I recently moved on from my IT Manager job within the NSW Government, and a top priority for me was to buy a new notebook and desktop computer - the old ones having gone back to my employer. I don't use a desktop myself, but the family does for various purposes, and they've fallen in love with the All-in-one touchscreen style; I'll review that one next. I'm in the habit of using a notebook for everything, and I find I need a fairly high powered specification to meet my many and varied needs, including;
- A/V editing and rendering
- graphics editing
- running multiple virtual machines
- and, of course, more general usage
While my work notebooks have grown ever greater in power, they've never totally suited my needs - the closest I'd come was a HP Elitebook, but I've found the HP offerings can be quite inflexible and limiting within my price range. There are plenty of HP notebooks that do suit people, and I feel they're quite good for business use (with a decent SOE), but I really couldn't find something from HP that had everything I wanted within my budget. I was particularly keen to have at least 16gb RAM, dual HDD, Blu-ray, DVD-RW, and a good GPU. I was particularly set on an Nvidia GPU, having had less than satisfactory experiences with the ATI/AMD offering in the past. I also really wanted to move up to a 17" screen - 15" has been sending me blind of late, and I really like to use my notebook anywhere and everywhere. I don't want to be tethered to a monitor.
ASuS came close, but they didn't offer the flexibility for configuration that I wanted, and their site was confusing and unintuitive. I do have an ASuS notebook that my eldest daughter uses, bought second hand and which is really great - but at the end of the day, their specs didn't cut it Much the same with Lenovo in terms of configuration, and I've never really been a fan of the Thinkpad and their ilk. So it was that after a lot of research for alternates, I trundled off to Dell. I've had a mixed bag with Dell over the years - having bought 2 notebooks from them myself in days of yore, and having had them as our PC and notebook fleet at my employer, before they dropped off the contract (temporarily) and we found ourselves having to switch to HP. They have their good and bad, and I certainly have my share of both positive and negative - and a couple of horror stories. Frankly, for service in particular, HP had proven to be more reliable - but still by no means perfect.
These are considered risks, though. I've certainly always found that after making enough noise, I could get my issues resolved, whether by Dell, HP, or whoever else. I question any business that makes it a necessity to make noise as a matter of course in order to get faults resolved under warranty, but as I haven't purchased any desktops or notebooks from Dell for over 3 years - I'm happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. I found that there were two Dell lines which could meet my needs to a lesser or greater extent. The XPS 17 could come close, if I navigated the right way through the Dell customisation to get the specs I wanted. You had to pick the Nvidia 3D graphics, then change the screen type to 3D, then go back to RAM to change it from 8Gb to 16Gb - the only way that this configuration became available.
Not that I really wanted 3D - I didn't. But I was willing to consider it for the sake of getting 16Gb RAM, and on the surface the XPS 17 looks like a nice package. But as I came to understand the various benefits and pitfalls, I did hit a dealbreaker - the 3D package would disable NVidia's Optimus technology, which I absolutely wanted. Good battery life is important to me, as is at least 16Gb RAM, and without the 3D configuration, I was limited to 8Gb. This was a shame, since the XPS with the specifications I as happy to accept was a cheaper price than the alternative - the Alienware. I also noted other issues, including the lack of an inbuilt VGA port - which is still important to me. A Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter was available with the XPS 15, but not the XPS 17 - one of the typical annoying aspects of the Dell site, along with the inability to purchase it as a separate accessory. This was a minor consideration in some ways, but as this purchase is for a machine to last me for quite some years, I wanted to be totally happy with it, and not to have to hunt around for more accessories after the fact.
For this reason, I also started to think about whether I'd be happy on an ongoing basis with the Nvidia GTX 555M GPU. I certainly saw some negative points from gamers on this, and while I'm not a hardcore PC gamer, I want my games to run well and look as good as possible, preferably for quite some time to come. Equally, I'm aware that GPU acceleration is steadily creeping into many different software packages beyond gaming. On top of this, I noted concerns from various online sources over a low number of USB ports, reports of poor cooling, the keyboard layout, LED placement, and so on - it was enough to turn me against the XPS, in spite of the price point.
