Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Alienware Aurora m9700 Review

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

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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.
* Nice LCD for gaming
* SLI graphics and 1GB of total graphics memory
* Fancy design and color
* Great for desktop replacement

* No dual core CPU option
* Poor battery life
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 Options
The 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.

Technical Specifications

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.

Features Continued


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.

Optical Drive

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.

AC Adapter

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.

The Alienware Aurora m9700s AC adapter dwarfing a USB drive.


Integrated into the top of the m9700s LCD frame is a 1.3mp webcam featuring a 640x480 resolution. The picture quality is decent, and the colors are a bit washed out, but you have to keep your expectations pretty low for these little freebies OEMs include. After all its a tiny little camera shoved in the bezel of a LCD, almost an afterthought.

Setup Method

The m9700 was set to run at full performance by setting the power scheme set to Home/Office Desk with the AC plugged in, meaning that the CPU will not underclock while running the tests. For the battery performance test, the power scheme was set to Portable/Laptop. Each test was repeated 3 times to ensure accuracy. Before each test was run, the laptop was rebooted and its hard drive defragmented.

BAPCo SYSmark2004SE is popular benchmark suite consists of two different performance scenarios and generates an overall score by taking the geometric mean of the individual scores.

* Internet Content Creation: In this scenario, the content creator creates a product related website targeting a broadband and narrowband audience. The user first renders a 3D model to a bitmap, while preparing web pages using a web site publishing tool. The user opens a video editing package, creates a movie from several raw input movie cuts and sound cuts and starts exporting it. While waiting on this operation, the user imports the rendered image into an image-processing package; modifies it and saves the results. Back in the 3D modeling software, the user modifies a 3D model and exports it to a vector-graphics format. Once the movie is assembled, the user edits it and creates special effects using one of the modified images as input. The user extracts content from an archive. Meanwhile, he uses an animation creation tool to open the exported 3D vector graphics file. He modifies it by including other pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The final movie with the special effects is then compressed in a format that can be broadcast over broadband Internet. The web site is given the final touches and the system is scanned for viruses.
* Office Productivity: In this scenario, the office productivity user creates a marketing presentation and supporting documents for a new product. The user receives email containing a collection of documents in a compressed file. The user reviews his email and updates his calendar while a virus checking software scans the system. The corporate web site is viewed and the user begins creating the collateral documents. The user also accesses a database and runs some queries. A collection of documents are compressed. The queries results are imported into a spreadsheet and used to generate graphical charts. The user then transcribes a document. The user edits and adds elements to a slide show template. Finally, the user looks at the results of his work (both the slide show and the portable document) in an Internet browser.

BAPCo MobileMark 2005 is the latest version of the premier notebook battery life and performance under battery life metric based on real world applications.

* Office Productivity: The workloads in this category model a mobile professional at a fictitious automobile company. The worker creates documents using Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, accesses email, and creates graphics and animation with Photoshop and Flash to include in a multimedia presentation. An Internet browser is used to view presentations. The user also invokes file compression and virus detection in the background.
* DVD Playback: The DVD playback 2005 workload is based on a 1 hours 55 minute movie that BAPCo has created from content provided by BMW. The DVD playback test starts the movie player application, sets up a full screen playback, and the loops over the content on the disk in the DVD player. This playback will continue until system shutdown at battery depletion.

3DMark 2001 SE PRO build 3.3.0 measures graphics performance by benchmarking the CPU, memory, and graphics through a series of 21 tests, including simulated games, theoretical tests, DX8 feature tests, and image quality tests. Resolution was set to 1024x768 with all default settings.

3DMark 2003 build 3.6.0 measures DX9 performance through a series of 3D game based sound, graphics, and CPU tests. Resolution was set to 1024x768 with all default settings.

3DMark2005 build 1.2.0 is a graphics intensive benchmark best suited for the latest generation of DirectX 9.0 graphics cards. It combines high quality 3D tests, CPU tests, and is the first benchmark to require Pixel Shader 2.0 support, making this a highly stressful 3D benchmark.

3DMark2006 build 1.0.2 uses advanced real-time 3D game workloads to measure PC performance using a suite of DirectX 9 3D graphics tests, CPU tests, and 3D feature tests, including HDR/SM3.0 graphics tests, advanced SM2.0 graphics tests, AI and physics driven single and multiple cores or processor CPU tests.

PCMark 2005 Advanced build 1.1.0 is the latest update to Futuremarks popular overall system benchmarking program. The 2005 version adds multithreading, DirectX 9, Windows Media Player 10, virus scanning, High Definition video playback (WMVHD), and a vast number of other tests to its suite. Testing your computers CPU, RAM, hard drive and graphics card, PCMark05 drives your computer to the max to determine its strengths and weaknesses.

