Product of the Month: Alienware 17 R3 (2016)

For 2016, Alienware is upgrading its winning formula for gaming laptops, bringing Intel’s new 6th-gen Core i7 CPU and Nvidia’s 980M graphics to its leading 17-inch gaming laptop. You still get Alienware’s signature spaceship-inspired case, tons of customizable lights and a comfy keyboard. Toss in a 17.3-inch screen that sets a new bar for gaming machines, and you’ve got a pretty potent package for $2,750. Other notebooks have more powerful desktop-level GPUs built in, but when you connect the Alienware 17 to the optional graphics ($980 with Nvidia 980Ti GPU), its gaming performance goes to a whole other level while future-proofing your purchase.

Specs:

CPU 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-6820HK
Operating System Windows 10
RAM 16GB
RAM Upgradable to  32GB
Hard Drive Size 16GB
Hard Drive Type SSD
Secondary Hard Drive Size 1TB
Secondary Hard Drive Speed 7,200
Secondary Hard Drive Type HDD
Display Size 17.3
Native Resolution 3840 x 2160
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed n/a
Graphics Card NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M with 8GB GDDR5
Video Memory 8GB
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Wi-Fi Model Killer 1535 802.11ac 2×2 WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.1
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.75 x 2.75
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Thunderbolt 3
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI 2.0
USB Ports 4
Card Slots SD memory reader
Warranty/Support one-year premium support
Size 16.93 x 11.49 x 1.35-inches
Weight 8.33 pounds
Company Website www.alienware.com

Design – The Spaceship Returns

While other gaming systems compete with increasingly shouty designs that are too-often draped in red and black, the Alienware 17’s case has remained mostly unchanged over the past three years. The chassis’ sleek, spaceship-inspired paneling will still stand out in a crowd, especially when all the lights are set ablaze, like on a Star Destroyer hunting down some pesky rebels. However, with the 2016 model indistinguishable from its 2015 and 2013 predecessors, it’s about time for Alienware to do a complete revamp.

Inside, a smooth black deck provides a nice contrast to the space-gray exterior panels and the additional lights mounted under the keyboard and behind the Alienware logo beneath the display. As usual, everything feels solidly put together, a necessity considering the 17’s 8.33 pound heft.

At 16.93 x 11.49 x 1.35 inches and 8.3 pounds, the Alienware 17 is actually thinner than many other premium gaming notebooks, including the OriginPC Eon17-SLX (16.8 x 12 x 1.8 and 10.05 pounds), MSI GT72 Dominator Pro (16.9 x 11.6 x 1.9 inches and 8.4 pounds) and the Acer Predator 17 (15.39 x 11.79 x 1.52 inches and 7.5 pounds), although the Acer is nearly a full pound lighter.

Display – Sparkling in 4K

Alienware knows what it’s doing when it comes to displays, because the 17.3-inch UHD screen on the 17 is better than pretty much anything else in its class. It’s sharp, bright and super-colorful and makes marveling at little things like the detail on a gun in Fallout 4 or a swirl of snow and ice in Rise of the Tomb Raider a real treat.

With a brightness of 318.6 nits, the Alienware 17 beat out the screens from Origin’s Eon17-SLX (275 nits), MSI’s GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition (288 nits) and Acer’s Predator 17 (307 nits).

The 17 also topped its competition in color range, with an sRGB range of 173.5 percent. The Origin Eon17-SLX (114 percent), the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro (114 percent) and the Acer Predator 17 (116 percent) were bunched up in a pack behind the Alienware.

Gaming and Graphics – Very Good, But Not the Best

Results were closer for color accuracy, though, with the Alienware notching a Delta-E of 0.83.  That’s better than the Eon17-SLX (0.9) and Predator 17 (1.4), but not the GT72 Dominator Pro (0.7). (Scores closer to zero are better.)

There’s no getting around it. Even with 8GB of vRAM, the Alienware 17’s Nvidia 980M GPU simply isn’t as powerful as the non-mobile desktop GPUs featured in gaming notebooks from Origin and MSI. But the Alienware is a whole lot cheaper, and still offers solid performance at 1920 x 1080. However, for those hoping to take advantage of the Alienware 17’s 4K display, you’ll have to turn settings down to low.

On 3DMark’s Fire Strike Ultra graphics test, the Alienware 17 scored 2,270. Acer’s 980M-equipped Predator 17 was slightly ahead at 2,312, but Origin’s Eon17-SLX (3,350), which features a true 980 GPU, was on another level. MSI’s GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition (2,411) was also faster than the Alienware, but not to the same degree as Origin’s notebook.

When we played Metro: Last Light at 1920 x 1080 and ultra settings, the Alienware 17 mustered 37.17 fps, which dropped to an unplayable 11.92 fps at 3840 x 2160. By comparison, Origin’s Eon17-SLX reached a much higher 57 fps on ultra at full HD. MSI’s GT72 Dominator (49 fps) was also better than the Alienware, but not quite as high as the Eon. As expected, Acer’s Predator 17 (38 fps) posted a frame rate that was almost exactly the same as the Alienware.

But this isn’t the end of 17’s graphics story, because if you really want to push laptop gaming to the max, Alienware has a trick up its sleeve that can unlock a whole new tier of gaming performance.

Alienware’s Graphics – Desktop-Grade Power

Alienware’s answer to systems like the Origin PC Eon17-SLX and the MSI GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition, which feature desktop-level Nvidia 980 GPUs, is its $300 Graphics Amplifier. Instead of cramming a super-power-hungry graphics card into the laptop’s case, Alienware gives you a box that you can put almost any desktop GPU into, and connect to the laptop via a special port on the back. You don’t get quite the same level of graphics performance the few times you take the system on the road, but when you’re at home and connected to the amp, your frame rates will be higher.

In 3DMark Fire Strike Ultra, our Graphics Amp equipped with an Nvidia 980Ti GPU (priced at $980 for both) propelled the Alienware 17 to a score of 3,865. That’s 15 percent higher than what we saw from Origin’s Eon17-SLX (3,350) and a whopping 60 percent better than MSI’s GT72 Dominator Dragon Edition (2,411).

This graphics prowess also carried over to Metro: Last Light, where the Alienware 17 with amp pushed out 62 fps at 1920 x 1080 on ultra. The Eon17-SLX (57 fps) was close behind, but importantly, did not quite hit 60 fps, while the GT72 Dragon was even further back at 49 fps.


It’s not what you’d call a huge difference. But when you’re trying to push pixels as hard as possible, every bit counts. The best thing about springing for an amp is that you’ll be able to upgrade your graphics when a new crop of GPUs hit the market.

The argument for a graphics amp is so convincing that other companies, including Acer, Asus and MSI, have plans for their own amps, but right now, Alienware’s the only company offering this tech.

Overall Performance – Do You Even Have to Ask?

It goes without saying that with our review config of the Alienware 17 featuring an Intel Core i7-6820HK CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD and 1TB HDD, everyday stuff like surfing the Web and sorting spreadsheets was a walk in the park.

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