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Alienware m15 review: An inc-red-ible gaming laptop with one worryingly big flaw

Roll out the red carpet?

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The new Alienware m15 is quite possibly one of the loveliest gaming laptops I’ve ever tested. I’m a sucker for anything red (it’s my favourite colour) but when you stick it on a chassis that stands just 21mm high off the ground and weighs a comparatively non-brick-like 2.16kg with a Core i7-8750H and a GTX 1070 inside it, you have my full and undivided attention.

It’s a gorgeous thing to behold and comes as standard on each model with a 144Hz refresh rate display, just to make its 15.6in 1920×1080 resolution feel extra special. UK Alienware m15s have the best deal of all, though, as here you can deck out each and every configuration with this stunning ‘nebula red’ option (even saying it sounds beautiful) for absolutely nothing. I remember the days when Dell’s colour options used to cost the earth on their everyday laptops, so this is welcome news indeed. None of this ‘epic silver’ (i.e: grey) nonsense for us, no sir.

US m15s aren’t quite as generous with their various colour options unfortunately, but they do have the added bonus of a third graphics chip option compared to UK configurations, as they can choose between a Max-Q’d GTX 1080 in addition to the standard full-fat GTX 1060s and Max-Q’d GTX 1070s.

As mentioned above, I was sent one of the latter chips for review, which will set you back at least £1799 in the UK or $2019 in the US depending on what RAM, storage and display options you pick. The only thing you don’t have a choice in is the processor, as every model comes with an one of Intel’s six-core 2.2GHz Core i7-8750H processors as standard.

That’s a pretty potent combination when you pair it with a GTX 1070, even if it is in its energy efficient Max-Q form, although I’m still not sure it’s quite potent enough to really make use of that 144Hz refresh rate. At least when it comes to playing the latest blockbusters, that is.

In most cases, for instance, getting a lovely smooth 50-60fps on max settings wasn’t a problem for the GTX 1070-equipped m15. Shadow of the Tomb Raider bandied along quite happily at an average of 55fps in its tough Cozumel cave section and 51fps in the busy, crowded streets of Cozumel town square, and that was with its top SMAAx4 anti-aliasing option enabled as well. Knock that down to single SMAA and you’re looking at a consistent 65-80fps across the board.

Total War: Warhammer II put in an equally decent average of 50fps in its Ultra-fied battle benchmark, which then rose to an even silkier 67fps when I turned the quality down to High, and even Monster Hunter: World dished up a pleasingly smooth range of 45-60fps on Highest when I was jogging around its dense undergrowth. The frame rate didn’t falter when big monsters entered the scene either, although for the best frame rates you’ll want to opt for High where you can slice and dice up its dinos at a slick 70-82fps.

Final Fantasy XV didn’t get much beyond 60fps on either High or Highest, with both quality settings settling around the 56-65fps mark with all of Nvidia’s fancy HairWorks, TurfEffects, Shadowlibs and VXAO effects turned off. Speeds took a bit of a tumble when I started switching on HairWorks and TurfEffects, with both quality settings once again producing similar-ish results in the 40-48fps region, but I’ll admit this is quite a big ask for even some of today’s desktop-grade graphics cards, let alone trimmed down Max-Q laptop chips.

You’ll find the m15’s display outputs on the back of the laptop, which include an HDMI 2.0, a miniDisplayPort 1.3, a USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port, and Alienware’s graphics amplifier port for its dedicated external GPU.

Indeed, the only games that really made the most of that 144Hz headroom were Doom and Forza Horizon 4, with the former speeding along between 100-120fps with fleeting highs of 140-odd, while the latter hit an average of 82fps on Ultra and 102fps on High.

This is fine if you play a lot of low-intensity esports games and fast-paced shooters, as these are the sorts of games that are much more likely to hit those high frame rates compared to your graphically-intense blockbusters. Older games are probably a good fit for revisiting in 144Hz as well, as even the HairWorks-ified Witcher III managed a lovely 57-81fps on Ultra.

However, if you’re looking to buy an Alienware m15 with the latest and greatest blockbusters in mind, then you’d probably be better off saving yourself a bit of cash and opting for one of the 60Hz panel specs instead, as I simply don’t think you’re going to get much out of it unless you start compromising on quality (which then begs the question why you’ve stumped up the cash for a GTX 1070 laptop in the first place).

I do have one major concern with the Alienware m15’s gaming prowess, however, and that’s how poorly it coped with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Now, this is the first laptop I’ve had on my desk since Odyssey came out, so it’s difficult to say whether this is a specific fault of the m15, or the game in general. But man alive it was like watching the game murder itself, the frame rate was so bad.

To look at the benchmark scores in isolation would suggest everything’s perfectly fine. After all, an average of 55fps on Ultra High is nothing to sniff out. But take a look at its minimum frame rate of just 11fps, and the alarming frequency with which it dipped that low on its final graph, and something is definitely rotten in the state of Ancient Greece. It happened in-game, too, the scenery chopping and changing like a bad stop-motion film every time I moved the camera or ran in a straight line. It’s not good.

