Reviewed March 27, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
What's big, blue and fast? In the world of notebook computers, the answer is the Alienware Aurora m7700. This desktop replacement targets the gaming market with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ dual core processor, 256 meg Nvidia GeForce Go 6800 Ultra PCI Express graphics card and a 17" WXGA display. That's our $3,000 review unit, but Alienware is all about build-to-order, so you can go with an AMD Athlon 64 FX-60, Nvidia GeForce Go 7800 GTX and a 17" wide UXGA (1920 x 1200) display if you're hankering to beat the pants off of your buddies' desktop rigs and can shell out the $2,000 additional.
Alienware has several lines of notebook computers, but their most well known are the gaming-oriented, desktop replacement Area-51 (Intel CPU) and Aurora lines. The two are nearly identical to the naked eye, except for casing color. In terms of components, they are identical, except the CPU (Intel vs AMD desktop CPUs). Since Athlon processors are the current kings of gaming, the Aurora gaming line runs on AMD.
In the Box
The Alienware Aurora m7700 arrives in a large black box, befitting a desktop machine. Inside you'll find the notebook, a large mouse pad with rigid plastic platform, recovery media, an Alienware tee shirt, brick charger, a USB floppy drive and a soft nylon case with strap that's big enough to hold both the computer and the large charger along with small items.
Design and Ergonomics: Livin' Large
Keep in mind that the m7700, like most Alienware notebooks, isn't about portability. Our machine weighs in a 12 pounds 5 ounces and feels heavier, possibly because we've never toted a notebook this hefty. The imposing Toshiba Qosmio averages only (did we really just say only?) 9.5 pounds in comparison. Unless you're looking for a good replacement for that free weight session at the gym, you'll probably leave the Aurora on your desk, toting it up to the bedroom perhaps, but likely not to the local Starbucks or to classes. And you'll want a good sized desk at that: the m7700 measures 15.6" x 11.7" and is 2.1" tall. Our large coffee table lost significant real estate to the Aurora, especially after we plopped the included luxury mouse pad beside it (that mouse pad is larger than the Toshiba P1500d subnotebook).
But the m7700 is considerably smaller than the desktop and 17" monitor it can easily replace. Not bad. It all depends on what you're looking for in a notebook. This machine is perfect for space-constrained households, those who need to travel overseas and bring a desktop experience with them (it has that carry on appeal) and above all, those who love gaming but don't want to be tied to a desktop.
Above: the Aurora m7700 bottom, 17" Powerbook and the Fujitsu P1500d top
The m7700 has an attractive dark blue gloss paint job, with a contrasting black keyboard and track pad. Alienware's signature alien head graces the top lid just below their logo (yes, both light up in bright blue when the notebook is on) and large black rubber grip areas on the top help you keep a tight grip on this hefty beast. The lid is secured with two latches up front and the hinges are appropriately beefy, maintaining the big display at just the angle you left it at. The bottom has no less than four fans and there's a large fan outlet on the left side which will keep lefties' paws warm. The 4 slot flash card reader (SD/MMC/Memory Stick/CF type I and II/Smart Media) lives on the left side and is protected by a removable rubber cover. The PCMCIA slot is just above the card reader and four USB 2.0 ports, an SVideo port, two four pin unwired FireWire ports, an IR window and four audio in and our ports round up the left side amenities. The right side is much simpler, with only the CD/DVD drive door located near the front. On the back you'll find a standard VGA port, DVI video port, parallel port, PS2 port, modem, Ethernet, power and a very large vent with a lovely copper heat sink behind the grille.
Open up the m7700 and you'll be greeted by a lovely 17" display and a large keyboard with dedicated number pad and 4 arrow keys in a cluster of their very own (nice for gaming). The track pad's non-skid surface is perfect for exuberant, sweaty-palmed gaming, and the keyboard is seemingly durable. Unless you're the kind of guy or gal who regularly trashes keyboards in the heat of battle, this one should hold up. The Aurora m7700 has 5 speakers: two on the front edge, two that surround the keyboard and a subwoofer on the bottom. Front-facing media playback controls are handy
The Aurora's brick-like AC adapter is an impressive 220 watt power supply that weighs a few pounds and is actually longer than bricks of the building supply kind. Since this desktop replacement runs for an hour to 1.5 hours on a charge, count on taking the brick with you.
