Introducing the Alienware M18x and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M

Historically, whenever NVIDIA or AMD launched a new mobile powerhouse GPU, AVADirect has been on hand with a high-end Clevo notebook ready to put its best foot forward. Yet lately NVIDIA and AMD have been playing such a rapid game of oneupsmanship at the top of the chain that it seemed silly to bring the Clevo X7200 back in again, and we wanted to see if we could find the high end hardware elsewhere.

Thankfully our needs happened to coincide with Alienware's, and our rep was able to pull some strings and get us two M18x units back-to-back. Today we present to you the first of a two-part series where we can first examine NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 580M (both as a single GPU and in SLI) as well as Alienware's M18x proper, with a second part focusing both on the AMD Radeon HD 6990M (again as a single GPU or in CrossFire) and a face-off between these two top-of-the-line mobile graphics solutions.

What we really have on the slab today are two different pieces of hardware (four, actually, if you count our special bonus contestant...more on those in a bit.) First, we're finally rounding out our coverage of Alienware's current lineup with the biggest one of them all, the monstrous M18x. Alienware's M17x R3 is a little bit more svelte than its predecessor, and that's due to Alienware deciding to shift the dual-GPU solutions into this new, bigger model. At first glance it looks basically identical to the other Alienware units we've reviewed recently, but there's a little more to it.

The second piece of hardware we're checking out is the recently refreshed NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M. The 580M is basically the GF114-based refresh of the GTX 485M, finally rounding out NVIDIA's mobile 500 series. With it comes two upgrades, one major and one minor: a clockspeed bump (minor) and support for Optimus (major.) Unfortunately with the SLI configuration, Optimus goes by the wayside and Alienware opts for using mux-based switchable graphics in the M18x to keep battery life up.

Yet NVIDIA's awfully proud of Optimus. So proud, in fact, that they gave us access to a GTX 580M-based Alienware M17x R3 for battery life testing. We'll be including those results on the battery life page, but suffice it to say, they're impressive. That's our third piece.

Finally, the last piece is a true rarity: both of our Alienware M18x systems come equipped with an Intel Core i7-2920XM. Alienware includes three different BIOS settings for the overclock (though you can also tune it yourself) and we went with the highest one for our testing, the one they dub "Level 3." After all, if you're going to buy a thousand dollar, overclockable mobile processor, what sense is there in just running it at stock, especially when the vendor makes it that easy to get more juice out of it? Here's the full rundown of the M18x review hardware.

Alienware M18x Notebook Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2920XM
(4x2.5GHz + HTT, 3.5GHz Turbo, 32nm, 8MB L3, 55W)
(Overclocked to 3.5GHz, 4.2GHz Turbo)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4x4GB Hynix DDR3-1600 (Max 4x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M 2GB GDDR5 in SLI
(2x384 CUDA cores, 620MHz/1240MHz/3GHz core/shader/memory clocks, 256-bit memory bus)
Display 18.4" LED Glossy 16:9 1080p
Hard Drive(s) 2x Seagate Momentus 750GB 7200-RPM HDD
Optical Drive Slot-loading Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CA30N)
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0
Audio IDT 92HD73C1 HD Audio
Stereo speakers with subwoofer
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Battery 12-Cell, 11.1V, 97Wh
Front Side N/A (Speaker grilles)
Right Side ExpressCard/54
Slot-loading optical drive
MMC/SD/MS Flash reader
2x USB 2.0
eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
HDMI input
Left Side Kensington lock
Ethernet port
2x USB 3.0
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Back Side AC jack
4x exhaust vents
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 17.17" x 12.68" x 2.13" (WxDxH)
Weight ~11.93 lbs
Extras 3MP Webcam
Backlit keyboard with 10-key and configurable shortcut keys
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
Configurable lighting
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
2-year, 3-year, and 4-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting at $1,999
Price as configured: $4,924

Starting at the top we have one of the two parts of the review system that you can't get anymore: the Intel Core i7-2920XM. At stock, the i7-2920XM is a quad-core, Hyper-Threaded processor running at 2.5GHz nominal clocks with 8MB of L3 cache and capable of turbo'ing up to 3.5GHz on one core (3.2GHz on all four). Yet when you hit "Level 3" in the BIOS, suddenly it's screaming up to 3.5GHz on all four cores nominally and hitting 4.2GHz on a single, effectively making it faster than Intel's top of the line i7-2600K is at stock...on the desktop. Yeowch.

So why can't you get it anymore? Between the time when Alienware was seeding review units to the press and now, Intel gave the mobile i7 quad-cores a minor speed bump, and now you can only buy the upgraded the same prices as their predecessors. If you order an M18x with the i7-2960XM, you'll get a 200MHz bump in clocks at every step: it starts at 2.7GHz and turbos up to 3.7GHz on a single core (or runs at 3.4GHz on all an i7-2600K.) There's a reason these top end chips are $900 upgrades, and it's a testament to Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture that you can get this kind of performance in a portable form factor.

