Alienware 17 (Radeon R9 M290X Version) Laptop Review
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Much like the Grammy Awards or the Oscars, gaming laptops provide a certain amount of spectacle. Gaming PCs need plenty of power, which generally necessitates thick, heavy design. Of course, buyers these days don't like thick, heavy design—so manufacturers tend to up the "wow" factor on these machines in other ways.
Enter the Alienware 17 (MSRP $2449), the mid-size offering from one of PC gaming's oldest names. If spectacle is what you want, look no further. Our review model comes with one of the most colorful (and customizable) keyboards on the market: Alienware lets you choose from 20 different colors, illuminating the keys as you see fit. These customizations apply to the touchpad and the laptop's cover, too.
If you're spending over two grand on a gaming laptop, it should be able to do more than put on a fancy light show. As luck would have it, Alienware packed this rig with some top-notch hardware, most notably Radeon's top-of-the-line R9 M290X mobile video card. There's also a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel i7-4700MQ processor, 16GB of RAM, 1TB of storage, and a 256GB solid-state drive for the operating system—Windows 7 Home Premium, in this case.
Gamers will definitely be satisfied with this package.
Look & Feel
The best light show since Laser Floyd
Just because a laptop is thick doesn't mean it's ugly. Gaming rigs have been making this case for years, and Alienware is proof that bulky can be the new black.
Measuring in at just under 2 inches thick, the Alienware 17 makes up for its heft by looking as futuristic as possible. This means an aluminum cover, which is beveled to give it a curvier shape. Also, there are lights everywhere.
On the cover, the alien head and two strips on the beveled areas light up. Once you open this rig up, you're treated to an illuminated Alienware logo, four different keyboard zones, and the touchpad—my personal favorite. The actual touchpad on the Alienware 17 isn't anything special, and hardcore gamers probably won't even use it, but seeing it light up makes me feel like a kid.
Aside from the (admittedly awesome) lights on the keyboard, the actual typing experience is top-notch. Like most gaming keyboards, the Alienware 17 comes with chunky keys that provide plenty of travel. It's great for typing out laptop reviews (shocker!) and also for keeping your left hand locked on the WASD keys.
So the keyboard rocks and it lights up, but that's not all the Alienware 17 has to offer. On top of the number pad, there are four programmable keys. Gamers can make each one perform a specific function, like buying equipment in an online game, or spitting out a block of text.
Your options for connectivity on this mothership are numerous. The right side has a Blu-ray drive, a card reader, two USB 3.0 ports, and an ethernet jack. While the Blu-ray drive works fine, it makes a weird Transformers-type noise every 5-10 minutes—that's with no disc inserted. It's not a huge issue, just an odd one.
The left side of the Alienware 17 has two more USB 3.0 ports, a lock, a mini DisplayPort, and an HDMI input/output. Yes, you can hook up an Xbox to this laptop if you want to. There are also three audio inputs for headphones, a microphone, and a gaming headset.
The screen is a bright 1080p display that's also glare resistant. I tested fairly accurate colors, although the contrast ratio on this laptop suffered because of its intense brightness. That doesn't really take away from its gaming performance, though, since content (like games) still looks great.
More than capable for most gaming needs
PC gaming is different from every other type of gaming for one reason: customization. Similar games come out on both consoles and PC, but only computers let you adjust graphical settings to match your rig's hardware.
With that said, you can play any current PC game on the R9 M290X version of the Alienware 17 laptop, and you'll be able to play most games at very high settings.
Our baseline gaming benchmark, Metro: 2033, ran at a smooth 36 frames per second (FPS) on high settings—a totally fluid result. Metro: 2033 is a demanding game with great graphics, and high settings will make it look fantastic. If you wish to crank the settings up even further, though, the Alienware 17 starts to struggle: I clocked an average of 24 FPS with all graphical details maxed out. I've certainly seen worse, but this isn't a playable result.
Luckily for the Alienware 17 and its Radeon video card, only a handful of games require more powerful hardware. That means you should be able to play most games on the market with settings either maxed or close to it.
