Alienware m15 R2 Review: Beautiful OLED, Beastly Performance

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Alienware m15 R2: Gaming and Graphics Performance

It's time to get to the whole reason folks buy gaming notebooks in the first place: to play the latest high-budget hits on the go. To get a feel for the Alienware m15 R2's gaming performance, we played a bunch of games. While the included 512 GB SSD wouldn't hold our whole Steam library, we had no problem hooking up an external drive and adding it to Steam. Everything we threw at it played great, subjectively speaking. Gaming on the system's OLED display was a treat, even if it wasn't always at the panel's native 3840x2160 resolution. Colors popped and blacks were quite black.

Games that support HDR, like Gears 5, detected the HDR-capable hardware in the m15 R2 and ran accordingly. Unfortunately, since the maximum brightness in the display is only around 400 nits, everything that wasn't meant to be retina-searing bright seemed a little dim, not unlike what we experienced in the Aorus CV27F gaming monitor we recently reviewed. Since the OLED panel has a high native contrast ratio, we just turned off HDR and enjoyed beautiful, saturated visuals instead. 

max oc

As we mentioned earlier, Alienware Command Center has some overclocking options for the system's GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q graphics processor. The sliders max out at 150 MHz extra speed for the GPU and a 300 MHz bump for VRAM. We just cranked both to the max and started playing. As a result you'll see the m15 R2 listed twice, once with the overclock settings and once without. Unfortunately the power limit wouldn't budge, but since the system caps the GPU at 87 degrees Celsius, we don't think it'd much matter anyway. 

Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Orc-smashing Gaming Performance

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a fun and and beautiful title set in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe. To test the game's performance relative to other systems, we set the resolution to 1920x1080 and turned the visuals up to the High preset. 

chart shadow of war alienware m15 r2
To start our gaming tests, performance in Shadow of War is pretty good. The m15 R2 hits nearly 100 frames per second all on its own, and with the slight boost provided by our overclocked profile, gets all the way up to 102 for an average frame rate. It's still around 15% behind a desktop GeForce RTX 2070, but that card has a lot more thermal headroom to play with and Turing has consistently done well using it to full advantage. It doesn't seem you're giving up much to go mobile. 

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Mayan Apocalypse Gaming Performance

The finale in the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is easily the best-looking of the bunch. It's also brimming with Tobii eye-tracking hardware support, which we discussed earlier. To test this game out, we again turned the visuals up to High and tested at the full-HD resolution of 1920x1080. 

chart tomb raider alienware m15 r2

This game is a bit tougher on our mobile hardware, indicating that it's more GPU-limited than Shadow of War. Still, performance is very good at 1080p, consistently staying up over 60 frames per second for the vast majority of the run, and right in line with the other GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q system in our bunch.

Control
Oldest House-Cleaning Gaming Performance

We recently had a chance to dig into two of the fall's biggest graphical feasts, the first of which is Control. Remedy's latest thriller is full of mystery, adventure, and supernatural weirdness. From a technology perspective, it's also one of the most advanced games around, making the most out of Turing's DXR-capable ray tracing hardware. Those effects have a pretty heavy impact on performance because ray tracing is expensive computationally. For this test, we stuck to 1080p once again, but turned all the graphical eye candy up to its highest settings, ray tracing included. Unfortunately, the Alienware m15 R2 is the first notebook we've tested the game with, so everything else on our charts comes from our Core i5-9600K desktop. 

chart control alienware m15 r2

This is the first time we're even moderately crestfallen with the m15 R2's performance. Remember that Turing has a single power budget for all of its ray tracing and traditional rendering resources (PDF link to NVIDIA's whitepaper), and it does its best to split that power between each pool. A Max-Q GeForce RTX 2070 has less power to work with than a desktop part, so those resources have to be downclocked to compensate. It's not an issue with raster rendering since the RTX hardware is dormant. Also recall that the overclocking settings in Alienware Command Center was unable to give the chip a larger power budget. To test this theory, we turned all ray tracing off, and performance jumped by a huge percentage. Not only was 1080p playable with a minimum of 60 frames per second, but so was 2560x1440.

Even while overclocked, and even while sporting a huge advantage in ray tracing hardware resources, the GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q couldn't keep up with the MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Gaming-Z from our Control performance review. Bumping the ray tracing effects down a notch let us gets us a bit more performance, but this is where NVIDIA's DSR anti-aliasing would come in handy. By contrast, raising the resolution to 2560x1440 dropped performance down below 30 frames per second.

Playing at 4K was impossible. Not only was the framerate choppy, but the whole game seemed to fall below a threshold where simulation didn't keep up with real-time. We have the frame times to back that up, too. Our benchmark run took a full 20 seconds longer to complete at 4K than at 1080p or 1440p, because Jesse wasn't running as fast as she normally did. 

At any rate, performance at 1080p was enjoyable, at the very least, and we have no reservations about recommending the m15 R2 for the game at those settings. Our subjective opinion isn't enough, though—it's 2019 and we have CapFrameX to help us illustrate. 

chart control frame time alienware m15 r2

While the frame times are a little higher than we'd like given the cost of the system and the hardware therein, performance was at least consistent and playable. Only on very rare occasion did a frame take longer than 33.3 milliseconds—the equivalent of 30 frames per second—so the game played smoothly if not overly quickly. 

Gears 5
Swarm-fighting Gaming Performance

Gears 5 is the other fall blockbuster we had a chance to dig deeply into, and this game proves you don't need ray tracing effects to make a gorgeous game. Since the game doesn't need that ray tracing hardware, Radeons can play on a level playing field with GeForces, so the Radeon RX 5700XT makes an appearance on the charts. As with Control, Gears 5 is super-new, and as a result, the m15 R2 is the only notebook on our charts for now. We used the High preset at 1920x1080, same as before, to test. 

chart gears 5 alienware m15 r2

Performance in Gears 5 is excellent. While the game pushed 90 frames per second without overclocking, turning up the OC got it past that threshold. There's no problem here turning it up to 2560x1440, which still averaged north of 70 frames per second. This game makes us long for a lower-resolution OLED option with a higher refresh rate for Alienware's m15 R2. 4K looks amazing, but isn't really necessary in a 15.6" display, but 1080p or 1440p requires less graphical horsepower and we'd love to see these games at those resolutions natively. At any rate, the Max-Q version of the GeForce RTX 2070 is neatly sandwiched between the desktop RTX 2060 and Radeon RX 5700XT. 

Next up, we'll take a look at how the m15 R2's cooling system handles all that performance under load.

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