Yes, we all know that a behemoth of a desktop PC is preferable to a laptop for gaming, but sometimes you really wanna play – but it’s just not practical to take your PC with you. Perhaps you’re dog sitting for your relatives, or you’re on vacation, but you simply have to have a few hours on your favorite game. If that’s the case, you could really use a decent gaming laptop. Yes, they can be a little pricey, but a regular, cheap laptop just won’t stand up to the demands of modern PC games. And, if you’re going to spend your hard-earned cash, you want to know you’re making the right purchase. So we thought we’d take a look at Dell’s Alienware 17. There’s a range of customization options available, but we focused on the mid-range options.
- Graphics card – NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M
- Processor – 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ (upgradable to i7-4980HQ)
- Memory – 8GB dual-channel DDR4 (upgradable to 16GB dual-channel DDR4)
- HDD – 1TB
- SSD – 128GB (upgradable to 512GB)
- Dimensions (inches) – 11.5 x 16.9 x 1.4
- Weight (pounds) – 8.3
- Display – 17.3-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) (upgradable to 17.3-inch UHD (3840 x 2160))
- Webcam – 2.0MP Full HD
- Optional graphics amplifier
- 3-in-1 media card reader
- Thunderbolt port – (supports SuperSpeed USB, DisplayPort, 40Gbps Thunderbolt)
- 4 SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports
While the look of a laptop isn’t a deciding factor, the Alienware 17 is a pretty cool, sleek beast. An understated slate gray, interestingly shaped exterior is brouht to life by the little alien head and two diagonal led strips. Once you lift the lid, you’re met with soft-touch matte black, and a keyboard and touchpad illuminated with electric blue. You get a little more other-worldly blueness from two light strips at the front of the keyboard, too. Ok, yes, we think it’s pretty. But is it any good?
A substantial 17 inches, the screen on this Alienware gaming laptop offers 1080p full HD with vibrant, crystal clear colors. It offers an incredible level of detail that really helps to create a more immersive gaming (or movie) experience. Brilliant color and sharp detail is just what you need when you’re doing battle with your enemies. After all, gaming just isn’t as fun unless you see blood splatter. Laptop Mag ran a color reproduction test on this model and found that it exceeded all expectations, finishing with an impressive 106.3-percent of the color spectrum, outstripping comparable models, like the ASUS G751JY, which achieved 99.1 percent and the MSI Dominator, which achieved 88.5 percent.
With Klipsch speakers, you’d expect a decent audio experience, particularly given the overall price point. This is one of the few areas that’s something of a disappointment. While not a deal-breaker, it’s worth mentioning. Muddy bass and flat highs aren’t what you’d expect from Alienware, but many users have raised this issue. Even playing with the settings on the SoundBlaster Recon3D PCIe software doesn’t help that much. Yes, you can submerge the output from the subwoofer somewhat, so you don’t get the disturbing “boom”, but it’s still not an awesome audio experience if you’re listening to music. However, it’s not all bad. If you’re not obsessed with music quality, the speakers do a remarkable job when it comes to special effects. Deep, clear, detailed audio picks up everything from your ragged breathing after a long run in Far Cry 4, to the tense, eerie atmospherics of Alien: Isolation.
The Alienware can handle the vast majority of modern games with ease. Running BioShock Infinite with Ultra graphics settings resulted in an impressive 70fps. Far Cry 4, at the highest graphics settings saw 43 fps. However, particularly demanding games may struggle a little with the mid-range Alienware 17 configuration. For example, Metro: Last Night at ultra settings only achieved 32fps. On the plus side, there are two solutions to running the most demanding games with higher fps: The proprietary Graphic Amplifier, or choosing the largest GPU when you purchase the laptop. If you choose the graphic amp, you’ll be bypassing your onboard GPU for a desktop GPU. The downsides are it’s fairly weighty at 7.7 pounds, so, when combined with the 8.3-pound laptop, it’s not easily portable. However, you can use the GPU of your choice (GeForce GTX 600 series and newer, or AMD Radeon HD 5000 series and newer). You also get 4 extra SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, 3 DisplayPorts (full), and HDMI, and a DVI port. When using the amp with a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980, Far Cry 4 achieved 86 fps on ultra, and Metro: Last Light reached 46 fps on the highest settings, so there’s a definite boost in power that enables you to confidently run the most demanding games smoothly. However, price is a major factor here. The laptop itself is reasonably costly – but you’d expect that from a high-end machine. But then you’ve got the cost of the amp – around $180 – and that’s without a graphics card. Throw in a high-end card, and you’re probably looking at at least another $500+.
Battery life is impressive on this gaming laptop – with an average of 6 hours and 25 minutes on a single charge, which is significantly better than the 4:04 average.
Cool But Hot
Yep – it looks fairly awesome, and it’s specs and performance are impressive for a laptop of this price, but does it run cool? Sadly not that cool. For general use, it runs well within acceptable limits – but once you really start to make it earn its keep, it gets a little warm. So at the very least you’ll need a decent cooling mat. Laptop Mag found that after just 15 minutes of Far Cry 4, the space between the G and H keys reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit, while the bottom of the machine hit 119 degrees.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The backlit keyboard looks fabulous and, as a definite bonus, it’s a full-size traditional qwerty keyboard, complete with a full number pad. It also boasts 8 macro keys for optimal customization. It’s not mechanical – but given the price, you wouldn’t expect a mechanical keyboard. However, it does deliver just 2.24 millimeters of key travel and 62 grams of actuation for firm feedback and comfortable use. To increase comfort, there’s also a spacious soft-touch palm rest. The touchpad features two large, springy buttons and the pad itself is comparatively large and exceptionally responsive, allowing you to easily perform all the necessary actions.
Alienware Command Center
Alienware’s Command Center lets to tweak settings, program macros, alter power settings, and a whole bunch of other cool stuff. It’s got a simple user-interface, too, with a variety of alien-themed programs. One standout feature in the Command Center is AlienAdrenaline, which lets you program different settings for a number of different gamer profiles, so you can create profiles for each game you play for optimal control.
All in all, Dell’s Alienware 17 is an impressive gaming laptop. Obviously, the performance you experience will depend heavily on the options you choose and whether you go for the graphics amp. It should handle most games, but at the mid-range configuration, you’ll experience a lower fps rate on ultra settings than you might like. However, overall, this is a decent buy if you need a reasonably priced gaming laptop for those times when you just can’t take your PC with you.