I never intended this to be a gaming review as I haven’t been a regular gamer since after I graduated from college and started working to pay the bills. But I am an avid movie watcher and I do a lot of photo and video editing. So my criteria for a laptop, since I also like to take my work wherever I go, is one that is light and powerful enough for photo and video editing. I’ve experimented with business and multimedia laptops and in all the years I’ve always, always, been disappointed. I’ve tried my hands on Apple, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo (formerly IBM), Sony and Toshiba, and hand in heart I can say in all honesty I can get my work done but I have time spare to watch TV, eat a meal or snack, and in a few cases take a shower (too much info?).

Then I read about Alienware computers – machines built from the ground up for serious gamers. The distinctive “sci-fi” styling, reminding us that we are not alone, together with the flashing logo/ keyboard and what looks like front headlights of the batmobile, give Alienware machines an eerie look if left alone in the dark.

I got a chance to try out the smallest gaming laptop on the planet courtesy of Ogilvy PR in Hong Kong. I was surprised at the simplistic packaging the laptop came in. I was even more surprised at the heft (2 kg) this tiny 11.25″ x 9.19″ x 1.29″ came in with. The magnesium-alloy chassis looks and feels thicker making the business-standard Thinkpad look like a plastic toy in comparison. I actually thought that Alienware machines were built from slabs of steel.

What I Like
Honestly, I didn’t like the keyboard when I saw it on photos. I still didn’t like it when I looked at a unit at the Dell display store in Wanchai. But after spending some time typing and banging away, I just had to shut up. The individual keys hold a traditional shape that is slightly curved in the middle of each key. Key spacing is quite good and each key has the perfect amount of feedback with minimal side travel. Some nights I had to work with the lights out in the bedroom and the LED backlit with transparent key frame were a blessing. You have to be a Trekker to appreciate the futuristic font look of the key labels. More importantly, the support frame beneath the keyboard is rock solid.

For an 11 incher, the Alienware MX11 R3 doesn’t skimp on ports (My work laptop a Dell E4310 has one USB 2.0 and a USB/e-sata combo port). It comes with one USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, FireWire, a 3-in-1 media card slot, Ethernet, standard audio jack, and two video out options: HDMI and DisplayPort.

What I Don’t Like
Apart from the hefty size-to-weight (pound for pound this is a heavy machine), it also gets reasonably hot underneath despite the backlit fan (very quiet) which tries to desperately cool down the machine. I don’t want to speculate what the laptop would feel like without the fan.

Some reviewers pounce on the glossy display which makes it very difficult to read the screen in the outdoors but you can correct this with one of those anti-glare screen protectors which most laptop owners do anyway to protect their investments. Of course you have to taper it a bit since the overall shape of the display is not exactly rectangular. A more serious problem might be the very narrow viewing sweet spot on the MX11. If you move your head just a little bit you won’t see an completely black screen during dark scenes in a game (also applies when video or photo editing!).

I know this is a gaming machine but why did Alienware decide to be stingy with the Synaptics touchpad? Yes the honeycomb textured surface makes for smooth, controlled finger movement and the buttons are responsive but it’s very small! Note to Alienware engineers – checkout the Macbook Air and learn!

One Other Thing
The MX11 comes pre-installed with Windows 7 Home 64-bit. But the truly important software is the Command Center. The clearly laid out and intuitive user interface allows the case illumination to be adjusted (AlienFX), as well as configuring the power options (AlienFusion), and the touchpad (AlienTouch).

Rumour has it that optical drives are on the way out. Apple appears to spearhead this drive with recent hardware releases missing optical drives. I actually thought the MX11 would have a slot loading drive. But it doesn’t. Do I need one? I actually rarely use the optical drive on my E4310 but it is handy on those occasions when I need to install software from disc, watch a DVD from a disc, or burn a DVD. But I can’t say I’ll be willing to pay extra for it.

The 15″ and 17″ siblings of the MX11 have twin vents on the front of the laptop which is part of the cooling system. I really don’t understand why Alienware technicians decided to forego this feature on the MX11. Maybe it’s an internal design constraint?

Did I mention that the battery is built-in? Laptop aficionados might scowl at this but compared to Apple, Dell understands that the battery is user replaceable. The MX11 has a single massive cover panel for the battery, hard drive, wireless cards and memory slots and uses eight standard Phillips screws for easy disassembly. Current Apple laptops are 100% non-user replaceable so that Apple can charge you a steep price for additional memory or to replace your battery or hard drive. How is that for customer friendly design? Alienware even designed the screws with retention clips so they don’t fall out when unscrewing. Something Steves and Co might want to think about if it truly cares what customers think. Fat chance!

