Alienware is all but synonymous with aggressive styling, audacious lighting, and burly machines belching out heat and frame rates. The latest update to the M17x line is no exception; packed into the familiar chassis are a quad-core Intel Ivy Bridge processor, 8GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 680M GPU, the fastest mobile GPU Nvidia currently has to offer.
Design and Features
The Alienware M17x measures 410mm x 304mm x 46mm and weighs 4.4kg. 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.
The system comes with 8GB of memory, a third-generation Intel Core i7-3720QM quad-core processor, 32GB mSATA cache drive, and a 500GB 7,200rpm primary drive. Also built in is a Blu-ray player/DVD burner combo drive for playing DVDs and Blu-ray movies. The system has both wired Gigabit Ethernet and dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. Adding to the connectivity are four USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port (aka, powered eSATA) with USB PowerShare charging (you can use the port to charge a smartphone or table with the system off), audio ports (including a S/PDIF minijack), and a 9-in-1 media card reader. The system is particularly well suited for connecting to video sources and external displays. There’s an HDMI-out port for monitors and HDTVs, a Mini DisplayPort jack for monitors, a VGA port, plus an HDMI-in port so you can use the system’s built-in display with external sources like settop cable boxes or media players. About the only thing missing is a Thunderbolt port, though that may be built into a future version of the M17x.
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.
The M17x R4 is also one of the best-performing systems we’ve seen on the multimedia benchmark tests. The system ran the Handbrake video encode test in 1 minute 12 seconds, and the Photoshop CS5 test in 3:03. To put this in perspective, high-end gaming desktops must put in a lot of effort to achieve these times without burning out, and desktops don’t have to worry about laptop-style cooling concerns. The M17x R4′s 32GB mSATA cache drive, Turbo Boost Core i7 processor, speedy DDR3 memory, and 7,200rpm primary drive all contribute to the system’s speedy performance. The M17x R4′s Photoshop CS5, Handbrake, and CineBench R11.5 (6.86) scores all topped our charts.
The keyboard is not really meant for extended typing sessions – its 12mm x 13mm keys are a bit narrow, though gamers will generally have their trigger fingers poised above the exact key they need, or very close. For text input, it all seems a bit cramped, with the constant worry that the next typo is a keypress away. Though the dedicated number pad may come in handy for late night data entry – at a pinch! The keyboard, like the touchpad, is backlit, with four separate zones which can be lit in your own choice of palette. That touchpad is ultra-smooth for easy glide, and multi-touch gestures execute flawlessly. Its quite spacious too, at 100mm x 55mm.
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.
Battery, heat and noise
The M17x lasted for a total of four hours and twelve minutes on The Verge Battery Test — right on track with the similarly equipped MSI GT70 we reviewed recently. The test consists of downloading images and cycling through websites until the laptop’s battery dies. My own use involves near continuous music streaming, the occasional video, and plenty of writing; the machine lasted for three hours and thirty-six minutes before I had to track down an outlet. That isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but this sort of longevity used to be rare in gaming machines.
Here’s something a little less rare: the fans roaring to life whenever you try to get some gaming done. The fan noise didn’t quite drown out the machine’s illustrious speakers, but it certainly turned a few heads. I’d also caution against putting this laptop anywhere near your lap. The fans on the left and right sides of the machine attempt to keep the heat in check, but the metal vanity plate centered on the underside of the machine remained uncomfortably warm.
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.
Brilliant 1080p display
Record-setting GPU performance
Keyboard and touchpad could be better
Runs a bit warm, even at idle
So-so battery endurance