Technology

Alienware's Knockout Notebook


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Editor's Rating: star rating

If anyone wondered whether PC maker Alienware would stay true to its gaming enthusiast roots following its takeover last year by Dell (DELL), those doubts should be put to rest with its new m9700 notebook computer.

The 17-inch notebook is the first portable PC to sport Nvidia's hit SLI (Scalable Link Interface) technology that joins two matching Nvidia graphics chips, the very high-end GeForce Go 7900, with 256 MB each of memory. With SLI, games can run at higher resolutions, with more image-quality enhancements.

SINGLE CORE. The company doesn't stop there. The system includes an ultra high end Wide Ultra XGA LCD screen that offers a native resolution of 1920 by 1200, dual 100-GB hard drives that spin at the maximum 7200 rpms, Intel high-definition audio, and a dual-layer DVD +/-RW drive—all packed into a system that weighs about nine pounds.

The $3,200 evaluation system I reviewed also came with Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2002 (MSFT), a 1.3-megapixal camera for videoconferencing, a multimedia memory card slot, and four USB 2.0 slots as well as DVI, S-Video, and VGA out. Rounding out the list of goodies is built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

One odd thing: For such a powerful, expensive system, I would have expected Alienware to opt for a dual-core AMD (AMD) chip. Instead, the m9700 sports a single-core AMD Turion 64 chip running at 2.5 GHz.

POWER SURGE. A silver metallic finish and black keyboard set back more than halfway from the base offer a clean, simplified look. The silver is coated enough to easily wipe off dirt, while quick-launch keys make it a snap to launch your Web browser, e-mail, music, DVD, or television. My one quibble was the mouse touchpad. I found its slightly recessed, rectangular shape less user-friendly than it could be and instead opted for a separate Logitech USB mouse.

In short, the m9700 is one powerful system. It does have its weaknesses, however. The Achilles' heel is power consumption. One clearly shouldn't expect to be very mobile with this notebook. With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on, the 12-cell lithium-ion battery conked out in less than two hours—without any applications running. And the giant power cord draws a hefty 19 watts. That's more than many laptop power adapters sold by third-party manufacturers, meaning you're stuck taking Alienware's bulky power cord when traveling. I learned that lesson when I took the laptop, but not the cord, with me on a trip to Miami and ended up without laptop use for two days.

Putting the system through its paces was an absolute pleasure, though, given its power. One of the first things I did was load what I consider essential applications on it, as I expect most buyers would. Downloads and installs of Mozilla's Firebox, Apple's (AAPL) iTunes and QuickTime player, Adobe's Photoshop, and Microsoft's Office 2003 suite were among the fastest I've experienced in years of testing systems. If and when Alienware offers dual-core chips from AMD or Intel (INTC), it's likely the m9700 will positively scream at everyday tasks.

WOW FACTOR. Gamers will love this system. I installed Star Wars Empire at War and Doom 3, and it felt as if the system was yawning at such a weak test of its power, with its quiet fan showing hardly any indication the processors were being taxed (though the system does begin to stutter if you're operating on battery power). The GPUs support DirectX 9.0 and Shader Model 3.0 and appear to be ably outfitted should users decide to upgrade to the Windows Vista operating system next year.

Alienware also has outfitted the system to give owners multiple choices in entertainment. When popping in a DVD, you can watch it using Media Center, Nero ShowTime, or PowerDVD. The system also supports Nvidia's PureVideo and my favorite, WinDVD. Two front speakers, complete with a built-in subwoofer, provide quite good sound to go along with three-foot viewing.

For someone who wants to spare no expense and wow the crowd with an unusual-looking, knockout notebook, the m9700 stands more than a cut above the competition.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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