Most reviews I’ve seen of the MX11 point to an odd approach taken with the Klipsch speakers. The downward-firing drivers located on the bottom front end means that the sound can be muffled if you put your laptop on a flat surface. Alienware engineers did include two small sound channels into the chassis to redirect sound forward through the two decorative LED panels on the front but for my money this is not good enough. Of course I shouldn’t complain since most other laptops use tiny speakers making it almost mandatory to keep a pair of headsets ready for those odd moments when you want to listen to music, watch a video or hold a conference call via Skype. MX11 designers included two headphone jacks!

Would I buy an MX11 as my permanent laptop? Pound for pound, the MX11 is true value for money. You get the power typically found in larger, heavier and more expensive machines, yes even against Apple, at a much lower price point. Bravo Dell for finally making Alienware the gaming machine for the masses.

TECH SPEC (At a Glance):
Processor: Intel® Core™ i7-2617M 1.5GHz (2.6GHz w/Turbo Boost, 4MB Cache)
Operating: System Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium 64bit Multi-Language (Traditional Chinese / English)
Display: 11.6″ (29.5cm) WLED HD (720p) display (WXGA 1366X768)
Graphics: Dual graphics with Intel HD Graphics 3000 and 2.0GB DDR3 NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M
Memory: 8GB DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz (upgradeable to 16GB)
Hard Drive: 750GB 7500RPM (upgradeable to 256GB SSD)
Connectivity: Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, 375 Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, integrated SIM card port
Camera: 2.0 Megapixel Camera with dual digital microphones
Battery: 8-cell
Price: HK$11,999 (USD1,548)

Other Review:
Compreviews: http://compreviews.about.com/od/PC-Gaming-Laptops/fr/Alienware-M11x-Spring-2011.htm
Notebook Check: http://www.notebookcheck.net/Review-Alienware-M11x-R3-Gaming-Notebook.51236.0.html
Alienware Video Review

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People often ask me what’s the difference a netbook and a laptop. The answer lies in what you plan to use it for. A sales rep worth his salt will ask you what you want to use it for before making any recommendation. By default people look at aesthetics as the first criteria when selecting a laptop. Another often used criteria is price. In reality we should list out more than looks when deciding on an expensive investment like a laptop. In fact looks should be the last thing you think of when deciding what to buy.

  • Portability (weight and size)
  • Functionality (screen size, keyboard size, connectivity, computing power, heat dissipation)
  • Aesthetics (look and feel)

Some people want to have a laptop at home over a desktop so they can easily move from living room, to bedroom, to dining table, to just about anywhere in the house. For them a laptop with a screen size of 14 inch or higher is ok. But if you have to lug your laptop from home to office or other places, a 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) laptop may be all you want to own as you need to add the weight of the adapter (at least 1 lb) or the extended 6-cell battery (1 lb or more). If you add the carry bag and the external DVD-CDROM drive (1 lb), you could easily exceed 3 kg  (6.6 lb) by time you leave your house.

The good news is that there are a variety of laptops out in the market today. You have a choice. You just have to think things through before you take out your wallet.

As a traveling person, my choices are down to a  laptop with a 12″ screen (maybe smaller but nothing smaller than 10″ otherwise you can tire easily reading or writing a document on an 8″ screen – been there done that). Wireless connectivity is important for work (and leisure if you ae active on facebook or other social networking platforms). Having a built-in camera (1.3MB or up) is great bonus since I like to stay in touch with my family using Skype. I used to own a Dell Latitude D410 laptop that would last me 2.5 hours of normal use on a 6-cell battery. Of course this is not good for me particularly when I am traveling on business as I do presentations, check emails, write and go over notes intermittently over a 10-hour day.

Lucky for me, I was upgraded to a Lenovo Thinkpad X200. It had everything I needed in terms of screen size (12.1″), connectivity (WiFi), security (comes with a built-in finger-print scanner), computing power (Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz with 3MB L2 cache). At 4 lbs (1.8 kg) though it gets very heavy quickly since I bring it with me every day. Don’t get me wrong, the Thinkpad X200 belongs to the ultra-portable category and holds enough of everything I need to do most of what I need for work and play. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if it came in 2 lbs lighter.

Asus is credited with starting the netbook craze. Netbooks are the true ultra-portable laptops. At 2 lbs or under, these are truly backpack friendly computers. So what’s the catch? Everything else (depending on your view)! Netbooks come with smaller screens (10 in or under), smaller keyboards (70% smaller keys), less USB ports, and most importantly – less computing power. The good news is that the smaller screen, fewer features (meaning less components) and lower processing power means longer battery life. Netbooks are purported to keep you tapping on your screen from 5-12 hours (depending on make, model and number of battery cells).

At the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, China’s very own Lenovo was one of the earliest vendors to announce a slew of netbooks based around Microsoft Windows 7 (not retrofitted like many of the netbooks and laptops launched in 2009). One such announcement was the Lenovo Thinkpad X100e.

I was very happy when Lenovo’s Hong Kong PR agency (Text100) offered to let me test drive the new Thinkpad X100e. (more…)