Alienware 17 R5 review

The powerhouse Alienware 17 R5 will leave your desktop in the dust

With this laptop, Alienware re-affirms its well-earned reputation for high-end gaming performance.
With this laptop, Alienware re-affirms its well-earned reputation for high-end gaming performance.
With this laptop, Alienware re-affirms its well-earned reputation for high-end gaming performance.

Highs

  • Excellent build quality
  • High refresh rate display
  • Variety of configuration options
  • Exceptional gaming performance

Lows

  • Big and heavy
  • Mediocre battery life

With a 17-inch display and a chassis weighing in at nearly 10 pounds, the Alienware 17 R5 is truly massive. It’s thick, heavy, and incredibly sturdy. In most cases, a laptop of this size would be completely impractical for everyday use — if it weren’t packed to the gills with the most powerful hardware on the market.

Alienware threw everything it could at this laptop, cramming a six-core Intel Core i9 processor in there to go along with 32GB of RAM and a GTX 1080 graphics card. It’s certainly outfitted like a gaming desktop, so let’s find out if it performs as well as one.

Supermassive

On the outside, the Alienware 17 R5 looks a lot like its predecessors. It features a soft-touch interior that still attracts fingerprints with every touch, a metallic shell on the top and bottom, along with a stylized grille on the front edge. Around back, you’ll find a big block of metal and plastic that houses a pair of vents for disposing of the enormous amount of heat generated by its powerful hardware.

Alienware 17 R5 review
Jayce Wagner/Digital Trends

It’s not a groundbreaking design, but it works well. It’s still distinctly Alienware — futuristic angles, RGB lighting on the chassis, an inlaid pattern on the back side of the display. And it’s clearly a gaming notebook, much more along the lines of the Acer Predator Helios 500 than the more conservative Razer Blade Pro. The Alienware’s metallic finish is a bit darker than it has been in the past, but otherwise this is the same design you’ve likely seen on previous machines. It works, looks nice, but it’s starting to show its age in one small area: The display bezels.

The 17-inch display is great, but we’ll get to that later, right now we’re talking about bezels. The frame around the display is almost an inch thick all the way around, and because of the shape of the chassis, the angled front-edge makes the top display bezel even thicker. It’s just an awful lot of wasted plastic and it looks dated compared to smaller, slimmer offerings. The Razer Blade Pro has thick bezels around its display, but because they’re recessed, part of the glass display itself, they’re less noticeable in everyday use. Unfortunately, big bezels seem to be par for the course when you’re shopping for a 17-inch laptop.

A credit to the Alienware 17 R5’s overlarge chassis, there’s an awful lot of room to fill with ports, and Alienware does just that. The power adapter plugs in on the back-side of the chassis, right beside an ethernet port, USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, HDMI port, and mini-DisplayPort. On the right-hand side there’s a single USB-A port, and on the left a USB-C and USB-A port, along with headphone and microphone jacks.

The port selection is pretty standard, with a couple appreciated inclusions like mini-DisplayPort, but it’s their placement that really makes the Alienware 17 stand apart from the crowd. By putting mission-critical ports on the back-side of the laptop, they’re always going to be out of your way when the Alienware 17 is sitting on a desk — which let’s be honest, is where it’s going to spend most of its life. The Acer Helios 500 took the same approach with some of its ports, and we like it. These things are laptops in name only, and so it’s an excellent design decision to position the ports so they won’t clutter up your desk.

The design is distinctly Alienware — futuristic angles, RGB lighting everywhere you look.

The keyboard offers a decent keystroke depth and quick snappy keys, it never feels too much like a laptop keyboard — none of that mushiness associated with membrane keyboards, a characteristic that’s shared by “real” gaming notebooks like the Helio 500 and Razer Blade Pro . Similarly, the touchpad works just as smoothly as it should, a credit to Windows Precision Touchpad support. It feels silky and smooth to the touch, but in an era of massive touchpads, it feels a bit small at times.

Another input the Alienware 17 features is a built-in Tobii Eye Tracker, which is unusual even for dedicated gaming machines. Situated right below the display, the eye tracker has two functions: One, it’ll let you do some fun things in some games — but not very many. Secondly, you can use it for Windows Hello, Microsoft’s facial recognition login system. Windows Hello allows you to login by just opening your laptop and looking at the eye tracker, it’s a nice feature and definitely beats typing out a password every time you open your computer.

Regarding the Tobii Eye Tracker’s utility for gaming though, it’s a lot more hit-and-miss. Some games support it, but it’s still pretty rare to see. Using the Tobii software you can pop balloons by just looking at them though, so that’s nice.

Not the brightest star in the sky

We already covered the Alienware 17 R5’s awkward display bezels, but the good news is the display itself is just fine. To the naked eye, colors are bright and vibrant without being washed out or too heavily saturated. The 120Hz G-Sync panel makes even the most basic mouse movements captivating. Seriously, just moving the mouse around is an absolute joy because of how liquid-smooth the motion is. That’s just an appetizer though, once you see this display panel in action, running your favorite games at high or ultra-high settings without skipping a beat, it’s going to be hard to go back to a plain old 60Hz display.

