Dell Alienware 17 R2 review
Dell's new gaming behemoth is stylish, powerful and sports the fastest mobile GPU on the block
Alienware has come a long way since it first landed back in 1996. Long gone are the days of luminous-green laptops and desktop PCs adorned with giant alien skulls; thankfully, the Alienware family has evolved into a far more tasteful breed, and the Alienware 17 is the latest evidence of that progression.
Alienware 17 R2 review: design
If you’re going to spend the best part of £2,000 on a gaming laptop, then you want it to look good, and here the Alienware 17 delivers. It oozes heavyweight class, with its body finished in a premium-looking palette of soft-touch matte black and gunmetal grey.
Coupled with sharp contours and aggressively chopped-off corners, it makes for a devilishly handsome, imposing model. It's a beast but a sophisticated one, certainly when compared with its top-end rivals such as the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro.
Alienware has slimmed down its 17in laptop, too: it measures 37mm thick to the MSI’s 58mm, although it’s no lighter than its chunkier rival, weighing a considerable 3.8kg. The makeover isn’t at the expense of build quality, though. This gaming laptop doesn’t just look every inch the powerhouse, it feels rock solid across every millimetre of the chassis.
And if the Alienware looks understated in our pictures, it’s an entirely different animal once you turn it on. Multicoloured LED lights illuminate strips across the front edge and lid, and beam behind the keyboard, touchpad, status lights and the Alienware logo beneath the screen. Delve into the AlienFX control panel, and it’s possible to illuminate each area in a riot of different colours – pinks, reds, purples and blues – or turn them all off completely.
Alienware 17 R2 review: specification and display
The entry-level specification for the Alienware 17 is available for £1,299 inc VAT. For that money you get a Core i7-4710HQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 5,400rpm HDD and a GeForce GTX 970M graphics chip. Find another £623 in your budget, however, and you can upgrade to the specification we have here, which comprises a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4980HQ, 8GB of RAM, both a 256GB M.2 SSD and a 1TB HDD, and a 4GB GeForce GTX 980M. The Alienware 17 comes with a Full HD display as standard, but if for some reason you particularly like the idea of getting fingerprints all over your shiny new display, you can upgrade to a touchscreen for an extra £150.
Our review unit came with the standard, non-touch Full HD display. Image quality is good rather than stunning, even though the Alienware got off to a positive start in our suite of tests. Brightness hits an impressive 347cd/m2 and contrast tops out at an equally respectable 972:1. However, the panel struggled to reproduce the richest, most saturated colours in our tests.
It covered only 86.4% of the sRGB colour gamut, and colour accuracy is merely average. We measured an average Delta E of 3.91 and a maximum deviation of 8.5, but the discrepancy between onscreen colours and their intended shade is obvious to the naked eye, with most colours looking just a touch washed out upon closer inspection.
Crucially, there aren’t any response-time issues of note, such as ghosting; viewing angles are wide; and the matte, anti-glare finish across the IPS panel is a nice surprise. There are no aggravating reflections as a result, and thankfully the anti-glare coating Alienware has used doesn’t introduce any unwanted graininess.
Alienware 17 R2 review: performance
Performance-wise, the Alienware 17 is as screamingly fast as you’d expect from a laptop housing a combination of a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i7, a solid-state drive and a hefty dollop of RAM. Despite a faster processor, though, it wasn't much quicker than MSI’s GT72 Dominator Pro, scoring 1.1 to the MSI’s 1.04. That's probably due to the MSI's twin RAID-configured SSDs.
In the games tests, however, there's a little more clear air between the two laptops, with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M helping the Alienware 17 R2 to achieve a truly stonking set of test results. In our Very High quality Crysis test (run at 1,920 x 1,080) it achieved 85fps, which is 12fps smoother than the MSI. In this CPU-limited scenario, it's the Alienware's faster CPU which gives it the edge over the MSI. Push the GPU harder, however, and the results are predictably identical. When we upped the resolution up to 2,560 x 1,440 and Very High detail, it fell just one frame behind the MSI, with a result of 57fps, which is 19fps quicker.
Indeed, it was only when we pushed the resolution up to 4k and the quality settings to Very High that the frame rate dropped to a less than smooth 26fps. In the final analysis, the identical GPUs mean that there's not a significant gap between the two laptops in GPU-limited titles. On the rare occasion when the CPU isn't working flat-out, however, a little more CPU grunt clearly pays dividends.
Alienware 17 R2 review: upgradability and expansion
Externally, the Alienware 17 R2 is reasonably well-appointed. There are four USB 3 ports, two on either edge; an SD card reader; HDMI 1.4 and mini-DisplayPort 1.2 outputs; Gigabit Ethernet and a pair of 3.5mm audio jacks. Bluetooth 4 and 802.11ac make the cut, too.
Flip the Alienware 17 upside down, and two screws secure the access panel on the underside. This gives access to the single 2.5in hard drive bay, the two RAM slots, the Wi-Fi card and the four (yes, four) M.2 slots.
In our review unit three of those M.2 slots were free, but as yet there's no way of setting further drives in a RAID, as with the MSI, and there's no second pair of RAM slots for easy memory upgrades either. Alienware has also used a soldered rather than an upgradeable MXM GPU, so the upgrade path there is restricted, too.
When it comes to upgradability, though, Alienware is placing all its bets on its Graphics Amplifier: a £200 optional extra that makes it possible to use desktop-class graphics cards with any compatible Alienware laptop.
Little bigger than a mini-ITX or old-school Shuttle PC case, the Graphics Amplifier contains a dedicated 460W power supply and a single PCI Express 16x slot. Connect it to the rear of the laptop with the supplied cable and you have access to desktop-class gaming power – it’s a neat idea, and we look forward to getting some hands-on time with it in the near future. For those keen on the idea of dumping their desktop PC completely, it may be one of the more appealing features of the new Alienware range.
Alienware 17 R2 review: verdict
So, where does this leave the Alienware 17? It’s a tricky judgement call to make. It’s by far the most impressive-looking 17in gaming laptop we’ve ever clapped eyes on, and the hardware specifications and all-round performance are simply stellar.
But the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro is a hugely capable rival, and while it's nowhere near as pretty as the Alienware 17, it does boast far better (and easier) upgradability, an optical drive, and models with twin, triple or quad SSDs in RAID. Indeed, up your budget to nearer £2,200, and you can nab yourself a model with 32GB of RAM, four 128GB SSDs and an 8GB MXM version of the GTX 980M. It's a monstrous opponent.
Ultimately, it comes down to which laptop fits your needs best. The MSI wins out on expansion and upgrade potential, while the Alienware combines gorgeous looks and better battery life with the option for future (albeit desk-bound) expansion via the novel Graphics Amplifier. It's a tough call to make but, whichever you choose, either will tackle the most challenging games out there: the Geforce GTX 980M is an absolute beast.