If the latest Alienware 17 laptop was a video game character, it’d make the ground shake when it walks. It’d have a million hit points and a weapon so powerful it threatens to unbalance the whole game. But its dialogue would also be incomprehensible to the casual gamer.
This is an almost-perfect laptop for the hardcore crowd. Masses of power, great heat management, a high-quality display and clever ways to turn into a desktop gaming rig make this one of the best gaming laptops in the world.
However, to some the price, weight, bulk and short battery life will push the Alienware 17 to the bottom of their shortlist, below some of the excellent 15-inch gaming laptops we’ve reviewed.
Alienware 17 (2016) review: Price
Nothing too drastic has changed in Dell’s pricing for 2016 – Dell owns the Alienware brand now, in case you weren’t aware. None are cheap, and there is a premium over what is perhaps this system’s most dangerous rival, the Asus RoG G752 (which we’ve yet to review, but we have tested out the G751.)
Prices start at £1350 for the GTX 970M GPU version and £1650 for the GTX 980M version. While those are familiar starting costs, both the Acer Predator G9-791 and Asus G752 get you at least an extra SSD for the price at the lower end.
Should you sweat it? It depends on how much of a bargain hunter you are. The price difference between the comparable Asus, Acer and Alienware rivals doesn’t generally measure in the hundreds.
Alienware 17 (2016) review: Design
As with every previous version of the Alienware 17, this laptop is huge, heavy, cumbersome and not for anyone ashamed about their appreciation of games. It’s the sort of laptop you might see an extra from a thriller listed on IMDb as “hacker nerd no. 4” using. It’s bold and aggressive.
If you find that sort of aesthetic embarrassing, this probably isn’t the right laptop. It extends from the visuals on the lid to the font on the keyboard and even the way the Alienware logo lights-up on the front.
What really makes the Alienware 17 stand out even among gaming laptops is that its trackpad is illuminated. And it isn’t to help you find it. No, it’s clearly a show-off element, part of the ‘AlienFX’ lighting system which allows you to pick a different colour for each lit element if showing off is your bag, or turn off all the lights if that strikes you as a bit vulgar.
It’s never going to look entirely normal, but you can certainly tone down the Alienware 17’s appearance if all the bright lights you see in promo shots don’t appeal.
The Alienware 17 is best thought of as a desktop PC, rather than a portable laptop. It’s extremely heavy and very large. While it will fit in a large rucksack, you simply aren’t going to want to carry it around much. Even moving it from room to room is enough of an exertion, although you probably go to the gym more than we do.
It weighs 3.78kg and is 35mm thick: similar specs to the 2015 version.
While the Alienware 17 has plenty of power, you can also plug into it what Alienware calls a ‘graphics amplifier’. This is a separate box (much like a traditional dock) that holds a desktop-grade GPU, most likely a GeForce GTX 980, and lets you plug in accessories such as a hard drive, keyboard and so on. It turns the laptop into a desktop rig with just one cable. The port is on the back, next to an HDMI socket.
When the amplifier alone costs £250 and a desktop GTX 980 around £500, it’s no trifling upgrade, though.
The laptop itself has a reasonable array of connections. You get three regular USB 3.0s, a USB-C/Thunderbolt, an HDMI port on the back, an Ethernet port and a full-size SD card slot. There’s an assumption you’re not going to be messing around with old VGA ports here – and rightly so. Such outmoded ports have no place in 2016.
Alienware 17 (2016) review: Display
New for this year is the option of a 4K display. It’s a £250 upgrade that is arguably more useful if you want to use the Alienware as a ‘productivity’ PC as well as a gaming rig.
Why? Well as powerful as the ’17 is, it’s not going to let you play The Witcher 3 at 4K at 60fps at maximum detail settings. 4K has other benefits, such as much smoother-looking fonts on the desktop, the ability to view and edit UHD video and see more detail in photos without zooming in.
Alienware, unfortunately, sent us the regular Full HD version of the laptop, which is the only way to get this system with a GTX 980M for significantly under £2k. However, there’s much to like.
Image quality from the IPS, matt-finish panel is excellent, with deep blacks, carefully calibrated colours, great viewing angles and very high maximum brightness.
It covers 106 percent of the sRGB colour gamut and 73 percent Adobe RGB. The pre-calibration Delta E of an impressively low 0.14 (avg) shows Alienware has put real effort into getting this screen looking fantastic fresh out of the box. Reports suggest the 4K display offers even better colour performance in terms of digging even deeper into the Adobe-standard colour spectrum.
The decision not to use the usual glossy finish is a wise one. Instead of mirror-like reflections bright objects are turned into much less offensive diffuse white spots you can fairly easily ignore while playing, particularly when max brightness goes up to 365cd/m2. As ever with the Alienware 17, it’s not a touchscreen (a good thing in our opinion) and there’s a raised bezel rather than the pure flat screen design that is very common in thinner, lighter laptops.
Did you expect anything less from such a bruiser?