Horsepower and Performance
This is the good stuff! The m7700 kicks the posterior of most business and multimedia oriented notebooks for any and all computing tasks. While desktop replacement Windows Media Center Edition notebooks from competitors can keep up with the lower and mid-optioned Aurora m7700, few if any can offer the Alienware's gaming performance. And if you have the bucks to spend, Alienware's $1,000+ AMD Dual Core Athlon 64 FX-60 top-of-the-line option will beat other notebooks and a variety of desktops too. Since Alienware PCs are built to order, you can select from a variety of AMD CPUs for the Aurora line. Currently the base model is the Athlon 64 3200+, with the afore mentioned FX-60 at the top and Athlon 64 FX-57, Athlon 64 X2 Dual Cores from 4200+ to 4800+ and Athlon 64s up to 4000+ filling in the middle. All use the VIA K8T890 chipset with the VT8237A South Bridge. The notebook has two SODIMM slots for 400MHz PC-3200 memory, and you can order it with a single 256 meg DIMM or max it at 2 gigs (no one ordering this system should go with 256 megs— get a gig of RAM).
How did it benchmark? We tested the m7700 with Futuremark's PC Mark 05, and here are the results.
PC Mark score: 4677
Those are good numbers for a high end desktop with a recent PCI Express video card, and great numbers for a notebook.
Our m7700 came with the standard 24x10x24 CD-RW / 8X DVD combo drive (software MPEG2 decoder), and Alienware offers an 8X dual layer DVD+/-RW / 24X CD-RW combo drive for those who wish to burn DVDs too. In fact, you can order your m7700 with two optical drives if you wish to duplicate CDs and/or DVDs.
Display, Graphics and Gaming
More good stuff, really good stuff by mobile and even desktop standards. The base video card on the Aurora m7700 is Nvidia's GeForce Go 6800 Ultra with 256 megs of RAM. That's an impressive desktop graphics card. If you're a serious gamer worried about the number of polygons the future will bring, go with the $130 256 meg Nvidia GeForce Go 7800 GTX card. Our test system had the GeForce Go 6800 Ultra and nothing scared it, not even Alma in the most terrifying (to PCs) game, F.E.A.R.. I played F.E.A.R. from start to finish (looking for a plot) and the m7700 kept the frame rates up even when 10 baddies were in the room with guns blazing. Yes, frame rates dropped about 12 times (to approx. 10 fps) for a few seconds, but that's not much in over 40 hours of gameplay. In comparison, our desktop rig with an Intel P4 Extreme HT 3.2GHz , ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128 (AGP 8X on a pre- PCI Express Intel motherboard— so last year, I know) and 2 gigs of RAM lost it by chapter 3, and that had nothing to do with the creepy little girl lurking in the corner. We tested the m7700 with the GeForce Go 6800 Ultra using 3D Mark 05 and the unit scored an admirable 4841.
The display is large and lovely. Though not one of those glossy displays a la Sony's XBrite, it also lacks the annoying glare. The standard WXGA + LCD has a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels (16:10 aspect ratio), and it's bright with strong colors and a very good viewing angle. For those of you with good eyesight, Alienware offers a 17" ClearView panel with 1920 x 1200 which comes with a built-in camera.
Sound is unlike most notebooks: it's loud, in fact it can get really, really loud, and quality is good thanks to the four speakers and bottom-firing subwoofer. Two large speakers flank the keyboard and another two are located on the front edge of the Alienware, surrounding the multimedia playback controls and digital clock. That digital clock only displays 24 hour time, and you can turn it off in bios should you prefer to lose track of time when gaming. For even better sound, plug your notebook into a 5.1 surround sound system which the integrated sound hardware handles nicely.
Gaming, as you've no doubt surmised, is awesome on this machine. It can handle the most demanding titles well, has a super screen for high res action and sound that's loud enough to drown out the army of fans that come on when the action gets hot.
Ports, Networking and Expansion
Like any super-sized notebook, the Aurora m7700 has a plethora of ports. These include: One parallel port,
one serial port, one DVI connector, One S-Video out connector, Video-IN Ports (TV-Tuner required, not included), two PS2 connections, two mini IEEE 1394a (4-pin unpowered) ports, 4 Hi-speed USB 2.0, one headphone jack, 5.1 channel out (S/PDIF) / Line-in, microphone in, gigabit ethernet RJ-45, 56K V.92 modem RJ-11, Infrared port for Data transfer. Anything missing there? We don't think so. Of course, the blue beast has a PCMCIA type II card slot with CardBus support and it even has a 4 slot card reader that's compatible with 7 media types including CF, SD, MMC, Smart Media and Memory Stick/memory Stick Pro and Memory Stick Duo.
