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Alienware 17 review: A little slimmer and lighter, but still not exactly portable

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The Good Dell's Alienware 17 is highly configurable, looks a bit more sophisticated than previous incarnations, and still delivers excellent performance.

The Bad You probably don't really want a programmable lightshow for your laptop. No dual-GPU options, and battery life isn't going to help much with on-the-go gaming.

The Bottom Line It's not as much of a conversation piece as the tank-like Alienware 18, but the slimmer, lighter Alienware 17 is arguably more practical for serious gamers with realistic budgets.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 6

What a difference a few inches makes. While the Alienware 17 desktop replacement gaming laptop is not all that much smaller than the 18-inch Alienware 18version we recently reviewed, it feels like a much different beast. If the 18-inch model was a massive tank that rolled onto my desk like a conquering army, the 17-inch version feels more like a standard big-screen laptop. Not exactly portable, but of a size and weight you've seen before.

While it's less immediately impressive as a conversation piece, the smaller (of course, that's a relative term here) chassis is more ergonomic and easier to use while gaming, web-surfing, or even on those rare occasions when it has to go in a backpack or under your arm for transit.

The trade-offs include a smaller screen, although with the same 1,920x1,080 resolution, a single video card versus the power-hungry SLI setup in the Alienware 18, and fewer hard drive options -- if you want to mimic the 512GB SSD plus 750GB HDD in the Alienware 18, you'll have to swap away the optical drive bay.

When it comes to 17-inch gaming laptops, you have more choices than in the 18-inch size. Besides Alienware, Origin PC, Maingear, Toshiba, Asus, and others all make similarly configured 17-inch laptops, and most start at around $1,500 for decent, but not eye-popping, specs. Our Alienware 17 adds a higher-end Core i7 processor, the top-of-the-line Nvidia GeForce 780M, a Blu-ray player, and a 256GB SSD/750GB HDD storage combo, for a total of $2,699. A hearty investment, to be sure, but nothing close to the $4,000-plus Alienware 18.

If you don't want to spend as much as our more-expensive Alienware 18 costs, the 17-inch version is a bit more more portable, while still turning in excellent game performance. Your primary alternatives are to build or buy a non-portable gaming desktop, or get a similar 17-inch system from a boutique PC maker. In the latter case, the trade-off is between the excellent design and chassis construction of the Alienware and the boutique-level hands-on customer service and overclocking you can get from a smaller PC gaming specialist.

Alienware 17 Toshiba Qosmio X75-A9278 Origin Eon 17-SLX
Price $2,699 $1,799 $4,449
Display size/resolution 17-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen 17.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen 17-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen
PC CPU 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 4800MQ 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ 3GHz Intel Core i7 4930MX
PC Memory 16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770 (2) 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M
Storage 256GB SSD + 750GB HD 256GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive (2) 120GB SSD + 750GB
Optical drive BD-ROM Blu-ray\DVD writer None
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

Design and features
Even though the Alienware 17 and Alienware 18 only differ by one inch in screen size, the overall physical difference between the two systems is significant, as the bigger Alienware 18 can fit in dual video cards and multiple hard drives at the same time. The 17-inch chassis is 1.8 inches thick, while the 18-inch version is up to 2.5 inches deep. That's especially important as the 18-inch Alienware's keyboard sits higher above your desktop, and I had some ergonomic troubles with that. The 18-inch model weighs a back-breaking 12.3 pounds without its bricklike power cable, and 15.5 pounds with it, while the Alienware 17 is 9.4 pounds on its own, and 11.4 pounds with its power cable -- still hefty but noticeably lighter.

Other than the size difference, the two Alienwares look nearly identical. The latest across-the-board Alienware design revision casts the system as a thick, matte black slab, its monochromatic color interrupted only by Alienware's typical kitschy light show. Closed, it absorbs light, not quite blending into the background, but still unassuming for a thick, heavy, black laptop with colored lights and an alien head logo on the back of the lid. The rock-solid construction feels very high-end in the hand, and I especially like the soft-touch finish.

The biggest advantage the 17-inch model has over the 18-inch one is one of comfort. The bigger Alienware is so thick, its keyboard tray sits 1.75 inches above the desk. For gamers who spend a lot of their time with fingers poised on the WASD keys, that can mean your arm and wrist are raised at an awkward angle, exacerbated by the sharp-angled front lip of the system and how far the keyboard is set back from the edge.

The Alienware 18 on the left and the Alienware 17 on the right.

In the Alienware 17, the keyboard tray is only 1.25 inches high (in the front, rising slightly in the rear), and that makes a big difference. The keyboard is also closer to the front lip, and I had fewer problems comfortably getting my hands on the all-important WASD keys.

Aside from that, the keyboard and touch pad will be familiar to anyone who has seen the current-gen 14-inch and 18-inch Alienware systems. The large keys are tapered slightly at the top to avoid accidental keystrokes. They have a satisfying depth and the large Shift, Control, and other keys often used in PC gaming are placed well for in-game use. A full number pad is to the right, but this model loses the row of user-definable macro keys found to the left of the keyboard on the Alienware 18.

The backlit touch pad is a good size, and keeps separate physical left and right mouse buttons, rather than using a newer clickpad-style surface. But for gamers, it's probably a moot point, as you're likely to use an external mouse for all your serious gaming.

As is expected from Alienware, the chassis lights up in all sorts of interesting ways, with a backlit keyboard, the Alienware logo, a light-up alien head on the back of the lid, and a few more zones. All of these can be controlled from the Alien FX control panel, a software app that allows you to choose from preset themes or create your own, with different colors for each backlit zone. It's not much more than a cool party trick, but I especially like how the touch pad is fully backlit, can glow in any of a couple of dozen colors, and lights up when touched.

Any big-screen gaming laptop lives or dies based on its display. This 17.3-inch screen has a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, which is what you'd expect from a gaming laptop. Still, smaller, less expensive systems, from the MacBook Pro to the Lenovo Yoga 2 to the Toshiba Kirabook, all have higher resolutions, up to 3,200x1,800 pixels, and it's not unreasonable to ask forward-looking gaming laptops to follow suit.

The 14-inch and 17-inch Alienware laptops both have matte displays, while the recently reviewed Alienware 18 has a glossy display (all with the same 1080p resolution). I personally prefer the matte look for less glare and eyestrain, but it's not a deal breaker either way. The Alienware 17 looks great while playing games, but I'll admit using it right after the 18-inch version left me with a little screen-size-envy.

Alienware 17
Video HDMI and mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, (x2) headphone/(x1) microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

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