Other than its robust video card, our Alienware 17 review model comes with a quad-core Intel i7-4700MQ processor, which is one of the fastest available for a laptop. It performed admirably in most of PCMark 8's benchmarks, which cover home, work, and creative uses.
One of the Alienware 17's only drawbacks is its 5400RPM hard drive—that's slow by today's standards. You'll notice sluggishness when launching programs installed to this drive, but thankfully this Alienware also offers a 256GB solid-state drive for the operating system. You're left with about 100GB of remaining space, which you can use for installing games and programs.
Even with the solid-state drive, booting up this PC is relatively slow, taking about 27 seconds. This is because the Alienware 17 we received runs Windows 7, which generally boots up slower than Windows 8. When ordering an Alienware laptop, though, you have the option of using either operating system.
Battery life is what you'd expect on a thick and power-hungry gaming rig—nothing special. With normal use, and with the screen brightness dimmed to 110 cd/m2 , I clocked 2 hours and 5 minutes. Who's really going to use this laptop without an outlet?
For those worried about their expensive components getting cooked inside the Alienware 17's chassis, rest assured that it doesn't get too hot. Temperatures had vast fluctuations on the bottom of this laptop while a game was playing, with the sides staying a cool 90° F. A small area in the middle had temperatures as high as 126.3° F, but heat dissipated quickly once the game was closed.
No bloatware, just... Alienware
Alienware keeps the focus on the hardware with its computers, and we're better off for it. You won't find any annoying anti-virus programs that pop up every 10 minutes, nor will you find free trials for various services.
What you will find is an assortment of programs that maximize your expensive gaming rig. Most of these programs are located within the Alienware Command Center suite, which contains options and tweaks for nearly every extra feature on the Alienware 17.
Command Center is split up into five categories: AlienFX, AlienFusion, AlienTouch, Alienware TactX, and AlienAdrenaline. Every single one of these is useful, too.
AlienFX lets users customize the lights on the Alienware 17. There are 10 customizable areas on the laptop, and each section can use one of 20 different colors. I used this feature at least once per day.
AlienFusion shows you power settings, and has the same options you'd find in Windows' Control Panel. There's really nothing special here—just a better looking interface.
With AlienTouch, you can customize different options for the touchpad, including sensitivity and virtual scrolling. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of a two-finger scroll option, which is standard on almost all laptops. Alienware lets you use a portion of the touchpad to scroll with one finger, but it's sluggish and not very intuitive. If you're buying this laptop, though, you're probably investing in a very good gaming mouse.
Users can customize the four programmable buttons with Alienware TactX. The software is easy to use: Just input a series of keyboard commands, a block of text, or have it launch a program. Shortcuts like these are extremely useful for competitive gamers.
Finally, AlienAdrenaline has two features: performance monitoring and game modes. Performance monitoring shows how your computer hardware is handling everything, while game modes allow you to tailor specific video games to your habits. For example, you can setup World of Warcraft to launch with green keyboard lights and a voice chat client if you'd like. This is a really niche part of the Alienware Command Center, but luxury features like this are part of the reason this laptop costs so much.
Lights, camera, gaming!
There's no doubt that the Alienware 17 is a great gaming laptop. For gamers that want good performance with a great physical appearance, this rig delivers. Even considering price, the Radeon version of the Alienware 17 holds up. Yes, it's expensive at $2449, but that's the current asking price for any laptop this powerful.
The real story is Alienware's attention to detail. Aside from its top-notch internals, the Alienware 17 has an incredible keyboard, glare-resistant screen, a customizable exterior, and software that tailors the gaming experience to your play style.
You can always check out the Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p, which offers acceptable gaming performance for about $1000 less. For $500 more than the Alienware 17, you can get the powerful Asus ROG G750JZ-XS72, which offers nearly unrivaled laptop performance. But if you don't mind really good—not great—graphical power in exchange for a killer light show, the Radeon R9 M290X version of the Alienware 17 is right up your alley.