Review: Alienware’s latest gaming laptop is a monster

A monster in good ways and in bad ways, but we’ll get to that shortly. First, here’s the plan. Over the coming few weeks and months, I’m going to review a number of gaming laptops from a variety of manufacturers. Each will be its own standalone review, but as well as the fact that each new review can involve greater comparison to the other systems, at the end of the whole boogaloo, I will buy the laptop I like best. Hardware reviews with a narrative arc. I’m like the Joss Whedon of computer journalism, me.

We kick off with Alienware’s latest 15″ machine (US and UK store link; exact specs and prices differ per territory), toting an NVIDIA GTX 1070 and an Intel Kaby Lake i7 CPU.

A house rule before we begin. This isn’t a tech site, so don’t expect graphs and benchmarks – but also, the current state of play is that, for instance, there just isn’t much to seperate a 1070 in one laptop from a 1070 in another – or even in a desktop. I’ll absolutely be testing a bunch of games to check performance is what it should be and do they look and feel good, i.e. “can this do 4K/60FPS/ultra settings” and that sort of jazz, but I’m not going to blind anyone with screens full of only minutely different numbers. Feature set, value and pleasantness to use are the priorities beyond that.

Alienware, then. They’re the old man of gaming systems, having been notorious for their gigantic and lurid desktop PCs back in the mid-noughties, but following a Dell buyout a while back, their divisive designs have been increasingly more restrained. Nonetheless, the systems are consciously marketed at whatever ‘gamer’ is supposed to mean now, which in turn means they probably shouldn’t be your first port of call if you want a subtle machine.

Specs-wise, this is what we’re looking at here:

  • Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad core/eight thread CPU, max turbo speed 3.80 GHz.
  • NVIDIA GTX 1070 with 8GB ram
  • 16GB DDR4 RAM at 2400MHz
  • 256GB PCIe SSD + 1TB 7200RPM  SATA 6Gb/s HDD
  • 15.6 inch (1920 x 1080) 120Hz TN+WVA G-SYNC screen

It’s got all the in and outputs it needs, including Thunderbolt 3 (absent from some of its contemporaries), USB 3.1 and support for Alienware’s proprietary graphics amplifier, which enables you to use a desktop graphics in a seperately-bought external box. Irrelevant here due to the built-in 1070, but may be useful later in the machine’s life. This is a high-end, full-spec machine and no mistaking, as you’d expect from the £1,800 or £1,900 (depending on options) price.

The 15″ model is the middle child of their laptop range. The 13″ is less powerful but boasts an allegedly-great OLED screen, while the 17″ can run all the way to a GTX 1080, the current top-end graphics card (excluding the not-for-normal-humans Titan Black). I’m going to look at a range of sizes and of GPUs as these pieces continue, but I know from experience that 15″ suits my needs best – 13″ too small for some games, 17″ not entirely practical for use anywhere other than a desk.

I am entirely open to changing those positions if the right system comes along, but we’ll kick off with something I already know works as form factor. Barring a crazy amount of weight, you can carry a 15″ laptop with you pretty much anywhere, and playing games on it doesn’t involve squinting or pushing your nose against the screen.

I’d worried from afar that, at 3.49 kg and a full inch think, it’d be too much of a brute to take out of the house. I divide my working hours between home and a desk in a tiny shared office, reaching which involves an almighty hill, so portability is key to my eventual buying decision. Fortunately, that isn’t really an issue here.

It’s certainly big and heavy for a 15-incher, and carrying it under my arm or using it on my lap is a far more cumbersome experience than is the 15″, 4-year-old Samsung 7 Series Chronos that I use for my own laptop. But not to the extent that it’s a deal-breaker. My shoulders aren’t complaining about a week’s worth of lugging it up and down that hill, and I can’t see any permanent indentations on my legs from using it on the sofa.

It does get hot and it does get noisy when running games, but no more than one would expect given that it has, effectively, a desktop-level graphics card crammed into it. You’re certainly better off using it on a desk to save your short and curlies, and with headphones to drown out the distracting whirr, but I have played some games in bed using this thing without it being unbearable.

