It wasn't all that long ago that PALGN's Melbourne staff got caught up in the Alienware cyclone, whisked away to the city fringes to experience the extravagant and bizarre Alienware Area-51 event, where taking a break from pyrotechnic explosions and gun fire allowed us to catch a squiz at the company's cutting edge hardware packages. Though desktop PCs were not without a presence, it was the gamer focused laptops and notebooks strutting their stuff in the spotlight, showcasing an assortment of games from Portal 2 and Crysis 2 to Bulletstrom and Medal of Honour. In hindsight, we guess we didn't escape the gunfire at all.
The important point is that we had a fun night, and to keep the good times rolling Alienware decided to delight us with some personal one-on-one time with one of their top products. A grand ol' box
shipped straight to our door, no doubt to the frustration of our local Australia Post worker, we ripped off the packaging to find inside the Alienware M17x, one of Alienware's high end laptops. Geared towards the gamer who must have everything, and have it anywhere, we were challenged to put the boasted hardware power to the test, and test it we did. But first, the specs! Here's the numbers.
- CPU: Intel Core i7-2720QM @ 2.20GHz
- RAM: 8GB DDR3
- GPU: AMD Radeon HD 6970M 1024MB GDDR5 VRAM
- Screen: 17.3" LCD @ 1920x1080
- HDD: 1.5TB
- Extras: HDMI out, wireless capabilities, USB ports, DVD drive, speakers, web cam, etc.
A couple of notes; the screen is crystal clear and wonderful to look at, featuring great colours, contrast ratio and brightness. We noticed no ghosting or blurring during gameplay. The speakers too are surprisingly good, with easily adjustable volume above the keyboard, a necessity when angering commuters with your violence and profanity filled video games.
We at PALGN believe in striving for the best, and when that comes to testing hardware that means grabbing the latest, greatest games and cranking the graphics to eleven to make those transistors melt.
Naturally, our first call to arms was Crysis 2, Crytek's impressive first person shooter boasting high graphical fidelity thanks to their in-house engine CryEngine 3. Installed and patched, we flipped the graphics switches to Ultra on all details, which includes post processing, geometry, textures and more, to see how the M17x would perform. Note that we chose not to use the optional post-release high definition texture pack and DirectX 11 features (as well as VSync off), as we wished to test Crysis 2 under maxed out vanilla graphical options.
Our mission of choice was 'Sudden Impact', the third mission of the game, chosen for it's variety of human, alien and vehicle combat, scripted cinematic sequences, and heavy action set pieces, the latter
of which would do a good job of crunching numerous AI calculations while rendering dense particle effects from explosions. Though performance was far from an ideal 60fps, given the portability and size of the system the in game frame rate was well within playability, fluctuating around 30fps during small scale combat and navigation through levels. This made navigating the game's environments and dispatching of encountered enemies a smooth experience free of any significant performance woes. However, the frame rate did take a beating towards the latter half of the chapter, due to the large increase in enemy combatants, relentless barrage of enemy gun fire and explosions, and our own 'unstoppable terminator' play style which involved ripping a mounted heavy machine gun from its vehicle and blasting everything that moved to hell and back.
Though we still found the game quite playable, frequently dropping below 30fps during intense action in an action heavy game wont be acceptable for everyone. But as we said, this was Crysis 2 with all the bells and whistles. Given the scalability of the graphics engine, one could easily drop a few of the more demanding settings to lower values and squeeze some extra frames out, which should result in a near consistent 30+fps at a crystal clear 1920x1080. Not too shabby at all.
Following up an intensive game like Crysis 2 was going to be hard, but we had just the right thing in mind; the critically acclaimed The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Developed by Polish studio CD Projekt RED, The Witcher 2 followed in the footsteps of Crysis 2 in earning a reputation for featuring cutting edge, hardware pushing graphics. Like most modern games The Witcher 2 is loaded with gorgeous post processing and shader effects, and densely packed game environments, but is perhaps best regarded for it's gigantic draw distances and sprawling environments, coloured with super high resolution textures that remain some of the best in the industry to date. This made The Witcher 2 perfect for testing modern hardware, and just like Crysis 2 we made sure all gaphical settings were set to maximum, except for the famous ubersampling. For those unaware, ubersampling in The Witcher 2 is an anti-aliasing solution that renders the game from multiple viewpoints at a higher than selected resolution, downsampling the rendering for absolute maximum image quality. Though beautiful, ubersampling comes at the price of crippling all but the most powerful desktop graphics processors, and is considered by many as future proofing The Witcher 2's RED Engine technology. As the M17x is not up to this standard (or any laptop for that matter), we would have been mad to use it.
