectivity is extensive along the left and right sides. Of particular interest is the port labeled HDMI IN, allowing you to connect a gaming console to the M18x and use the large 18.4" display as a TV/monitor. Get creative, however, and you could use that HDMI IN to directly view footage from a HD camcorder, watch HD cable channels from a set-top box, save desk space and use the M18x as a primary display for a desktop PC at home, or as an on-the-go temporary display for setting up a server/HTPC. Notebook + video-in = versatility!
|A keyboard unlike any other|
|Having it your way - literally|
|Vacant mSata slot for future storage|
Speaking of the chassis, the bottom panel is easily removable, and with a few exceptions, provides access to every major component. It's great that users can easily remove and clean fans - something that manufacturers of other notebooks blatantly ignore. You can get to all three storage drives, wifi and mSata slot, but only two out of the four RAM modules - the other two are hidden on the other side of the system board. That means you may want to configure your unit with faster/extra RAM from the get-go, as you won't be able to access all four memory modules without going through the owners manual on how to remove the keyboard.
|A system that is just begging to be pushed|
Testing with ArcSoft MediaEncoder 7.5 also returned an insane time, transcoding the 3-hour-length VOB to MP4 H.264 in just a short 16 minutes - and this was WITHOUT the help of Quick Sync.
|Fold like there's no tomorrow|
|Topping the chart on Cinebench|
|Fast doesn't begin to describe this|
I feel like I haven't even really begun to scratch the surface of the M18x's ultimate capabilities. Multitasking is taken to a whole new level with 16GB of 1866MHz RAM on board. The connectivity options all but guarantee you will be able to use just about any hardware accessory with this notebook. Even the large trackpad is so incredibly easy and effective to use - a rare statement coming from someone who is married to a Logitech m570!
Prepare to knock yourselves out. 3DMark06 pulled in a whopping 27,512 points while the newer 3DMark11 returned a performance score of P10,416. It's rare to see even a desktop graphics card beat 10,000, yet the M18x provides gaming performance on par with a desktop GTX680 and tweaked 3960X pushing a heavy 4.6MHz overclock. Say what you want about gaming on notebooks, but the M18x has what it takes to hang with the big boys!
Of course, the real test involves gaming, and for that I loaded up my usual torture suite beginning with the original Crysis. Maxed out at 1920x1080 the game rewards users with a fluid 38/45/57 min/avg/max FPS. This is the most seamless, if not damn near perfect, Crysis experience I have seen to date on a notebook, and a solid indicator of just how capable the hardware inside the M18x really is.
Chances are, however, you've long left that game behind and are now tackling the sequel. Crysis 2 with high-res textures and DX11 patch performs even better, pushing an impressive 51/68/86 min/avg/max FPS with all settings on Ultra. You don't have to keep a FPS indicator on to FEEL how fluid, instant and stutter-free game play is, never mind enjoying all the gorgeous eye-candy the way the game's designers intended.
Dell ships the M18x with the forceware 302.72 driver, but nVidia update was quick to offer the newer 306.97 driver that specifically addresses improved performance on mobile Kepler cards. This change alone helped bump up 3DMark11 scores a good 400 points and the driver release notes detail several 3D titles where performance is improved.
Normally I wouldn't write about this in a notebook review, but the M18x deserves special mention given it's key overclocking ability. The system BIOS shipped from Dell provides multiple options for CPU overclocking, while the dual GTX680M GPU's also benefit from various software tweaks courtesy of tools such as MSI Afterburner and nvflash.
|OC options on a notebook - sweet!|
Some M18x users will swear by an unlocked system BIOS as opposed to the stock OC options shown above. I see that as useful only if you're out to break records - for daily use the stock BIOS is perfectly adequate. My best efforts in fact have been a 43/43/43/43 with a flex VID of 0, putting my CPU at a sweetspot of 1.301 volts at full load and staying under 85C. I have found that the best way to obtain a stable 4.0GHz+ OC is to lower your flex VID and maintain a low ambient temperature - then the system can ramp up without fear of hitting a thermal ceiling and throttling down to compensate. Pushing the processor too far, especially in a warmer environment, will result in repeated throttling. Left unattended, that can possibly compromise your TIM or damage the CPU due to too high voltage. Keep your Ivy Bridge cool!