My issue with its size is more about wasted space that actual immensity. There’s a huge bezel around the monitor, even beyond that affected peak along the lid, and this immediately renders an expensive machine disappointingly plasticky, at least in the area you’ll spend the vast majority of your time looking at. Either removing three-quarters of an inch from the laptop’s overall width or expanding the screen to better fill that space would make an enormous amount of difference to the perceived quality of the whole machine (although I imagine the latter would entail too non-standard a panel size).

The same is true of the keyboard end of the wedge. Look at those big gaps either side of the typing area – and note the lack of a numerical keypad or any dedicated media control keys (the fuction is there, but you have to hold down Fn then press one of the F keys for them – a faff, but a common one). I depend on both those elements, though I acknowledge they’re of no use for some people.

I wouldn’t mind the absence on a smaller laptop, but insult to the injury of that empty space is that, down the left-hand side there’s a ridiculous vertical strip of programmable/macro keys that really only matter to competitive multiplayer sorts. Yes, I could program them for media keys but they’re always going to have 1,2,3,4,5 and a silly icon on them. I wish they’d used the space more intelligently than this.

This stuff aside, the Alienware is quite a nice item. It’s a chunky monkey and no mistaking, but the metal cover on the lid, business casual colours and the matte, soft touch covering around the keyboard give it a premium feel.

Going against this restraint is the various coloured lighting that adorns the 15. The touchpad lights up, the keys do that animated rainbow thing, there are two strips along each side of the lid, a glowing alien head above the keyboard and another on the lid, and the Alienware logo under screen does the Vegas thing too. Some people love this stuff, some people hate it, and I’m somewhere in the middle – I can’t abide lurid colours like blood red or neon green, but I can handle a soft orange or gentle blue, which is very much an option here.

You can either select from a range of prefab colour schemes in the pre-installed AlienFX software, or painstakingly create your own. The software’s not too complicated, and the tinkering’s a bit of a giggle, but I’m a 37-year-old man and do not want to be sat in a coffee shop using a computer with neon striplights all over it, so I turn it all off if I’m out.

Unfortunately, either the hardware or software element of the lighting seems to be highly temperamental here. It may just be my review unit, but I kept finding that the lights would stay stuck on (even in sleep mode) or off or wouldn’t change to another colour scheme or that the software reported something was missing. A restart would fix this, but it’s a pain.

Special what-were=they=thinking mention should also go to the permanently on blue light around the power supply plug. It’s bright enough that you can’t have this machine charging overnight in your bedroom – leave it elsewhere or turned off at the wall, or buy a blindfold.

On the next and final page: performance, display and conclusions

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39 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Purely out of curiosity: how do hardware reviews work for sites like RPS? Do they send you a laptop, and then you send it back when done? Is there some sort of “pass it to the next journalist” mailing ring?

    • Premium User Badge

      syllopsium says:

      I can answer this one for you, although I’m neither affiliated to RPS, or a journalist.

      Basically it depends on the manufacturer and the product. Some give out equipment and never reclaim it, including pre-release and never released equipment. Others have a strict return to manufacturer/courier collection policy, and some yes, have a ‘next journalist in the mailing list’ ring, although I suspect that’s organised by the manufacturer, not the journalist. A minority rarely send out review kit.

      For new kit in very short supply even the large sites have a limited timeframe and stipulations on what they can do with the kit, before it has to be collected.

      Manufacturers have varying degrees of helpfulness depending on who they are, who you are, and what the product is. Some can be very helpful as they believe it will lead to decent PR, which enables various testers to explore scenarios (‘find out this week, if mixed card SLI is a good idea’) that would otherwise need deep pockets.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        Even if you’re not a journalist, if your company spends megabucks with (eg) Dell or HP, you can often persuade your account manager to lend you test kit.
        They don’t always remember to ask for it back :)

    • Alec Meer says:

      Two week loan, returned to Dell at the end, in this case.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    Very interested to see how this pans out! I’m playing newer games on my PS4, but my current laptop isn’t too bad, and I’ll stick with it a while longer. I do look upon these newer laptops with envious eyes though! (apart from all that neon lighting crap on the Alienware stuff, just looks a bit tacky to me)

  3. Czrly says:

    Ahem. Alienware *today* are just Dell. They are NOT venerable or old men of days of yore. They’re Dell. And they’re rubbish. I know. I have one. I use it for everything and have been doing so for three years – worst purchasing decision I ever made, in hindsight.

