Thankfully, Dell hasn't compromised on usability, and the Alienware M14x offers a proper 'old-skool' non-chiclet keyboard. Keys are large with a deep action and sport the same lovely soft-touch finish as the rest of the laptop. Feedback is superb, with just the right amount of travel and tension, and a positive click. It's a little softer than on many rivals, but nonetheless for both typing and gaming it's excellent.
We've already waxed lyrical about the keyboard's backlighting but for such a key feature it's worth returning to. The ability to make a rainbow-like keyboard with four individual light zones doesn't just look great but is practical too - for example, you can program a certain key to be 'the first green one', and you'll be able to spot it at a glance without needing to remember which symbol it was. Admittedly a fully programmable version of this, like a lesser version of the Optimus Maximus, would be even better but that really would start ramping up the cost.
The multi-touch touchpad is permanently surrounded by a light strip, and has a smoother surface than its soft surrounds. Like the keyboard, its individual buttons offer great feedback. In fact, as a traditional touchpad - as opposed to the new fangled MacBook-style one-button type - it's an excellent example. AlienTouch software, meanwhile, lets you adjust the pad's properties to your heart's content, including disabling the pad when an external mouse is connected.
As part of its design, the M14x features a seamless or 'borderless' 14.1in display, with a transparent sheet covering the screen and bezel. It looks great, increases perceived colour vividness and contrast, and helps to protect the screen. However, it also causes annoying reflections with any ambient light present.
As already mentioned you can choose between a screen with a resolution of 1,366 x 768 or 1,600 x 900. The latter is great to work and play with, but does mean that your graphics card will have to work harder to game at native resolution. And with a GeForce GT555M as the only choice, there isn't much leeway to begin with. There's also the issue of everything onscreen looking smaller but this can be tempered by adjusting settings in Windows.
Thankfully, the screen quality is (mostly) superb. Blacks are deep and colours rich without being oversaturated. Backlighting is even with no sign of bleed, while viewing angles are very impressive for a TN panel – in fact, they're probably the best we've seen since the still class leading Samsung Series 9. Horizontally they're close to perfect. From the top minor contrast shift creeps in only at an extreme angle, and only from the bottom do they really suffer. However, with a laptop you're not likely to be viewing the screen from below, so it's not an issue.
The one negative is rather surprising on a gaming machine: the M14x's screen can't seem to differentiate between the three darkest shades on our greyscale test. That's poor going by any measure, and though it's alleviated by inky blacks and relatively pure whites, it does mean you might miss out on subtle details in gloomy games like Alice 2 or Bioshock 2. It's a real shame, as otherwise this would have been a top display from start to finish.
Like its screen, this Alienware's speakers might not be perfect but they're still very impressive. The little laptop's chunky thickness doubtless helps to give them the room they need for some serious rumble, with explosions and gunshots packing a decent punch. They manage this at very respectable volume levels too, and while trebles aren't the most detailed, overall these are more than adequate for movies and gaming.