Today we bring you an in-depth review of the mighty Alienware Aurora m9700. Featuring extreme gaming performance and a price tag to match, we'll see just how badass it is, and what you can expect from a laptop of this caliber.
Sporting an AMD Turion 64 processor with 1GB total graphics memory between the two NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900GS GPUs and a snazzy blue finish and alien motif, you know this is going to be a good one. Got your attention yet? Follow me!
Measuring 15.65" x 11.75 " x 1.85" and weighing in at a very conservative figure of 8.50 lbs, the m9700 is not the most portable laptop on the block. I was surprised when I unboxed the laptop, it felt like I was lugging a World War II-era .30 caliber ammo can. This should be taken with a grain of salt though, as the Aurora m9700 is more of a desktop replacement than anything else. The people that will buy this laptop most likely won't move it around too much.
Case and Design
After I unboxed the m9700, I have to say I was pretty impressed. Not only was the laptop friggin' huge, it was bright! I'm used to fairly bland fare when it comes to laptops- you get your typical grays and blacks and silvers, etc. The crisp blue paintjob (Conspiracy Blue, in Alienware-speak) was a breath of fresh air in this department. The color had a gloss topcoat that prevented a lot of fingerprints from being left.
Embedded in the lid is a raised alien head logo, with blue LEDs illuminating the alien's eyes. Neat I suppose, but I'm an old fart now who's kind of over the garish LEDs and CCFLs fad that still adorn many cases. Maybe it would look cool at a LAN.
The build quality of the m9700 is top notch. It didn't feel flimsy or flexible in any place like some of the other laptops we've reviewed. The lid closed into place easily and without hassle. There are also two small cutouts on the lid made of textured black plastic that look somewhat like gills or ribs.
The Aurora m9700 comes with a full size keyboard, including a number pad on the right, for a total of 99 keys. The keys were silent and depressed easily.
The m9700 also has a bunch of Instant Access Buttons. These include shortcuts for programs such as the Internet, E-mail, Windows Media Player, Power DVD, Windows Media Center, and also function keys for Play/Pause, Skip Forward, and Skip Backward.
The Aurora m9700's touchpad is of average size and consists of a scroll pad and one mouse buttons, though both left click and right click were supported depending on where you pressed. The touchpad kind of reminded me of a MacBook Pro, but without the neutered functionality.
I found that the m9700's touchpad was pretty responsive. It seemed to work well, though Alienware included a Logitech G5 with the laptop (this is a gaming machine after all!), so I didn't use the touchpad very much at all as a result. Alienware was even kind enough to include an Alienware branded Func gaming mousepad, which was a very nice touch indeed.
Connectivity OptionsThe Aurora m9700 has a ton of ports - plenty of USB, Firewire, DVI, VGA, S-Video, ExpressCard, Coaxial, you name it.
There are two speakers on the front of the laptop, the release latch, and the optical drive. Nothing too out of the ordinary here.
There's a lot going on in the back of the laptop though. From left to right we have audio in, coaxial (for the TV tuner), S-Video out, and modem right alongside the GPU vent.
Next we have the DC Power jack, a spare USB port, S-Video in, and something I found really cool- both DVI-D and VGA ports to ensure compatibility with any type of external monitor you could plug the m9700 into.
The right side of the laptop is devoted mostly to audio related inputs, and includes a volume scroll wheel, headphone and microphone jacks, inputs for front, surround, and center speakers, optical, and finally another USB port. I liked that the m9700 included a place for both speakers and headphones. It's annoying to have to unplug one to use the other.
On the left of the m9700, you will see the security lock slot, CPU vents, Ethernet port, two USBs, a Firewire IEEE 1394a port, memory card slot, and lastly ExpressCard. For the memory card slot, SD, MS, MSPRO, and MMC are the supported formats.
Normally we don't include detailed shots of the bottom of our review samples, but the Aurora m9700 included a cool extra not found in most laptops: a subwoofer mounted in the bottom casing. Pretty cool but questionable in its effectiveness.
Heat and Noise
The m9700 runs pretty quietly under normal circumstances. The single fan only spins up when it needs to, in order to keep noise levels at an absolute minimum. I noticed during longer gaming sessions that hot exhaust was literally pouring out of the back of the laptop (from the GPU vents). This is normal though considering the level of hardware Alienware has wedged into the m9700.
Upgrading and Expansion
Like most other manufacturers, Alienware allows you to easily upgrade RAM. If you haven't maxed out your hard drive configuration and have a spare slot, you can also add another drive.
If, on the other hand, you want to upgrade the CPU or replace the LCD if it breaks, you will need to completely disassemble the laptop.
The Full Package
Alienware put together a nice package with the Aurora m9700, as you can see below.
I've already mentioned the Func mousepad and Logitech G5 mouse (not pictured), and Alienware also included a black T-shirt for good measure. As the laptop came loaded with Windows XP Media Center Edition, there was also a MCE remote control. All this sweetness came in a big black Alienware branded cardboard suitcase. Presentation was definitely one of Alienware's strongpoints. I liked how Alienware included a faux leather binder with your system specs and user guide. As per usual, it had the ubiquitous alien head on the front cover.
