Gaming laptops have an intimidating rep as monstrous machines that weigh a ton and cost as much as a Death Star. So let's get a couple things out of the way, up front: The Alienware Area 51 m15x stomped all over our WorldBench 6 benchmark, earning the highest performance score to date (97) and running effortlessly through our current graphics tests. It should come as little surprise, then, that with such great power comes an even greater price tag (as of review time, this exact configuration runs $4175).
As a high-performance portable, the m15x packs the costliest gear. Inside, Intel's 2.8-GHz Core 2 Extreme runs the show, 4GB of DDR2 RAM makes sure everything operates smoothly, and the 200GB hard disk (as well as a 320GB removable drive) offers room to grow.
However, the nVidia 8800M GTX GPU humming under the hood is what ensures that you'll enjoy decent frame rates at the machine's native 1920 by 1200 resolution. Scoring well on our benchmark is great, of course, but the real challenge for a gaming laptop is to see how it handles new, demanding games that tax even high-end desktop PCs. Running our gauntlet of tests at 1920 by 1200, the Area 51 m15x generated 46 frames per second (fps) in World in Conflict and 26 fps in Crysis. Dropping down to 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, the machine fared better, producing 63 and 41 fps for World in Conflict and Crysis, respectively. To put those results in perspective, the recently reviewed Gateway P-172X FX barely hit 23 fps in Crysis at 1024 by 768.
Somewhere between those sets of numbers lies the real-world truth: Although the Area 51 m15x runs as well as a midrange gaming desktop does, don't expect to attain the notebook's native resolution with everything. Even so, you can try to tweak its performance to eke out every last bit of oomph, using the built-in Fusion power-optimizing utility; the handy drop-down menus and sliders help you reach peak performance.
The real shocker about this impressive performance is that it comes from a well-built 15-inch notebook, not some table-eclipsing desktop replacement. This beast will be able to slip into most laptop bags. That's not to say that the Area 51 isn't heavy: You'll lug around a 7.9-pound anchor for your portable gaming--an anchor that barely musters 1 hour, 40 minutes of play time. That battery life is well below average, even by desktop-replacement standards. Even though this machine screams "play me," offering a Blu-ray drive, a solid stereo sound system, and HDMI-out, it won't last you long.
Once you do set up shop somewhere, the backlit keys might distract you from the fact that the keyboard dips a little under pressure. That isn't a horrible offense, but the fact that you can change the neon trim lining the notebook to red or white (or just toggle it off) doesn't outweigh the need for a portable to be rock-solid and bulletproof if you're spending four grand on it.
It's funny, because the Alienware m15x's layout almost feels alien in that it has minimal seams, stickers, and openings. The disc drive has no manual eject button (that's assigned to a function key on the keyboard). The inputs (three USB, one FireWire) stay out of your way. The special function shortcut keys at the top are touch-sensitive--there's nothing to press. Heck, you wouldn't even know where the touchpad was if it didn't have LED lighting surrounding it. (And it's interesting that the two mouse buttons hide behind a single bar at the bottom of the touchpad, with the left side of the bar being the left click.)
The only potential downer here, besides the laptop's price, is that all of the LED lighting that helps you customize your machine also makes the top of the display feel a little flimsy. Yep, the display, probably the most susceptible part of the computer, creaks when you lift it. Honestly, that's the most disconcerting thing about the Alienware Area 51 m15x--and, considering the portable's cost, I can't help but notice it.