So on to Alienware. I was certainly aware of them before their acquisition by Dell, and I'd heard some seriously nice feedback over the years. I can't say I'd seriously looked at them before, and this was a purchase I was putting some serious time into researching before jumping. There were two notebook models of interest to me, the M17X R3 and the M18X. The M18X looks like an amazing piece of hardware, especially with the dual GPU with SLI - but I don't need quite that much power to justify the significant jump in price, which put it outside of budget for me.
The M17X R3, at least, could - just - squeeze within the absolute high end of my budget (after finding a good discount coupon). It allowed a 16Gb RAM configuration without any restrictions on video card, it met the dual HDD requirement, and as a bonus, it offered the high end NVidia GTX 580M GPU. I could configure Bluray with DVD-RW capabilities - I didn't want a Bluray writer. And it essentially addressed all the concerns that had arisen with the XPS - for example, not only did it have the integrated VGA port I wanted, it still featured mini-Display Port, along with HDMI output and HDMI input. It was a tough call, given the price jump from the XPS 17, but in the end I went with it.
If I could pick a real concern that arose, it would be the look of the notebook. I was primarily basing this on pictures from the Dell website - it didn't look quite so professional as the XPS. I'd say that this holds true, but there is certainly a "coolness" (to me at least) to its looks that, on reflection, I don't mind at all. In fact, it's a bit refreshing to have something different from the typical dull gray that my notebooks have had in recent years. I do think it's really cool that you get a custom laser-etched nameplate on the bottom of the notebook, and that you can pick the default wallpaper and user account picture - not that those two aren't easily changed anyway. The nameplate is a really nice touch, though.
The specification I settled on was as follows;
Alienware M17X R3
2nd generation Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2860QM 2.5GHz (3.6GHz with Turbo Boost, 8MB Cache)
16GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM(4x4GB)
17.3" (43.94cm) Full HD (1920x1080) WLED LCD Panel
2GB GDDR5 NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 580M
Internal 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet
Killer® Wireless-N 1103 a/g/n 3x3 MIMO for Gaming & Video
Dell Wireless 375 Bluetooth Internal mini-card
2 x 750GB 7200RPM Hard Drive
Slot Load Fixed Blu-ray BD-ROM / DVD + /-RW Combo Drive
AlienFX® Illuminated Keyboard (English)
3.2 MP Integrated WebCam
Integrated 5.1 Stereo Sound
9-cell Primary Battery
Windows® 7 Professional 64bit (English)
3-Year Premier Service
Ordering and Delivery
Ordering was much the same as it's ever been from my past encounters. I had cause to contact Dell sales while preparing for the purchase - the site started having some problems - who then wanted to push me to order through them. From experience, I'm aware that they get commission this way, while they don't for Internet purchases (although I believe that they used to, if you entered their name during the ordering process). While I wasn't totally averse to this, I actually prefer ordering online. I guess it might be the experience of human error in the past, or perhaps just the simplicity of the transaction. I opted to continue with ordering online.
I have some level of frustration with Dell's customisation process - it can certainly be shortsighted or restrictive in nature. For example, I wanted a dual HDD configuration - but I wanted one SSD and one large SATA or Hybrid drive. You could actually choose a hybrid drive in one of the multiple "bundles" for the M17X R3 that Dell has, and that would have been fine - except that bundle came out more expensive than the best priced bundle, for essentially the same configuration. The best priced bundle, with my configuration, didn't offer a hybrid drive - instead, it offered 2 x 750Gb SATA drives in a RAID 0 configuration, or 2 x 256Gb SSD drives in a RAID 0. You could also buy just a 256Gb SSD, but I'll discuss my issue with that in a minute.
You could perhaps argue that this is where Dell sales could have customised it for me, and you may well be right. I have had mixed results with this in the past, and I didn't really think that they could in this instance. In any case, I was happy enough to have a 750Gb SATA drive, and I could handle the idea of having a spare on hand after replacing one with an SSD. I didn't, however, want to buy an SSD through Dell. My reasoning may, or may not, make much sense. Firstly, I wasn't happy that they didn't identify what SSD would be supplied. There are SSD's, and then there are SSD's. It's quite possible that Dell provide one of the best performance SSD's with the package - but if they do, this then runs into my second point. They seem to add a premium to the price for an SSD. It didn't seem to reflect the prices for which I could get a good SSD separately, which doesn't make a lot of sense if they can get them wholesale. I didn't identify a similar concern with the SATA drives, and I wanted to get at least one high capacity SATA or Hybrid drive with the notebook. Thirdly, I had previously purchased an SSD which was now unused and - although a SATA 2 standard rather than the SATA 3 supported by the M17X - would do the job and allow me to get good speeds without blowing out the budget.
