With new living-room game consoles from Sony and Microsoft hitting stores, it would be easy to ignore the PC side of the video game biz. And yet this year has given us more, and better, gaming laptops than we've seen in a long time.
The first round consisted of smaller, more portable systems, such as the Origin PC EON13-S, Maingear Pulse 14, and Alienware 14. More recently, we've reviewed 17-inch and 18-inch models from Alienware, with the Alienware 18 as the new gold standard, featuring a very high-end Intel Core i7 CPU and dual Nvidia graphics cards, plus plenty of solid-state drive (SSD) storage.
That Alienware 18 configuration cost around $4,200, and was unmatched -- until we tested the latest version of Origin PC's EON17-SLX. It's essentially similar to the Alienware 18, with a few minor spec and component swaps that largely even out in the end. The configuration we tested cost roughly the same at $4,449, although the system starts at $1,916.
With the Alienware 18, you get a larger, 18-inch screen, while the EON17-SLX has a 17-inch screen, both at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. Both have dual Nvidia GeForce 780M graphics cards, a rare feature even in a high-end gaming laptop, but our Origin has a faster CPU, the Core i7-4930MX. The last major difference is that the Alienware came with a whopping 32GB of RAM, although the 16GB in the EON17-SLX seems perfectly adequate.
At this end of the gaming laptop spectrum, the decision is often between a big brand such as Dell's Alienware, or something from a boutique PC maker such as Origin PC or Maingear. The biggest choice you'll have to make is whether you go for the custom design and chassis quality only a big company such as Dell can afford to develop, or the boutique-level hands-on customer service and overclocking you can get from a smaller PC gaming specialist.
You'll be able to play new games, such as Battlefield 4, cranked up to "ultra" settings at 1080p resolution on both dual-video-card systems. After using both, I liked the feel of the keyboard and the overall physical design of the Alienware 18 better, but if I needed critical support for my $4,000-plus investment, I'd rather have the very hands-on Origin PC team on the other end of the phone.
|Origin EON17-SLX||Alienware 17||Alienware 18|
|Display size/resolution||17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||18-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen|
|PC CPU||3GHz Intel Core i7-4930MX||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ||2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ|
|PC memory||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||32GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M||(2) 2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M|
|Storage||(2) 120GB SSD + 750GB||256GB SSD + 750GB HD||512GB SSD + 750GB HD|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)||Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit)|
Design and features
Smaller gaming laptops, including recent 13-inch and 14-inch models from Alienware, Razer, and others, are getting slimmer, sleeker, and lighter. Big-screen desktop replacement models, on the other hand, show no sign of shrinking down much, or even making any real concessions to laptop design trends from the past few years.
The EON17-SLX is an easy example. It looks as if it could have been found on any serious gamer's desktop any time over the past half-decade or so. The boxy black chassis lacks the clean, seamless lines so many laptops strive for today. That's because this is essentially an off-the-shelf laptop case of the type that boutique PC makers such as Origin PC buy and then fill with custom components.
To give credit, each successive generation of Origin system I've seen takes a step forward in terms of tweaking the design, adding a custom A-panel (the back of the lid), new interior lights, and this time, a backlit touch-pad surface with a swirling Origin PC logo.
But you're still stuck with a thick, angular machine that doesn't feel as if it had been designed from the ground up for gamers. The not-quite-island-style keyboard looks largely the same as the one found on the last 17-inch Origin PC laptop we reviewed, in December 2012. The key faces are widely spaced, but the base of each key is wider and nearly touches its neighbor. This new version flexes less under the fingers than last year's, and the Windows key is now back in its proper spot to the left of the spacebar (last year it was on the right). Alienware's soft-touch keyboard feels better, but this is still very usable, and has a bright backlight for nighttime gaming.
The buttonless clickpad is large, and the backlit logo is a nice visual touch that gives the system a bit more of a custom feel. For basic online and system navigation it works fine, but when gaming you'll be using an external mouse or a gamepad, so it makes sense that gaming-laptop touch pads are not the most exciting parts of these systems.
The display, however, is one of the most important components. The 17.3-inch screen here has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is the standard for multimedia and gaming PCs (even as some more-ambitious 13-inch laptops experiment with even higher resolutions).
The display has a matte finish, a feature we're pleased to see popping up more frequently this year, and includes a 45-day "no dead pixel" guarantee, allowing you to get a repair or replacement for any dead pixels, which is exactly the type of expanded coverage more mainstream vendors don't offer. Games look great, especially without the excessive screen glare, and off-axis viewing angles are excellent.
Audio from the branded Onkyo speakers is loud enough, and works for basic gaming or video playback, but you'll still want headphones or external speakers for a truly immersive experience.
|Ports and connections||Origin PC EON17-SLX|
|Video||HDMI and DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone/line-in/line-out jacks|
|Data||4 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0/eSATA, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||BD-ROM/DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery
With all the real estate on the sides and back of the massive EON17-SLX, it's fair to expect a robust series of ports and connections, making use of both sides and the rear panel. I'm pleased to find five total USB ports, four of them USB 3.0 and one a USB 2.0/eSATA combo. The eSATA standard for connecting external drives has been eclipsed by both USB 3.0 and the newer Thunderbolt, but you get both of those here as well, and the Thunderbolt port doubles as a Mini DisplayPort output.
The system also includes a basic fingerprint reader along the right side of the wrist rest, but it feels like something built into the generic off-the-shelf chassis, and is certainly not nearly as modern-feeling as the fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5S or the facial-recognition log-in features on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Speaking of the new next-gen game consoles, a high-end gaming PC such as this is a pointed counterargument to the very idea of "next-gen" consoles, as the EON17-SLX is already far more powerful than the PS4 or Xbox One in terms of being able to push high-detail, high-resolution images at high frame rates. Some games, such as Battlefield 4, simply look their best on a powerful gaming PC. Others, such as Skyrim or XCOM: Enemy Unknown, either offer a more in-depth experience or better controls on the PC platform. With a half-decade or more between console hardware upgrades, investing in top-of-the-line CPU/GPU hardware feels more future-proof in some ways.