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Dell Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) review: A 15-inch tank, ready to roll into battle

With the power of a larger laptop in a chunky but compact chassis, the Alienware 15 is ready to rout.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
5 min read

Alienware is a veteran in gaming systems, and that's reflected in its R3 version of the Alienware 15. A solid, substantial design packed with midrange components and accented with an ample array of accent lights and backlight zones, it's basically a tank covered with Christmas lights. 


Dell Alienware 15 (R3, 2016)

The Good

The Alienware 15 makes the most of its components, and it has a well-designed lighting scheme. Plus, it comes with a decent G-Sync monitor, and it can drive an external display at a high refresh rate and with G-Sync.

The Bad

It's on the heavy side at 7.8 pounds, the battery life is middling, and its fans are loud.

The Bottom Line

A solid if somewhat uninspiring gaming laptop, the Alienware 15 is a good choice when you need fast performance but not the big screen.

The 15-inch model starts at $1,200, but keep in mind that the lowest-end configurations abut those of the cheaper Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Laptop, with a GTX 1060 at about $1,250 --  just without all the bells and whistles -- as well as the bigger Alienware 17, which starts at $1,300. You can equip the 15 with up to an overclockable Core i7-7820HK and GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q, 32GB memory and additional storage for $3,850. 

Our test configuration costs about $2,425, which is on the expensive side. In contrast, the 15-inch HP Omen with relatively comparable specs and we reviewed recently is only $1,700, though its gaming performance is notably worse. If you're tastes run more to Little Nightmares than Overwatch, you can probably get by with the cheapest configuration.

The closest configuration in the UK is £2,190, with a different version of Killer wireless; prices start at £1,300. In Australia, it's about AU$3,690, with alternatives starting at AU$2,700.

There are various display options: a basic 1,920x1,080 60Hz IPS 300-nit panel, the same but G-Sync enabled, the same resolution but a TN 400-nit 120Hz G-Sync panel, and a UHD (3,840x2,160) IGZO 300-nit IPS panel. You can also opt for an AMD Radeon RX 570 GPU. 

Alienware 15 (R3, 2016)

Price as reviewed $2,424.99
Display size/resolution 15.6-inch 1,920x1,080 display
PC CPU 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ
PC Memory 16GB DDR SDRAM 2,666Mhz
Graphics 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
Storage 1 TB HDD+512GB SSD
Connectors 1 x Ethernet; 1 x Mini DisplayPort; 1 x HDMI; 2 x USB-C (1 x Thunderbolt/DP); 2 x USB 3 Type-A (1 charging); mic; headphone/audio; dedicated eGPU connection
Networking Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet, Killer Wireless 1535, Bluetooth 4.1
Operating system Windows 10 Home (64-bit)
Weight 7.8 pounds/3.5kg

4K on this system is probably overkill, especially since you're sacrificing refresh rate and G-Sync compatibility to get it. For gaming, 1,920x1,080 on a screen this small suffices, and you don't have the performance penalties of the higher resolution. Pixel density is relatively high at about 141ppi (a pixel pitch of 0.18), so it's fine for non-gaming activities --  you know, like work -- as well. You can always attach a big, high-resolution display to it, and if you do it via the Mini DisplayPort, you'll get G-Sync support. Plus, the battery life isn't great with this low-power panel: Imagine what 4K would do to that.

Our test system came with the TN+WVA display, which turns out to be a pretty nice compromise if you want speed and don't care about color accuracy. In this case "WVA" stands for "wide viewing angle," not to be confused with VA (Vertical Alignment) panels. Viewing angle is better than a cheap TN panel, but I still wouldn't call it "wide." 

Its color gamut measures 93 percent of sRGB, which puts it between the lower-end TN panels and IPS, and hits a peak luminance of about 420 nits -- typical is closer to about 315 nits. There's little ghosting, and at 120Hz games run quite smoothly. If you want better color you can always connect it to an external monitor; I had no trouble running an LG 34UC89G off the Mini DisplayPort at 144Hz with G-Sync. You can connect a display via USB-C/Thunderbolt, but that's not on the GPU bus; it can only run off the Intel HD 630 integrated graphics, so no G-Sync.

Looks aren't everything

Without the lighting effects it's an almost old-fashioned looking system, and feels really solid -- it should at almost 8 pounds/3.5Kg, and that's without the heavy-enough-to-weaponize power brick.

The TactX keyboard and software give you a lot of control over the lights, which adds the visual zip. More important, the updates over the previous model include more venting and better airflow, necessary given the components you can stick into the top-end model. 