    SPECIFICS: Dell support is the worst imaginable. IF you have any issues AT ALL, you’re gonna be screwed. This even extends to simple things like trying to get Dell to send you the right RAM with the right voltage or to replace the wrong stuff that they incorrectly supplied with what you actually ordered. It’s a lottery.

    • Czrly says:

      For the record, the permanently-on blue-light around the power plug and the wonky Alien FX software that defaults to turning-all-the-silly-lights-back-on are issues that also plague my 2013 era machine – and ones that I remember being common complaints on the forums, back then, when I was googling for a fix. I guess that they’ve just never been fixed. Can you at least disable the touch-pad backlight?

      (Ok. I’ll admit. The lights are cool in XCOM. Outside of XCOM, they’re atrocious… nearly entirely because they’re so glitchy.)

    • Bruwin says:

      Alienware has been owned by Dell since 2004.

    • simmuskhan says:

      I wonder if it’s country dependent or something?
      I too have a three year old Alienware and Dell were great for me. I had two minor problems and they came to my house and had it fixed next day.
      I’ve not regretted my purchase at all!

      Having said that, I’m keen to start looking for my next computer and will be watching and reading these posts with great interest as I’m not wed to any specific brand.

      • po says:

        Dell support sounds a lot like Sony support (I once had a VAIO).

        Me – “My DVD Drive won’t read disks, can I send my laptop back to get it replaced” (a couple of weeks after buying it).

        Sony support – “You’ll need to run the factory restore disk, to make sure it isn’t caused by some software you’ve installed, before we can do that.”

        /facepalm

        • Colthor says:

          My sister had a very similar bad experience with Dell support and a DVD drive.

          But, some years previously, I had a good one with a dying HDD: they posted me a new one, I swapped them over, sorted.

    • briangw says:

      Well, at least on the business end, Dell isn’t too bad if you become “Dell certified or trained”. That way you can call up with an issue, give them your name and that your certified and tell them the part you need..boom. Done and don’t have to spend time troubleshooting.

  4. 2flow says:

    Gaming laptops are a bad investment in general, imo. The amount of heat generated will give it a very short lifespan. It will only work at peak performance for a short time, before it starts to decline. And the way laptops are built, you will probably have to replace the entire motherboard to repair it, which at that price you might as well just be buying a new laptop.

    These days, you’d have a lot better time building a smaller size PC, and hooking it up to TV’s when you’re traveling. If you’re looking for extreme portability, you’d probably be happier just buying a Nintendo Switch and forgetting it.

    • Dinger says:

      While certainly I’ve lost many gaming laptops to cancer of the motherboard, I would say that there are some usage cases. One of them is if you’re a games journalist who is workspace-constrained to the point that the floor seems like a good place for a photoshoot.
      Sure, I too would like a narrative arc that lasted the life of the laptops, showing how minor irritations at first turn into major problems, and how overlooked aspects have redeeming qualities, before the mounting thermal issues pushed the whole series to a crisis and resolution. But Alec did explicitly cite Joss Whedon, so he’s probably already figured that such a series would get canned after a few months anyway.

      • Person of Interest says:

        Snort my coffee once: shame on you. Snort my coffee twice: shame on me.

        I’d better set the mug down before reading any more of your comments.

    • po says:

      Depends, if it’s built like an Apple (thin and quiet, with cooling paste plastered on so thick it conducts heat back through the chips to the solder pads, instead of directly to the heatsinks), of course it’s going to desolder its CPU or GPU and need regular solder reflow to fix it, once its out of a warranty that would be needed to cover £450 mainboard replacements.

      If the thing is built like a tank and noisy as hell, then it should have both the internal space and fan power to handle at least an i5 and GTX xx60.

      And not all laptops have a single mainboard with BGA soldered chips. My Clevo P170SM has fully socketed RAM and CPU, and an MXM form-factor GPU module, so anything that is likely to fail from overheating, can be replaced separately, from OEM suppliers.