Alienware 17 R5 review
Jayce Wagner/Digital Trends

The resolution here is also worth mentioning. The 17-inch display panel features a 1440p display resolution, which is unusual given the high refresh rate. It’s an excellent pairing though, like chocolate and peanut-butter, the high resolution and high refresh rate complement each other beautifully. Games are impossibly smooth and fluid, and because of the resolution, they’re remarkably crisp. The Helios 500 has an even faster display with a 144Hz refresh rate, but that’s paired with a 1080p display and so it’s a choice between being slightly faster and being higher resolution.

The numbers paint a slightly more pedestrian portrait here, but the aforementioned aspects more than make up for the display’s shortcomings. Looking at color gamut, the Alienware 17 R5’s display hits 93 percent of the sRGB color space, which is the one you’re going to see most often. On the more finicky AdobeRGB color space, the Alienware’s display hits only 73 percent, which is about what we’d expect out of a laptop display that isn’t geared toward professional use and unsurprisingly are similar results to the Helios 500.

Just moving the mouse around is a joy thanks to the high-refresh rate display, every animation is just liquid-smooth.

Moving on, we saw the Alienware 17 R5’s display top out at a contrast ratio of 560-to-1. That’s not bad, but it’s not great either, falling behind the Helios 500 and the Asus ROG Zephyrus. Overall it just means colors aren’t going to pop quite as much as they could, and that’s a side effect of the 120Hz display. To hit that high refresh rate, Alienware uses a TN display panel, and they’re typically not as vibrant as more common IPS displays.

For comparison, let’s look at the Razer Blade Pro 17. Our review unit featured a 4K IPS display with a refresh rate of 60Hz. With a brighter IPS display, the Blade Pro 17 hit a contrast ratio of 900-to-1, managed to render 98 percent of the AdobeRGB color space, and featured slightly better average color error. This is the trade-off between a 120Hz TN display like the one in the Alienware 17 and a more vibrant, but 60Hz, IPS display.

Fastest in the galaxy

The Alienware 17 features a processor that’s a bit overkill for most uses. Not an Intel Core i5, not a Core i7, but a Core i9. For anyone unfamiliar, the Core i9 is Intel’s top-end consumer-grade processor. It’s marketed as a great processor for gaming — and it is — but it’s important to point out that gaming is not typically processor-intensive. Games rely more heavily on the GPU than the processor but having something as overwhelmingly powerful as an i9 in your machine has some important benefits.

First up let’s look at how it does in Geekbench. Compared to regular 8th-Generation Core i7 processors, it’s clear the Core i9 is very powerful, but it’s hard to put it in context with just a couple scores. That’s why we ran a couple real-world benchmarks to give you a better idea of just how powerful this six-core processor really is.

For our Adobe Premiere benchmark, we rendered out a project file that stitches together a series of 8K videos and applies an unreasonable amount of adjustment layers, to really put the machine to the test. For reference, a decked-out MacBook Pro 15 takes about 25 minutes to run the same render, while our Alienware 17 here took a much more reasonable 98 seconds, or just over a minute and a half. The full-sized Core i9, residing in a desktop machine like the Alienware Area 51 R5 crunched the same benchmark in just 19 seconds.

We also used Handrake to convert a 420MB video to H.265, and the Alienware finished the task in a quick 184 seconds. That’s not the fastest we’ve seen, though, as the Dell XPS 15 (more of a productivity than a gaming system) finished more quickly at 150 seconds with its Core i7-8570H CPU. The Asus ZenBook Pro 15 UX580 was the fastest we’ve seen in this test, finishing in just 139 seconds thanks to its own Core i9.

Clearly the Alienware 17 isn’t going to beat a desktop machine, but the contrast is important. The Core i9 inside the 17-inch Alienware laptop is capable of making short work of professional-grade workloads and doesn’t come too far behind its desktop-based cousin.

There’s a lot of space inside that chassis, and the Alienware 17 takes good advantage,  featuring both a 512GB SSD and a 1TB mechanical hard drive. These are fairly standard options, and the speed here is about what we’d expect. The 512GB SSD was relatively quick on its feet, hitting a read speed of 1,912 megabytes-per-second and a write speed of 1,313MB/s. Even swinging big files around, the SSD kept up beautifully.

As you can see it’s about as quick as you would expect from a laptop SSD, and it’s definitely quick enough that you’ll never notice it slowing you down when you’re handling massive files — or backing up your Steam library.