It would be nice if you could program the lighting to change colors  based on the fan operation so that you can tell visually when the system is huffing and puffing; you don't hear the fan when you're wearing a headset, and there are no fan monitors in Alienware's software dashboard, at least for the laptop -- just a choice between an active or passive cooling policy. The fan isn't the loudest I've heard, but it's not the quietest, either. The system can run a little hot;  the hinge and the area just below it can become uncomfortably warm, and while playing BioShock Infinite it started to feel like a heat sink. I can't vouch for what an overclocked system with a GTX 1080 would feel like. Alienware's command center monitoring dashboard (CPU, GPU, network and memory) wastes a lot of space and can't be collapsed into a compact display. On the small, low-resolution monitor it takes up too much real estate.

I'm a fan of the keyboard, which has solid travel and a little bounce, though it could stand a couple more millimeters of travel -- it  can feel like you're hitting the steel reinforcement with every press. It handles concurrent keystrokes (n-key rollover) well, and I didn't run into any problems simultaneously running, jumping, firing and eviscerating. Sadly, I have only five fingers on my left hand.  And unlike some other gaming keyboards, it's comfortable for touch typing. While the touchpad is about average for a gaming laptop, meaning it's hit-and-miss at registering gestures, it lights up; not all touchpads do, and that's key if you work and play in the dark.

A boxier but better Alienware 15

See all photos

I wouldn't call the front-firing speakers audiophile quality; they're more from the things-go-boom-make-big-noise school, but they're OK for playing music and are louder than earlier models. The surround is just OK, and it's not that easy to tweak.

While it delivers reasonable VR performance, it doesn't have an overabundance of connections to support it. Alienware laptops come with dedicated connectors for attaching the company's own Alienware Graphics Amplifier external GPU rather than relying on third-party USB-C/Thunderbolt expansion. The AGA can accommodate a single graphics card, but it does add another four USB 3 ports to the system. However, that connector replaces the SD card slot, which is probably a lot more broadly useful. We also had occasion to disassemble the system -- the inside layout is extremely neat, well-organized and labeled, but not what you'd call "tool-free."

Speed is about in line where you'd expect it to be given the components, though I would think the faster memory would give it a little extra oomph. Performance for the  a higher-end configuration would probably look just like our Alienware 17 results, which should give you some sense of whether to spend the extra money. It's plenty fast for FPS and other action games, though I did see some tearing in Doom when running close to 200fps. 

Little big laptop

You don't need a humongous monitor to become immersed in games, and I certainly blasted through hours on this relatively tiny 15.6-inch screen. And if you want to fit your gaming system into tight spaces, this will deliver the performance of many larger laptops. But if it's going to be all you've got -- no external monitors or keyboards -- I'd consider heading up a class to a 17-inch for the extra screen real estate, even if you configure it with the same components.

Multimedia multitasking test 3.0

HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) 136Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 147Asus ROG G752VS 159Asus ROG Zephyrus 167Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 198Lenovo Legion Y720 204
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 4 (Multi-core)

HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) 14,830Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 14,503Asus ROG Zephyrus 14,493Lenovo Legion Y720 14,208Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 14,060Asus ROG G752VS 4,261
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Lenovo Legion Y720 358Asus ROG G752VS 256Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 236Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 191HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) 180Asus ROG Zephyrus 146
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 5,024Asus ROG G752VS 4,126Asus ROG Zephyrus 4,095Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 4,054Lenovo Legion Y720 2,523HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) 2,323
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

BioShock Infinite gaming test

Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 207.7Asus ROG G752VS 190.0Asus ROG Zephyrus 180.9Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 178.4Lenovo Legion Y720 127.7HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) 122.6
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Cinebench R15 OpenGL

Asus ROG G752VS 125.46Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 121.8Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 103.4Lenovo Legion Y720 96.8Asus ROG Zephyrus 88.6
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Cinebench R15 CPU (multi-core)

Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) 877Asus ROG G752VS 801Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) 746Asus ROG Zephyrus 687Lenovo Legion Y720 607
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

System Configurations

Alienware 15 (R3, 2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 512GB SSD+1TB HDD
Alienware 17 (R4, 2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK (OC); 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 1TB HDD+512GB SSD
Asus ROG G752VS OC Edition Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,800MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; (2) 256GB SSD RAID 0 + 1TB HDD
Asus ROG Zephyrus Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core I7-7700HQ; 24GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD
HP Omen (15-inch, 2017) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with Max-Q Design; 256GB SSD + 2TB HDD

Dell Alienware 15 (R3, 2016)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 7