      I looked at gaming laptops from MSI, Gigabyte and Asus, but ended up choosing the modular Clevo, because while from a less known manufacturer, it had much better reviews when it came to things like cooling, and upgrading.

      They’re usually rebranded, and sold under names like Sager in the US, or you can get them in the UK from pcspecialist.co.uk

      • pikki says:

        There’s actually a 15″ msi chassis available as well with socketed cpu and mxm gpu which is very good value – you can find it at eurocom and hidevolution in the states and cyberpower in the uk I believe. I’ve got one with a 6700k and a 1070 and I’m very happy with it. They actually have the 1080 as an option now which is nuts for a 15″ laptop :) Obviously the heat is an issue with these laptops but mine’s actually not too bad, maxing out in the 70’s but sitting in the 30’s for more normal use and pretty quiet with it.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Really depends what your goal is. I have a gaming laptop but its primary purpose is work, and it’s been superb so far for both that and a bit of gaming.

  5. Baines says:

    That laptop just looks weird, like someone took a smaller laptop and for no good reason stuck it into a larger case.

    There is so much dead space. Even if the screen was wider, there would still be a lot of empty vertical space. Surely they could find something to use that space for besides a meager logo.

    And why is the keyboard so small for the case? It looks like there are a few inches of extra space on the sides, room for a larger keyboard or at least for another line of mappable function keys.

    And there is all that empty space below the keyboard. What if they’d stuck an optional number pad to the right of the track pad? (Something you could disable if you were worried about accidental keypresses.)

    It just looks… Bad isn’t the right word. Wasteful isn’t right either. Not particularly good? Amateurish? Unimaginative? Restrictive-minded? Alienware used to fail in extravagant ways, now it just fails in generic and bland ways.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      The size is probably dictated by what they’re trying to stuff inside – gfc card, cooling and so on. Then the bezel and space round the keyboard is just a function of what’s left over once you fit the standard screen and I assume a full size keyboard in. They might have been able to give a bit more thought to media keys or a num pad to make better use of the keyboard area but if you’re buying a 15″ screen there’s not a lot they can do if the case has to be larger.

      • Baines says:

        I understand that the size of the laptop is dictated by the larger of its screen and its internals, and this machine is presumably being dictated by its internals…

        But if you are going to charge Alienware prices, then couldn’t they afford a larger keyboard or figure out some other additional uses for all that empty space? (Without making it look pointlessly cluttered.)

        • ecalex says:

          Here’s the thing,

          as you correctly pointed out, a laptop’s x-y size is dictated by the internals or the screen, not to mention you have to stuff additional circuitry around the screen.
          Though for the record, a larger keyboard isn’t much of a cost adder (you just have to trust me on this), but rather the size of the keyboard is dictated by BOTH the screen and the internal, compared to a lot of other components, keyboards, though important to daily usage, often takes a backseat from other components such as I/O ports, screen size, and thin form factors(so you dont get a better stroke) Basically, keyboards have to make way for other things, not the other way around.

  6. bee says:

    You should also comment on screen quality (bright/contrast/colors/touch/matte/etc)
    You might want to mention build quality (ex: metal chassis vs flimsy plastic, sharp corners, flimsy buttons)
    What kind of quality is the keyboard? Good? Bad? What type of switches? How is the layout? Typing accuracy?

  7. simmuskhan says:

    This is perfect timing for me. My laptop has passed the three year mark and, while still doing well, is starting to show signs of heavy use!

    I use it for gaming as well as for work (which is a 3-4 hour a day on public transport thing) so it has to travel a lot.

    Three years ago I made the move from desktop at home with laptop for work to a single high spec laptop and haven’t regretted it at all.

  8. takcwby says:

    I also have an issue with the blue LED ring on the power connector so I put some electrical tape over it. Also, I recommend finding an unline laptop surge protector for your investment.

  9. geldonyetich says:

    I can attest from my recent purchase of an Asus G752VT that laptops are definitely quite capable of high performance PC gaming these days. (Although my G752VT has a sound issue I haven’t been able to eliminate.)

    That said, if I were to throw as much money out on a laptop as to get this Alienware, I’d want a keypad on my keyboard. But then, I could always just plug in an external (and preferably mechanical) keyboard.

