Almost two years after reviewing a flagship notebook like Alienware's own Aurora m9700 SLI, it seems little has changed in the notebook world if you are a gamer. Although the Area-51 m15x is considerably more powerful than the Aurora, it still suffers from many of the same problems we complained about back then.
The performance of the Alienware Area-51 m15x is impressive for a notebook, we will give it that much. However, when compared to a budget desktop gaming system, it did not fair all that well and for the most part it was slightly slower.
As noted before, there are obvious implications on why we shouldn't be comparing a notebook to a desktop system, but having that said, we feel that the comparison needs to be made.
As we see it, the Area-51 m15x is intended to be a desktop replacement for LAN goers. Rather than packing up your desktop case, LCD screen, keyboard, mouse, and cables, it is much easier and nicer to simply unfold a notebook and get it on.
Unfortunately for gamers this has become a bit of a pipe dream, as most notebooks are grossly underpowered, and those that come close, like the Area-51 m15x, cost a small fortune. This leaves gamers with the obvious choice of an expensive mobile notebook, or an affordable less convenient desktop, and this is a choice you will have to make.
Considering that our Core 2 Duo E7200 desktop system costs about $800, I could personally put up with the minor inconvenience of having to carry a bit more hardware to my next LAN.
Since the Area-51 m15x is designed exclusively for gaming, there is something that has me a little baffled. At 15.4” the LCD screen makes reading text a serious chore with the 1920x1200 resolution, and without any tweaks the Windows Vista start button measures just 6mm wide.
This makes me wonder why anyone would want such a powerful 15.4" notebook. Using the high-performance profile, the notebook drains a single 6-cell battery in under 30 minutes. This is about long enough to boot up the computer, load Unreal Tournament 3, join a game and maybe get in a few kills. Obviously the Area-51 m15x is smaller and lighter than the Area-51 m17x, but at three pounds more are you really going to sacrifice the extra LCD real estate? Another way to go would be keeping the 15.4" screen but choosing the less expensive WideXGA+ 1440x900 LCD.
The other problem that this smaller design presents affects the cooling as we found the Area-51 m15x to be quite a hot little unit. When at idle the CPU would sit at 51 degrees, the GPU 56 degrees and the HDD 38 degrees. Then when stressed the CPU reached 93 degrees, the GPU 88 degrees and the HDD managed to hit 47 degrees.
Reaching a maximum temperature of 93 degrees for the Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor is not good, and over long periods could potentially damage either the CPU or the motherboard. Although we did not suffer from any problems during the few weeks our testing lasted, this is where a good warranty may have to kick in eventually. Alienware offers a 1-year limited warranty with on-site and 24/7 phone support with the notebook, then a 2 or 3-year extension for an added cost of $200 or $300, respectively.
Battery life is not great, though this is to be expected for any gaming-oriented notebook. Using two 6-cell batteries we got about 55 minutes of gameplay using the high-performance profile, and just under two hours (1:50 minutes) using the not preferred balanced profile - a single battery would last half as long. Also with a single battery installed, the Area-51 m15x lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes when sitting at the Windows Vista desktop.
Alienware is generally known for their excellent build quality, though we found the Area-51 m15x to be a little flimsy for our taste. The LCD screen would flex far more than we would have liked when opening the Area-51 m15x and to make matters worse it sounded like an old wooden ship. Furthermore, our sample had a crack under the webcam, which was no doubt caused by the flexing of the LCD when opening the lid. The rest of the notebook seemed quite solid, with the only apparent weakness being the lid.
Of course, one of the hardest things to look past is the price tag, as our sample configuration cost $4770, and at this price it does not include a carry case or even a mouse. However, a more sensible configuration will cost roughly $2600 by our estimations. This includes the 1920x1200 resolution LCD, Core 2 Duo T8300 processor, GeForce 8800M GTX graphics card, 2GB of DDR2 memory, 160GB 7200 RPM hard drive, and a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate edition.
Overall the Alienware Area-51 m15x is a good gaming notebook, and for those wanting the most compact gaming solution possible, it’s probably one of the best out there. But as we have mentioned, the Area-51 m15x is far from perfect, and while it manages to cram a lot of powerful hardware into a limited space, it does nothing to correct the numerous issues that plague gaming notebooks.