For networking, the Aurora m770 sports gigabit wired Ethernet (Realtek RTL8169/8110), a 56k v.92 softmodem and Atheros mini-PCI 802.11 a/b/g WiFi. WiFi behaved reliably and had good range in our tests with speeds that are suitable for multiplayer gaming and streaming media. Bluetooth isn't included, but you can pick up the USB Bluetooth dongle of your choice.
Desktop replacement notebooks are not all about great battery life. Get a lightweight Centrino notebook if that's your goal. The Alienware is not the kind of machine you'll tote everywhere, so you'll likely be near an AC outlet. The device's 220 watt power brick supplies juice to the 12 cell 6,600 mAh hour Lithium Ion battery in the m7700, and you will need to plug it in after an hour to 1.5 hours of use. We consistently got an hour of heavy duty gaming on a charge, and an average of 1 hour 20 minutes when using the notebook only to work on MS Office documents and surf the web.
If you're a hard core gamer looking for a notebook that can handle today's cutting edge games, Alienware should be on your short list. With killer graphics cards and two excellent LCD options, the Aurora m7700 is ahead of the desktop replacement pack. Throw in AMD's notoriously excellent for gaming CPUs and the m7700 will put some FEAR in your gaming buddies hearts. Though not for the faint of muscle at over 12 pounds (crank that up a few pounds for the AC adapter), and not small desk friendly, the Aurora notebook is certainly much more portable and space saving than the desktop it replaces. Few of us have the pleasure of gaming 24/7, and the m7700 proves equally capable of handling MS Office work, Photoshop and software development.
Pro: Fast at all tasks. Haven't found a game it couldn't handle. Excellent high resolution display. Large selection of ports and slots. Good build quality with attractive gloss finish casing. Carry case, USB floppy and cool mousing surface included. Large and roomy keyboard that's well laid out for gaming. Strong networking included and good array of fast drives available. The graphics cards are excellent choices for gamers and those who work with 3D apps.
Con: Very large and heavy. Expensive. Fans are noisy when the CPU is running full bore.
Price: starting at $2,329 up to approximately $5,000 depending on the build to order options you select
Display:17" 1440 x 900 pixel display (1900 x 1200 available as an option. Nvidia GeForce Go 6800, with Nvidia GeForce Go 6800 Ultra graphics card and Nvidia GeForce Go 7800 GTX available as options. All are PCI Express and have 256 megs of graphics memory.
Battery:12 cell 6,600 mAh Lithium Ion battery. 220 watt brick charger.
Performance:AMD desktop CPU. Base system is Athlon 64 3200+, with upgrades available up to the Athlon FX-60. 2 memory slots for PC400 SODIMMs. Motherboard: VIA K8T890 chipset.
Size:(H x W x D): 2.1” x 15.6” x 11.7”. Our unit weighs 12 pounds, 5 ounces.
Drives:DVD/CD-RW combo drive or 8X dual layer DVD+/-RW / 24X CD-RW (2nd optical drive is optional). Hard drives available from 40 to 120 gig SATA (serial ATA). RAID 0 and RAID 1 available as upgrades.
Audio:Sound: Realtek AC97 Audio for VIA chipsets, high-definition audio with surround sound, five built
in speakers (one is a subwoofer). 3.5mm standard stereo
headphone and 5.1 SPDIF jacks. Built-in mic.
Networking:Integrated Atheros mini-PCI WiFi 802.11 a/b/g. Realtek RTL8169/8110 Gigabit Ethernet and 56k V. 92 modem.
XP Home Edition. Windows XP Professional also available.
Ports and slots:One
PCMCIA - Type II/Type I card slot with CardBus support,
4 slot card reader (reads 7 media types). One parallel port,
one serial port, one DVI connector, One S-Video out connector, Video-IN Ports (TV-Tuner required, not included, two PS2 connections, two mini IEEE 1394a (4-pin) ports, 4 Hi-speed USB 2.0, one headphone jack, 5.1 channel out (S/PDIF) / Line-in, microphone in, gigabit ethernet RJ-45, 56K V.92 modem RJ-11, Infrared port for Data transfer.