I don't spend anywhere near as much time gaming as I'd like to. Part of this is down to being busy, but a bigger factor is the fact that I have to be sitting at my desk, and that feels an awful lot like work even when it's not. Is there a way to be able to spend some quality time gaming without being tied to a desk?
Check out the m9750 screenshot gallery
Introducing the m9750
A few weeks ago Alienware sent me an m9750 for review. The m9750 is their flagship gaming notebook and it comes equipped with Intel T7600 CPU delivering 2.33GHz and has 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM fitted. There’s also no hard drive in this puppy – storage is in the form of a 64GB solid state drive, which not only means excellent performance, but also low power consumption. Onto this 32-bit Windows Vista Home Premium has been installed. Now when it comes to graphics, Alienware have spared no expense in packing the best possible components into the m9750 - the stunning 17” Wide Screen WUXGA 1920 x 1200 Clearview screen is powered by dual 512MB nVIDIA GeForce Go 7950 GTX GDDR3 cards.
On the audio front the m9750 is equipped with 7.1 channel system and comes with all the connections jacks you'd expect, including surround sound speakers and a TOSlink optical port. The system comes with both A/B/G wireless and gigabit wired network support, Bluetooth support, 56K V.92 modem, 4 USB 2.0 ports, Express Card slot, Firewire and a 4-in-1 memory card reader supporting SD, MS, MS Pro and MMC. Games are loaded onto the system via an 8x Dual Layer CD-RW/DVD±RW with LightScribe labeling technology.
Another nice feature of the m9750 is the full-size keyboard with numeric pad, which is a real boost for gamers. There's also a touchpad with scroll functionality and a media touch strip offering instant access to specific applications. Finally, there’s an integrated 1.3 megapixel camera built into the frame of the LCD panel.
The system specified above will set you back $4,174 (the Alienware m9750 starts at $1,699).
Hands-on with the m9750
The first thing that struck me about the Alienware m9750 is just how robust it feels. The notebook measures 1.5" thick (the funky Alienware design on the lid adding to the thickness) by 15.65" wide by 11.75" deep and weighs in at a hefty 9 lbs. The material Alienware have chosen for the casing feels slightly rubbery to the touch and is a matte black called Stealth Black, which, in my opinion is far superior to shiny material which picks up and then highlights every fingerprint and speck of dirt (fingerprints on the m9750 is still stand out, just nowhere near as bad as they do on a shiny surface).
Open the lid on the m9750 and you're faced with the spectacular 17” wide screen LCD display capable of delivering screen resolutions of 1920 x 1200. Initially the screen looks like a lot of real estate for a notebook, and it is, but once you start gaming it becomes clear that a large screen makes gaming a more immersive experience.
Everything feels well laid out on the m9750. At the front you have the DVD drive, on the right-hand side there's a volume control wheel, audio ports and a single USB port, while on the left-hand side there are two more USB ports, a Firewire port, Ethernet port, memory card slot and an Express Card slot. On the back are two video outputs (one VGA and one DVI), the modem port, the final USB port and a coaxial, S-Video in and audio in ports. At the back is also the exhaust ports for cooling (more on these later).
Design wise, the m9750 is what we have come to expect from Alienware - it has the glowing alien head and ribbed design on the lid. You'll either love this or you won't.
On opening the lid on the m9750 for the first time it only took a few seconds for Windows Vista to be loaded up and ready for use. A quick look at the System applet in Control Panel conformed just how much power I could expect to get from the system, scoring 4.7 on the Windows Experience Index rating system - very robust for a notebook.
Windows Experience Index breakdown was as follows:
- Processor: 5.2
- Memory (RAM): 4.7
- Graphics: 5.9
- Gaming graphics: 5.8
- Primary hard disk: 5.4
Also, as to be expected for a notebook costing more than $4,000, everything just works on the m9750 and there's no need to load drivers or fiddle with settings. Also, the system is set up for maximum performance right out of the box so you can get your games out and start playing immediately - which is what I did!
To familiarize myself with the m9750 I loaded both Doom 3 and Quake 4 onto the notebook. There games aren't the most demanding out there but they're still considered to offer hardware a pretty good challenge. It also helps that they're games that I happen to like playing and know a few cheats to stop me from dying every few seconds.
Both games played flawlessly on the m9750. I could run both at the highest quality and at the highest screen resolution available without feeling that the system was struggling in any way. When I later unlocked the frame rate on Doom 3 (normally locked at 60 FPS) the system achieved +300 FPS at times, and delivered an average frame rate of around 120 FPS.
I'm not usually a big fan of glossy screens because of the reflections, but for gaming they are much better than matte screens because they're able to deliver much more vivid colors. And, while on the subject of color, it's important to note that the screen handles extremes of light and dark well, so it's ideally suited to all-round gaming, not just dark games like Doom 3 and F.E.A.R.
More modern games such as Oblivion also present no problem for the m9750, and it's capable of playing the game at 1920 x 1200 and with many of the settings set to the high quality end of the spectrum it still consistently delivers in excess of 35 FPS (which is good considering it’s running on Vista).
Note: Due to the fact that I accidentally deleted my download of the Crysis demo I haven't yet had time to run this on the m9750 - I'll post information on how well Crysis runs on the m9750 later.
The sound system is also second to none. The built-in speakers on the m9750 deliver a rich sound encompassing both the high and low end of the spectrum. Having a good sound system is important in creating the right atmosphere when gaming and Alienware haven't compromised here with the m9750. The speakers also do a good job of sound reproduction across a whole genre of DVD titles.
