An Ominous Glow

My god, it's full of....

It’s only sort of generally hinted at around here that I’m a computer guy by trade, if not training, but in an earlier incarnation, I was even a PC industry journalist in addition to being a hardware enthusiast. Until finances dictated otherwise a few years ago, I’d gladly blow as much money annually on new computer parts as I would on car insurance. As a result, I’ve never owned a system I didn’t put a screwdriver into, and am in the habit of beating the shit out of the various components that go into them.

Yeah, me, demanding. Big fucking surprise, huh?

As you can imagine, this makes me a little bit critical of pre-built systems, especially gaming rigs, which typically come with price tags which lurch into, “I could buy a used car I’d actually want to drive for that much money” territory.

Which is why I was pretty goddamned surprised when the folks at Alienware sent me a laptop to review.

I hate laptops.

I have a long and varied history of hating laptops, and a lot of very good reasons for this antipathy.

From the perspective of practicality, my arsenal isn’t lacking for ammunition. They’re expensive. They’re less powerful than desktops. They’re impossible to do any kind of meaningful upgrades to. They roast your nuts. They have those itty-bitty chicklet keyboards, and either an annoying track-pad or the bane of the input device world, the keyboard clit.

On the matter of personal baggage, every one of the laptops that have been inflicted on me have been by my employer at the time, and have been almost invariably complete pieces of crap. “Yes, please, make me use this misbegotten technological abortion to do something that you have to pay me money to do in the first place, without the limitations enumerated in the previous paragraph. Where can I sign up for that?”

I may have expressed my skepticism towards Katie and Ray at Alienware in the form of derisive laughter and four-letter words. They sent me an M15x anyways. I guess they thought that the God Box I’d checked out earlier might have a halo effect, or something.  I will admit that it did at least crack the door to make this happen. Beyond that? This thing was on its own.

It’s a nicely put together rig, and Ray was pretty jazzed to point out that the chassis is magnesium in order to save weight (still, there are people who will bitch that it’s about ten pounds, if you count the power brick; if you’re here, and you think I’m going to complain about something weighing this much being “too heavy,” you haven’t been paying attention). It has more ways to light up than any sane person needs, and once I finally decided to fuck around with something other than the default “blue, blue, and more blue” setting, I was able to make it impressively rainbow-licious. I don’t know how well it’ll hold up against scratching, since I was pretty gentle to it, but the glossy finish looks accident-prone in the hands of someone who’s not afraid to knock a couple thousand bucks’ worth of electronics against something unyielding.

Windows 7 was on it, and it seems to work just fine. It felt a little quicker than Vista, but that’s about the extent of my commentary there. The “Windows User Experience” thing now goes to 7.9 instead of 5.9, for what that’s worth. Other than the hard drive’s performance, according to Windows, the M15x should pretty much hand my desktop system its head in a bucket.

Hard to say, really, when one has everything I want on it, a comfortable keyboard, and about an acre of display area, and the other is a laptop where IE8 isn’t smart enough to remember my fucking password. Microsoft’s shitty browser notwithstanding (I slapped Chrome on that sucker pretty damn fast, thanks), for your usual array of desktop stuff and web browsing, it’s way more than capable. I’m sure this is the equivalent of picking up groceries in a Murceliago, but I’d do that, too. Bite me.

Alienware does do something pretty fucking cool in terms of authentication — they’ve got a handy little facial recognition tool that works with the camera to look at you when the system wakes up, and if it recognizes you as one of the users of the system, it’ll log you in without requiring your password.  It’s pretty sweet, and sensitive enough not to be fooled by a recent photo… not to mention being completely thrown off when I shaved off my goatee, until my usual generally-scruffy appearance had been accompanied by my password several times.

This is probably not a problem female users would have often.

The only real performance gripe I had was, after jacking up all the graphics settings in WoW, was the less-than-impressive single-digit framerates I got in Dalaran. I don’t know if this is a limitation of using the wireless network connection, or something intrinsic with the Nvidia 260 graphics chipset — my Radeon 4890 and the better half’s 9800GTX both at least stay in the teens or twenties — but when I bitched to their tech guy about it, he said, “Go anywhere else, and tell me what your framerate is.” The answer would be, “Well, shit, about a hundred. Niiiice.” Without attaching a mouse or trackball, I wasn’t doing any kind of long-term gaming on it, but it does look pretty good just poking around.

So, it works as a computer. The battery life seems pretty decent (three or four hours of assorted dicking around). There’s a low-power setting called “Stealth Mode” that throttles stuff down to extend this a bit, too.  Since I wasn’t in the habit of wandering from room to room while using it, leaving it plugged in wasn’t a big deal.

And this is really where it being a laptop stopped being both a big deal, and a selling point. I’m simply not the target market for laptops. I don’t go anywhere that having a computer on my hip is a burning need. I only have a cell phone because I was cajoled/threatened into getting one seven years ago… and that’s the one I still have. Since this was pretty much a big bowl of WTF for me, I put the question to a bunch of my friends, and, in the main, it’s the portability that’s the attraction.

Having the ability to dick around on LJ, Facebook, Twitter, and IM while watching Mythbusters or Monday Night Football again was a nice change of pace, but it’s not a couple thousand bucks’ worth of convenience (even without the scent of leg hair burning — sorry, Ray, this sucker does get pretty toasty when it’s sitting on one’s lap, though it’s a far cry from the Compaq nut-roaster I was saddled with in the days of yore).

In the final calculus, the M15x had a hell of an uphill battle, but does earn about the heartiest endorsement I can give it:

If I had to use a laptop, I’d be happy with this one.

Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. But it’s still high praise for a laptop from me.


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