I was also unimpressed by the inability to deselect McAfee's products from the order. I'm sure Dell get a nice bonus from including this, both from McAfee and from the cost they bundle into the price, but I have a very poor opinion of their products (with some good reason) and never intended to use it. I could forgive this, though, as they actually allow you (by default) to not include any version of Office, unlike pretty much any other part of their range. I have access to Office via MSDN and Technet subscriptions, so this was welcome.
My order was placed, and for the first time I opted to do a bank transfer rather than pay by credit card. This would prove to be a minor mistake when Dell failed to note that payment had been settled for the M17X part of the order - while the other order, for an All-in-one, progressed fine. The sale was automatically cancelled, and I had to get Dell sales to place the order again. Happily this was just a minor hiccup and I had no further problems.
One thing I've never been able to successfully overcome with the "build to order" concept, regardless of the company - the pain of waiting for the system to be built, shipped, and delivered. I'm not prone to hitting refresh every 5 seconds on the status tracker, but the time between placing the orders, system build, shipping, and delivery seemed like an eternity - although in reality it was less than 2 weeks. It's just a symptom of the age of instant gratification, I suppose.
But at long last, my new notebook made it through customs and hit the courier for delivery. There was still a slight snag, but it was no fault of Dell's - I was flying to Singapore on the day it would be delivered! While I hoped it might be delivered before I flew out, so I could take my new system on the road and get it up and running, there was of course very little chance at the outset, and it arrived while I was already en-route to the airport. Oh well - it just meant a few more days before I could unpack it!
The Alienware notebooks come well packed for shipping - in fact, slightly more than necessary, since they put an Alienware box inside an Alienware box. I couldn't help but be surprised to slide out the second box, wondering what the actual point was. But no problem. I've seen HP pack notebooks into what look like server-sized cartons, so this shouldn't have raised an eyebrow. There are a couple of little "nice to have" bonuses which come with the order that I wasn't previously aware of - an Alienware cap, mouse mat, and sticker. The notebook also comes in a cloth sleeve which is actually quite nice, and easily reusable. I'm tempted to use it to avoid scratches and marks when in my bag, which I'm sure is the actual point.
This is by no means a light notebook - you can really feel the 5kg+ that comes from such a feature packed beast. But I wasn't overly concerned about weight. The battery is very well secured by latch, and it's highly unlikely to become lose and drop out (like a couple of notebooks I've had)! There is no latch to hold the screen in place while closed, but the screen itself is rather solid and the hinges seem well designed, so for once it doesn't feel like one is needed.
The "soft touch" casing of the notebook feels quite nice - nothing like the metal feel of my previous HP Elitebook's exterior, or the plastic feel of its interior bezel. It doesn't really feel like plastic, it's quite a pleasant texture. It feels quite solid too. This carries over to the keyboard and touchpad. The layout of both of these is basically perfect for me - once again I have a full sized keyboard with numeric pad - plus backlight now, which is terrific. The touchpad is larger than I'm accustomed to, which is not at all bad. Keys and touchpad are responsive and tactile, and I'm extremely happy with both feel and operation.
I really love the WLED LCD Panel - it certainly puts me in mind of a typical Macbook screen. It can be somewhat reflective, but this of course is down to lighting ... generally having the backlight at the right level seems to be all that's needed. And the 17" screen, coupled with 1920x1080 resolution, is great for readability (no more eyestrain)! Colours are bright and vivid, and it seems evident to me that it's a high quality piece of work. I have no regrets about not getting 3D. At all.
Both the casing and the screen can very easily attract smudges and streaks. These are quite noticeable, but it’s easy enough to wipe them off.
The inbuilt sound is great - really clear, loud, good bass .. absolutely no complaints. I'm not an audiophile at all, but it really does sound terrific.
No fuss in booting up - quite quick and straightforward, with the usual "Who is your daddy and what does he do" questions that come with any OEM install. I was pleased to see that the Alienware range comes with an absolute minimum of crapware (in which I include McAfee), and what is there is easily uninstallable without leaving a trace. I didn't worry about this during the initial boot, though, since I still wanted to get my SSD installed.
