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Alienware 17 Review: Huge in Every Sense

Alienware has made its name on buildling powerful pre-fab gaming PCs, so its promise that the Alienware 17 laptop offers "desktop gaming performance" isn't altogether unbelievable. After plenty of hands-on time with the device using both Windows 8 and the newly released Windows 10, I found that boast to be only a slight exaggeration for a laptop that is nonetheless an impressive powerhouse.

Almost-Desktop Performance

Immediately, the most noticeable aspect is its screen size. Even knowing it came packing a 17" monitor, having the screen sitting directly on your lap gives it a nice, bright field-of-view. Its hardware performance is almost a necessity, since being so up close and personal with the large monitor means you're always in the perfect position to see every flaw.

Those flaws are infrequent, though. The vast majority of games in my testing ran smoothly even at high settings, and a few could even hit ultra. In the case of some more recent games with heavier system demands, like The Witcher 3, it defaulted to medium settings with a few of the post-processing flourishes turned off, but could hit ultra with some trade-offs.

Made for Big Laps

All that power and the monstrously large screen size come at a cost, however, and in this case that cost is its sheer size. At more than 9 pounds, this is a heavy beast of a machine, augmented by a fairly large power brick, so it's not the type of laptop you can easily take with you on the go. It also measures approximately 12 x 16", so it sports a large footprint as well. It's portable enough to work in a pinch, and it can obviously be brought out and about easier than your full-size desktop rig. Still, I found I was most comfortable keeping it planted in one spot at my house, rather than carrying it with me. 

That said, it is smartly-designed enough to avoid one of the more common pitfalls of a heavy-duty laptop. Contrary to my fears, it never ran too hot or too loud for comfort. Its built-in Klipsch stereo speakers provided a nice clear range of sound, negating the need for a separate speaker system. 

The battery life is decent for most regular purposes like email or web browsing, at an estimated 6 hours on a charge. Playing a game, obviously, drains it much faster. I was able to play Marvel Heroes online for roughly an hour on a charge. You'll want to make sure you pack your power cable if you take it anywhere.

Amplified

For roughly $200 plus the cost of an additional video card, the graphics amplifier from Alienware did live up to its name and gave the Alienware 17 a notable boost. I installed a GeForce GTX 980 in the amplifier to augment the laptop's power. As a box nearly the size of some smaller consumer desktop PCs, it will often be too big to tote around with the laptop. However, as a hub station to boost performance when in the comfort of your own home, it makes a noticeable difference. Setting up the box was as simple as opening it up and slotting in the GPU. Once that's been done, from then on the transition is as simple as shutting down the laptop and plugging or unplugging the amplifier.

I ran benchmark tests in 3DMark, and the differences were pronounced. Without the amplifier, it scored 8,135--below 3DM's standard recommendation for a desktop gaming PC (12,034), but higher than the average laptop (4,685). With the graphics amplifier equipped, it shot up to 12,726, well above even the gaming PC mark. A 4K gaming PC is scored at 18,481, for the sake of comparison.

For a real-world example, I ran The Witcher 3 with and without the amplifier attached. Without, the Alienware 17 hit a silky 60 FPS consistently on its default medium settings, and could manage approximately 45 FPS on high. Ultra was where the trade-offs began to show, dropping the FPS to 30 with some dips during moments of heavy action. With the amplifier attached, high settings were an easy and consistent 60 FPS, while ultra stayed steady around 40 FPS with the occasional dip.

Jack of Both Trades

The Alienware 17 straddles a fence among gaming PCs, not quite as powerful as a high-performance desktop, but not as easily portable as a smaller laptop. It's a perfect fit for users who want the versatility of a system that can serve either purpose reasonably well. The amplifier also makes it a nice solution even for those who want a powerhouse with the option of taking it on-the-go. While some users may prefer a more dedicated PC that does one job or the other exceedingly well, I enjoy the versatility.

System Specs

  • Display: 17.3-inch HD+
  • Resolution: 1920 x 1080
  • Processor: Intel Core i7 (4th generation) Quad-Core 3.5Ghz
  • GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M with 4GB GDDR5
  • RAM: 16GB Dual Channel, DDR3L at 1600MHz 16G2D 
  • Hard Drive: Hard Drive 256GB M.2 SSD (Boot) + 1TB 7200RPM (Storage)
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Media-card reader: One 7-in-1 slot
  • Camera: 2.0 megapixels
  • Battery: 8-cell “smart” lithium ion
  • Height x Width x Depth: 1.7" to 1.9" x 16.28" x 11.77"
  • Weight: 9.11 lbs

Check the official site for more details.

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