Booting up the game, we chose the very first set of prologue missions to test the game. This set of missions, starting off Geralt's adventure, offered a fairly diverse set of environments thanks to being set during a siege between two warring armies. This meant plenty of enemies for us to fight, as well as many allied and enemy characters battling and interacting. Scaling the castle top allowed us to gauge performance when rendering huge draw distances, while exploring the castle's town showed off more densely packed locals. A climatic battle towards the end of the mission against a huge dragon provided us with your typical and wholly welcome cinematic set piece, cut scenes of which used more advanced animation and depth of field effects than seen in standard gameplay.
Overall performance was, much like Crysis 2, quite mixed, jumping up and down depending on the graphical detail of any given scene. We found the opening camp sequence during the prologue to hurt the frame rate perhaps more than anywhere else, likely due to the wealth of NPCs on screen, various rendering effects, and gigantic draw distance showing of distant mountains and castle battlements. We also found the frame rate to drop during the castle village sequence after the opening siege. However for almost all combat engagements, including the sewer sequence, loading the ballista, and battling across the castle walls, performance was surprisingly good, floating somewhere around 30fps. Again, much like Crysis 2, The Witcher 2 was set to maximum detail. Knocking a few of the more demanding settings down a notch would certainly increase performance while retaining excellent image quality.
At this point our M17x was sweating and panting, so for the last run we pulled on the reigns and took the system down to a lower pace, choosing a title that while still quite nice looking doesn't push hardware as hard as the two previously tested games. For the final stretch we chose none other than Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, the recently released anti-cover action shooter that puts players in the steel boots of an Ultramarine, the Emporer's best warriors. We thought this would be a great send off, as though the game isn't boasting super high resolution textures or rich post processing effects, it does throw a large number of enemies on screen at once, and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace.
Like the last two games we cranked all settings to maximum, and even turned on VSync to eliminate tearing, and unsurprisingly Space Marine performed well above both Crysis 2 and The Witcher 2. For almost our entire playtime, the game sat around 50fps, occasionally hitting a silky smooth 60fps which is about as good as you can get (given the screen's refresh rate). Though we noted a couple of dips, these were very rare, and only at their worst during quirky moments such as the game streaming large chunks of data between main areas. For the actual gameplay, and especially during action, it didn't matter if we were cutting our way through waves or Ork, sniping a distant enemy, or jet packing up to the sky - Space Marine never dipped below 30fps, and felt smooth all the way through. Good stuff.
So how do we feel about the M17x? On paper, the system sounds great, and in practice the laptop performs right up to scratch. Sure, sticklers for a solid framerate wont be able to max out the most recent games and retain an average of 60fps, but to acquire such performance you should be casting eyes towards desktop gaming. For a portable system, the M17x is certainly ahead of the curve, easily able to out perform all modern consoles at a higher resolution, and allows the most demanding modern games to be played at an average of at least 30fps with a little graphical tweaking. This isn't a case of having to lower settings to the very lowest to get adequate performances. Gamers should be able to keep the settings very high for spectacular image quality and great playable framerates.
But all of this performance comes at a price, and we did find that even though it is geared towards the gamer on the go, the M17x is both quite large and draining on the internal battery. It's a difficult balance to find - the importance of keeping a unit suited for portability, and stuffing in enough powerful hardware to keep the graphics hungry gamer happy. Unlike your average notebook, lugging the M17x around on public transport might prove a bit difficult, and gaming on the go eats up the battery pretty quickly (which is expected). But I suppose this is part of the target market - the M17x is a powerful system you can take with you on your travels, and play anywhere in the home, back yard, library, or wherever else you please. It's designed for the gamer who wishes to keep mobile, and there it succeeds.
The last issue is the price. Like most of Alienware's offerings, potential customers are looking at paying a premium top dollar for this premium product, and though a variety of models are on offer, the average consumer best be prepared to pay ~AU$2,500. For that price you could build a killer desktop system, which obviously isn't portable. We'd also like to note that Alienware appears to have updated and tweaked the M17x product line since our review unit arrived, upgrading the laptop to include a 3D capable screen and a faster CPU. Whether or not these justify the price is a call only you can make.
At the end of the day, performance and stability are the most important factors in PC gaming, and in that respect we were very impressed with the Alienware M17x. It looks good, with tons of customisable lights and a sleek external design, plays well when put up against modern games, and does exactly what is advertised, making it a fine purchase for the laptop hungry gamer with plenty of coin to throw around. Finally, we've included a simple bar graph of the minimum, maximum and average framerates we experienced while benchmarking Crysis 2, The Witcher 2 and Space Marine, which should give a good overview of our entire play experience.