Alienware m17 R4 Review: The Fastest Gaming Laptop Yet
Alienware m17 R4: A Fast And Silky Smooth Gaming Laptop
Just a few months ago, we reviewed the Alienware m15 R4, a seriously powerful 15.6-inch form factor laptop that, at the time, posted the best gaming performance benchmark results we had ever seen from a notebook. Not that we were particularly surprised—armed with an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 GPU based on Ampere and a 10th Generation Intel Core i7-10870H CPU (Comet Lake) CPU, it packs some serious artillery. Well, we've now tested an even faster gaming laptop, and it just so happens to be the 17-inch Alienware m17 R4.
Call it sibling rivalry, if you wish, but the bigger 17.3-inch brother to the m15 flexes a bit more muscle as it arrived to us. Specifically, it touts an even burlier GeForce RTX 3080 mobile GPU (only an option on this larger model), paired with a faster Core i9-10980HK processor and 32GB of DDR4-2933 RAM, which is twice as much as the m15 had when we hammered it with our gauntlet of benchmarks. It also wields a pair of 512GB NVMe solid state drives configured in a RAID 0 array for 1TB of primary storage, flanked by a secondary 512GB WD SN350 SSD for backup storage. Talk about a bruiser configuration.
In terms of raw gaming performance, the Alienware m17 R4 is now one of the most powerful gaming laptops on the market. And as you might imagine, it is also adept at productivity chores, though let's be honest, nobody's buying a laptop like this to manipulate Word documents and crunch calculations in Excel, neither of which benefits from a silky smooth 360Hz display. Gamers are the target demographic, and the incredibly high refresh rate is their ticket to a competitive edge.
We'll get to the performance numbers in due time (or just skip to the next page if you want to hurt our feelings). First, however, let's have a look at the spec sheet in full, and probe the Alienware m17 R4's unique features and design, of which there are a few...
|Processor||Intel 10th Generation Core i9-10980HK (8 cores/16 threads, 2.2GHz to 5GHz, 16MB L3 cache)|
|Display||17.3-inch 1080p (1920x1080) IPS display (360Hz, 5ms, 300 nits, G-Sync)|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 16GB GDDR6 (150W TGP + 15W Dynamic Boost, 1,350MHz to 1,710MHz)
|Storage||1TB (2x512GB) PCIe M.2 SSD RAID 0 (C: drive) + 512GB WN SN530 SSD (D: drive)
|Memory||32GB DDR4-2933 (soldered)
|Audio||Stereo speakers (4W average, 5W peak), Realtek ALC3281-CG
|Camera||FHD 1080p webcam with dual-array integrated microphones
|Networking||Killer Ethernet E3100X 2.5Gbps NIC, Killer Wi-Fi 6 AX1650 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.1|
|Ports: Left||1x security cable slot
1x Killer 2.5Gbps Ethernet
1x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) with PowerShare
1x 3.5mm headset jack
|Ports: Right||1x microSD card reader
2x USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps)
|Ports: Rear||1x HDMI 2.1
1x mini DisplayPort 1.4
1x Thunderbolt 3 / USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C (10Gbps) with Power Delivery + DisplayPort 1.4
1x Alienware Graphics Amplifier port
1x power adapter port
|Keyboard||RGB per-key backlight, Cherry MX Ultra Low mechanical switches, 1.7mm key travel|
|Touchpad||Multi-touch precision point with integrated buttons|
|Weight||6.55 pounds (2.97 kilograms)|
|Dimensions||15.74 x 11.59 x 0.86 inches (W x D x H) / 399.8 x 294.3 x 22 millimeters
|Operating System||Windows 10 Home 64-bit|
|Price||Starts at $1,695.39 ($3,609.99 as tested)
What's Powering the Alienware m17 R4 - All GeForces Are Not Created Equal
We might not be mind readers, but we know what you're thinking, and it's if we can tell you more about the mobile GPU inside the Alienware m15 R4. Yes, we can. As you are probably aware, NVIDIA offers a dizzying array of GeForce RTX 30 series GPU configs, so it is more important than ever to do your research when buying a gaming laptop.