Stellar performance

When it comes to gaming performance, the Alienware 17 R5 packs enough power into its less-than-slender frame to run circles around similarly outfitted competitors. What does that mean in practice? Well, it means you won’t have trouble running games at 1440p with the settings maxed out, not for a while at least. Looking at our 3DMark scores, it’s pretty clear that the Alienware 17’s hardware configuration is fine-tuned for gaming performance.

The Alienware 17 R5 might not be as slim or stylish as the Razer Blade Pro or Asus ROG Zephyrus, but this thing can move. With the same graphics chipset as the Blade Pro and Zephyrus, the Alienware 17 R5 manages to outperform its slimmer competitors by a sizable margin. There’s a reason for that.

This laptop proves Alienware has earned its reputation for precision engineering. By including an Intel Core i9, and an overclocked Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, the Alienware 17 R5 is able to kick into high gear and push past the performance we saw out of its competitors here.

When it comes to real-world results the margins narrowed a bit, but the Alienware 17 R5 still pushed past its competitors in most cases, a credit to the slight overclock its GTX 1080 graphics card features.

In Battlefield 1 for instance, we saw the Alienware consistently hit an average of 139 FPS at ultra-high settings at 1080p, and about 130 FPS at 1440p. The Razer Blade Pro came in just behind with an average 134 FPS at ultra-high settings on 1080p, and 126 FPS at the same settings on 1440p.

What this should show you is how robust the Alienware’s hardware really is. It barely takes a hit at all by stepping up to 1440p, and in the case of Battlefield 1 it’s still well above 120 FPS, which means your gameplay will liquid smooth on account of that 120Hz display panel we discussed earlier.

As always, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided illustrates what a more demanding game will look like on this hardware, and even though the Alienware 17 R5 doesn’t quite perform well enough to take advantage of the high-refresh-rate display panel, it still delivers exceptional performance here.

Power-hungry

All that power comes at a cost, though, the Alienware 17 isn’t exactly an all-day performer when it’s not plugged in. On account of its very powerful hardware, the Alienware 17 burns through its battery a lot quicker than something more modest like a Dell XPS 13 — a workhorse designed for all-day use. The Alienware 17 has a few factors working against it here, but let’s look at the numbers first.

As you can see, none of these gaming laptops really perform well when it comes to battery life, so it’s a good idea to keep that charger handy. That said, the Alienware 17 offers the kind of battery life we’d expect from a system with these specs. The six-core processor and overclocked GPU don’t help matters here — and neither does the UHD high-refresh-rate display.

Still, we ended up getting enough juice out of the Alienware 17 that we could do some light office work for a couple hours without worry, but that’s not exactly the kind of workload this laptop is designed for. If you need something that’ll see you through most of a workday without being plugged in, you’re probably not going to want a gaming laptop.

Alien engineering

The Alienware 17 R5 features the latest version of the Alienware Command Center, a software suite for customizing the R5’s lighting, performance, and power consumption settings. Just like the version Alienware ships on its latest desktops, like the Area-51 R5, the Command Center here is fully featured and easy to use. The UI is attractive and utilitarian, everything is where it should be, settings are clearly labeled and laid out, you’ll never have to dig for advanced settings if you need to get to them. They’re all laid bare for you to customize.

Our Take

Taken as a whole, the Alienware 17 R5 delivers on everything it promises — exceptional gaming performance, unbelievable processing power, and a gorgeous display. It’s not without its flaws, but this is the laptop to beat if you need a gaming powerhouse that can — kind of — fit into a backpack.

Is there a better alternative?

When it comes to raw performance, there really isn’t a better alternative than the Alienware 17 R5. If you need exceptional power out of a portable gaming machine, the Alienware 17 is the way to go. However, if you want a gaming laptop that can also be your everyday driver — the thing you bring to work or class every day — you should probably look elsewhere.

One other 17-inch gaming notebook that we feel compelled to mention is the Acer Predator Helios 500. It’s also an aggressively styled, in-your-face gaming notebook that’s not trying to blend in, and it also comes stocked with some seriously fast components (albeit, not quite as fast as the Alienware).

At the other end of the spectrum, you might want to look at the Razer Blade or Razer Blade Pro. With similar pricing and hardware, but a much slimmer build, these are a bit more suitable for everyday use.

How long will it last?

As we mentioned, the Alienware 17 R5 is built like a tank. Alienware has a well-earned reputation for robust build quality and the 17 R5 is no exception. The chassis on this laptop will absolutely outlast its internal components and put up with the ravages of time.

Additionally, the hardware is powerful enough that it’ll see you through at least a couple years of gaming on the highest-possible settings. It also features a one-year hardware warranty protecting against manufacturer defects, which is fairly standard for this kind of laptop.

Should you buy it?

If you’re looking at a gaming laptop in the $3,000 price range, you can’t do much better than the Alienware 17 R5 in terms of raw performance — so you should definitely buy it. But if you’re looking to save a little, or pick up a laptop that’s a bit more general-purpose, and less gigantic and ostentatious, you should probably look elsewhere.

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