Gaming on the go has become the hottest new trend for gamers in a mobile first world. Traditional ways of enjoying games on the sofa have been superseded by greater access to the same applications from multiple locations viz through streaming. In PC market a paradigm shift is also clearly evident as consumers are moving more towards portability rather than sheer power of the hardware to deliver great gaming experiences. It’s this new wave that has shifted the trend from desktop to mobile for gamers and is precisely the market space Alienware’s new gaming laptop occupies.
Alienware is to gaming what Ferrari is to motorsport and 2015 saw the launch of their single GPU flagship system, the Alienware M17X R2. A sleek, futuristic design characterized by premium build quality and powerful hardware making it a truly remarkable platform for even the most hardcore gamers.
Build & Aesthetics
The M17X is quite simply the best looking gaming laptop money can by. Just a glimpse of its silver brushed aluminum lid with the drooping corners and sporty diagonals scream style. The main body of the laptop also boasts premium plastics sporting a matte black finish. The system is flawless in terms of sturdiness due to the consistently high quality of materials used.
To further add to the appearance Alienware’s signature color changing LEDs flaunt their stuff on the outside of the lid, power button, track pad and a full sized keyboard. Additionally, customization options for the lights can be accessed quite conveniently from Alienware Command Center Software which comes pre-installed or can be downloaded from the Dell support website. This allows users to not only configure each individual lighting zone but also allows access to performance monitoring, keyboard macro key controls and game launch optimizations. At around 3.7Kg the device is definitely a desktop replacement rather than a slim portable notebook although is slimmer and lighter than most of its competitors and even its own previous iterations.
Hardware & Performance
Our review model featured a 17 inch Full HD Display (1920×1080). The IPS touchscreen panel possessed impressive image quality with sharp detail and good contrast although it is worth noting that the M15X does come with a 4K option, a practice common among gaming laptop manufacturers. Rich colors and sharp image quality earn praise but fingerprints are a worry just as with any touch screen so protection or regular cleaning is advised. Technical specifications include pixel density of 127ppi.A high maximum brightness value of 331 cd/m2 coupled with a low black value of 0.3 cd/m² produce an admirable contrast ratio 1103:1.
Under the hood our review model was equipped with NVIDIA’s GTX980m featuring 4GB GDDR5 memory and max clock speed of 1125MHz. The featured CPU was an Intel i7 4980hq with clock speeds from 2.8ghz – 4.0ghz. In addition the system was also equipped with 16GB DDR3 main memory and a hybrid SSD solution for storage. The storage configuration incorporated a 1TB 5400rpm Toshiba mechanical SATA drive coupled with a faster LiteOn m2 Sata SSD with 256GB capacity out of which maximum of 64GB was reserved for caching. This hybrid solution seems to be a popular cost effective alternative these days where the data access is sped up through caching files in the faster hybrid SSD (m2 SATA offers less performance than traditional SSD). Caching isn’t a perfect alternative which I was already aware of after my time spent with the Lenovo Y500 IdeaPad that housed a similar setup.
On the Alienware I suffered a system freeze because of a faulty BIOS update and upon hard shutdown resulted in Windows system file corruption. This was most likely caused by cached OS files which will end up corrupted if the cache drive stops functioning normally. Another issue which is less intense and more common is that caching setups learn overtime and you wont see gains immediately especially on newly installed software. For those who want to replace the mechanical SATA drive with a regular SSD and install windows onto it I recommend changing the SATA control method in the BIOS to AHCI and creating a bootable USB with GPT for UEFI compatibility. This will free up all the space for you to utilise and offer peak HDD performance while ensuring that the additional protection afforded by a UEFI BIOS against boot sector attacks is preserved.
Now onto the meaningful part of the hardware namely the GPU and CPU. The i7 is a quad core 4980hq which in terms of performance is equal to a desktop i7 3770k and comes equipped with an integrated Iris Pro 5200 GPU which provides decent gaming performance while also improving battery life thanks to the utilization of Optimus switchable graphics technology. The main GPU is a GTX 980m with 4GB of VRAM and is capable of running most demanding DirectX 11 games on Ultra settings at 30fps or higher. This is indeed a monumental achievement because for the first time a mobile GPU is capable of such a feat. So in practical gaming terms the system is a beast.
