Monday, April 02, 2012

Laptop Review: Alienware M14x for Second Life

The last time I bought a laptop for SL was in Spring of 2006. It was a Gateway NX860XL and it held up surprisingly well, but started to show its age a couple years ago as games began using bigger textures and new lighting/shading methods. I’ve been doing all my SL work on a desktop the past two years, but I’m going to be doing some traveling soon and I wanted to be sure I had a laptop that was small enough for a carry-on, but powerful enough for Skyrim and Second Life.

I opted for the Alienware M14x Ultimate Gaming Laptop. The configuration I chose came to just under $1400USD. Here are the specs:
  • Processor: Intel Core i7 2670M 2.2GHz
  • RAM: 6GM DDR3
  • Screen: 14.0” 900p/1600x900
  • Video: NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M with 3GB DDR3
  • Storage: 750GB 7200RPM
  • WiFi: Intel Advanced-N WiFi Link 6250 a/g/n with WiMax
  • Optical: Slot-load Dual Layer DVD burner
  • OS: 64-bit Windows 7 Home

Other computers I considered before buying were the Asus Republic of Gamers line and the Razer Blade. The Asus laptops have great potential, but I’ve seen dozens of reports about ridiculously frustrating problems with their keyboards and touchpads. Razer only has 17” systems right now, and they’re stupidly expensive; basically twice the price of competing systems for only a marginal performance edge.

First impressions
The computer is beautiful and solidly built. I chose the black case because the only other option was the way-too-flashy-for-airports “Nebula Red.” The M14x is definitely heavier than it looks. I don’t know the exact weight but according to the web site it’s just under 7 pounds. The case has a so-called “Soft Touch Finish” that is very pleasant and comforting to the touch.

I was a little bit panicked, however, when I saw the disappointing Windows Experience Index scores; the graphics scores were a lot worse than I expected. Then I opened up DirectX diagnostics and trembled when it said it was running Intel integrated graphics instead of the NVIDIA chipset I’d paid for!

Turns out, this is because of NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology, which switches between the Intel and NVIDIA chipsets depending on what programs you’re running. The NVIDIA software automatically detects many games (both Second Life and Skyrim already had profiles), but you can add your own profiles as well. *whew*

The M14x has the most beautiful display I’ve ever seen on a laptop. The picture is crisp, bright, and colorful. One jarring detail- the screen has a very glossy finish and it basically operates as a mirror when the screen is black. I do not notice any reflections while viewing my desktop or when playing games, though, because the image is so bright.

I will also note that the speakers on this thing are pretty amazing. They’re far better than any laptop speakers I’ve heard before, with a rich, loud sound.

When you start playing games or doing other things that tax the system, the laptop’s fan kicks into high gear. It’s a little loud for a laptop fan, but at least the thing seems to be earning its keep, as the computer does not seem to get anywhere near as hot as the Gateway or Lenovo laptops I’ve previously used to play games.

I guess I should mention the crazy lighting features. The keyboard is both backlit and has character lighting for the individual keys. I really like having lit keys because I frequently compute in the dark. This computer comes with a control panel where you can change the color of the keys, the touchpad, the “Alienware” title under the screen, the eyes of the power button, and the power and HD activity lights. You can even animate the colors. It’s kind of ridiculous. I ordered it to default to red (the most readable color) and haven’t messed with changing the settings at all.

To gauge how the M14x performs in games I compared it against two of our desktops, and a multimedia laptop. I used a 1600x900 monitor for the other three systems; the same resolution as my M14x’s screen. Before the tests I reset the NVIDIA control panel settings to the factory defaults, except I forced Vertical Sync off, to allow each card to reach its full potential.

Below are the quick specs of each system. The Toshiba Satellite E205 laptop is the only one that doesn’t have NVIDIA graphics of some kind; it has integrated Intel graphics. The “Antec P183” system is a home-built desktop. The Dell XPS-8300 is an off-the-shelf desktop we got for home server use, with my old graphics card installed. The Toshiba Satellite E205 is a 2-year-old multimedia laptop, with a large hard drive and wireless video streaming capabilities.


The differences between the systems were immediately apparent when I ran the video benchmarking suites on them. 3DMARK VANTAGE tests DirectX 10 capabilities, and it ran on every system. 3DMARK 11 is specific to DirectX 11, which has special hardware requirements, and it only ran on the Antec and Alienware systems.

3DMark Vantage overall score
  • Antec P183: 21,785
  • Dell XPS 8300: 11,168
  • Alienware M14x: 6,294
  • Satellite E205: 384
3DMark 11 overall score
  • Antec P183: 6,108
  • Dell XPS 8300: n/a
  • Alienware M14x: 1,325
  • Satellite E205: n/a

The Antec system scored over 3 times higher on the DirectX 10 test, and over 4 times higher on the DirectX 11 tests. That sounds pretty dire until you realize that the Antec scored an amazing 57 times higher than the Satellite E205, which spent most of its time rendering at 0-1 FPS.

