Portable power beyond compare sums up the Alienware m9700 SLI notebook

The Alienware Aurora m9700 is powerful desktop personal computer squeezed into a notebook. With dual 256MB NVidia GeForce Go 7900 GS video cards operating with SLI enabled and an AMD Turion 64 Mobile ML44 2.4GHz CPU, this notebook is about as powerful of a computing device as you will find.

When most of us think of a computer notebook we think of a small, portable device that is useful for e-mail and some basic productivity functions and for transporting that all-important PowerPoint presentation to the next meeting. Sure you can play some solitaire in the airport, but that's about the extent of your typical notebook's gaming prowess. Well, that standard idea of notebook computing is out the window when the notebook case has Alienware embossed on it.

The Alienware Aurora m9700 is powerful desktop PC masquerading as a notebook. With dual 256MB NVidiaGeForce Go 7900 GS video cards operating with SLI enabled, 2GB of Dual Channel DDR RAM, and an AMD Turion 64 Mobile ML44 2.4GHz CPU, this notebook is about as powerful of a computing device as you will find. Performance is what this machine is designed to deliver, and it does not disappoint.

But does all that performance necessarily make a good notebook computer for the average Joe traveler, who spends his working life moving from one airport terminal to another, going from meeting to meeting. Is the Aurora m9700 a good notebook for road warriors? It depends on what role gaming plays in Joe's life. If it were me, the ability to play any game I wanted while on the road, without worrying about whether it were possible from a technical standpoint, would be the one thing that could make such a life tolerable. It really comes down to priorities, tradeoffs and expectations.


For other in depth reviews, be sure to check out the TechRepublic Peer Product Review. To see more screenshots of the Aurora m9700 in action check out the accompanying screenshot gallery.


Get down to it

On a purely technical basis, Alienware has crafted near perfection with the Aurora m9700 notebook. Every detail from the quality of the 1.3 mega pixel camera to the slick paint job of the case proclaims luxury, quality, and performance. If ever there was a notebook PC that could be labeled as "sexy", this is it.

Figure A

More pictures are available in this previously published First Look gallery.

However, all that solid construction and built-in performance means that the Aurora m9700 is on the heavy side, especially when you compare it to other less power-laden notebooks and ultra-thin laptops. Weighing in at a substantial 8.5 pounds, the m9700 is not something you will want to have residing on your lap for any significant amount of time. And, even if you could stand the gravitational force the machine exerts on your legs, the heat induced by two powerful GPUs and one hot running CPU would be enough to singe your khakis. There is a reason the Aurora m9700 doesn't claim to be a "laptop."

It would be more accurate to think of the m9700 as a desktop replacement that is portable. With audio in and out, a coaxial connection, modem, S-video in and out, DVI-D and VGA ports, four USB connections, Ethernet, Firewire, an optical port, and two slots for reading memory and media cards, this machine is designed from the start to be your main PC. The complete array of connections means that the m9700 is good for just about any interface hook-up you can imagine. And it is not all just wires and plugs – besides the usual wireless WiFi network connection, the m9700 also has built-in Bluetooth wireless support.

All of that power under the hood drives a visual display that is second to none, even if you throw desktops into the mix. The highlight of this notebook is arguably the wide LCD display. I cannot describe to you how bright and sharp the 17-inch WideUXGA 1920 X 1200 is -- this LCD screen is absolutely gorgeous. If I were in an industry that depended on the quality of multimedia presentations for its success, I would deploy these to all my salespeople. With a screen this bright and this large, there is no need to mess with projectors or overheads of questionable quality, a 10-person boardroom can see your presentation without any extra hardware and be duly impressed.

Figure B

A close up of Alyx – notice the lighting effect from the flashlight and the face details.

Item

Spec

CPU

AMD Turion 64 Mibile ML44 2.4GHz with 800MHz FSB 1MB L2 cache

OS

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2

Display

17 inch WideUXGA 1920 X 1200 LCD

Motherboard

NVidia Mobile SLI Chipset

Memory

2GB Dual Channel DDR

Hard Drive

200GB (100GB x 2 with RAID 0) Serial ATA

Optical Drive

8X Dual Layer DVD +/-RW / 24X CD-RW

Video Cards

Dual 256MB NVidiaGeForce Go 7900 GS SLI Enabled

Sound Card

High-Definition Audio with surround sound

Wireless

Internal 802.11 b/g WiFi Card with Airgo MIMO Technology

Communications

10/1000Mb Gigabit Ethernet and 56K V.92 modem, integrated Bluetooth

Battery

Alienware m9700 12-cel Lithium-Ion Smart Batter Pack

Physics

Height: 1.85" Width: 15.65" Depth: 11.75” Weight: 8.5 lbs

The Aurora m9700 includes a full-size keyboard, which is surprisingly firm for a notebook, with a tactile feel close to that of a free-standing keyboard. While the function-keys are about half normal size, the number pad on the right side is standard size and would come in handy if you have to enter numbers often. The keyboard does sit toward the rear of the machine leaving an intimidating amount of real estate to cover with your wrists, but I found typing to be comfortable, assuming of course you are practicing good ergonomics. The touchpad is very functional and will do in a pinch, but I prefer a mouse. But with four USB ports, connecting a mouse is no big deal.