As far as the GTX680M's graphics cards are concerned, these ship on the M18x with stock core/memory speeds of 719/900Mhz. Dell locks the cards preventing Afterburner from cranking core clocks higher, but a quick and dirty nvflash command with a freely-available alternative ROM enabled a 100MHz boost up to 819MHz. This is a purely mild overclock done very simply, but you could push it to 850MHz using a similar modified ROM. Video memory can take a 300MHz boost courtesy of Afterburner up to 1200MHz - going any higher introduces artifacts. Going any higher at all from this point becomes more complicated, requiring more precise frequency tweaking and voltage monitoring. Results have shown the GTX680M to operate as high as 925MHz, but getting there means flashing your M18x with an unlocked system BIOS that allows unrestricted access to the cards.
|A score most desktops won't even attain|
What's most remarkable is that this remains well within the cards thermal limits and without any throttling whatsoever. Considering you're getting it for free, a 21% performance improvement over stock is hard to not take advantage of, never mind the big smile it'll put on your face. Just don't tell Dell you're using a modified vBIOS to get there.
Finally, there's nothing stopping users from applying quality TIM material in lieu of the generic goop Dell spreads. The downloadable M18x owners manual gives step-by-step instructions on removing the CPU/GPU heatsinks for such purposes. Going with higher-grade TIM will ensure optimal heat transfer for a cooler system during load and overclocking.
HEAT AND NOISE:
With an overclocked quad-core CPU pushing a TDP of 65W and a pair of graphics cards capable of producing 100W each, you would think the M18x was quite the space heater. This is the first notebook I have come across to use three substantial fans, all dust filtered, each dumping heat out the back via an enormous heatsink and vent. Quickly pop the access panel off on the bottom and you can effortlessly get to these fans for removal/cleaning, indicative of a sensible chassis design. It's small but noticeable details like these that enthusiasts appreciate, and where other notebook manufacturers can fail so miserably.
Actual temperatures were quite reasonable. F@H SMP client produced between 76-81C among the four cores at an ambient temperature of 22C. Pushing the GPU's in SLI during gaming resulted in a 74-75C measurement. The aluminum chassis may play a role, but the palm rest and keyboard remain completely cool to the touch, while a gentle stream of heat exits the rear. These are all stock measurements - no OC involved.
Acoustics are a more different matter. At the desktop the M18x is very quiet. Go full tilt, however, and the M18x resembles a hair dryer running behind a closed door. More than a whine, it's a definite whoosh that you will hear no matter how far away you are in the same room. Gaming in an otherwise quiet environment will involve investing in a good pair of closed headphones... and some forgiving company! For those thinking about leaving their M18x on overnight for folding, either put it in another room, or get comfortable sleeping with ear plugs.
|Crude, but effective!|
In the overall scheme of things, though, I can definitely sacrifice noise for cooling performance. It's great that in a 32C summer room without air-conditioning the M18x can still push things like F@H, drive your CPU up to a 94C maximum, and yet maintain full 24/7 stability. Other notebooks under such punishing conditions would have either long overheated, required a cooling pad to stay powered on, or simply shut down.
|Battery charged? Just press and see!|
Making use of the HD4000 graphics requires switching from the GTX680 cards using the F7 key. This will involve powering down the system to do a reboot. Considering that hybrid solutions already exist on the desktop, and nVidia's Optimus solution is available on notebooks, I'm confused why Dell took this route. It's not something I cannot live with, given that rebooting doesn't take TOO long thanks to the fast storage on board. But it would be so much more convenient being able to switch graphics on the fly and still have access to features like Quick Sync with SLI for example.
Unfortunately, a stubborn glitch with the sound hardware of all things complicates use of the M18x away from the mains. Trying to test multimedia performance at first proved fruitless (read further below) relegating my testing with the HD4000 to just web surfing. With max battery settings enabled that came out to 4 hours 32 minutes, a rather remarkable feat given the high-caliber hardware being driven.