There currently exist five main SKUs: GeForce RTX 3080, GeForce RTX 3070, GeForce RTX 3060, GeForce RTX 3050 Ti, and GeForce RTX 3050. Specifications among each SKU can and do vary, sometimes wildly. In particular, the flagship GeForce RTX 3080 with 6,144 CUDA cores can be configured with 8GB or 16GB of GDDR6 memory in mobile form, both tied to a 256-bit memory interface, with a boost clock ranging anywhere from 1,245MHz to 1,710MHz, depending on the power profile.
Dell opted for the 16GB variant, and also went with the max power option at 150W, which can be bumped up another 15W via Dynamic Boost. In other words, this is a fully unfettered configuration of NVIDIA's best and fastest mobile GPU, with a 1,350MHz base clock and 1,710MHz boost clock. Incidentally, the GeForce RTX 3080 option for the m15 R4 is toned down a bit with a 125W TGP (140W with Dynamic Boost), for a 1,185MHz base clock and 1,605MHz boost clock. So even among the same vendor, specs can be different according to laptop model configs.
How does that compare to NVIDIA's desktop offerings? It is roughly in line with a GeForce RTX 3070, which has 5,888 CUDA cores and a 1,725MHz boost clock, along with 8GB of GDDR6 memory and a 256-bit bus. Meanwhile, the desktop GeForce RTX 3080 serves up 8,704 CUDA cores, a 1,710MHz boost clock, and 10GB of GDDR6X memory tied to a 320-bit bus.
As for the CPU, the Core i9-10980HK stands tall as one of Intel's top mobile CPUs, only supplanted by Tiger Lake-H. It is an 8-core/16-thread processor with a 2.4GHz base clock, 5.3GHz max turbo frequency, and 16MB of L3 cache. Like the smaller m15 R4, the larger m17 R4 is equipped with Alienware's 6-phase CPU voltage regulation circuitry, and 12 phases for the GPU. Good stuff.
Looking at the RAM and storage, this laptop is stuffed with 32GB of DDR4-2933 memory in a dual-channel configuration. That should be sufficient for the life of the laptop (16GB is the sweet spot, in terms of cost and performance), and good thing too, because it is soldered to the motherboard. That is an unfortunate design decision, and something you will have to consider when choosing how much RAM you want, since you're forever bound by your selection.
For storage, Dell chose a pair of 512GB NVMe SSDs configured in RAID 0, netting 1TB of space for the boot drive (minus Windows, of course). There's also a singular 512GB SSD pulling duty as secondary storage. As we'll see in our storage benchmark in a bit, Dell would have been better served to just go with a faster single SSD setup for the boot drive rather than a RAID 0 array, which provides added risk without any real benefit. You can, however, elect for a single drive configuration (it just might not be as fast).
As it was shipped to us, the Alienware m17 R4 carries a premium price at $3,609.99. Yeah, it's pricey. However, cheaper configs are available, starting at $1,695.39.
Alienware m17 R4 Design, Display, And Features
Dell offers two color finishes for the Alienware m17 R4, including Dark Side of the Moon and the one we received, Lunar Light. Both are molded from the same combination of magnesium alloy materials and polycarbonate, with Alienware's design language sprinkled throughout, albeit not in gaudy fashion as far as we are concerned—while it definitely has a gamer edge, the Alienware m17 R4 looks fantastic to our eyeballs. That applies to the RGB lighting as well—the ring around the rear ventilation lights up, as does the Alienware logo on the lid, the power button (also in the shape of an alien head), and the backlit keyboard. It's not overdone, and the laptop still look good if you elect to disable the RGB goodness.
One of the main bragging points here is the 360Hz screen. It is an IPS display with a 1920x1080 resolution, 5ms response time, 300 nits brightness, and 100 percent coverage of the sRGB color space. And in addition to being incredibly fast, it also supports NVIDIA's G-Sync technology to keep the display's refresh rate in sync with the GPU, to eliminate screen tearing.
There are two other display options available to buyers. One is another 1080p screen but with a 144Hz refresh rate, 7ms response time, the same 300 nits brightness, 72 percent coverage of the NTSC color gamut, and G-Sync support as well. The other is a 4K resolution screen (3840x2160) with a 60Hz refresh rate, a much slower 25ms response time, 500 nits brightness, 100 percent coverage of the Adobe RGB color space, and Tobii Eyetracking technology.