Alienware 17: Keyboard and trackpad
The big and bulky style works well for the keyboard and trackpad. The Alienware 17 has very deep satisfying key action that almost feels more like that of a mechanical keyboard than the ubiquitous feather-light chiclet keys we spend 99 per cent of the year tapping.
They feel great, for both gaming and just typing. While deep they’re not at all stiff or fatiguing.
The trackpad’s keys use a similar mechanism. They sit below the pad itself, side-stepping all of the trackpad niggles that are so common in Windows laptops. Left and right buttons are totally separate, and while this style might take a little tiny for those use to integrated pads to bed into, it’s otherwise totally frustration-free.
While you’re browsing and so on, a tap on the non-clicky pad can also be used to act as a mouse button press. A two-finger press acts as a ‘right’ button key. And, let’s not forget, you can make the Alienware 17 trackpad glow pink if you like. Bonus.
There’s a real sense of assured self-confidence to the Alienware 17. You might accuse it of being loud-looking and expensive, but it has found its own design archetype. And it’s rivals like the Acer G9-791 that are copying it, not the other way around.
Alienware 17: Performance
In terms of performance and specs, the base model starts with a GTX 970M but you can choose the top spec version with the GTX 980M. The cheaper model don’t have an SSD, and the standard 1TB HDD doesn’t seem to have a hybrid SSD cache, resulting in pretty uninspiring read/write speeds.
You really want an SSD in such a high-performance machine as it can have a detrimental effect on game-load times.
Entry-level specs also only include 8GB of RAM. While that’s currently enough to avoid causing a bottleneck in virtually ever game right now, we imagine anyone after such a high-end laptop would want – nay, expect – 16GB these days. The Asus and Acer alternatives almost universally ship with 16GB, after all. It’s a sneaky way for Alienware to keep it’s entry prices looking a bit more appealing, of course.
The version of the Alienware 17 we tested has an Intel Core i7-6820HK CPU, 16GB RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 512GB SSD.
This means the total comes to £1988, but still without the 4K screen. The 4K model has a 512GB SSD and 16GB RAM as standard and costs the same amount.
Power is immense. While Asus has managed to outdo the Alienware 17 with the utterly ridiculous RoG GX700, which has a desktop-grade GTX 980 (not the ‘M’ version), it also uses a massive cooling carbuncle on its back to make this possible.
Point-scoring projects aside, this is among the most powerful gaming laptops in the world at its top spec, which is more-or-less represented here. We have all the most important stuff bunged-in: 16GB RAM, the top-end CPU and top GPU.
We tried The Witcher 3, cranked it up to the Ultra setting and found it to be more-than playable. Plus it looks great. For reference, the GTX 980M sits just a little below the very impressive desktop-grade GTX 970, making it a perfect match for pretty much any current game at 1080p. Keep your expectations in check if you’re going for the 4K version: rock-solid 60fps won’t be possible in all titles.
We also saw scores of 13651 in Geekbench 3 (multicore), 3400 in PC Mark 8 (Home) and 8311 in 3D Mark Fire Strike (2287 in the more demanding Ultra version). Naturally, other GTX 980M laptops get close, but little else does.
We can’t say exactly what the scores will be without the SSD, but they will suffer significantly for general performance, if not in-game performance.
And let’s not overlook the fact that this configuration is more powerful than many desktop gaming PCs, even if you can pick one of those up for quite a bit less with similar specs.
As the Gigabyte P37X proves, you don’t necessarily have to be chunky to fit in these sorts of components. However, The Alienware 17 also handles the heat like a pro. Almost half of the underside and the rear of the laptop are given over to heat outlets for the fans.
Even when subjected to an hour of The Witcher 3 at Ultra settings, the Alienware stays reasonably quiet. To be clear: the fans do run all the time, but they’re generally not distracting, and generally don’t cause any obvious case vibration.
The time when the fans do often get louder is when the laptop is charging. The large charger must pump juice through at quite a rate.
Battery life varies massively. Alienware uses pretty dynamic power management to get reasonable stamina with very light use. With the PC Mark ‘Home’ battery benchmark, emulating casual use, it lasts three hours 59 minutes.
That is respectable for an outright gaming laptop, if not even nearly close to enough for a full day’s work (let alone gaming). It can scale down even further when simply playing video, though, lasting for a fairly impressive six hours 16 minutes playing a looped MP4 movie.
Before you get too excited, things take a dive radically when you actually use the GTX 980M GPU. Playing The Witcher 3 with all the visuals ramped up, most likely using 100 per cent of the GPU’s power the whole time, the Alienware 17 switched itself off thanks to low battery level in just under an hour.
Powerful components are demanding: it’s how these things work.
Finishing things off, the Alienware 17 has decent speakers, but like to much else in this laptop, they prioritise gaming over other uses. They fire out of the front edge, and provide a fairly chunky sound, with a cleat attempt to bulk up the lower frequencies in order to give a bit more weight to explosions and the like. With music, they sound rather boxy, with a coloured-sounding mid-range and slightly limited treble clarity.