Alienware M17x R4

Alienware has been flying the flag for gamers for a while now. While its hardware isn’t exactly cheap, for those serious about PC gaming, it is one of the go-to brands.

The M17x sits right at the top of the company’s line-up. With a 17-inch screen, the latest bells and whistles in terms of graphics cards from Nvidia and premium rate hardware, it should be quite a performer. So how does the latest R4 version of the M17X fare?

Hardware

Alienware isn't going to win any prizes for design when it comes to laptops. We admit that's matter of opinion, but a huge great lump of black plastic complete with disco dance floor keyboard reminds us more of a Raleigh mountain bike we had when we were ten, than a laptop that costs more than £1,000.

Still, niggles with looks aside, it is put together brilliantly. This is a really hardy piece of kit, with materials that feel top quality. Be it the all over matte effect black or red plastic (we had the black one), straight off the back of a HTC One X, or the extremely excellent trackpad and keyboard.

In fact we really can’t fault the way the Alienware is put together, and despite its looks, which admittedly are a bit of fun, this is a piece of kit you know is going to last. The USB ports along the side for example are recessed enough to keep them safe and have a satisfying click when things are plugged into them, holding them in place.

Then there is the built-in disc drive, which sucks in CDs and DVDs Mac style and never ever jammed or caused any issue. Finally you have the open and close action on the laptop, which is as smooth as anything, giving the screen a feel that it is really bolted on properly, not like some of the flimsier gaming laptops.

Screen

We have a slight issue with the screen on the Alienware laptop we reviewed, in that its maximum resolution was 1600 x 900. On a gaming laptop that is this powerful the omission of a 1080p - or higher - resolution screen really isn't good enough.

What is more irritating is that, having used lots of other Alienware kit, we know they can make some of the best screens out there. There is an option to upgrade to a full HD display when ordering the M17X for a measly £54, we advise without a doubt that you do it, although there's a powerful argument that the laptop should have it as standard. 

While we can’t make judgements on how the upgraded screen will look - as we simply haven’t seen it - we would hope the black levels and viewing angles were similar to other Alienware laptops we have used. If so, then all is forgiven, otherwise this standard 1600 x 900 screen is a pretty big disappointment.

Keyboard and trackpad

These are two things vital to a top of the range gaming laptop. Some might opt to attach an Xbox controller, or go for a wireless mouse, but the M17x is heavy but still portable, so you want to be able to game with it as is.

Good news then is that this laptop from Alienware has one of the best keyboards we have ever used on a computer. We put it up there with the likes of the MacBook Pro for sheer key bashing satisfaction.

Every button on the M17X is raised up enough from the bottom of the keyboard bezel that you get a really satisfying push out of it. They aren’t squidy key presses either, more responsive and absolutely ideal for gaming. This is where Alienware’s pedigree becomes very apparent.

Then there's the trackpad, which again performs admirably. While it isn’t glass like some Ultrabooks or Macs, it is a smooth matte surface that your finger never gets stuck on. The mouse keys also have a satisfying click to them, although not so much that it might impede your gaming.

Finally there is the interesting-looking arrangement of buttons sitting above the keyboard for controlling volume, wireless and song skipping. These are nowhere near as good. Rather than being proper keys they are more just points where the plastic flexes and pushes on to buttons below. It doesn’t really work and makes them irritating to use, even more so when you really that in game volume can’t be controlled via the function key and numbers on the keyboard.

While we had a moan earlier about the disco-style keyboard and the customisable colours the Alienware is capable of, we have to say it is impressive. Those who like to make things their own will particularly like it. For example our M17X right now has a pink set of letter keys, blue numbers and yellow Alienware logo, you can however change this from a huge range of options in the Alienware FX controller.

Connectivity

Despite the Alienware’s shortcomings in the screen department, there is thankfully a full HDMI output on the side, meaning you can transfer those beautiful graphics easily on to the big screen.

On top of this there is also Ethernet, VGA, eSata, 4 USB 3.0 ports, 2 line outs, a mini display port, a microphone input and finally a 9 in 1 media card reader. Enough connectivity for you?

Really this laptop is set-up so you can use it as a full desktop PC at home and then move it about. There are easily enough ports to justify even the most accessory-obsessed and as we said earlier, all are robust enough to withstand even the most heavy handed of accessories usage.

Performance

Now down to the nitty gritty. The Alienware has the latest Nvidia 680M processor inside it, making it quite the gaming powerhouse. Top that with an i7 3630QM in the base model and 6GB of RAM - with the option of going all the way up to 32GB - and you have a lot of oomph to play with.

How does that translate into real-world gaming terms? To put it simply, absolutely brilliantly. Running the laptop through the Battlefield 3 test, which tends to be our go-to graphics experiment for any piece of gaming kit, it worked flawlessly.

With everything maxed-out, something we wouldn’t do with most desktop rigs, including our 580 (last year’s card) setup, the M17X was buttery smooth. In fact we couldn’t find much to tax it beyond its abilities, including titles like Borderlands 2 and Batman Arkham City. Audio performance is also great from the speakers, although they lack bass somewhat. They definitely sound good.

Verdict

The M17x is a very good laptop for gaming. At around £1,200 for the 680m-touting model, with improved full HD screen and 8GB of RAM, we can't think of a much better rig on which to play your PC titles. HDMI out means you won't need a desktop and the build quality should make the M17x last for ages.

Don't expect ultrabook weight here, or the minimal design flourishes of a Mac or Asus, this is built specially for gamers. For the most part it succeeds in its task. The small letdowns, such as the volume controls or the poor screen on the base model, are fairly forgivable when you see the frame rates it can achieve on games like Battlefield 3.

The wonders Nvidia has worked with its mobile cards, combined with the power behind Ivy Bridge, mean this can now truly compete with top-end gaming desktops. We definitely think it worth considering as an alternative when the time comes to replace your current machine.