For 2016, Alienware is upgrading its winning formula for gaming laptops, bringing Intel's new 6th-gen Core i7 CPU and Nvidia's 980M graphics to its leading 17-inch gaming laptop. You still get Alienware's signature spaceship-inspired case, tons of customizable lights and a comfy keyboard. Toss in a 17.3-inch screen that sets a new bar for gaming machines, and you've got a pretty potent package for $2,750. Other notebooks have more powerful desktop-level GPUs built in, but when you connect the Alienware 17 to the optional graphics amp ($980 with Nvidia 980Ti GPU), its gaming performance goes to a whole other level while future-proofing your purchase.
Design - The Spaceship Returns
While other gaming systems compete with increasingly shouty designs that are too-often draped in red and black, the Alienware 17's case has remained mostly unchanged over the past three years. The chassis' sleek, spaceship-inspired paneling will still stand out in a crowd, especially when all the lights are set ablaze, like on a Star Destroyer hunting down some pesky rebels. However, with the 2016 model indistinguishable from its 2015 and 2013 predecessors, it's about time for Alienware to do a complete revamp.
Inside, a smooth black deck provides a nice contrast to the space-gray exterior panels and the additional lights mounted under the keyboard and behind the Alienware logo beneath the display. As usual, everything feels solidly put together, a necessity considering the 17's 8.33 pound heft.
At 16.93 x 11.49 x 1.35 inches and 8.3 pounds, the Alienware 17 is actually thinner than many other premium gaming notebooks, including the OriginPC Eon17-SLX (16.8 x 12 x 1.8 and 10.05 pounds), MSI GT72 Dominator Pro (16.9 x 11.6 x 1.9 inches and 8.4 pounds) and the Acer Predator 17 (15.39 x 11.79 x 1.52 inches and 7.5 pounds), although the Acer is nearly a full pound lighter.
Display - Sparkling in 4K
Alienware knows what it's doing when it comes to displays, because the 17.3-inch UHD screen on the 17 is better than pretty much anything else in its class. It's sharp, bright and super-colorful and makes marveling at little things like the detail on a gun in Fallout 4 or a swirl of snow and ice in Rise of the Tomb Raider a real treat.
With a brightness of 318.6 nits, the Alienware 17 beat out the screens from Origin's Eon17-SLX (275 nits), MSI's GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition (288 nits) and Acer's Predator 17 (307 nits).
The 17 also topped its competition in color range, with an sRGB range of 173.5 percent. The Origin Eon17-SLX (114 percent), the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro (114 percent) and the Acer Predator 17 (116 percent) were bunched up in a pack behind the Alienware.
Results were closer for color accuracy, though, with the Alienware notching a Delta-E of 0.83. That's better than the Eon17-SLX (0.9) and Predator 17 (1.4), but not the GT72 Dominator Pro (0.7). (Scores closer to zero are better.)
Alienware's answer to systems like the Origin PC Eon17-SLX and the MSI GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition, which feature desktop-level Nvidia 980 GPUs, is its $300 Graphics Amplifier.
Gaming and Graphics - Very Good, But Not the Best
There's no getting around it. Even with 8GB of vRAM, the Alienware 17's Nvidia 980M GPU simply isn't as powerful as the non-mobile desktop GPUs featured in gaming notebooks from Origin and MSI. But the Alienware is a whole lot cheaper, and still offers solid performance at 1920 x 1080. However, for those hoping to take advantage of the Alienware 17's 4K display, you'll have to turn settings down to low.
On 3DMark's Fire Strike Ultra graphics test, the Alienware 17 scored 2,270. Acer's 980M-equipped Predator 17 was slightly ahead at 2,312, but Origin's Eon17-SLX (3,350), which features a true 980 GPU, was on another level. MSI's GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition (2,411) was also faster than the Alienware, but not to the same degree as Origin's notebook.
