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Powerful gaming to-go in Alienware netbook

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 6, 2010

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To judge by the latest sales figures, consumers may have had their fill of $350 netbook computers with cramped keyboards and small screens. So why is Dell Inc. introducing a netbook that costs $1,100, with a cramped keyboard and a small screen?

Because some people can’t get their fill of video games.

The netbook in question is the M11x, developed by Alienware, a Dell subsidiary that deals in ferociously powerful PCs for video gamers. Earlier this year, I praised Alienware’s Aurora ALX, a $4,000, liquid-cooled tower, a behemoth that’s customized to deliver superb performance in best-selling action games like Modern Warfare 2.

But the ALX weighs 45 pounds and won’t fit under an airplane seat. What’s a hardcore player to do at 30,000 feet? Alienware’s answer is a machine that squeezes high-end gaming hardware into a netbook-sized case.

Despite its compact size, the M11x weighs a hefty 4.4 pounds, quite a bit more than most netbooks. But there’s a lot going on within. The typical netbook features a slow, low-end processor, usually an Atom chip from Intel Corp. The M11x has a lot more Intel inside. The base model, priced at $799, includes a dual-core Pentium processor. The $1,099 unit I tested featured an Intel Core 2 Duo chip.

These already powerful chips can be sped up even more through a process called “overclocking,’’ which makes them run faster than their rated speed. The M11x makes overclocking easy, with a command included in the machine’s start-up software. Overclocking can cause overheating, so the Alienware machine has a beefed-up cooling system that adds some extra weight.

Like other netbooks, the M11x has a bare-bones Intel graphics chip that’s good enough for mundane tasks but lousy for rendering the high-resolution graphics found in the best games. But the M11x also features a second graphics processor, a high-end unit from Nvidia Corp., which generates much better images while using a lot more battery power. Alienware lets you switch between the Intel and Nvidia chips using a command on the keyboard. Run the Intel when you’re running spreadsheets or Web surfing, and fire up the Nvidia chip for game time.

The M11x is available with a 256-gigabyte flash memory hard drive, instead of the standard mechanical type. But the one I tested came with a 500-gigabyte traditional drive. Good call; flash memory drives are still quite expensive. Like most netbooks, the M11x doesn’t have a CD or DVD drive. You must install software using an external drive plugged into a USB port or by downloading. Most popular PC software can be bought that way, including games. That’s how I installed my favorite action game of the moment, Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The heavy-duty shooter game has the kind of fast action and realistic graphics that give any PC a proper test.

Of course, the M11x passed, though not with straight A’s. When I ran the game with video settings tuned to the highest possible resolution, game performance suffered, with uneven movement and spotty graphic quality. But tuned to medium settings, Bad Company 2 ran very well. Battery performance was decent, too; I managed about 2 1/2 hours of gaming before the power gave out. The battery probably lasts a lot longer in nongaming use.

The laptop’s built-in touchpad isn’t precise or responsive enough for this type of point-and-shoot game. Luckily, Alienware lent me an external gaming mouse that made it much easier to pick off targets. But there was no getting around the less-than-ideal keyboard. Apart from being skinnier than normal, the keys are too flat and slick to give good feedback, whether typing or gaming.

And of course, there’s the 11.6-inch screen. It’s the glossy type that I’ve never liked, because it reflects glare and shows fingerprints. Apart from that, it’s just too small. I’m used to playing on a 46-inch TV, or a 22-inch computer monitor, where my aging eyes can easily pick out key targets or landmarks inside a game. On the M11x, not so much. To be sure, I still enjoyed myself. But if I were on a road trip, I’d rather stop playing for a few days, and wait till I got to a big screen back home.

But that’s just me. Some people go into withdrawal if they don’t shoot a few bad guys every day. This is Alienware’s target market, and with the M11x, the company has scored a direct hit.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Dell’s Alienware M11x laptop
Base price: $799
Model tested: $1,099
Exceptionally high video game performance, but small screen hampers video quality. Switchable graphics processors offer reduced power consumption for nongaming tasks. Attractive, futuristic design; cramped keyboard; lacks a DVD drive.
Available at dell.com or alienware.com