Use the M18x as a work tool, in fact, and that 4 hours 32 minutes web surfing time can be a very compelling benefit, especially if you religiously adhere to your lunch breaks and hibernate midway though the day. Spring $117 for a 2nd battery and you can ensure AN ENTIRE WORK DAY of power (over 8 hours) and never have to go near an outlet! That kind of unplugged run time from a notebook this big and powerful would have been unheard of in the past. In this case especially, carrying a 2nd battery in your gear bag instead of the AC adapter can really pay off.
Luckily, I was able to get around the sound card issue and resume my multimedia testing. With max battery settings and wireless off VOB playback using the supplied PowerDVD software came in at 3 hours 34 minutes. That's plenty to watch even the longest feature, two short films or a handful of TV episodes without having to worry about plugging in. WMV playback fared much better at 4 hours 20 minutes. Turn on wifi and enjoy 3 hours 44 minutes watching Hulu.
If you've got your mind set on inserting a Blu ray disc to watch the newest 1080P rentals on the go, you'll see 3 hours 16 minutes with wireless off on max battery settings. Interestingly enough, the same LED's for HDD activity change color and function as the optical drive LED.
Finally, for those interested in gaming on the HD4000 integrated graphics, I fired up Civilization V in DX10 mode. With max battery settings and wireless off I managed to obtain 1 hour 40 minutes on the game's default graphics settings at native resolution. That's a very respectable time for gaming on a notebook as loaded as this. Rounding out the experience, Intel's hardware also provides absolutely smooth game play, without having to turn resolution down or set detail settings to minimum. I really like the idea of being able to game on battery this way, with the option to plug-in and fire up SLI for graphics-intensive stuff.
One thing I should add is that it's quite possible to eek out even more battery life with the M18x, since the HD4000 also has it's own power settings as does PowerDVD - these come set to balanced mode by default with a power save option. It's also very possible to see power savings by going into the OC section of the BIOS and relaxing the volts on your CPU. When using max battery settings on battery power with the stock OC profile, the 3920XM will park itself nicely at 1.2GHz on idle and operate under 1 volt with only four threads active - ideal conditions for a very cool-running processor. The CPU fan will in fact stay turned completely off until it is needed, rewarding you with a dead-silent, 0 dB, passively-cooled system! Sound unbelievable? That's gotta be one of the best least-talked-about benefits of Intel's 22nm mobile Ivy Bridge architecture.
$5400 is a lot of money to pay for a notebook, yet I feel manufacturers and retailers should be offering this kind of high-end mobile tech for under $4000, and more closer to $3000. When Toshiba can offer a top-spec Qosmio X870 for under $2000, and HP a fully-loaded dv7 with a promo coupon likewise, it makes little sense today to price notebooks beyond $3000, even those with top-shelf silicon. Perhaps the onus here is on companies like Intel and nVidia, as notebook manufacturers won't bring prices down until silicon manufacturers provide an impetus first.
Of course, there is nothing stopping you from getting the smaller and less expensive Alienware M17x, dropping the SLI graphics for just a single GTX680M, slower processor, slower RAM and only two hard drive bays. That configuration would run you $3674 - a saving of over $1700.
Yet being priced above $5000, the M18x fails to ship with an IPS display. Dell doesn't even offer it as an option!!! Should you be disappointed? If Sony and HP can do IPS on a 15.6" mainstream notebook in 2012, I think yes. Call me critical, but I'm in the camp that says high-end IPS displays should be an option on every notebook costing $2000-plus, and at $5000 or higher, be offered as standard equipment. Again, I feel the real culprits here are display manufacturers.
Hammering home that last point is the TV-grade 1080P resolution PC users are still forced to put up with. An 18.4" screen has the real-estate to push WQHD (2560x1440) at exactly 160PPI. That's about the same pixel density as what I'm seeing on my netbook (155PPI), a viewing experience that for me hasn't been hard on my eyes at all. A 16:10 17" display at 1920x1200 will do 133PPI - a very common panel that was being sold in notebooks as far back as 2004. The M18x falls below even that scoring only 120PPI. Going beyond 1080P resolution on a notebook at this mammoth display size DOES have it's benefits. That, and the fact that TN panels just don't cut it in a flagship notebook. I really think it's time PC panel manufacturers got off the TV bandwagon and not stifle progress.
