Alienware m15 review

It's not just light. Alienware's m15 is an entirely new breed of gaming laptop

Don’t let its size fool you. The Alienware m15 is a serious gaming laptop.
Don’t let its size fool you. The Alienware m15 is a serious gaming laptop.
Don’t let its size fool you. The Alienware m15 is a serious gaming laptop.

Highs

  • Great keyboard and touchpad
  • Red, soft-touch lid is striking
  • Fantastic gaming performance
  • 144Hz screen is fast, fluid, and colorful
  • Robust build quality

Lows

  • Still hefty compared to competition
  • No per-key RGB backlighting
  • Tinny speakers

2018 was the year of the thin-and-light gaming laptop. It felt like a new category, created for a specific breed of gamer that doesn’t want to hulk around an eight-pound laptop, but still needs the performance.

The Alienware m15 proves it’s more than just a trend. It’s the new mainstream. Starting at $1,380, the m15 comes with a six-core Intel Core i7 processor and options for either a GTX 1060 or 1070 Max-Q graphics card. On top of that, our review unit came with a 144Hz 1080p display and a bright “Nebula Red” lid.

The m15 might feel like just another Razer Blade alternative, but really, it’s in a category of its own.

The Alien, reborn

While the m15 is a new take on Alienware laptops, that Alien DNA is still very much alive in the m15. The same angular lines, robust build quality, and light-up alien logo are still intact.

This is a gaming laptop, through and through. Other options in the burgeoning category of thin-and-light gaming laptop tend to downplay its exclusive use for games. Laptops like the Razer Blade, Gigabyte Aero 15X, and MSI GS65 all attempt a subtle look, one that can pass as professional. The Alienware m15 is more overt.

Our unit came with a flashy “Nebula Red” lid, which is unique to the 144Hz panel version. Not only does it look great, its soft-touch finish feels unique, too. Other models come in a more standard silver colorway, nearly identical to most Alienware laptops. We don’t that option nearly as much. The red finish is too good to pass up.

Either way, once you get past the familiar lid, you’ll see just how much is new. Everything across the keyboard deck is redesigned including the keyboard, touchpad, vents, RGB lighting, and screen. Almost every change is for the better, making the laptop feel more modern.

Alienware did a great job engineering a key feel that’s clicky and fast, despite the shallow travel.

The same goes for the overall size of the device. The m15 is the lightest Alienware laptop ever made. That’s not exactly a monumental claim given the company’s reputation for chunky hardware, but it doesn’t go unnoticed when tossing it in your backpack. It fits in one! It weighs 4.8 pounds and is 0.83 inches thick (at its largest). That’s still heavy compared to the Razer Blade or Gigabyte Aero 15X.

The biggest difference is in overall footprint, where the m15 still feels rather large. Some of that is due to the larger bezels framing the screen. While thinner on the sides, the m15 has a chunky chin and a large top bezel as well. To make matters worse, they’re glossy plastic, cheapening the otherwise premium feel.

At this point, there isn’t an excuse for bezels like these, especially not on a laptop that’s supposed to be sleek and modern. Whether it’s the Razer Blade, or the Asus ROG Zephyrus S, laptops in this class must do better.

Alienware m15 Review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

In terms of ports, the m15 comes with three USB-A 3.1 ports, a Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port, HDMI, a gigabit ethernet jack, and even support for Alienware’s proprietary external graphics boost. You have everything here you’d expect on a gaming laptop, plenty of versatility and great placement for clean cable management. The only thing missing is an SD card slot, which Alienware tends to leave out on its laptops.

The basic bling

The m15 has less keyboard than other Alienware laptops, which will displease some fans. The keyboard here is certainly passable however, and we found ourselves able type quickly without trouble. The company did a great job engineering a key feel that’s clicky and fast, despite the shallow travel. There’s even a numpad on the right side.

Colorful games like Fortnite shine on the Alienware m15. It’s one of the best experiences on any 15-inch gaming laptop.

One aspect Alienware has cut back is the backlight. Unlike the Alienware 17 R5, more expensive variants of the Razer Blade, and other competitors, the m15 doesn’t include per-key RGB lighting. You can still customize and change the colors in its six zones, which should be enough bling for most people. The fancy lighting along the side of the chassis, and across the touchpad, have disappeared to account for the thinner chassis.

