If you’re dropping $2,000 on a gaming notebook, it should perform like a franchise quarterback. Consider the Alienware M17, the Eli Manning to the Area-51 m17x’s Peyton Manning. Though it may not boast the high-end specifications and ceiling-shattering benchmark scores of its pricier big brother, the $1,999 M17 still performs like a Pro Bowler and always keeps you in the game.
Alienware’s patent matte black finish—the same as on the Area-51 m17x—and illuminated keyboard make the M17 the looker at any LAN party. The lid of the M17 is slightly more ostentatious, as it sports Alienware’s ribbed Skullcap case design. At 15.7 x 11.8 x 1.7 inches and weighing in at 9.5 pounds, the M17 is roughly the same size as the m17x, but a pound lighter. Regardless, it’s not a notebook you’ll want to carry around frequently.
The M17 also features customizable backlighting, which allows users to choose from three colors—red, blue, and green—by pressing Fn+F10 (the m17x, by comparison, has software that lets users select from ten different colors and create different lighting schemes). Unfortunately, you cannot change the color of the Alienware logo or media quick-launch keys above the keyboard, which always stay blue; the mismatched colors may be off-putting to some.
The M17’s full-size keyboard features a short throw, perfect for intense gaming sessions, and the system does a good job of exhausting heat without making the notebook a makeshift stove. The only drawback is the loud fans needed to dissipate the heat. The touch-sensitive buttons above the keyboard launch your Web browser, e-mail, and Power DVD and let you control Windows Media Player; they were adequately responsive, but were not the full array you see in many notebooks. The volume, now controlled by a small wheel, is on the right side of the notebook.
Display, Webcam, and Ports
As should be the case with every gaming notebook, the star feature is the M17’s bright 17-inch, 1920 x 1200 Clearview display. Whether you’re repelling an alien invasion in Crysis or handling a financial crisis in Quicken, images pop with crystal clarity. Viewing angles were solid no matter how the notebook screen was tilted.
The M17 offers a wealth of futureproof ports to accommodate most any peripheral, including three USB 2.0 ports, a 7-in-1 card reader, one FireWire port, HDMI, digital optical, and an eSATA port that doubles as a fourth USB port. The dual-layer DVD drive is located on the front side of the notebook, which makes it more prone to accidentally pushing the open button while it rests in your lap.
The 2-megapixel webcam provided decent images but was nothing to write home about. The sound output was ample enough to accommodate building-shattering booms and the steady burst of fire for all the explosive games we tested, without sounding tinny.
Users who take notebook security seriously will love the suite of failsafe options included on the M17. Biometric security allows users to use a fingerprint as a replacement for passwords. Alienware also includes its AlienSense facial recognition software, but this application isn’t ready for prime time. Despite trying to log in more than 20 times from the same seat in the same lighting condition, the program failed to recognize our face more often than not.
Under the hood, the M17 houses plenty of horsepower to stay in the race with the latest resource-guzzling games. Users can upgrade to a quad-core processor, but our test model shipped with a 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, with 3GB of memory and dual 512GB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 video cards—a first for Alienware. The power-friendly ATI CrossFireX array, which supports the latest DirectX 10 games, offers comparable performance to Nvidia’s SLI setups and should satisfy ATI fans.
The benchmarks prove the M17 is no slouch. Its score of 10,655 in 3DMark06 slides it firmly behind the m17x’ 12,042 as the second-best performer in its class. This is even more notable considering the $3,000 price difference between the two configurations we tested. The PCMark Vantage score, on the other hand, was a decidedly average 3,293. But this computer was made for gaming; where it counts, the M17 delivers.
Since the M17 ships with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium, serious gamers would be wise to upgrade to 4GB of memory. The 7,200-rpm, 160GB hard drive was rather disappointing, notching only 16.6 MBps in the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media), which is nearly 8 MBps less than the class average. Considering the performance this rig is capable of, you may want to upgrade for size as well as speed; larger-capacity drives generally tend to run faster, and the M17 can be configured with up to 1TB of storage.
With settings maxed on F.E.A.R. and resolution set to 1920 x 1200, the M17 averaged 125 frames per second, better than every gaming notebook except the Gateway P-7811FX (141 fps) and the m17x’ sky-high 182 fps; likewise, when set to autodetect, the M17’s 110 fps was bested only by the P-7811FX (135 fps) and the m17x (168 fps).
Outside of NASA supercomputers, not many rigs can handle the rigors of playing games like Crysis or Far Cry 2 with graphics settings turned to high, and the M17 is no different. While stalking enemies with our Predator-like cloaking suits in Crysis, we found the frame-rate sweet spot by toggling between the medium and low advanced graphic settings. This may sound disappointing, but the lush jungle environments, lighting, and shadowing still looked good without compromising the steady frame rate needed for the overwhelming firefights.
Journeying into the dark heart of Africa in Far Cry 2 on the low graphics setting using DirectX 9 delivered a playable 36 fps average. Upping the ante to DX 10 is inadvisable; the best the system could muster during benchmark tests was a 23.6-fps average. With less resource-intensive games such as Spore and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, the M17 delivers silky smooth performance at high graphics settings.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
The one test in which the M17 fared better than the m17x is wireless signal strength. Both performed well at 15 feet, but when we extended the notebook range to 50 feet, the M17 was still going strong at 16.4 Mbps, compared to its flashy brother’s pedestrian 8.4 Mbps.
As with most gaming notebooks, don’t expect to be able to stray too far from an outlet with the M17. The battery lasted a mere 1 hour and 48 minutes during the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi); while 40 minutes longer than the m17x lasted, its life was nearly 40 minutes less than the desktop replacement average and will hardly cover the shortest of flights. Fire up a game or DVD and those precious minutes will evaporate even quicker.
Software and Warranty
The only software preinstalled on the M17 outside of the Alienware Command Center (which lets you configure power settings, touchpad controls, and security) was Nero 7 for burning discs, Power DVD, and Adobe Acrobat Reader. It’s a clean system without all the junk that weighs down a lot of the notebooks on the market. Alienware includes a one-year warranty, which can be extended to three years, and 24/7 toll-free phone support. The company also offers customer support forums, as well as an online knowledge base and the option to chat with an Alienware representative using its chat system.
Alienware M17 Verdict
Considering its solid gaming performance and $1,999 price tag, the Alienware M17 proves itself a solid solution for gamers who crave elite performance without putting up their car or firstborn as collateral. Gamers on a tighter budget may want to invest in the $1,699 Gateway P-7801u, the follow-up to the highly popular P-7811FX that boasts Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTS graphics, a bigger 320GB hard drive, and an extra gig of RAM. While the M17 may not have all the bells and whistles of the m17x, sometimes flash isn’t needed to get the job done.