When we played Metro: Last Light at 1920 x 1080 and ultra settings, the Alienware 17 mustered 37.17 fps, which dropped to an unplayable 11.92 fps at 3840 x 2160. By comparison, Origin's Eon17-SLX reached a much higher 57 fps on ultra at full HD. MSI's GT72 Dominator (49 fps) was also better than the Alienware, but not quite as high as the Eon. As expected, Acer's Predator 17 (38 fps) posted a frame rate that was almost exactly the same as the Alienware.
But this isn't the end of 17's graphics story, because if you really want to push laptop gaming to the max, Alienware has a trick up its sleeve that can unlock a whole new tier of gaming performance.
Alienware's Graphics Amp - Desktop-Grade Power
Alienware's answer to systems like the Origin PC Eon17-SLX and the MSI GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition, which feature desktop-level Nvidia 980 GPUs, is its $300 Graphics Amplifier. Instead of cramming a super-power-hungry graphics card into the laptop's case, Alienware gives you a box that you can put almost any desktop GPU into, and connect to the laptop via a special port on the back. You don't get quite the same level of graphics performance the few times you take the system on the road, but when you're at home and connected to the amp, your frame rates will be higher.
In 3DMark Fire Strike Ultra, our Graphics Amp equipped with an Nvidia 980Ti GPU (priced at $980 for both) propelled the Alienware 17 to a score of 3,865. That's 15 percent higher than what we saw from Origin's Eon17-SLX (3,350) and a whopping 60 percent better than MSI's GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition (2,411).
This graphics prowess also carried over to Metro: Last Light, where the Alienware 17 with amp pushed out 62 fps at 1920 x 1080 on ultra. The Eon17-SLX (57 fps) was close behind, but importantly, did not quite hit 60 fps, while the GT72 Dragon was even further back at 49 fps.
It's not what you'd call a huge difference. But when you're trying to push pixels as hard as possible, every bit counts. The best thing about springing for an amp is that you'll be able to upgrade your graphics when a new crop of GPUs hit the market.
The argument for a graphics amp is so convincing that other companies, including Acer, Asus and MSI, have plans for their own amps, but right now, Alienware's the only company offering this tech.
Overall Performance - Do You Even Have to Ask?
It goes without saying that with our review config of the Alienware 17 featuring an Intel Core i7-6820HK CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD and 1TB HDD, everyday stuff like surfing the Web and sorting spreadsheets was a walk in the park.
HOW THE Alienware 17 R3 STACKS UP
On Geekbench 3, which tests overall system performance, the Alienware 17 scored 13,906. While that's not quite as good as the sky-high mark from the Origin Eon17-SLX (18,779), MSI's GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition was about the same at 13,896, with Acer's Predator 17 just a tad behind at 13,524.
When it came to storage speed, our Alienware 17's 512GB SSD posted a transfer rate of 508.96 MBps. The Acer Predator 17's SSD (508.96 MBps) speed was exactly the same, although the MSI GT72 Dragon and Origin Eon17-SLX both pulled out an even more impressive 848 MBps.
Keyboard and Touchpad - Solid
With a deep 2.6 millimeters of travel (1.6mm is more typical) and an actuation weight of 65 grams, the Alienware 17 provides a really comfy gaming and typing experience. That said, I'd like to see Alienware switch over to a chiclet-style design, because every time I use one of its systems, it takes me longer than normal to readjust to the keyboard. (It would also let the lights embedded underneath shine a bit brighter, too.)
That side effect showed up when I ran through 10fastfingers.com's typing test, where I hit 74 words per minute with five typos, which is both slightly slower and less accurate than my typical 75-80 wpm range with one or two mistakes.
The roomy, 3.8 x 2.8-inch touchpad is a pleasure to use, and a real attention-grabber every time it lights up with big bold colors when touched. It features a smooth, almost soft-touch surface and regardless of whether I was doing two-finger gestures or simple taps, it responded quickly to every request. I also like that the mouse buttons below feature separate keys for left and right click, although the sponginess I got when pressing down made me wish for something that felt a little more crisp.
