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Alienware M17x R4 Review

DT Editors' Choice

Alienware M17x R4 Review

Highs
  • Attractive exterior
  • Brilliant 1080p display
  • Record-setting GPU performance
  • Reasonably priced
Lows
  • Keyboard and touchpad could be better
  • Runs a bit warm, even at idle
  • So-so battery endurance
The M17x is an excellent gaming laptop. It offers a beautiful display, incredible hardware and a great sound system. And while no laptop with a $2,599 price tag will ever be considered inexpensive, given what you receive, it’s a fair price.

No brand name in the gaming computer segment carries more weight than Alienware. Not all of the weight is good – geeks are notoriously independent and some shun the company for no other reason than the fact it’s owned by Dell. This, however, doesn’t seem to have hurt its products or prospects. You’ll be hard pressed to step foot in any gaming tournament or convention without bumping into Alienware.

The company has updated its popular M17x laptop to accommodate Intel’s new Ivy Bridge processors, but there is more to it than the hardware. This new revision also alters the chassis, cutting weight down from nearly twelve pounds to a tad under ten and reducing thickness from 2.1 inches to 1.8. Though still by no means a light-weight, these reductions are noticeable.

Inside the new M17x there remains plenty of room for impressive hardware. An Intel Core i7-3820QM processor is paired with Nvidia’s new GTX 680M graphics solution and 8GB of RAM. Our review unit came with a 7200 RPM hard drive paired with a 32GB SSD that acts as a cache drive.

This configuration is not the most expensive variant, but it is near the top of the line. You’ll have to dish out $2,599 for this specific model. That’s a lot of clams. Let’s see what they buy you.

Design

Alienware’s new laptop looks like… an Alienware. The company has consistently used the same muscular matte-black exterior on all of its laptops, regardless of size, and the new model is no exception. Slightly slimming the profile of the new version does flatter its appearance, but the basics have not changed. If you liked the looks of previous laptops from the company, you’ll like this one, and vice-versa.

While the aesthetics are similar to its predecessors the new model does improve touch points. The lid is now a soft-touch material that feels more luxurious and expensive than the hard plastic previously used. This treatment continues along the interior.

It’s hard to say if build quality has improved without a side-by-side comparison to the old model, but our impressions are positive. The gaps between chassis panels are tight and difficult to notice because of the way the laptop is designed. Handling the laptop roughly does illicit a few groans of protest from the laptop’s plastics, but nothing out of the ordinary for a large gaming laptop.

Connectivity is excellent. There’s four USB 3.0 ports, eSATA, HDMI-In and HDMI-out, DisplayPort, and VGA. Audio hook-ups include not only headphone and microphone jacks but also line-in and S/PDIF. The ports are in the right locations, as well. The video ports are near the rear of the laptop while the headphone and microphone jacks are near the front.

User interface

This new revision includes the same old Alienware keyboard, which is a disappointment. While the layout is spacious and key feel generally acceptable, the keyboard suffers from poorly defined key caps. Touch typing is difficult because fingers can easily become lost. The M17x wasn’t made for productivity, of course, but we know from experience that a gaming laptop doesn’t need to shun typists.

Similar complaints can be levied at the touchpad. Though large, it has a flat texture and finicky left and right buttons. Alienware clearly does not intend it as the primary means of input – they even ship a mousepad with the laptop – but that doesn’t change the fact that competitors like Asus offer a better experience.

The keyboard is backlit using Alien FX, the company’s branded backlighting solution. A number of different color options are available ranging from the obnoxious (neon green) to the useful (dull blue, white or red). There are no physical controls for the backlighting. You’ll have to use the Alien FX software if you want to make changes.

Display and audio quality

A great gaming laptop must have a great display, and the M17x does not disappoint. The glossy 1080p panel stunned us with its brilliant colors, reasonable black levels and butter-smooth reproduction of our gradient test image. Viewing angles are also excellent on both the horizontal and vertical axis.

Our only complaint is the glossy coating. It’s quite noticeable even in a room with moderate lighting and the backlight isn’t strong enough to overcome the problem. With that said, going matte probably would take some umph out of the display’s punch, so gloss was probably the right choice.

Audio quality is among the best we’ve ever experienced from a laptop. There’s actually some bass in the system which reduces overall distortion and allows for clear vocals alongside bass tones. At maximum volume, the M17x can fill a small room with enjoyable sound and is on par with a decent pair of desktop PC speakers. The only problem comes from the chassis, which sometimes rattles from the bass.

