Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alienware's M17x: Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire Is A Go

The second incarnation of Alienware’s M17x is creating lots of excitement amongst mobile gaming enthusiasts, but does it really beat a field of premium models? We put it up against solutions from Eurocom and AVADirect to find out what CrossFire can do.

A lot of folks in the press cheered about the release of Alienware’s second-generation M17x notebook a year ago. But more than a few enthusiasts spurned its use of G92-based graphics (alright, you can count us among those disappointed enthusiasts).

And yet, the new chassis was just one step this formerly cutting-edge brand took to rebuild its reputation in the enthusiast notebook market. The company left plenty of room to grow as mobile technology advanced. As such, we now get to welcome AMD's Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire update.


We like Alienware’s special-edition Nebula Red finish, in spite of our notions about alien spacecraft always being grey (since uncharged paint stays behind during transdimensional shifts). Of course, we wouldn’t even bother discussing the finish outside unless hardware inside made a compelling case for a full system review. Not surprisingly, it does.

Alienware M17x Component List
PlatformIntel PGA988, PM55 Express, MXM-III Discrete Graphics
CPUIntel Core i7-920XM Quad-Core 2.00-3.20 GHz
2.5 GT/s DMI, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, 45 nm, 55 W TDP
RAM4 GB (2 x 2 GB) Samsung M471B5673FH0-CH9 SODIMM
DDR3-1333, CL9, 1.5 V, Non-ECC
GraphicsDual ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870, 1 GB GDDR5, CrossFire
Display17" Glossy TFT, 1920x1200
Webcam2.0 Megapixel
AudioIntegrated HD Audio
SecurityFace Detection Software
Storage
Hard Drive2 x Seagate ST9500420AS, 500 GB, 7200 RPM, SATA 3Gb/s, RAID 0
Optical DriveLG CA10N Blu-ray Reader / DVD Writer Combo Drive
Media Drive8-in-1 Flash Media Interface
Networking
Wireless LANIntel Ultimate-N 6300, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/450 Mb/s
Wireless PANInternal Bluetooth V2.0 +EDR Module
Gigabit NetworkBuilt-in 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet
IEEE-1394Integrated IEEE-1394 FireWire 400 controller
TelephonyIntegrated 56K V90/92 Fax/Modem
Peripheral Interfaces
USB5 x USB 2.0 (One shared with eSATA)
Expansion Card1 x ExpressCard 54
HDD1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
AudioHeadphone, Microphone, Line-In, Digital Out Jacks
VideoVGA, HDMI, DisplayPort
Power & Weight
AC Adapter220 W Power Brick, 100-240V AC to 19V DC
Battery14.8 V 4650 mAh (68.82 Wh) Single
WeightNotebook 12.3 lbs, AC Adapter 2.1 lbs, Total 14.4 pounds
Software
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit Edition, OEM
Service
WarrantyStandard 1-Year Warranty (Add $299 for 3-Year Extended)
Price$3,883


Delivered more than two months ago, Alienware’s Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire update languished while we collected hardware that'd serve as a suitable comparison. The new M17x looks great in both photos and specifications, but does it really outperform its $3000+ rivals?


A continuous plastic sheet covers the M17x 17” display, its frame, and an integrated webcam. Alienware bests most competitors by retaining the classic 1920x1200 panel resolution, even as the rest of the industry downshifts to 1080p.

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The keyboard, touchpad, and front-vent lighting feature a user-configuration color palet of Quasar Blue, Astral Aqua, Mars Red, Terra Green, and Plasma Purple.

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A touchpad above the keyboard provides hardware control, eliminating the need for switches that we've previously seen wired to the sides of other notebooks.

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An impressive selection of video outputs allows M17x users to easily attach VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort monitors. Also found on the left edge are gigabit Ethernet, dual USB 2.0, an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, and an IEEE-1394 FireWire mini-port.

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The M17x's power connects at the back, while the remainder of this edge is used for ventilation.