What's with the 25ms response time on the 4K panel? As explained to us by Dell, the 4K screen option on the Alienware m17 R4 is not a gaming panel. New products starting with the Alienware m15 R5 Ryzen Edition come 4K panel options with a faster response times, but those screens did not exist when this laptop came to fruition, "so we made do with the what was best at the time." On the plus side, competitive gamers are far more likely to gravitate towards the 1080p panels anyway, because of the higher refresh rates and to put less burden on the GPU, for higher framerates.
None of the three displays support touch input, which is a bummer (this is 2021, after all). That gripe aside, games and movies look very good on this laptop overall, and maintain their visual clarity at sharp angles. We have been spoiled by OLED displays on some premium laptops lately, though, and you don't get quite the same vibrancy and visual splendor on the m17 R4. We also wish this display could get a tad brighter. However, we do have a very fast response time here and G-Sync support, plus a wide color gamut for accurate visuals.
Of Sound Systems And Oh, That Sweet Mechanical Switch Keyboard
There's a 1080p webcam at the top of the display, which is where God intended the placement to be (we asked). It performs reasonably well, though expect some noise (grain) if you don't have good lighting. And as for the stereo speakers (5W peak), at full blast they get loud enough to fill a room or two with audio, and sound decent for a set of laptop cans. No, you shouldn't toss your gaming headphones or high powered external speakers into the garbage bin. But the audio quality is definitely a cut above what we were expecting.
The ultra-high refresh rate is not the only standout feature here, it shares the spotlight with the machine's Cherry MX mechanical keyboard. Alienware is not the only one to offer mechanical key switches on a laptop, but it is part of a small contingent. After spending time pecking away at the Alienware's plank, we are convinced mechanical key switches should be the norm, at least on gaming laptops, and not the exception as they currently exist.
One thing Alienware can and does boast, however, is the m17 R4 and m15 R4 are the "world's first gaming laptops designed in collaboration with the leading German switch maker Cherry MX." Dell says this partnership began over three years ago, with the goal of shrinking the mechanical switch experience to a laptop form factor. Over 160 prototypes later, the co-developed Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switch was born, and it is quite good.
The entire assembly is just 3.5mm high. It offers 1.7mm of key travel in a "self-cleaning" mechanism that is rated for 15 million keystrokes per key, according to Dell. There is no wobble to these keys, which are appropriately stiff and produce that satisfying tactile bump that only mechanical keyboards deliver. Personally, I abhor low profile keyboards and always use an external deck with my laptop. However, I find the mechanical switches on this model are much more pleasant to type on.
Our model came with per-key RGB lighting (you can also go with four-zone lighting to save a few bucks), and a dedicated number pad. There is also a row of four dedicated macro keys just above it. Underneath the keyboard, a decent sized precision glass touchpad with integrated buttons sits a little off-center, to the left. It has a super smooth feel to it and works great, both for general navigation and gesture input.
Alienware m17 R4 Expansion Ports And Software
This is one of those laptops that shoves some of its I/O options in the rear. That's also where the DC-in port is located, for plugging in the large power brick. Other rear connections include an HDMI 2.1 output, a mini DisplayPort 1.4 output, a Thunderbolt 3 port (USB Type-C with support for USB 3.2 Gen 2, Thunderbolt, and DisplayPort 1.2), and a proprietary Alienware Graphics Amplifier Port for running a desktop graphics card from an external graphics box.
On the right side of the laptop you will find a USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Type-A port and a microSD card slot. And on the left side is another USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A port, a 2.5Gbps LAN port (Killer E3100X) with a pull-down flap, a 3.5mm headphone/microphone combo port, and a wedge-shaped lock slot.
The main utility Alienware includes on its systems is the Alienware Command Center. This is your hub to controlling the lights and creating macros. As it applies to the former, depending on your selection, you'll either have four-zone RGB lighting or can assign LED colors to each individual key.
Beyond the lighting effects, the Alienware Command Center can also manage your games library, and trigger specific settings to kick off when a game is loaded, which can be handy if you're juggling multiple different launchers (Steam, GoG, Origin, and so forth). You can upload artwork too, in case a game you add to the library does not have its own. Command Center also allows for power and performance adjustments, as well as some light duty overlocking, which we'll cover shortly.
You're not going to find any real bloat on Alienware's systems, outside of the bits that Microsoft includes with Windows 10 natively. Our quick tour of the software out of the way, let's see how this laptop handles our benchmarks...