However, all of the positives are tarnished by a few issues. Firstly, both the CPU and GPU are not upgradeable which is not a problem for this particular configuration but maybe a let down for those choosing a machine with lower specifications and aiming to upgrade later. Secondly, the laptop does get hot running under full load. The CPU and GPU hover around the 70C mark but the keyboard and the hard drive access panel on the underside can get noticeably hotter. Thirdly, throttling. Testing confirmed GPU and CPU throttling under heavy load caused by an inadequate 180W power supply which shipped with this particular model. Now I wasn’t the only case as it seemed that this issue was quite widespread as Dell themselves acknowledged it and suggested customers with the GTX 980m and Intel i7 model purchase a 240W PSU to compensate for the higher power requirement.
Dell also released a Hybrid BIOS solution which seemed to be their plan all along and with latest version A04 around the time of writing I can confirm that the throttling was rectified. I stress on WAS because the BIOS brought with it some serious problems of its own chief among which was a broken fan profile for the CPU. This resulted in the i7 hitting 90C mark on more than one occasion and causing the crash which I had previously mentioned. Unfortunately I couldn’t collect any data as it became impossible to run any heavy application for more than a few minutes and then the eventual OS system file corruption occurred. I was eventually forced to do a BIOS downgrade to the original version A00 after customer support failed to solve the issue. I wont be able to determine the performance ceiling for this device until I acquire the 240W PSU so all benchmarks in this article are for the non-hybrid BIOS A00 which causes throttling. The throttling is more common on the CPU end and is highlighted by reduced GPU usage and massive frame rate fluctuations when both the components are put under heavy load.
Check out performance benchmarks across a range of games with the 180W PSU and Hybrid Caching Solution: (The following are average fps figures for titles tested at 1080p ULTRA Settings).
Frames per second
|Witcher 3 Wild Hunt (2015) w/ NVIDIA Hairworks OFF|
|Crysis 3 (2013)|
|Tomb Raider (2013)|
|BioShock Infinite (2013)|
|Company of Heroes 2 (2013)|
|GRID: Autosport (2014)|
|Risen 3: Titan Lords (2014)|
|Ryse: Son of Rome (2014)|
|Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)|
|Battlefield Hardline (2015)|
The sound on the Alienware M17X is good but not great. The Klipsch audio incorporated into the device consists of standard 2 channel speakers and a sub-woofer that provides ample low frequency punch to music, games and movies although loud sounds with a lot of bass tend to be muddy and heavy on reverberations. Strangely, the left side speaker is much louder than the right side one and upon doing some research I discovered that it is actually because the left speaker is larger. This is apparently done so that while gaming the sound is not muffled by the palm when using the WASD keys. The Creative Soundblaster Recon 3Di driver features an impressive set of enhancements including an innovative ‘Scout Mode’ which enables users to listen in on enemy movement such as footsteps with greater definition during multiplayer gaming.
For multiplayer gamers and general networking the system comes with premium hardware as well which includes Qualcomm Killer e2200 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Controller (10/100/1000MBit), Killer Wireless-n/a/ac 1525 Wireless Network Adapter (a/b/g/n/ac) and Bluetooth 4.1. Other hardware details include 4xUSB 3.0, 1xHDMI, 1xDisplayPort, 1xKensington Lock, Audio Connections: Audio in 3.5 mm + Audio out 3.5 mm, Card Reader: 9-in-1, 1xAlienware graphics amplifier port. The M17X R2 also boasts good battery life performance for a gaming laptop and you’ll get around 4 – 4.5 hours with trivial tasks and around 1.5 hours with gaming.
The Alienware M17X R2 2015 is Dell’s poster child for single GPU gaming laptops. Packed with a powerful processor and the fastest mobile GPU in the market, the test model not only delivers console shattering performance but makes itself future proof by offering extendable graphics capability in the form of a graphics amplifier add-on. This allows a desktop GPU to be used instead of the onboard mobile GPU for even better performance. However, all the performance is handicapped by a weak power supply which prevented me from pushing the device to its limits. Even then there is more than enough under the hood to warrant a purchase. The design and performance philosophy persists and Alienware have delivered a magnificent machine worthy of their legacy.