Alienware M17 review:

Alienware M17

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The Good Decent mix of price and performance; optional quad-core CPUs and dual ATI GPUs.

The Bad Backtracks to an older, clunkier Alienware design; can get very pricey with the right options.

The Bottom Line Alienware is trying to have it both ways with the new M17, combining a relatively low starting price with some very pricey upgrades, including quad-core CPUs and ATI CrossFireX video cards. Our configuration wasn't very exciting, but turned in capable gaming scores.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.3 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Support 7.0

With Alienware's recent M17x laptop still relatively fresh, why would the Dell subsidiary launch a new model? The new M17 (minus the "x") system trades Nvidia graphics for ATI (including a multi-GPU CrossFireX option) and also includes optional Intel Quad Core 2 Extreme CPUs. Those new parts drive the price up quite a bit, but a more basic configuration is actually very affordable (at least when talking about Alienware), starting at just $1,399.

The M17 skips the recent slablike redesign of Alienware's laptop line and goes back to an older chassis, similar to the one we saw in last year's Area-51 m9570 model. Our test system includes dual ATI Radeon HD 3870 GPUs, 64-bit Windows Vista, 3GB of RAM, and a 7,200rpm 160GB hard drive for $1,999. The quad-core CPU options, which we have not had a chance to test, would add between $850 and $1,200 to the price. Our review unit features a dual-core, Penryn-class Core 2 Duo P8400 processor.

We ended up with a gaming rig that sat somewhere between the $6,000 M17X configuration we reviewed and the $1,350 Gateway P-7811FX, our current favorite bang-for-your-buck desktop replacement. The gaming scores on the M17 were better than the cheaper Gateway's by a significant margin, but in everyday computing tasks, the systems were fairly evenly matched (with the Gateway delivering about twice the battery life).

We're disappointed with the backward move to an older, clunkier body, but the new M17 is certainly worth considering if you're specifically interested in ATI graphics or quad-core processors.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $1,999 / $1,399
Processor 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400
Memory 3GB,1066MHz DDR2
Hard drive 160GB 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel P45
Graphics ATI Mobility Radeon HD3870 (x2)
Operating system Windows Vista Premium SP1 (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 16.1x11.5 inches
Height 2.1 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 17.1 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 9.5/12.5 pounds
Category Desktop replacement

The recent Alienware M17X had a radical (for Alienware) redesign, with a matte black all-over finish that made the entire thing look like an imposing slab of high-frame-rate granite. In contrast, the M17 has gone back (for reasons we're not entirely clear on) to the previous Alienware laptop design last seen on 2007's m9750 desktop replacement. It's a step backward, aesthetically, as we said of the m9750, "A sleek, sophisticated desktop replacement, this is not."

For gaming, there's little chance you'll use the built-in touch pad instead of an external mouse, but we're still not entirely happy with any of Alienware's touch pads. The large touch pad on the M17X sits flush with the remainder of the wrist rest and is delineated only by a backlit outline. It looks cool, but can be hard to use--you can't tell when your finger goes off the edge without looking. The touch pad on the M17 is more traditional, but is smaller and seems dwarfed by the large wristrest area. We did, however, like the Alienware Command Center, a software application for controlling system preferences, which included some helpful touch pad options, such as a palm sensitivity slider (so your palms don't accidentally set off the touch pad while typing) and an adjustable scroll zone.

The 17.1-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,920x1,200-pixel native resolution, which is standard for high-end desktop replacements (a 1,440x900-pixel screen is also available for $200 less). The high 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution means that onscreen text and icons are extremely tiny, but you can also can fire up video games at superhigh resolutions and view HD video at 1080p.

  Alienware M17 Average for category [desktop replacement]
Video VGA-out, HDMI-out, Integrated ATSC TV tuner VGA-out, S-Video, HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks, digital out, optical out. Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.
Data 3 USB 2.0, mini FireWire, SD card reader, eSATA port 4 USB 2.0, mini FireWire, SD card reader
Expansion ExpressCard/54 ExpressCard/54
Networking modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n wireless, optional Bluetooth
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner or Blu-ray

Our $1,999 configuration included twin GPUs in a Crossfire configuration, but for the $1,399 base price, you get a single 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870, the same Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU and 160GB hard drive, and a lower-resolution 1,440x900 display. You also trade down from 3GB of RAM to 2GB, lose the backlit keyboard, 802.11n wireless, and TV tuner. In the other direction, upgrading to a Core 2 Quad Q9100 is an extra $850, and upgrading to a Core 2 Extreme Quad QX9300 is a hefty $1,200 upgrade. Adding a nonrecordable Blu-ray optical drive adds $300.

As configured, our review unit was a capable performer in our application benchmark tests, though the less expensive Gateway P-7811FX delivered comparable performance. Not surprisingly, Alienware's high-end flagship M17x laptop, which we reviewed with a powerful 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU, outperformed both. (Of course, both Alienware systems are configurable with higher- and lower-end processors.)

Gaming is where the M17 really needs to shine, and it makes an able job of it, with two ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 GPUs in a CrossFireX configuration. While the twin Nvidia GeForce 9800 GPUs in the M17X model got 119 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution, the M17's ATI graphics were not far behind, delivering 104 frames per second in the same test. The Gateway P-7811FX, our current favorite gaming laptop for the budget-minded, scored a respectable, but not as impressive, 58 frames per second. Anecdotally, we loaded up a more challenging game, the recently released Far Cry 2, and got 30 frames per second at 1,280x1,024 with graphics settings on high. Both Nvidia and ATI can give to your laptop plenty of gaming muscle these days, and we're pleased to see Alienware offering consumers of a choice of CrossFire or SLI.

The Alienware M17 ran for a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's about average for a high-end desktop replacement and explains why these systems spend most of their time plugged in.

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