Specification Alienware Aurora m9700

Processor :AMD Turion 64 Mobile ML44 (2.4 GHz, 1MB L2 Cache, Single Core)
Front Side Bus :800 MHz
Chipset :Alienware NVIDIA Mobile SLI
Wireless LAN :Internal RealTek 802.11b/g WiFi Cardw/Bluetooth
LCD :17" WUXGA ClearView TFT LCD (1920x1200)
Hard Drive :200GB (100GB x 2) Serial ATA 1.5Gb/s 7,200 RPM w/ NCQ & 8MB Cache
Memory :2GB DDR400 PC3200 SDRAM (2 x 1GB)in Dual-Channel Mode
Graphics :2 x 512MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900GS (SLI)
Graphics Interface :VGA / DVI-D / S-Video
Optical Drive :8x Dual Layer CD-RW/DVDRW
Modem :Integrated V.92 Modem
Ethernet :Integrated 10/100/1000Mb Gigabit Ethernet
Audio :HD Audio
Audio Interface :Microphone, two stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone, SPDIF
Ports :4 x USB 2.0 ExpressCard
Firewire :SD/MS/MMC/MSPRO Card Reader 4 x USB 2.0
ExpressCard :PCMCIA
Weight :8.5 lbs
Size (W x D x H) :15.65" x 11.75 " x 1.85"
Operating System :Windows XP Media Center Edition
Battery :12-cell 6000mAh

BAPCo SYSmark2004SE
Internet Content Creation

The Acer takes a slight edge here, but not by much. Both laptops have 1MB cache CPUs but the Acer gets the nod here because even though each core of its processor has 512KB cache, there is an overall benefit from having the extra processing power of core #2. This benchmark actually proves the point that software is often not written to fully utilize multithreaded CPUs.

Office Productivity

I cant really comment on this benchmark as the Alienware inexplicably crashed the benchmark each time it was run, reporting some generic Internet Explorer error message.

Total Score

Since I couldnt get a score for the m9700 in the Office Productivity test, I was unable to get an overall score either.

PCMark05 Advanced
The m9700 trails slightly behind the dual core Acer in the CPU test (again showing how software is not written to take advantage of multi-core CPUs), and is about 500 points behind in the memory test. Not very surprisingly, the m9700 slays the Acer in the graphics test and also pulls ahead by a significant margin on the hard drive test as well.

Here are the associated scores:


Alienware Aurora m9700

Acer Ferrari 5005WLMi













And the PCMark05 Advanced Overall Score:

Despite its triumphs in the graphics and hard drive tests, the m9700 comes up just a bit short in the overall testing. Apparently wins in the CPU and memory tests are weighted much more heavily than ass kickings delivered in graphics and hard drive tests.

Multitasking Performance
We added these tests for a better way to compare dual core systems. Looking at numerous testing methods and results, we found the existing SYSmark2004SE benchmarks to be an excellent choice. The tests are easily performed and repeatable, providing a consistent and simple way to test dual core systems. The three sub-tests below show a noticeable correlation in CPU and memory performance, the two most important aspects of a multi-CPU system.

BAPCo SYSmark2004SE

3D Content Creation
"The user renders a 3D model to a bitmap using 3ds max 5.1, while preparing web pages in Dreamweaver MX. Then the user renders a 3D animation in a vector graphics format."

Once more, as with the previous SYSmark benchmarks, the Acers Turion 64 X2 betters the single core m9700; but again, not by much.

2D Content Creation
"The user uses Premiere 6.5 to create a movie from several raw input movie cuts and sound cuts and starts exporting it. While waiting on this operation, the user imports the rendered image into Photoshop 7.01, modifies it and saves the results. Once the movie is assembled, the user edits it and creates special effects using After Effects 5.5."

More of the same- theyre in the same ballpark but the Acer is just a little better.

Web Publication
"The user extracts content from an archive using WinZip 8.1. Meanwhile, he uses Flash MX to open the exported 3D vector graphics file. He modifies it by including other pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The final movie with the special effects is then compressed using Windows Media Encoder 9 series in a format that can be broadcast over broadband Internet. The web site is given the final touches in Dreamweaver MX and the system is scanned by VirusScan 7.0."

The Alienware puts up a valiant effort but still falls short. So sorry!

3D Performance

This is the section youve all been waiting for. While the m9700 has been keeping pace and trailing behind in several of the tests so far, this is the arena that the Alienware really shines.

3DMark 2001 SE

I didnt have performance numbers for the Acer in 3DMark01 so its hard to make a comparison. The benchmark is slightly dated and not really all that representative of current day performance anyway, but still fun to look at. Can you imagine having a 24K system in your possession when this benchmark was first released? Youd be every nerds wet dream.

3DMark 2003

The Alienware simply humiliates the Acers sad little X1600 as payback for getting trounced in the SYSmark tests. Thats almost 3x the performance!

3DMark 05

The m9700 reported over double the amount the Acer scored in 3DMark05.

3DMark 06

Again, the Acer cant handle the Alienwares SLI graphics capability. The m9700 completely destroys the Acer in every 3DMark test. Its not even remotely close at all. Im closer to being the next in line to the Englishthrone than this.

Gaming Performance


Oddly, the two laptops are fairly close in the low graphics test; probably because the Acers not capable of that much higher. You see the Alienwares framerate stay virtually untouched when switching to 1024x768 and medium graphics while


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