There are a few caveats to consider. First, this notebook runs hot and sucks power like it is powering a microwave oven in addition to itself. The average battery running time of the Aurora m9700 I'm reviewing was about one hour. And that's not one hour of heavy game playing, but one hour of surfing the TechRepublic Web site during a meeting.

Playing games like Half-Life 2 was next to impossible on battery power because the CPU and GPUs almost immediately started gasping for more energy than the battery could deliver. To do anything productive for more than a few minutes you will need to plug this notebook into a wall circuit. (I don't hold this against the m9700. My tiny Compaq V2000 only gives me two hours of battery operation. Such is the state of battery technology right now.)

Secondly, the m9700 is very large when compared to most notebook computers. My notebook carrying case is perfectly adequate for my Compaq V2000, including the power brick, mouse, pens, business cards, reading material, plane tickets and headphones. To carry the same amount of accessories with the m9700 I'd have to have a much larger carrying case. With some ingenious removing of pockets and extra straps, I was able to get the m9700 notebook, its 150-Watt power brick and a mouse into my carrying case, but that's about it. If I actually owned the m9700 I, without question, would have to invest in a larger notebook bag.

What software was tested

I tried to install a set of software applications on the Alienware Aurora m9700 that would reflect typical use – well, at least typical for me. Of course, the first thing you always do to any Windows machine is immunize it against viruses, spyware, and malware. In this case, I installed AVG Antivirus from Grisoft and then pointed my Web browser to Windows update. I only needed 32 Windows security updates to get my brand new Alienware up to snuff. I also installed Windows Defender for spyware protection.

Next up, were the usual productivity applications like Microsoft Office, Skype, and the Nortel VPN client I use to connect to TechRepublic from remote locations. I like Internet Explorer 7, so I updated my default browser to the latest beta version of that. And just to add a little variety to the equation, I installed the beta version of Office 2007. All of these applications performed wonderfully and installed without a hitch, which is what I expected.

However, while productivity is all well and good, the real potential of the Aurora m9700 lies with its ability to play games of course. So I installed a bevy of games I thought would be a good test of the notebook's performance. Predictably, I started with World of Warcraft – the game where quite a few TechRepublic members are spending their leisure time adventuring in the Technologia guild. I also installed Call of Duty 2, Half Life 2 and Civilization 4. And I must say, not one of these games has looked better. The 1920 X 1200 resolution is fantastic for the visuals of any game whether it is a first person shooter or a turn-based strategy game.

One pleasant surprise was the quality of the sound and of the speaker system. When you crank the volume up (a task made so much simpler by volume control found on the right side of the notebook), there is no buzzing or other distortion emanating from the built-in speakers. Positional audio and Dolby Sound are included with the basic package and they are top quality. With a good pair of headphones, the sound produced by this notebook is comparable or better then what most of us get from our desktops.


Tasks performed

Besides games, I also put the Alienware Aurora m9700 through its paces when it came to typical basic tasks. During my several weeks with the product, I used it to watch a movie on DVD, write an article, modify a TechRepublic depreciation spreadsheet, and burn a DVD. All of the tasks were performed with aplomb and without raising any issues; a truly impressive turn of events.

Using Skype, I called my TechRepublic workstation and used the built-in BisonCam NB Pro 1.3 Megapixel camera to have a video conference. The camera on the notebook outperformed the Logitech Orbit MP QuickCam I have mounted on my workstation. The BisonCam camera had a bright picture and did a better job of compensating for the poor environmental lighting I confronted it with.

Figure C

That's me making a Skype call to myself – note the extensive library in the background.

I also ran DMark06 v102 visual benchmarks on the Aurora m9700. The average 3DMark score was 5000, which is just slightly lower then many AMD desktops. Of the few m9700 notebooks posted on the Futuremark Web site, 5000 was the consistent 3DMark.

The bottom line

The Alienware Aurora m9700 is a fantastic notebook. I'm not easily impressed, but I cannot deny that in this case I truly am. While the notebook is definitely in the expensive category, especially if you are trying to justify it to your IT department, it is well-worth it. That is, it is worth it if you need a powerful notebook to make and present multimedia presentations or to play computer games.

Make no mistake, however, this notebook is not for everyone. I have already seen commentaries in my blog suggesting the Aurora m9700 is impractical and not necessary. But, I ask, what is necessary and who determines it? If you are presenting multimedia content to prospective clients, the m9700 may be just what you need. If you are a gamer who likes to go to LAN parties, the m9700 fits that criterion to a T. It all comes down to what equipment you need to accomplish the task at hand and what tools you can afford to purchase.

For my money, as a gamer and an editor/writer who doesn't have to travel much, the Alienware Aurora m9700 is the perfect notebook. I cannot recommend it more highly. I am willing to pay a premium in order to get just want I want and what I want is this notebook.