“Oh, sweet an average of 55fps on Ultra. Wait, on no what are all those horrid jumps, oh no no no no no…”

The prime suspect in this foul deed is the m15’s Core i7-8750H CPU, which was also yo-yoing all over the place in time with the frame rate stutters. It didn’t seem to be throttling, though, as it was regularly hitting its maximum six-core Turbo Boost speed of 3.9GHz (the 4.1GHz speed in its specs is how fast it can go when just a single core is enabled), so it may just be the game isn’t particularly well optimised for laptop use.

Still, nothing I tried seemed to rectify the problem either. Changing the quality setting did nothing. Opening up the laptop’s Alienware Command Centre software and switching its thermal profile to Performance did nothing (and proceeded to make no improvement to any kind of frame rate whatsoever when I tried it on other games, too). Its overclocking option didn’t seem to do anything either. Nadda. Just louder and louder fans whirring up a storm with no tangible improvement.

With my stuttering senses heightened by this terrible episode, I have to say I did then notice it happening elsewhere, too. Only a very teensy bit, such as in The Witcher III on Ultra and a minuscule amount in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and I suspect it probably stems back to same kind of mystery processor woes. Thankfully, the stuttering wasn’t bad enough to make them unplayable, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

After all, Intel’s Core i7-8750H is one of the more powerful CPUs you can get on a laptop these days, so it should be up to snuff when it comes to gaming. I certainly didn’t seem to have much problem with it for everyday tasks, and it put in a good performance when I ran it through Cinebench R15’s benchmark as well, scoring 167 in the single core test and 1101 in the multicore test.

The m15 comes with blue LED backlighting out of the box, but you can use its Alienware Command Centre software to create custom RGB profiles that are system wide or specific to individual games in your library.

The only thing that really held me up when using the Alienware m15 as an everyday laptop was its mildly irritating keyboard layout. The keys themselves are great, and I actually infinitely prefer them and their firm, tactile feedback to the slightly naff, ineffectual, maybe-you-pressed-this-maybe-you-didn’t keys on my own Dell XPS 15 that I bought just before Christmas.

They’re great keys for typing on, but good gravy the layout. The left Shift is too small, which means I keep pressing \ when I want to capitalise a letter, and the 0 on the number pad also doubles up as Insert, despite that function already being the secondary function of the Delete key.

I’m sure it’s something I’d probably get used to over long-term use, but the addition of the number pad certainly makes it feel a fraction more cramped than my number pad-less XPS 15. Still, the important thing is how they keys actually feel, and on that point I have no complaints at all.

On the left, you get its Gigabit Ethernet port, a combined headphone and microphone and a USB 3.1 with Powershare port…

I’m also pleased to report that Alienware have put a decent screen on the m15 as well this time, which is a relief after the rather sub-par displays on Dell’s Inspiron Gaming line. It’s no Alienware 13 OLED beauty, but with 85% of the sRGB colour gamut under its belt (which I should note is a lot higher than Dell’s own 72% figure on its specs sheet), it’s up there with the HP Omen X 17 and Asus ROG GL702ZC as one of the more accurate laptop displays I’ve tested so far.

Indeed, combined with its high, maximum brightness of 312cd/m2, colours looked lovely and vivid in games and on the desktop alike, and its high contrast ratio of 1355:1 meant there was plenty of detail to be found in darker, shadow scenes. Said shadows were also lovely and inky thanks to the screen’s low black level of 0.23cd/m2 (the closer to 0.00cd/m2, the better), and the screen’s wide viewing angles made it very easy to get the screen in a good position, too – which was aided in no small part, I should add, by its incredibly flexible hinge.

…while on the right, you’ll find just two USB 3.1 ports.

As for storage, the Alienware m15 comes with a myriad of options ranging from traditional HDDs in the US to single and double NVMe SSD combos. My review sample came with a pair of 512GB NVMe SSDs, providing plenty of space and buckets of speed for games and photos alike. However, if you do plump for this particular model, however, I’d recommend installing your games on the second of its two 512GB PCIe SSDs, as this scored faster random read and write speeds (43MB/s read and 102MB/s write) in AS SSD compared to the primary drive’s 36MB/s random read and 93MB/s random write.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the new Alienware m15, but I do have a couple of lingering reservations about it that prevent me from giving it a full thumbs up. I’m not convinced you really need to spend the extra getting the 144Hz refresh rate panel, for example (especially when in the UK you can still get it in that lovely nebula red chassis no matter what configuration you pick), and I worry how well it will cope with other big blockbusters given the terrible time it had with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

As I said above, this may well be a one-off case that’s got nothing to do with the Alienware m15, especially when everything else in my benchmarking suite ran perfectly fine without issue, but it’s still given me the fear nonetheless. It’s something I’ll be keeping a close eye on as I get more laptops in for review over the coming months, because no one wants to spend almost two grand on a gaming laptop and then find out it can’t play everything you want it to. So I’m giving the Alienware m15 a tentative thumbs up for now, which I’m sincerely hoping I’ll be able to upgrade into a full recommendation once I’ve investigated the Great Odyssey Problem a bit more. After all, the world is a better place when it’s got more red gaming laptops in it, and the Alienware m15 is just too lovely and slim to shove in the gutter.

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Who am I?

Katharine Castle

Hardware Editor

Katharine writes about all the bits that go inside your PC so you can carry on playing all those lovely games we like talking about so much. Very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests.

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