One of the pieces of software included with the notebook is Alienware Respawn, which allows you to back up the recovery partition to a DVD or USB stick for recovery to a factory default state. This was my first port of call, and it was very straightforward. I just needed a 4Gb or greater USB stick - no problem, I had a 16Gb one on hand. Within a few minutes, I had the means to replace one of the SATA disks with an SSD and get the system back up quickly. I removed the RAID 0 configuration and switched off the notebook.
Replacing the HDD couldn't have been much easier. Two screws under the battery is all you need to undo to slide off the bottom cover. The RAM and HDDs are easily accessible. The 2.5" HDDs have a small adapter connected to allow easy drive removal in the limited space, and it's easy to take out the drive, remove the adapter, and remove the HDD from its mounting case. I plugged the adapter into the SSD, put it into the mounting case in place of the old HDD, and slide the case back on. I appreciated how easy it was in contrast to some of the past notebooks I've had!
Up the system came, recognising the SSD and allowing me to boot from USB. In no time, the system was back to factory defaults, and with all the software, drivers, and extras that the notebook originally had. I had my fast system drive, and the large secondary HDD that I wanted. I'm sure a SATA3 SSD would be even more amazing, but frankly, the speed of a SATA2 SSD is perfect for my purposes - and it leaves room for a possible upgrade down the road!
I really appreciated the relative lack of crapware. McAfee was soon gone, to be replaced with the free Microsoft Security Essentials - a product which, along with the business-focused Forefront suite, I have a high regard for (and have only positive experience to report). I uninstalled pretty much anything I didn't need, especially if it ran as a service or a system tray - I want the most out of my battery life! There was some Dell software that I lump into this which arguably isn't crapware for everyone - but I have no wish for facial recognition to login at this point, so it was quickly removed. Equally, I don't really want the 2GB online storage for 12 months that Dell insist on foisting on everyone. I really have no complaints with this though, because it was uninstalled with no fuss whatsoever. Alienware Respawn was also removed, since it no longer served its purpose (no more recovery partition, and I didn't need the optional "upgrade” for backup and restore).
One interesting omission from the factory restore was the Widcomm Bluetooth software. I was puzzled to find that there was no way to quickly switch the Bluetooth adapter on or off, until I realised that I was only running Microsoft's standard Bluetooth stack. One quick download from Dell's support site later, and I had the arguably more functional Widcomm software with its convenient desktop tray option to turn the adapter on or off. But this omission really seemed to be the exception to the rule - nothing much else was missing.
I ordered the Alienware with Windows 7 Professional, even though I had MSDN and Technet entitlements to any version of Win7. Realistically, I could have gone with the minimum option of Windows 7 Home Premium, but I hadn't decided whether I'd subsequently upgrade it to a higher SKU at the time. In any case, I did an Anytime Upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate more or less straight away. I like having the availability of Bitlocker, and this is one of the SKUs that feature it. There's not a lot of massive benefit to Ultimate, but I have licensing for it, so I used it.
The Anytime Upgrade, as always, is a screwy process which has never worked exactly as intended, in my experience. As per past experiences, I plugged in my retail key for Ultimate, validated it, started the upgrade, and was promptly informed that I couldn't do the upgrade. And then, exactly as I've found in the past, I reboot and it promptly does the upgrade during the reboot process. Go figure, but at least it ends up with me running the intended SKU.
I also installed the Windows Home Server 2011 Connector to the notebook, and Firefox 7 soon after. It was here that I did encounter a problem specifically related to the Alienware offering - the WHS 2011 launchpad couldn't connect to my WHS, and Firefox couldn't browse websites. It didn't take much for me to figure out that there was a DLL - BfLLR.dll - which was causing the SMSvcHost.exe process to crash. This process is the Net.Tcp Port Sharing Service, and it would seem that both the WHS 2011 Connector and Firefox 7 are dependent on this service working.
BfLLR.dll proved to belong to the Killer Network Manager app, which is part of the Killer Wireless-N 1103 Network Adapter. Updating the driver made no difference, and there was no option to install the driver without the manager. Ultimately, I took a copy of the Killer Network Manager installation folder, uninstalled it, and then added the driver by searching the KNM folder using Device Manager. This gave me a driver-only installation, and everything then "magically" worked. I've since reported the problem to Bigfoot Networks, the maker of the Killer cards, since of course I'd like for KNM to operate properly and give me the full functionality that it offers.