Battery life and power consumption
I tested the battery life under a variety of conditions and got an average time of 95 minutes. Heavy gaming or DVD playback reduced this to around 65 minutes, which is still very respectable given the hardware load. I don't consider this a problem in a gaming notebook since I doubt the system will spend much time disconnected from mains power.
The cooling system is also whisper quiet and unobtrusive.
Under heavy load the system consumes an average of 130W and peaked at 165W.
A 2.33GHz processor and two high-end graphics cards will generate a lot of heat as a by-product of being worked hard, and this heat as to go somewhere. Alienware have planned for this and put in place an effective cooling system to exhaust hot air out the back of the system. This means it's possible to operate the m9750 on your lap in relative comfort (and safety) without feeling like you have a pile of thermite on your lap.
However, while it might be true that the user doesn't feel the heat, you probably want to make sure that other people don't sit opposite from you, especially when you're gaming. At times there's a ferocious blast of hot air coming from the rear exhaust ports that feels like the gamer has just kicked in the afterburners. By aiming the heat exhaust ports just right I'm pretty sure you could charbroil a few of your gaming opponents.
If you're going to spend over $4,000 on a system, you want it to be as close to perfect as possible, which is why I need to be clear about things I both like and dislike about the m9750. Fortunately, there's not that much to dislike.
One gripe I have is with the keyboard. Well, not so much the keyboard as the acres of dead space in front of it. The bottom row of keys is 5.5" from the front and this pushes it a long way back. It's not so far back as to be difficult to use the keyboard, but it is far enough to take some getting used to.
Another thing that bothers me is the tray of the front-loading DVD drive - it's easy to hit the button on the front and eject the disc. It's another minor quibble but it's something I find mildly annoying. Getting hit in the groin by a spring-loaded DVD tray does take some of the fun out of your gaming experience.
I'm also not convinced by the media touch strip at the top of the keyboard either - I've hit this a few times during enthusiastic game play and bought up media center in the middle of Doom 3 and Internet Explorer while playing Oblivion.
Am I going to gripe about the battery life? No, because while it's not the best by far, given how much hardware the power pack has to cater for, I think it does a respectable job. If you want greater battery life then you'll need a spare battery pack or make sure you have a car cord for charging on the road.
Justifying the price
So, you like gaming and you want the ability to play games when away from your main PC? Whether you go for an Alienware m9750 depends on one thing - price. $4,000 is a lot of money to part with for a notebook, so you need to be sure it's what you really want. One question of specific important is do you spend enough time gaming to justify the cost?
Once you've convinced yourself that you want an m9750 then the next step is to figure out what level of specification you need. Think about this carefully unless you have the spare cash to to buy the full package. Check out the requirements of your games and see how they affect the price. Spend some time thinking about whether to have a single graphics card or go SLI as this has a significant impact on both performance and price. The more power you want, the more it's going to cost you.
Still finding it hard to justify the price? Well, here's something that might help you. Rather than thinking about the system as a gaming notebook, think of it as a high-performance system that happens to be good at playing games! The high-performance system doesn't just run games well but also applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Premiere, so while you might not feel able to justify the cost for a gaming system, if you add the fact that the system is also a desktop replacement for other software with heavy hardware demands, the price becomes easier to swallow (and if anyone manages to get away with the "but honey, I'll get my work done faster so I can spend more time with you" line I want to hear from you! :-) ).
If you've got more cash to spare you can certainly spend more on your Alienware rig. For example, you can upgrade the video system by adding two GeForce 8700M GT cards (which will give you DirectX 10 support), add an extra 2GB of RAM, add a Blu-ray drive, fit a SoundBlaster X-Fi Xtreme audio card, upgrade the WiFi to Draft-N and a and ATSC TV Tuner. That system will set you back a cool $5,248. For an extra $100 you can upgrade Vista Home Premium to Ultimate.
It's really hard to put it down into words just how good this notebook is without making everything sound like marketing hype. Only it really wouldn't be hype … the Alienware m9750 IS a perfect desktop replacement. The keyboard, the screen, the ports to allow you to hook up a peripherals and a sound system, it's all just brilliant. Oh, and let's not forget the power. This machine truly is a genuine desktop replacement system. You can sit with it on your lap with a few games next to you and hours (and days) just melt away. You start gaming early in the evening and hours later you emerge from wherever you've been and find that everyone else has gone to bed and the sun is starting to rise (and given that it’s winter now, the sun doesn't rise early ...).
To look at the m9750 it’s certainly no MacBook. When it comes to style alien rib designs that look like they've come from the mind of H. R. Giger and a glowing alien head just can't compete with that sleek brushed metal look of the Mac, but the m9750 has everything that the top MacBook Pro has plus a lot more (OK, but not Mac OS X I hear you saying). Problem is that if you did manage to justify getting an m9750 for business, I'm not too sure you'd want to take it into a meeting with you (or maybe you would - it certainly does make a statement). While I like the semi-rubberized feel of the Alienware I wonder if maybe offering a separate, plainer lid design might not be a good idea for the more covert gamers among us.
But my time with the m9750 is soon coming to a close, and honestly I'm going to miss it. Most notebooks are uninspiring and reek of compromise, but this system is different. The setup proves you can put together a powerful, portable system that will handle pretty much anything you can throw at it. All I can say is that Christmas is going to be a big disappointment if Santa doesn’t leave me one of my very own in my stocking!
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