Upgrading the BYOC rig

I had been looking at potentially upgrading my gaming laptop for a little while and decided after PAX South that it was finally time.

I got the system that I have been using, an Alienware M11x, the summer of 2010. I LOVE the system. Its tiny, since it only has an 11 inch screen, so it has always been super portable. My main use for a laptop is to take to a friend’s place or to fly with and use at PAX in BYOC so I really appreciated not having a monster of a laptop to carry. Plus for its size the machine packed quite a bit of punch. Despite being 6 years old I have yet to find something it will not run.

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My M11x in its natural habit (AKA PAX Prime BYOC in 2015)

That being said systems have come a long way in those 6 years, and while it will run everything I have thrown at it, games are not running on high settings and the load times are definitely long. Plus after 6 years of taking the computer all over it is just physically showing its age too. The model was known for having hinge problems. I didn’t see any of those issues until very recently (so obviously WELL past the warranty period in which Dell would help fix it) but I was starting to get nervous about getting the computer out of my bag to find it wouldn’t display anymore.

So I started looking at the specs on potential new systems. I knew that if I was going to spend the money it takes to upgrade I wanted to get something that would last me for a good amount of time. It is actually a lot easier than it was 6 years ago to get a fairly powerful gaming laptop at or under $1000, which is great. However, since I am in a place in life know where I can afford a bit more I decided I was going to look at sort of the “next tier” so that I could get more life out of the system.

I decided on a general price range and the list of specs I definitely wanted:

  • i7 6th gen processor
  • Nvidia 970m
  • SSD Boot drive
  • 1TB 7200 rpm data drive
  • minimum 12 GB ram

I also knew I wanted something that was not a “desktop replacement” which pretty much ruled out any 17 inch form factors. Weight was the biggest part of the physical form factor considerations for me, since I know that this laptop will be going through airports at least 3 times a year, and spend a lot of time in backpacks going between my place and friends houses.

I spent about a week looking at all of my options, prebuilt, custom built didn’t matter. I ended up with a list of 3 potential systems:

  1. Alienware 15
  2. Acer Predator
  3. MSI Apache Pro

All 3 of these systems were in the 15 inch range, and had the specs I wanted.

The MSI was a custom system and was the lightest of the 3 systems, since the chassis is an ultra light. The Acer was an in stock system at a local brick and mortar store, but was the heaviest of the 3 systems. The Alienware was a modification of one of the builds they offered. I actually took 2 trips to the store in one weekend before I decided, so that I could really get a feel for each of the systems weight and size wise, since they had systems in all 3 chassis in the store, even if the specs on the MSI and Alienware weren’t what I wanted.

I ended up ordering the Alienware and here is why:

Battery life:

While the MSI was significantly lighter they managed that by basically cutting the battery and battery life in half. Even though I spend most of my gaming time on any portable system plugged in, I do like the ability to do basic stuff (i.e. browsing and game updates) without worry about if the system would have to be plugged in.

Aesthetics:

Since I plan to have the system for a good amount of time I wanted it to be something that I liked to see out on a table etc. All 3 of the systems I looked at had different aesthetics. The MSI was the most understated when closed, though it did has a steel series fully customizable LED backlit keyboard so when you were actually using it there was a bit of the “flash” factor. The Asus was probably the most aggressively styled, with a red backlit keyboard and red fan exhausts on the back. But there was less customizability. The Alienware has a bit more of an “I am gamer” look when closed, but still gives the Alien FX keyboard and lighting effects, which allow you to customize color of the keyboard, logos, and even the back of the display when the system is in use. Plus there is something kind of fun about getting the “big brother” to my previous system.

Future Proofing:

One option the Alienware has is the ability to add their graphics amplifier down the road. The amplifiers is just an enclosure, which connects to the laptop via a thunderbolt port, and allows you to install any desktop graphics card. The system then pipes all graphics rendering through the enclosure, which in the future means for a small investment I can upgrade the graphic rendering capabilities of the laptop and potentially get a few extra years of life out of the machine.

I’ve had the system for a little while now, and so far I am SUPER happy with it. I do wish that I could have ordered the system with windows 7 instead of 10, but I have been looking into things like classic shell in order to get the OS closer to something I am used to. Performance wise it has been fantastic. Guild Wars 2 and Heroes of the Storm are both running on all the highest settings and super smoothly. It doesn’t seem to get too hot, though I do intend to pick up a cooling stand anyway, since extra airflow never hurts. Plus there are some little things, like how Guild Wars talks to the Alien FX and the lighting zones respond to what is happening in game that have been neat little added perks. I have noticed the weight increase over the M11x, but that just means it is time to start researching good laptop backpacks 😉

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