Large, bright screen. HDMI-in is rare on a laptop. Blu-ray drive. Lots of video outputs. Four USB 3.0 ports. Ivy Bridge processor. 3D performance that rivals dual-card systems. Full-size keyboard with numeric keypad. Solid build quality. Attention-grabbing lighting effects. 1080p screen.
Shiny screen. Heavy. Less than three hours of battery life.
The Alienware M17x R4 adds the latest Intel Core processor and Nvidia Graphics to one of the best gaming laptop chassis in the business. It's ostentatious, audacious, over the top, and strangely enough, more affordable than rivals.
The Alienware M17x R4 ($2,599 direct) gaming laptop exudes performance. Its design epitomizes what a gaming laptop should look like, and thanks to a new Ivy Bridge processor and Nvidia Kepler graphics, it topped our leaderboard on multimedia benchmark tests, and returned playable frame rates at its 1,920-by-1,080 native resolution. It's ostentatious, audacious, over the top, and strangely enough, more affordable than rivals. For this and more, it earns our nod as the latest Editors' Choice winner for midrange gaming laptops.
Design and Features
The M17x R4 carries on in a chassis that resembles the one used in the Alienware M17X ($2,254 direct, 4.5 stars) and the larger Alienware M18x ($4,529 direct, 4 stars). Like the previous models, the M17x R4 has modern retro styling that grabs your attention. The system's grilles and lighting evoke a modern reinterpretation of a 1950s hot rod. There are multiple lighting zones, which can be controlled with Alienware's Command Center software. Alienware calls it AlienFX, and you can use it to change the colors on the backlit keyboard, touchpad, Alienware logo below the screen, Alien head/power button, and the grilles on the front of the system. Advanced themes will cycle the colors, so you're assured that you'll know which system is yours in a darkened room. It's not subtle, but do you really want subtle when you're planning to crush your enemies on the game grid?
The system's 17-inch screen is a 1,920-by-1,080 resolution monitor capable of displaying 1080p HD videos in native resolution. Both Blu-ray movies and 3D games look stunning on the laptop, with clear and bright colors. In particular, older movies' natural film grain was visible, and you could pick out background details easily on the large screen. It was like watching a movie in a movie theater rather than on a laptop screen. It's not quite as high-res as the 2,880-by-1,800 resolution screen on the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina Display ($2,254 direct, 4.5 stars), but it is an excellent screen nonetheless. If there's any drawback to the screen's brilliance, it's that the system's seamless glass panel is highly reflective. Using the system's default black wallpaper, you can see yourself and items in the room behind you.
Since the M17x R4's chassis is so big, it's reassuring that the system feels as solid as a chunk of granite. There's no flexing of the screen or chassis when you pick it up with one hand, though that hand will have to have some strength to carry the 9.6-pound laptop. Add the two-pound AC adapter, and you'll need strong shoulders to carry the 11.7-pound combination in a backpack or large messenger bag. The system is solidly built, but heavy.
The backlit keyboard is full size, with concave standard keys and a full numeric keypad to the right. Keyboard feel was excellent, with full travel on the keys: not too springy, not too clicky. The trackpad has physical mouse buttons, though tap-to-click is enabled by default. You can turn on vertical and horizontal scrolling in the Alienware Command Center, and the trackpad also supports multi-touch gestures.
The system comes with 8GB of memory, a third-generation Intel Core i7-3720QM quad-core processor, 32GB mSATA cache drive, and a 500GB 7,200rpm primary drive. Also built in is a Blu-ray player/DVD burner combo drive for playing DVDs and Blu-ray movies. The system has both wired Gigabit Ethernet and dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. Adding to the connectivity are four USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port (aka, powered eSATA) with USB PowerShare charging (you can use the port to charge a smartphone or table with the system off), audio ports (including a S/PDIF minijack), and a 9-in-1 media card reader. The system is particularly well suited for connecting to video sources and external displays. There's an HDMI-out port for monitors and HDTVs, a Mini DisplayPort jack for monitors, a VGA port, plus an HDMI-in port so you can use the system's built-in display with external sources like settop cable boxes or media players. About the only thing missing is a Thunderbolt port, though that may be built into a future version of the M17x.
As befits a gaming system, the M17x R4 is unencumbered by bloatware. The only icon you see on the desktop when you boot the system for the first time is the Alienware Command Center. No eBay, no Microsoft Office, no bloatware period. The system even comes without a bundled antivirus or Internet security suite, which is one of the first things that hard-core gamers uninstall on new systems. Gamers generally abhor any run and stay resident programs or bloatware, because they think that they steal resources like processor cycles from their gaming experience.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and this is some pudding. The M17x R4 rivals in performance other gaming laptops with dual graphics, thanks to its Ivy Bridge based Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce GT 680M graphics. Games were playable at both quality settings, including Crysis at medium settings (98 frames per second, or fps), and Lost Planet 2 at medium settings (159fps) and high settings (77fps). Crysis at very high settings was just short of smoothly playable (38fps), but gaming rigs need two graphics cards to play at that setting (so far). That said, you should be able to tweak the 3D settings for Crysis and play smoothly at the system's 1,920-by-1,080 native resolution. You'll need to spend a lot more money for just a bit more performance in the Alienware M18x (71fps) and the Eurocom Leopard 2.0 ($3,606 direct, 4 stars) (76fps). For most people short of the independently wealthy, it's not a good tradeoff.
The M17x R4 is also one of the best-performing systems we've seen on the multimedia benchmark tests. The system ran the Handbrake video encode test in 1 minute 12 seconds, and the Photoshop CS5 test in 3:03. To put this in perspective, high-end gaming desktops must put in a lot of effort to achieve these times without burning out, and desktops don't have to worry about laptop-style cooling concerns. The M17x R4's 32GB mSATA cache drive, Turbo Boost Core i7 processor, speedy DDR3 memory, and 7,200rpm primary drive all contribute to the system's speedy performance. The M17x R4's Photoshop CS5, Handbrake, and CineBench R11.5 (6.86) scores all topped our charts.
The one performance metric where the M17x R4 came up short was in battery life. While it's true that you wouldn't ever want to put the M17x R4 on an airplane tray, the system's battery life of 2 hours 36 minutes lagged the competition. You'll want a system like the MSI GT70 0NC-011US ($1,999.99 direct, 4 stars) (5:29) or the previous midrange gaming EC MSI GT783-625US ($2,599.99 direct, 4 stars) (3:29) if you need battery life and gaming prowess.
If you're serious about performance, the Alienware M17x R4 is the midrange gaming laptop to buy right now. It rivals $3,000+ dual GPU gaming rigs on the game tests, and trounces all comers on the multimedia tests. For just under $2,500, you get the bang-for-the-buck champion certainly. The M17x R4 is faster, less expensive (by $0.99), more impressive looking, and quieter than our previous midrange gaming Editors' Choice laptop, the MSI GT783-625US . That makes the Alienware M17x R4 our new midrange (sub-$3,000) gaming laptop Editors' Choice.