The Alienware Aurora m9700 is configured with AMD's Turion 64 ML-44 mobile processor, and is clocked at 2.4GHz with 1MB L2 cache. This processor has a TDP (Thermal Design Power, or maximum thermal output) of 35W and is a 90nm 'Lancaster' core CPU. It is Socket 754 based. One wonders though why at this price, a dual core CPU is not offered.
The m9700 sports NVidia's Mobile SLI chipset, and is equipped with not one, but two 512MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900GS PCI-E graphics cards running in SLI mode for a total of 1GB of video memory. Built on a 90nm process with 24 pixel pipelines and 8 vertex pipelines, and core clock and memory speeds at 375MHz and 500MHz respectively, the GeForce Go 7900GS SLI is in the top tier of notebook video cards. You can expect a really kick ass gaming experience, which I will elaborate on later in the review.
On the memory front, the m9700 is outfitted with 2GB dual-channel DDR-400. Configurations start at 512MB and max out at 2GB.
Our m9700 came with 200GB of hard drive space in the form of 100GB x 2 Serial ATA 1.5GB/s 7,200 RPM w/ NCQ & 8MB Cache in RAID-0. Hard drive performance seemed to be average, and despite having two drives, they were inaudible. Alienware has a number of different hard drive configurations possible for every type of user. For users that want a single hard drive (no RAID), Alienware offers:
- 4200 RPM - 200GB SATA
- 5400 RPM - Up to 250GB SATA with NCQ
- 7200 RPM - Up to 200GB SATA with NCQ
For someone who wants maximum capacity, there are dual hard drives in RAID 0:
- 4200 RPM - 400GB SATA (2 X 200GB)
- 5400 RPM - Up to 500GB (2 x 250GB)
- 7200 RPM - Up to 400GB (2 X 200GB)
In case you skimmed that last batch of bullets quickly, that's a maximum of 500GB in the Aurora m9700. Holy $#@%!
For users who want data backup features and a more warm and cuddly feeling that their data isn't going anywhere, Alienware offers dual hard drives in RAID-1 as well:
- 4200 RPM - 200GB SATA (2 X 200GB)
- 5400 RPM - Up to 250GB (2 x 250GB)
- 7200 RPM - Up to 200GB (2 X 200GB)
The m9700 is equipped with an HD Audio processor which provides pretty good sound for a laptop. There are two speakers mounted on the front of the laptop base, and a subwoofer mounted in the bottom. I didn't notice a booming bass experience with this sub, but I didn't really expect to, so I won't deduct major points there.
Alienware includes a nice integrated TV tuner in the Aurora m9700. The TV tuner worked very well with Windows XP Media Center Edition, and I was up and running with my local cable channels within minutes. Recorded and live TV quality looked great and the included full size remote worked flawlessly.
I have to take this time to say that I really dug Alienware's completely barren desktop. Not many OEMs get this, but it's very gratifying when you come across one that does. To have 38,000 icons for AOL, dial up and trial movie services, and other useless crap on your desktop BEFORE you even use it is annoying as hell. Alienware put only one icon on the desktop, and that was a shortcut to an XML file that listed every driver and piece of software that was installed on the laptop, as well as the associated benchmark scores as reported by Alienware's technicians. I thought this a really cool thing to do. Alienware also has a feature called AlienGUIse, which is basically a rebranded Window Blinds-esque program that allows you to change your XP theme to one of the few alien-related selections. I tried it out briefly but actually liked the way the original theme was, so that's the way it stayed for the duration of my testing.
The m9700s display is very bright and crisp. The contrast is excellent, due much to the Clearview glossy coating of the LCD. Native resolution was 1920x1200 (WUXGA), which in my opinion is slightly too high for this size LCD (17) for daily use. If you bought this laptop primarily to game though, you would be disappointed if you didnt choose the WUXGA resolution. I realized after a few hours of use that every day tasks such as checking email or writing a Word document were a little tougher than normal because I found myself squinting on occasion to see the screen. Alienware must have taken this into consideration because they offer a 1440x900 (WXGA+) resolution for those who may not game as much.
The glossy coating definitely improves contrast and sharpness, but at the same time, there are many times where the glare and reflection is just flat out awful (which is mostly when using the m9700 is areas with high levels of light). I found that the m9700s screen looked best when gaming at night, with the lights out. It provided a very immersing gameplay experience with no glare.
Alienware offers two optical drive options: a 24x CD-RW / 8x DVD Combo or an 8x Dual Layer DVDRW / 24x CD-RW. The unit I reviewed here came with the latter. The drive was quiet and in my own subjective opinion, ran average or above average in speed.
The Aurora m9700 comes installed with a RealTek B/G wireless card and integrated Bluetooth. Within moments of configuring the card I was up and running on my home wireless network. Speeds were at the 54Mbps equivalent level, and signal strength never dropped below Very Good.
The standard battery that ships with the m9700 is a 6000mAh 12 cell battery operating at 14.8V. The battery clips into place in the underside of the laptop and is flush against the surface. With all the high end hardware inside the m9700, battery life suffers as a result but most users probably wont unplug this thing too often.
The Alienwares AC adapter is truly enormous, so much so that the first time one of my friends saw it, his eyes almost bugged out of his head. The cords are incredibly long too, maybe even a little too long. Good thing Alienware includes some cable management with the AC adapter, otherwise youd have a huge pile of wires on your floor.