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On the right edge, Alienware includes the ExpressCard 54 slot missing from its recently-reviewed supersized competitor, but does not include that competitor’s USB 3.0 ports. A similarly-capable flash media drive is found between those interfaces, and a more convenient slot-loaded BRD/DVD-RW combo drive is located beneath them. Towards the rear, twin headphone connections allow M17x users to share music and movies privately with a friend.

The M17x was originally scheduled to go up against AVADirect’s Core i7-820XM notebook, but arrived with a faster Core i7-920XM processor. In order to make this a fair comparison, we held onto the system until Eurocom’s i7-940XM units arrived. Today, we get to see how well Alienware’s $3900 configuration fits between $3100 AVADirect and $4100 Eurocom competition.

Test System Configuration
Alienware M17x CPUIntel Core i7-920XM PGA988, 2.00-3.20 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
AVADirect W880CU CPUIntel Core i7-820QM PGA998, 1.73-3.06 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Eurocom X8100 CPUIntel Core i7-940XM PGA988, 2.13-3.33 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Alienware RAM2 x Samsung M471B5673FH0-CH9 (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24, 4 GB Total
AVADirect RAM2 x Kingston KVR1333D3S9/2G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24. 4 GB Total
Eurocom RAM2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 7-7-7-20 4 GB Total
Mobility Radeon
Graphics
2 x AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, CrossFire
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
GeForce Mobile
Graphics
Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M 2 GB
425 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2400
Alienware Hard Drive2 x Seagate ST9500420AS, RAID 0
500 GB, 7200 RPM, 16 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s
AVADirect Hard DriveCorsair CSSD-V128GB2-BRKT, 128 GB MLC, SATA 3Gb/s SSD
Eurocom Hard DriveCrucial RealSSD C300, 256 GB MLC, SATA 6Gb/s SSD
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerFSP 19 V 11.57 A (220 W) Power Block
14.8 V 4650 mAh (68.82 Wh) Battery
Software
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 64-bit
GraphicsAlienware Version 8.692.2-100203a1-095371C-Dell
Eurocom Version 8.75-100527a-100755E-Clevo
AVADirect Version 257.07
Desktop Version 10.3
ChipsetIntel INF 9.1.1.1020


Each notebook manufacturer customizes its graphics drivers to fit the unique designs of its graphics modules. Though Alienware’s driver appears older than Eurocom’s, it was still the released version available at the time of our September tests. Its parent company Dell therefore takes the credit for any effect the lower-numbered driver has on gaming performance.

Bear in mind that AMD now offers universal drivers for its mobile products, following Nvidia's example. These aren't always guaranteed to work, though. On two different occasions, we've been unable to install the GeForce drives on Clevo-based notebook models. Most recently, this was the case with the GeForce GTX 480M tested here. You're of course welcome to try these universal packages when they work, but to keep our comparison even, we used the latest driver from each system vendor at the time of writing. Note that Alienware released a newer driver after testing on its unit was completed. With that said, you'll notice that Alienware already dominates the benchmarks, so performance can only get better from here.

We also retained the desktop performance data from our first Mobility Radeon 5870 review to see if high-end gaming notebooks can reach the performance expectations of mainstream gamers. This is no trivial feat, since notebook components must be designed to generate minimum heat. The desktop platform is based on a Core i7-920 CPU, Radeon HD 5850, and 6 GB of DDR3-1333 CAS 7.

Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2Campaign, Act III, Second Sun (45 sec. FRAPS)
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
CrysisPatch 1.2.1, DirectX 10, 64-bit executable, benchmark tool
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Very High Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: High Quality Preset, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of PripyatCall Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: High Preset, DX11 EFDL, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, DX11 EFDL, 4x MSAA
Audio/Video Encoding
iTunesVersion:9.0.2.25 x64
Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 min
Default format AAC
HandBrake 0.9.4Version 0.9.4, convert first .vob file from The Last Samurai (1 GB) to .mp4, High Profile
TMPGEnc 4.0 XPressVersion: 4.7.3.292
Import File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (5 Minutes)
Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9
DivX Codec 6.9.1Encoding mode: Insane Quality
Enhanced multithreading enabled using SSE4
Quarter-pixel search
Xvid 1.2.2Display encoding status = off
MainConcept Reference 1.6.1MPEG2 to MPEG2 (H.264), MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG2), Audio: MPEG2 (44.1 KHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 Kb/s), Mode: PAL (25 FPS)
Productivity
Adobe Photoshop CS4Version: 11.0 x64, Filter 15.7 MB TIF Image
Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Autodesk 3ds Max 2010Version: 11.0 x64, Rendering Dragon Image at 1920x1080 (HDTV)
Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus 9.0Version: 9.0.663, Virus base: 270.14.1/2407, Benchmark: Scan 334 MB Folder of ZIP/RAR compressed files
WinRAR 3.90Version x64 3.90, Dictionary = 4,096 KB, Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
7-ZipVersion 4.65: Format=Zip, Compression=Ultra, Method=Deflate, Dictionary Size=32 KB, Word Size=128, Threads=8
Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark VantageVersion: 1.0.1, GPU and CPU scores

Before we move on to the all-important game tests, we wanted to see what effect Alienware’s surprise lead in Sandra might have in CPU-constrained applications. We begin with Apple iTunes, which has proven itself to be poorly threaded and frequency-bound in most of our previous reviews.

The 3.2 GHz M17x should fall slightly behind the 3.33 GHz Leopard, unless the Leopard isn’t using its maximum Turbo multiplier effectively. We checked it, and found that while the system did occasionally reach 3.3 GHz, it more often ran at 3.2 GHz under light single-threaded loads.

Whether a result of cooling or programming, better engineering puts the lower-clocked M17x ahead of the faster X8100 in HandBrake. Though the difference is small, the victory of a less-expensive part is significant in this well-threaded application.

DivX results are atypical for the M17x, and that’s a problem we’ve seen before in our System Builder Marathons. We don’t change anything during the benchmark’s installation, but will point out that this particular benchmark only shows inconsistent results rarely. Xvid shows realistic results while running under the same TMPGEnc installation.

The super-expensive notebooks almost catch the desktop in MainConcept, and the X8100 again appears to throttle its CPU slightly.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 appears significantly CPU-restricted on the X8100 Leopard, while the M17x unleashes its same-spec graphics cards.

Anti-aliasing shifts much of the load limit back to graphics, allowing the X8100 Leopard’s newer graphics driver to outmaneuver the M17x at our maximum test setting. Note that at 1080p, both “big” notebooks blow past the mid-priced desktop.


Yes, they can play Crysis, even at the panel’s native resolution!


…but perhaps not with AA enabled…


We’ve noticed Alienware’s better use of CPU performance potential and Eurocom’s slightly newer graphics driver before, but DiRT 2 is the first game to show a significant deficit due to the older driver. Both systems are completely playable at 1920x1080, fortunately.



Crank up the visuals, add anti-aliasing, and watch as both notebooks continue to push smooth frame rates at 1080p.



Eurocom’s improved driver doesn’t appear to make much difference in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. A frame rate minimum (from our test notes) of 17-18 FPS for both Alienware and Eurocom at our highest test setting would prompt us to drop AA in order to keep the super-high details.

While we used a rather basic mid-priced desktop as a reference point for today’s top-performing notebooks, it’s clear that the notebooks have a big lead in portability. It’s also clear that nobody is going to carry around a huge PC, separate monitor, and enormous uninterruptable power supply in their backpack.


Thus, while any gaming notebook’s battery life is certainly less-than-spectacular by mobile standards, all three portables are stellar by desktop standards. Alienware has the biggest battery but, unfortunately, the slowest-charging circuit.

Alienware could have gone further, but a hidden setting in firmware prevented it from operating at anything less than 12% charge. Windows is set to initiate power savings at 7% and hibernate at 5%, but we simply stopped our tests at 7% on the other two units.