Audio - It Could Be Crisper
One of the few aspects where the Alienware 17 falls short is with its audio. I never got its Klipsch speakers to sound as crisp and a clear as I wanted to, which left things like footsteps in Rise of the Tomb Raider sounding a little muffled. Also, when I listened to Deadmau5's "The Veldt," the bass lacked detail and didn't have anywhere near the same level of impact I heard from the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro or Origin's Eon17-SLX, which was particularly impressive.
Heat - Hot spots Abound
The Alienware 17 also has a hard time keeping its heat under control. After playing Rise of the Tomb Raider for just 15 minutes, several spots on the notebook registered over 110 degrees, which is way above our typical comfort threshold. This included the space between the G and H keys (111), 120 degrees on the alien head power button, and a blistering 124 degrees next to the back right vent. The only place that wasn't really hot was the touchpad, which measured 82.5 degrees. I wasn't overly bothered by the temperature of the keyboard, but I would highly advise against doing serious gaming on your lap due to the toasty bottom vent.
Ports and Webcam - Now with Thunderbolt 3 USB C
Alienware makes good use of the 17's ample chassis by featuring three USB 3.0 ports, HDMI 2.0, SD card reader, Ethernet, discrete headphone and mic jacks, and new for 2016, a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3. That means you can send video to multiple 4K displays using a single port, or transfer data to and from an external storage device at up to 40 Gbps.
The 2-megapixel camera up top comes with dual mics for pretty clear voice chat when you're left without a headset, and takes a pretty decent picture as well -- as long you're not sitting in the dark like a reclusive Vault dweller. In a picture taken in our testing lab, the Alienware's webcam captured a pretty impressive photo featuring accurate colors, good focus and significantly less noise than you get from other cameras.
Battery Life - Good for a Gaming Rig
Even for a big and heavy gaming laptop, the R3 offers strong battery life. It lasted 6 hours and 7 minutes on our battery test, which consists of continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of brightness. Acer's Predator 17 lasted slightly longer with a time of 6:54, but Origin PC's Eon17-SLX and MSI's GT72 Dragon Edition were both left in the dust at 2:54 and 2:58, respectively. The desktop replacement average is a full hour and a half shorter at 4:30.
Configurations - Sky's the Limit
The Alienware 17 R3 starts at pretty reasonable $1,500 for an Intel Core i7-6700HQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB HDD and an Nvidia GeForce 970M GPU with 3GB of vRAM. But if you want to push it to the max like our $2,750 review unit, you can load up a 17 with an Intel Core i7-6820HK CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, 1TB HDD and an Nvidia 980M GPU with 8GB of vRAM. Then there's the optional graphics amp, which costs $300 for just the box, as well as the $200 to $1,200 you'll need to spend on a desktop-level GPU.
Software and Warranty
The Alienware 17 comes with an unfettered install of Windows 10 Home. Then, the company adds on some essential utilities such as its Alienware Command Center, which lets you configure the laptop's lights, plus keyboard macros, power settings and more. There's also Killer Networking Manager to help you prioritize your data traffic, and Nvidia's GeForce Experience to enhance your games.
The 17 also comes with one year of premium support as standard, which offers onsite repair, 24/7 tech support and automated system checkups. This warranty can be extended up to four years for a total of $330.
The Alienware 17 is in an interesting position. What once would have been considered a beastly rig, now looks somewhat small next to a new generation of titanic gaming notebooks with desktop-grad graphics. But that doesn't mean the Alienware can't keep up with the Joneses, because its UHD screen is one of the best displays in its class, its battery life is marathonlike next to some of its competition, and the graphics amp offers an even bigger punch (and way better longevity) than laptops with desktop Nvidia 980 GPUs.
When it comes to gaming on the road without its amp, the $2,750 Alienware 17 simply can't match the pure performance you get on either the $3,382 Origin Eon17-SLX or the $3,099 MSI GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition. That keeps the Alienware 17 from being our absolute favorite gaming laptop, but with its vivid screen, solid build and innovative graphics amp accessory, it's still among the best.