The audio on the M18x is OK for a 2.1 arrangement, but it's far from audiophile quality. Movies and games will do fine; music lovers will most definitely be plugging in headphones. The SB software provides enough sound shaping controls from a 10-band EQ and a few other sliders, but the Klipsch drivers are underwhelming. Bass lacks any deep richness, sounding absolutely distorted at times while the stereo field is missing warmth with an empty/cold character - kind of like a cheap boom box. On the plus side, they do play loud and can fill a room. This is my first time with Klipsch speakers, and I have to say I much prefer the sound from harman/kardon drivers, especially when Toshiba offers their Qosmio line with far better speakers for over $3000 less.
|Not cool - red X on volume icon|
And while switching between GPU's may leave you with a dead set of speakers, you're most certainly out of luck as far as using Quick Sync. I was unable to get it working with ArcSoft's MediaEncoder, maybe because Dell has it locked down on the M18x system BIOS. In all honesty, it's not a feature that I terribly miss given the blazing-fast CPU transcoding times and already good battery life during A/V playback.
The issue of the locked BIOS is a delicate one for many. It is beyond obvious, however, that if Dell had simply kept the GPU core open (just a single setting), I would never have needed to resort to nvflash, much less risk bricking my M18x attempting to flash an unlocked system BIOS. We are dealing with a product marketed primarily to enthusiasts, and those people like to overclock! If the rash of warranty returns and repairs for failed flash attempts is not an indication that this is a feature these types of users EXPECT, then I can only hope a stump in sales will force Dell to better listen to it's target audience. Put it another way, I would cheerfully pay extra for Dell to configure my M18x from the factory with an unlocked BIOS, in addition to the overclocked CPU. Let us use our hardware the way we want!
Another definite nit-pick of mine has to be the (slow) slot-load burner used on the M18x. Dell won't let you have a BD burner, despite the fact that many competing notebooks offer this now-common piece of hardware. I'll admit that slot-load burners are a rare find, and slot-load BD burners ever rarer. What's more quirky, though, on the M18x is the lack of an emergency eject hole - good luck if you ever get a disc stuck! You cannot remove the drive without tearing the chassis down, and the hardware eject button along with the activity light is relocated above the number pad. Need to rip a DVD? It took me over half an hour to transfer a D9 disc - a procedure that I have done in the past in as little as 17 minutes. It's a tough pill to swallow spending $5K on a notebook, and then spending more on a proper burner.
|Barely fits inside my Targus CPT401DUS|
Last but not least, while I totally dig the Nebula Red exterior, I think Lunar Grey and Constellation White would go well with Alienware's audience too. Since Dell can pass the price onto the consumer, I'd like to see a few more color options besides the red and black.
Panther 4.0 - another dual GTX680M-wielding Clevo model rocking a desktop 8-core Xeon E5. Sources close to the matter cite problems with Clevo delaying the product due to a fundamental redesign.
Dell still has it's work cut out, though, and shouldn't be sitting on it's laurels. The sound card power issue is a serious and major flaw that needs immediate attention. A better quality subwoofer would help out too, as would slightly quieter fans. The optical drive caddy also needs to be changed to make the drive user-removable, with a pinhole for stuck discs. Finally, it would be nice to have GPU cores that weren't locked along with switchable graphics that didn't require a reboot. Provided they can source an IPS panel, these changes outlined would be enough to make the M18x a flagship notebook without compromise.
Heck, if Dell did all that in their upcoming M18x R3, I'd be handing out an Editor's Choice Award!
|Illuminated logo on lid|
Yet even with the pesky sound card issue, I have to give the M18x a recommendation. More so, if Dell were to match their competition and offer a generous 33%-off coupon I would be inclined to stand in line myself. Priced below $4000, the M18x on show here would definitely become the high-end notebook in 2012 for enthusiasts to lust after. With the holiday shopping season just 4 weeks away, let's hope Dell is listening!
UPDATE: More stubborn issues with the sound hardware after three weeks of use are requiring more drastic measures to get the speakers working. I'm docking my recommendation, simply because I shouldn't have to remove the battery with the unit on, yank the power cord and then power back on with battery to get my sound working. I have no other option than to return my M18x back for repair. It is a fine notebook otherwise, but buyer beware. My ultimate message to Dell is perhaps summed up best using the words of Cee Lo Green - fix dis!