And now for the weird part: the desktop’s single graphics card appears to consume less energy than the pair of low-wattage cards used in both notebooks. The reason we say "appears” is that there’s no way to measure exactly how much of the desktop’s additional energy is going to the platform that supports its card, and we can only guess that’s it’s more than the 18 W difference in “full GPU load” measurements.


Efficiency is a comparison of energy to work, and the M17x works nearly as well as the mid-level desktop. Eurocom’s X8100 Leopard is slightly behind, in spite of its higher-model processor and higher-numbered graphics driver.


An amazing parity of efficiency is found between AVADirect’s $3100 notebook and Eurocom’s $4100 version. Alienware leads slightly, while the desktop falls far behind.

While we used a rather basic mid-priced desktop as a reference point for today’s top-performing notebooks, it’s clear that the notebooks have a big lead in portability. It’s also clear that nobody is going to carry around a huge PC, separate monitor, and enormous uninterruptable power supply in their backpack.


Thus, while any gaming notebook’s battery life is certainly less-than-spectacular by mobile standards, all three portables are stellar by desktop standards. Alienware has the biggest battery but, unfortunately, the slowest-charging circuit.

Alienware could have gone further, but a hidden setting in firmware prevented it from operating at anything less than 12% charge. Windows is set to initiate power savings at 7% and hibernate at 5%, but we simply stopped our tests at 7% on the other two units.


And now for the weird part: the desktop’s single graphics card appears to consume less energy than the pair of low-wattage cards used in both notebooks. The reason we say "appears” is that there’s no way to measure exactly how much of the desktop’s additional energy is going to the platform that supports its card, and we can only guess that’s it’s more than the 18 W difference in “full GPU load” measurements.


Efficiency is a comparison of energy to work, and the M17x works nearly as well as the mid-level desktop. Eurocom’s X8100 Leopard is slightly behind, in spite of its higher-model processor and higher-numbered graphics driver.


An amazing parity of efficiency is found between AVADirect’s $3100 notebook and Eurocom’s $4100 version. Alienware leads slightly, while the desktop falls far behind.

It might have taken us a few weeks to find a notebook worthy of comparing to Alienware’s highest-model M17x, but we think it was worth the wait. This $3900 model outperformed its $4100 competitor in a wide range of applications, and that sets us up for a revealing bang-for-the-buck comparison.


Using the cheapest system in today’s comparison as a reference point (100% value), the M17x beats the X8100 by around 10% in performance-per-dollar. Things get far closer when we compare only game benchmarks, but Alienware faithful will look forward to even bigger gains when its parent company Dell finally releases a graphics driver that’s at least as new as its competitor’s (Ed.: there actually is a newer driver available to M17x owners, as of the end of last month). Alternatively, you can give AMD's Catalyst 10.8 package a shot. The one specific game benchmark that pointed out Alienware’s older validated driver was still completely playable at full resolution and details though.

And this is the point where people must begin arguing about features. The X8100 comes with an enormous 18.4” display, but a 16:9 widescreen ratio means it has little if any more surface area than the M17x’s 16:10 ratio 17” version. And while Eurocom buyers can still brag that their wider screens make small text easier to read, Alienware owners can counter that the extra 230,400 pixels enabled by the machine’s 1920x1200 display make it easier to edit photos.

Perhaps the most powerful argument in favor of the X8100 is its inclusion of USB 3.0. Those ports are so common on high-end laptops that the lack of such an important feature moving forward could be considered a mark against Alienware, overall. Yet, an even stronger argument can be made against the X8100’s lack of any ExpressCard slot. Alienware M17x owners could use theirs to add a USB 3.0 controller of course, but an even more significant “killer app” is the possible addition of a 3G ExpressCard modem. After all, who would want to leave a USB modem sticking out of a notebook as large and heavy as either of these?

And so Alienware at least matches its closest rival from the hardware perspective, while providing better overall performance, efficiency, and value. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to find a competing model for today’s review while this M17x unit still had its factory-fresh smell.



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