Backing up the i7-2920XM in our review unit is 16GB of DDR3-1600, spread out across four 4GB SODIMMs, along with Intel's HM67 mobile chipset. Alienware also inexplicably includes two 750GB 7200-RPM Seagate Momentus hard drives, and in this review unit, they're not configured in RAID 0. Try and configure your own M18x and you'll run into the same nonsensical issue I had when I reviewed the M17x: Alienware offers these notebooks with two drive bays, but not a single SSD data + HDD storage configuration available. For the life of me I can't fathom why this is the case, and that's ignoring their usual fixation on RAID 0.

Of course the crown jewel of our review unit is the pair of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580Ms in SLI. Outside of the support for Optimus (which isn't available here due to the SLI configuration), the GTX 580M is an incremental upgrade on the 485M: it jumps from the GF104 to the GF114, and with the slightly tinkered chip design scores an extra 45MHz on the GPU (with a corresponding 90MHz jump to the CUDA cores) while retaining the same effective 3GHz clock on the 2GB of GDDR5. I've found in testing the 580M that performance is roughly on par with a desktop GeForce GTX 560, making it more than capable of doing 1080p gaming on its own. In fact, the only game I've seen really put the screws to it (besides the poorly optimized Metro 2033) is Crysis 2 with the DX11 pack.

Stuffing in the Kitchen Sink
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  • rsandoz - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    What about the case?

    I believe the m17xr3 is plastic.

    The m18x has an aluminum case. I actually own this with 6790 CF. This one was of the deciding factors as I have own the m17xr1 and m17xr2. When I saw the r3 had a plastic case much like my m11xr1 with cracking hinge problem, I decided against it. Didn't want to talke a change on cracking hinges again. Probably not the case, but an aluminum case feels much more solid.
  • rsandoz - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    <<Wish I could edit posts. Spell corrected.>>

    What about the case?

    I believe the m17xr3 is plastic.

    The m18x has an aluminum case. I actually own one with 6790 CF. This one was of the deciding factors as I have owned the m17xr1 and m17xr2. When I saw the r3 had a plastic case much like my m11xr1 with cracking hinge problem, I decided against it. Didn't want to take a chance on cracking hinges again. Probably not the case, but an aluminum case feels much more solid.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    The M18x's case only has an aluminum plate on the lid and aluminum trim, at least as far as I can tell. I honestly didn't find the build quality to be radically different enough from the M17x R3 to merit mentioning.
  • rsandoz - Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - link

    My main cause for concern was the "after 6 or so months factor". Does the m17xr3 have a cracking hinge issue after 6 months. I had an m11xr1 and after 8 months the hinges cracked internally. Felt like the ultimate hooptie laptop. Plus the plastic case has more scratches on it than my m17xr2.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    Seeing how this is pretty much a desktop in most terms, I would like to know what kind of PSU is shipped with the unit. Also, could you provide power consumption while gaming/stressing the system with the different setups? I'd be interested in the difference between the nVidia and AMD GPUs used here. :-)
    Otherwise, a good review and a monster of a laptop. Nothing for me though.
  • Ushio01 - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    Buy the Core i7-2860QM instead it has same base clock with higher turbo boost and a 10W lower TDP for $500 less.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    That doesn't make a review "meaningless". The TDP is simply maximum power; in most loads you won't hit that level. As for saving $500, sure, go for it, but remember you'd also give up overclocking of the CPU. If you're already willing to spend around $3500 for this sort of notebook, what's another $500 to boost CPU speeds from 2.5GHz base and 3.6GHz max to 3.5GHz base and 4.2GHz max. With GTX 580M SLI, you'll probably actually realize a performance improvement from the CPU overclock in games.
  • Ushio01 - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    Sorry I never meant the review was worthless in itself just the out of date CPU.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    Understood, but I'm pointing out that the overclockable CPU might be worth the upgrade price, at least if you're willing to spend this much in the first place (I'm not). The i7-2860QM has the same base clock, but unfortunately the laptop Alienware sent is using the earlier i7-2920XM instead of the newer i7-2960XM. Either way, the XM model CPUs will get you unlocked multipliers and the ~$500 28x0QM chips won't.
  • aznofazns - Monday, October 3, 2011 - link

    I'm not sure you'd run into any significant CPU bottlenecks with a stock i7-2860M, though.

    The argument that the $3500 already spent justifies the additional $500 for the unlocked multiplier doesn't really make sense. The $3500 is a sunk cost. It's already gone and shouldn't affect the decision to spend more on the CPU.

    The real question is... what is the marginal benefit of the 2920XM over the 2860M? Would you really be seeing significantly higher framerates? I'd say probably not. The dual GTX580M's in SLI would still be the bottleneck for gaming at 1080p, unless I'm mistaken.

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