SECOND LIFE (Official 3.x Viewer)
On the M14x, the official Second Life viewer defaulted to “High” graphics mode. I performed the test in a maximized Window, since I never run SL in “full screen” mode (and neither do most people I know). I did tests in two different regions; one with a lot of prims but no meshes or sculpties, and another in a store that made heavy use of meshes. Gameplay was very smooth; I experienced zero perceptible client-side lag.

I decided to see what happened under Second Life’s “Ultra” graphics mode, and ran into a problem. All in-world graphics in the viewer turned solid white on the M14x. Second Life still worked, but I couldn’t see where I was going or what was around me. The menus and other parts of the viewer user interface were still visible. I posted a thread asking for help with this, but found no answers. My NVIDIA driver version on the laptop is 269.37, which is the most recent Dell-certified driver for my computer. My two desktops had no problems with Ultra mode, and the E205 operated in Ultra, but took longer than a second to render each frame, so it was completely unusable.

Second Life average FPS (high prim, no mesh)
  • Antec P183: 140.0
  • Dell XPS 8300: 124.5
  • Alienware M14x: 52.0
  • Satellite E205: 6.5
Second Life average FPS (high mesh)
  • Antec P183: 62.5
  • Dell XPS 8300: 47.5
  • Alienware M14x: 23.5
  • Satellite E205: 2.5
Despite Skyrim’s cutting-edge graphics, it performed much better (on all systems) than Second Life or the other games I tested. Even the E205 managed to get 12 FPS in Ultra mode! The M14x had no trouble with Skyrim running at native resolution, in Ultra mode. Gameplay was smooth and everything looked great. Note that there’s very little performance difference between the High and Ultra modes.

Skyrim “High” mode average FPS
  • Antec P183: 245.0
  • Dell XPS 8300: 151.5
  • Alienware M14x: 65.5
  • Satellite E205: 12.5
Skyrim “Ultra” mode average FPS
  • Antec P183: 232.5
  • Dell XPS 8300: 149.5
  • Alienware M14x: 63.5
  • Satellite E205: 12.0
World of Warcraft was intentionally designed to play well on lower-end systems, but in recent years they have added realistic water and shadows that can tax older computers. The game was no problem for the M14x, even in Ultra mode. Interestingly, the performance spread between the laptop and the desktops was the smallest on World of Warcraft than for the Second Life and Skyrim. The desktops were only 20% faster than the M14x on WoW, whereas they rendered frames four times faster in Skyrim.

World of Warcraft “Ultra” mode average FPS
  • Antec P183: 55.5
  • Dell XPS 8300: 56.0
  • Alienware M14x: 46.0
  • Satellite E205: 9.0
Like World of Warcraft, the spread between the M14x and the desktops was quite small, but the gap between the M14x and the E205 was enormous. The M14x plays Minecraft every bit as well as the NVIDIA-equipped desktops, but five times faster than the laptop with Intel graphics.

World of Warcraft “Ultra” mode average FPS
  • Antec P183: 77.0
  • Dell XPS 8300: 74.0
  • Alienware M14x: 76.0
  • Satellite E205: 8.0
While it’s no match against a gaming desktop in terms of raw perfomance, the M14x still validates the gaming laptop as a viable platform for PC games. The computer absolutely crushed the non-gaming Satellite E205 (which struggled even with Minecraft), and delivered perfectly seamless performance at native screen resolution in every game I played.

FPS only really matters when things begin to drop down below the mid-20s, where the human eye begins to be able to perceive individual frames (and responsiveness suffers, since most games only check keyboard/mouse activity between frames). I am extraordinarily pleased with this computer, and I expect it to serve me well for the next few years.

  • Plays all my games at high quality without any hiccups.
  • Gorgeous screen.
  • Small and sturdy build.
  • Amazing speakers.
  • Perfectly acceptable (if not mind-blowing) gaming performance.
  • Pleasant to the touch, fun to hold.
  • I don’t like staring at my reflection when the screen’s black.
  • The fan is a tad loud when the PC’s working hard.
  • Heavier than I’d like, but still lighter than larger or older laptops I’ve used.
  • Second Life Ultra mode has rendering issues, at least with the official viewer. This may be something a driver update fixes in the future.
  • Like many newer laptops, this computer lacks a PC Card/Cardbus slot, since there’s not much use for laptop add-on cards these days. It has plenty of other nifty slots and ports though.
  • The computer doesn’t have a “hot-swappable” battery. The battery’s actually internal, and it appears that you have to remove the base of the computer to remove it. This means that you can’t easily switch out batteries on long flights, but it also means you don’t have a bulky battery sticking out the back of your laptop either, so it’s a trade-off.

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