Gaming laptops used to dismiss touchpad quality as unimportant, but the Razer Blade changed that. The Alienware m15 follows in Razer’s footsteps by including a larger and more precise touchpad. It’s not as good as the Blade’s, but it’s a step ahead of something like a Predator Helios laptop. Gone are the blue backlighting and separate left and right buttons.

It supports Windows Precision drivers, meaning gestures feel responsive and accurate. It’s not glass, however, meaning tracking doesn’t always feel as precise as it could. The touchpad is off-center, as well, so beware if that’s a problem for you.

A colorful, Fortnite-ready screen

Displays can be a weakness in gaming laptops, which had us worried about the Alienware m15. Dell could have cut corners and used a cheap TN panel. Fortunately, the m15 has a high-quality screen.

Despite the glossy bezels, it’s a bright matte IPS display, which is great for cutting out reflections and improving viewing angles. The m15 maxes out at a respectable 318 nits. That’s not over 400 nits, like the MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 15, but it’s plenty bright for daily use. The same is true for contrast, where the m15 slides ahead of its competitors in the gaming space but can’t keep up with premium ultrabooks.

Colorful games like Fortnite shine on the Alienware m15. The vibrant look is perfect for the screen’s wide color gamut, and the fast-paced action can put the 144Hz refresh rate to use. It’s one of the best experiences on any 15-inch gaming laptop.

Gamers can also opt for a 60Hz 4K panel in the $2,200 model, but we’d recommend this 144Hz 1080p model over that one. Though content creators might be looking for that higher screen resolution, the m15 – like most gaming laptops – isn’t powerful enough to run the most demanding games at 4K.

Alienware m15 Review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The speakers are located on the side of the device, which isn’t optimal. While some laptops make decent use of that speaker location, these are disappointing. They sound tinny and aren’t befitting of the audio you’d want while gaming. Gamers tend to prefer headsets or desktop speakers, and the m15 will only affirm those habits.

Flex that six-core bicep

The m15 includes just one option for processors, but don’t worry. It’s a good one. The six-core Core i7-8750H sits at the heart of this laptop and delivers stellar performance. The system feels fast, regardless of whether you’ve dozens of apps and browser tabs open, or you’re playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey at maximum detail.

In Geekbench, the m15 flexes its multi-core muscle, pushing past even the Core i9-powered Alienware 17 R5. The same was true in our Handbrake test, where we encode a short 4K video. Again, the Alienware m15 performed the task faster than most of its competitors. All this performance is thanks to the new thermal system used here, which has been redesigned for the thinner chassis.

This processor runs hot, but the m15 can handle the heat. Internal temperatures do rise and the system will occasionally throttle to keep cool. That’s not a problem exclusive to the m15, but the Blade’s vapor chamber cooling system is a bit more effective. Fortunately, exterior temperatures stay low, especially around the most-used areas of the keyboard deck while gaming. The fans are loud, but never kicked on unnecessarily.

Storage performance was excellent, at least on our review unit. It used a Toshiba NVMe SSD that blitzes through write and read speeds. Just make sure you buy the best drive option. Our model, priced barely north of $2,000, came with 512GB of storage, but the $1,380 base model ships standard with a slow, spinning hard disk drive. Upgrading to solid state is a must-have no matter the version you buy.

All the gaming power you’ll need

Did Alienware cut back gaming performance for the smaller chassis? Nope. The m15 is a serious performer. It might not stand out in performance, but remember, this laptop is more affordable than its competitors.

Across the board, gaming performance is in line with a similarly-configured Razer Blade. In fact, it’s nearly identical in games like Civilization VI and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Gameplay is smooth and responsive in 1080p with settings maxed. We did see a jump in performance in Battlefield 1, where the m15 passed laptops like the Digital Storm Equinox and Razer Blade with a crisp 93 FPS (frames per second) on Ultra. Even new, demanding games like Battlefield V played smoothly, achieving an average of 72 FPS.

Our model came with fast 144Hz 1080p display, and the 1070 Max-Q is powerful enough to push most games over 60 FPS. That means you can take advantage of the screen’s potential. It’s best in a game like Fortnite, where you can break over 100 frames per second.

Alienware m15 Review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

If you do happen to have a 1440p screen around, you’ll see some decent framerates there, too. Battlefield 1 managed an impressive 71 FPS on the m15, and that’s with settings at Ultra. Outside of an extremely demanding game like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (which is still playable, but at around 37 FPS), you should expect to stay over 60 FPS in most modern games.

Improved battery life, but still not great

Thin-and-light gaming laptops don’t just need to be light. They also need good battery life. The Alienware m15 is a dramatic improvement over previous Alienware laptops, and it holds up well to its competitors.