I'm happy to report that this was the only Alienware specific issue I encountered. Everything else went flawlessly, and it was easy to get my notebook setup to my typical preference, with all my usual software. The notebook runs like a dream, especially with the SSD, and the speeds are just fantastic.
As is my wont, I made a run for driver updates. I like to keep everything up to date, and my experience with Nvidia in the past has indicated that this in particular is a good idea. I did manage to identify one specific caveat though - don't update the Intel HD Graphics driver with the generic Intel version from Intel.com (and, presumably, the one offered by Microsoft Update) when you have a secondary GPU! Use the manufacturer provided driver only, even if it is an older version. The reason? Using the generic Intel driver effectively disables proper operation of the "Switchable Graphics" feature - this is the Intel feature that allows NVidia Optimus to work. Essentially Optimus will ensure you automatically use the Intel graphics for maximum battery life, only using the NVidia GPU for applications that require the performance. I did try the Intel generic driver, and my battery life was *at least* halved. Reverting to the older Dell-supplied driver restored my battery life to a far more friendly 4 - 5 hours of active use.
This is the only real gotcha I could find - updating the Nvidia drivers to newer versions from the Nvidia website seems to have no such side effects. In a lot of cases, there's no reason to hunt down a newer driver than the Dell one - but Nvidia is a definite exception, since they regularly add and improve features and performance.
One aspect of the Alienware notebook that I can't help but love is AlienFX. By default, Dell Australia ship the system with a red backlight scheme for the keyboard, logo, touchpad, and grills - but you can change this directly from the AlienFX software. It splits the keyboard and various other backlit areas into zones that can be set to a wide range of colours, all different if you like, and even add effects such as blinking, or a slow transition between colours. It's cool, and has a lot of features, but in my case I used it to set the backlight to blue across the board. I like blue.
Another cool aspect of the M17X is the Alien head power button. This serves as a visual indicator for multiple purposes, including power on, charging, and low battery (and you can customise this with AlienFX too). The Alien's eyes are the HDD activity indicator! I also like the special function row (eg. volume, track forward/back, eject, wireless on/off).. they aren't touch sensitive like the typical HP layout, which ultimately proves a pain. They're proper buttons, flush with the notebook bezel and depressing slightly when touched. They have a satisfying feel and can't be accidentally triggered like with HP notebooks .. and once again, you can change their colour.
AlienFX also has an optional "dim lighting zones while on battery" setting which pretty much addresses any concern I'd have about leaving it on while on battery. Of course, you can also choose "Go Dark" from the handy system tray icon to switch them off on the fly. Along with AlienFX, there is also AlienFusion (power settings) and AlienTouch (touchpad settings). These are really just themed apps to manage the same settings that you can change elsewhere, but that's fine. It can certainly help to bubble up settings that might otherwise take some finding, so it still makes sense.
The supplied wallpaper and user account pictures are cool – all based on the Alien theme, of course. You do, however, get just the standard Windows 7 taskbar and interface. I stumbled across a download from an Alienware site, though, called "AlienGUIse", which adds some very nice alien-themed effects to your overall interface. It works very well, and I like the look of it - in just a couple of cases, though, it does cause UI problems within applications (like Seesmic Desktop), but you can add exceptions within the MyColors / AlienGUIse app to use the standard theme for this. It really added a nice touch to my new notebook, so I've adopted it!
Battery life is really, really good when Optimus is working properly - and, of course, depending on your usage. For simple word processing, with the Balanced power scheme customised to be fairly aggressive on power savings, and without any breaks, I can easily get 5 hours. Even with relatively heavy usage, I still get respectable results. I'd love a 12 cell battery for this baby, but in truth - the battery life I'm getting is better than I could achieve with a HP Elitebook that had a secondary battery. That's not bad at all.
The M17X R3 can be quite an expensive piece of kit if you want to spec it as highly as I have - but I have to say that I feel it's been worth the cost. It’s by far the best computer I’ve yet had. Adding my own SSD most likely did save me money, especially since I was happy to use a SATA2 SSD rather than SATA3. My final thoughts are that it's high quality, high performance, and packed with value for the power user or gamer. If you can stretch the budget to afford it, it's definitely worth a look.
Browse more posts:
Enjoyed this post?
Help us spread the word by sharing with friends and colleagues!