  10. warkwark says:

    Interesting series idea, Alec. I like the concept of an essentially non-technical review of these laptops.

    That said, if someone asked me for buying advice on a gaming laptop, I would advise them to look into every conceivable option aside from that, first. They may have become more capable in recent years, but some things will never change: extreme heat packed into a tiny space seldom works well, and super-integrated chipsets guarantee that when something fails, it will be far-reaching and catastrophically expensive.

    Incidentally, laptops are the only electronic devices for which I’d recommend the extended warranty.

    • ooshp says:

      Depends where you live. Extended warranties cover you for absolutely nothing that Australian Consumer Law doesn’t already cover you for here. Doesn’t stop people buying it though.

      • warkwark says:

        Interesting. How long does the law protect your purchase, and under what circumstances?

        I do wonder if laws like these are part of what drives up prices of tech products in certain non-US territories. Along with the usual price-gouging, of course. ;)

  11. pillot says:

    It actually has listed in the spec

    Battery Life: LOL

  12. roywfw says:

    “Alienware, then. They’re the old man of gaming systems, having been notorious for their gigantic and lurid desktop PCs back in the mid-noughties”. Really? Are you unfamiliar with FalconNW? They are the original boutique gaming computer company and have been building quality systems since the early 90’s. You might want to check them out at link to falcon-nw.com.

  13. temujin33 says:

    Thanks for not getting overly “techie” with the specifications. Looking forward to more gaming laptop reviews.

  14. cloudnein says:

    Firstly, let me say I’ve been an almost purely-Mac user for years…But Apple’s pissed me off three times this year so I’m exploring options.

    Plus I bought the 15″ ’cause of the UHD display…Nice display, but it does seem to have a bit of vignetting–not objectionable, just noticeable (slightly darker in corners, if you don’t know what vignetting means.) I bought the graphics amplifier too, to drive VR (three headsets [two Kickstarters from years ago, the Glyph and FOVE, and a third cheap-o Chinese headset] and not a lot to drive them.)

    The graphics amplifier is ok, it didn’t fit my first purchased card (MSI “Armor” 1070) so I exchanged for another, shorter card. The case just feels a bit cheap, plus mildly annoyed by the unique connector (would have rather had a Thunderbolt 3 interface.) But the price is decent.

    But mostly I’m writing regarding the 1070 onboard–am I incorrect in guessing that a desktop 1070 would be significantly more capable than an internal laptop card?

    • Premium User Badge

      Lexx87 says:

      I have a laptop running a 980 8GB edition, and it’s just a..980. For high end they pretty much shove the same card in there with little/no drop in performance.

    • Love Albatross says:

      The 1070’s found in laptops are the same as the stock desktop versions.

      Desktop models will benefit from better cooling and airflow, and many of them are factory overclocked of course, but otherwise the performance will be very similar.

  15. Ghostwise says:

    FWIW, programmable macro keys are also valuable in some coding applications. Frex I get a lot of mileage out of those for repetitive bits of markup (HTML, mostly).

  16. myfirstme says:

    Very interesting article. I have a similar starting point – a 4.5 years old Samsung Chronos 17 inch laptop. And the first new system I looked as replacement was the new Alienware 17, coming pretty much to a similar conclusion as Alec, in that it is a beast with much raw power but not very comfortable to use. I found it too big and heavy (the 17 inch is >4kg), the otherwise beautiful 4k screen had bad screen bleeding (due to an engineering issue with the oversized bezels) and while it stayed cool from the outside at all times, gaming meant vacuum cleaner noise levels from the fans. The Dell customer service was pretty great, however, it took a while to get someone on the line, but then they were genuinely helpful.

    The next system I am looking at is the new Acer Aspire V17 Nitro with a 1060 GPU, which should be out any day now. Alec, might be something to look at in your test series as well?

  17. Raoul Duke says:

    Really hope you do a decent model MSI laptop. I have a GS series with a new generation nvidia card in it and it is a truly glorious piece of hardware.

    By the way it has a 17 inch screen. I had the same concerns but I regret nothing, the thin and light form factor more than compensates for the size.