Cooling

Packing serious gaming hardware in a laptop always creates the potential for heat issues. Laptops can either accept the higher temperatures or counteract them by running the system fan at high speeds.

The M17x seems to take the former path. Although the system fan can be a bit loud while playing intense games, it is quiet at idle and at low to moderate load. This results in idle exterior temperatures that top out at around 86 degrees Fahrenheit. While not annoying, you’ll notice the warmth on your palms as you use the keyboard.

Heavy load turns up the heat considerably. We measured temperatures in the mid-90s along the keyboard’s surface and temperatures as high as 102 degrees on the laptop’s underside. If the size of this computer hadn’t made it clear to you that the “lap” in “laptop” is in this case rhetorical, the temperatures should.

Portability

With its 17-inch display and weight of nearly ten pounds, the M17x is obviously not a laptop that you’d want to purchase for frequent travel. It does, however, come with a massive 90Wh battery. Is it possible for this huge unit to offer decent battery endurance?

Yes. In Battery Eater the Alienware M17x lasted exactly one hour and thirty minutes, while the light-load Reader’s Test expanded life to four hours and thirty-seven minutes. Although many other laptops do better, this is respectable endurance for a gaming laptop and will be adequate for some users.

Software

The Alienware M17x comes mercifully devoid of bloatware. Only two icons exist on the desktop, one of which is the Recycle Bin. No security suite trial is installed by default. The laptop does ship with the AlienRespawn recovery software, but unlike the recovery software on Dell’s mainstream consumer laptops, this incarnation mostly stays out of your way if you don’t want to use it.

The AlienFX Editor used to control the keyboard backlighting seems to run more smoothly than previous incarnations but it still suffers from unprofessional look-and-feel. Its default full-screen nature is unnecessary on a 1080p display and the graphical elements of various menus are obviously not as sharp as they could be.

There’s also AlienFusion (which handles power management), AlienTouch (which control touchpad settings) and AlienAdrenaline (a utility that lets users define how the laptop’s hardware operates). All of these utilities suffer the same problems as AlienFX and they are largely redundant with Windows’ built-in controls.

Performance

The Core i7-3820QM in our review unit returned excellent benchmark scores. In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark is reached a combined score of 100.27, the highest score we’ve yet recorded from a laptop. 7-Zip provided a similar result, returning a combined score of 19,007, another record.

PCMark 7 also had good things to say about this laptop. It offered up a total score of 4,594 – which beats the previous record holder, the Sony Vaio Z, by over a thousand points. Highlights included, uh, everything. Even the system storage score was high thanks to the solid-state cache drive.

Of course, what you really want to know about is gaming. Our M17x includes the new Nvidia GTX 680M, which promises world-beating performance. It keeps its word by providing 3DMark 06 and 3DMark 11 scores of 23,713 and 6,282, respectively. These scores don’t just beat previous gaming laptops. They also defeat some gaming desktops, such as the HP Pavilion HPE h9.

In-game performance was equally stunning. Diablo III at 1080p with maximum detail averaged 138 frames per second. Dawn of War 2: Retribution averaged over 100 frames per second at maximum detail and Skyrim averaged 72 frames per second at Ultra High. There’s not a game on the market today that can bring the M17x to its knees if you purchase the optional GTX 680M. It’s an impressive piece of hardware.

Conclusion

The M17x is an excellent gaming laptop. It offers a beautiful display, incredible hardware and a great sound system. And while no laptop with a $2,599 price tag will ever be considered inexpensive, given what you receive, it’s a fair price.

As a general laptop, however, the M17x has a few issues. Both the keyboard and the touchpad have issues and battery life is a downer. The Asus G75 and Origin EON17-S have better keyboards and the G75 has a better touchpad.

Does the target audience care about these problems? We doubt it. If you need a laptop to serve as your primary day-to-day system, you likely won’t be satisfied by a laptop of this size, no matter which model you buy. Every ounce of this laptop is directed entirely towards gaming, and we think that’s the right choice.

There is brutal competition in this segment, but the Alienware M17x does manage to stand out. This laptop offers a look and feel that’s custom tailored for hardcore gamers while also delivering outrageous performance and good build quality.

Highs

  • Attractive exterior
  • Brilliant 1080p display
  • Record-setting GPU performance
  • Reasonably priced

Lows

  • Keyboard and touchpad could be better
  • Runs a bit warm, even at idle
  • So-so battery endurance
DT
Matt Smith

Matt Smith is a writer, computing guru, gamer and geek hailing from Portland, Oregon. He also writes for MakeUseOf and his personal blog, @matt_on_tech. You can follow him on Twitter @Matt_on_tech and

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