You can expect around four or five hours, depending on use. In our light web browsing test, the m15 lasted just over five and a half hours, which is better than the Razer Blade and double that of larger gaming laptops. Unfortunately, it didn’t do as well in our video loop test, where the Blade beats it with over seven and half hours. The m15 lasted only four hours and 44 minutes. As usual, gaming on battery will chew through a charge. Expect about an hour of life, perhaps less.

Our review unit came with a 90 watt-hour battery, which is where all that extra juice comes from. If you get the base model or the 4K screen, your battery life will sink.

While the Alienware m15 does well for a gaming laptop, it’s a long way off more conventional systems. The XPS 15, which comes with a GTX 1050 Ti, will last over twice as long as the m15, though it has a similar processor and display.

Our Take

The Alienware m15 is a great evolution on its predecessor. It’s smaller, more attractive, and plenty powerful. Games look and play fantastic thanks to the high-quality components, efficient cooling, and impressive 144Hz screen. The look, feel, and portability of the device, however, do leave room for improvement, especially if you want something that can do more than game.

Are there any alternatives?

If you’re looking for the ultimate thin-and-light gaming laptop, the Razer Blade is a better option. It costs a bit more, but the design and overall portability more than make up for it.

Meanwhile, if you want something cheaper that’ll offer equally good hardware, the Asus Zephyrus S will save you a couple hundred bucks for a very similar build.

How long will it last?

The m15 should last you a few years. We’re expecting to see next-gen Nvidia mobile graphics soon, but the 1070 Max-Q is plenty powerful for most games in the meantime. The build is also robust, meaning it can take quite a bit of wear and tear.

A standard one-year warranty is provided. That’s the same as most competitors. The hardware service warranty does include on-site or in-home service after a problem has been diagnosed remotely.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Alienware m15 isn’t all that thin and light, but its performance makes up for any shortcomings there. This is a solid, well-rounded gaming laptop that’s also more portable than most.

Product Review

LG Gram 14 proves 2-in-1 laptops don’t need to sacrifice battery for light weight

The LG Gram 14 2-in-1 aims to be very light for a laptop that converts to a tablet. And it is. But it doesn’t skimp on the battery, and so it lasts a very long time on a charge.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Gaming

Want to trick out your PlayStation 4? These themes will get you started

Personalize your gaming experience with some of our favorite themes for the PlayStation 4, including free, paid, static, and dynamic options.
Computing

Prices of some components on the Alienware Area-51m will melt your wallet

Some of the most top-end components for the Alienware Area-51m laptop are expensive, pushing up the final costs for gamers looking to purchase the latest parts and experience the best performance.
Computing

The Asus ZenBook 13 offers more value and performance than Apple's MacBook Air

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the latest in that company's excellent "budget" laptop line, and it looks and feels better than ever. How does it compare to Apple's latest MacBook Air?
Computing

AMD Radeon VII will support DLSS-like upscaling developed by Microsoft

AMD's Radeon VII has shown promise with early tests of an open DLSS-like technology developed by Microsoft called DirectML. It would provide similar upscale features, but none of the locks on hardware choice.
Computing

You could be gaming on AMD’s Navi graphics card before the end of the summer

If you're waiting for a new graphics card from AMD that doesn't cost $700, you may have to wait for Navi. But that card may not be far away, with new rumors suggesting we could see a July launch.
Computing

Is AMD's Navi back on track for 2019? Here's everything you need to know

With a reported launch in 2019, AMD is focusing on the mid-range market with its next-generation Navi GPU. Billed as a successor to Polaris, Navi promises to deliver better performance to consoles, like Sony's PlayStation 5.
Computing

Cortana wants to be friends with Alexa and Google Assistant

Microsoft no longer wants to compete against Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant in the digital assistant space. Instead, it wants to transform Cortana into a skill that can be integrated into other digital assistants.
Computing

Microsoft leans on A.I. to resume safe delivery of Windows 10 Update

Microsoft is leaning on artificial intelligence as it resumes the automatic rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update. You should start seeing the update soon now that Microsoft has resolved problems with the initial software.
Computing

Stop dragging windows on your Mac. Here's how to use Split View to multitask

The latest iterations of MacOS offer a native Split View feature that can automatically divide screen space between two applications. Here's how to use Split View on a Mac, adjust it as needed, and how it can help out.
Computing

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.
Computing

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.
Computing

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!