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

ackermandan-square

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 18 version 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.

Alienware_17_35828496_07.jpg
8.1

Alienware 17

The Good

Dell's <b>Alienware 17</b> 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.

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.

Alienware_17_35828496_07.jpg

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 17Toshiba Qosmio X75-A9278Origin Eon 17-SLX
Price$2,699$1,799$4,449
Display size/resolution17-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen17.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen17-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen
PC CPU2.7GHz Intel Core i7 4800MQ2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ3GHz Intel Core i7 4930MX
PC Memory16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770(2) 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M
Storage256GB SSD + 750GB HD256GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive(2) 120GB SSD + 750GB
Optical driveBD-ROMBlu-ray\DVD writerNone
NetworkingGigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating systemWindows 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.

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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.

Alienware_17_35828496_03.jpg

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
VideoHDMI and mini-DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, (x2) headphone/(x1) microphone jacks
Data3 USB 3.0, SD card reader
NetworkingEthernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical driveNone

Connections, performance, and battery
Despite being smaller, the Alienware 17 has the same collection of ports and connections as the Alienware 18. The system includes both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort outputs, I suspect you'll rarely want to hook it up to an external display. You also get multiple audio outputs that can handle 5.1 audio. There are only three USB ports, so a gaming keyboard, mouse, and maybe an Xbox 360 game pad will eat those up quickly.

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Dell currently offers four pre-configured starting points for the Alienware 17, each with several customizable options. The base model, at $1,499, is serviceable but not exciting, with a single GeForce 765M GPU, a 750GB platter hard drive, and 8GB of RAM. Note that the display in the lowest-cost model is only 1,600x900. Our significant upgrades include a better Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU, a single GeForce 780M GPU, 16GB of RAM, a BD-ROM drive, and a 256GB SSD paired with a 750GB HDD, all for $2,699. If I had to pick a handful of upgrades to invest in, I'd go with the 1080p display and the Nvidia GeForce 780M graphics card.

The non-gaming application performance on the Alienware 17 is close to, or in some cases slightly beats the Alienware 18, with a 4900MQ Core i7, but can't match the Origin PC Eon 17-SLX we're currently testing, with a 4930MX Core i7. The differences, however are not significant enough to affect most users, and the Alienware 17 has more than enough computing power for your day, even if you're a heavy multitasker.

It's gaming performance that really matters here, and where we can see the clear difference between a single-card and a dual-card system. While they each cost about $2,000 more, the Alienware 18 and Origin PC Eon 17-SLX both really show off their GeForce 780M SLI configurations, while this Alienware 17 still does very well for having a single 780M card.

The Alienware 17, as configured, ran our BioShock Infinite test (high settings, 1,920x1,080) at 71 frames per second. The Alienware 18, with dual GPUs, ran the same test at 141 frames per second, while the Eon 17-SLX ran that test at 117 frames per second. The very challenging Metro: Last Light test, also at high-quality/high-resolution settings, ran at 18.7fps versus 35.3fps on the Alienware 18 and 41.7fps on the Eon 17-SLX.

Alienware_17_35828496_14.jpg

The hands-on takeaway here is that the 17-inch, single-card system will generally play new games at medium-to-high settings at full resolution. For example, in the new game Battlefield 4, I ran "ultra" settings on the Alienware 18 and only "high" settings on the Alienware 17.

As the Alienware 17 is significantly thinner and lighter than the 18-inch version, it should have LAN-party friendly battery life, right? Keep dreaming. While it did better than other desktop replacements in our video playback battery drain test, running for 3:40 without any battery-challenging gameplay isn't exactly great. Still, it's more than one hour better than the 18-inch version.

Conclusion
Side by side, the massive Alienware 18 we reviewed alongside this 17-inch model is the more impressive, and more expensive system. But the (slightly) more modest Alienware 17 is probably the winner in terms of practicality for most shoppers, cramming nearly all the same features, and much of the performance, into a thinner, lighter body.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298
165

Maingear Pulse 14

170

Origin Eon 17-SLX

176

Alienware 17

194

Alienware 14

199

Alienware 18

200Apple iTunes encoding test

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Origin Eon 17-SLX
80

Alienware 17

84

Alienware 18

84

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298

90

Alienware 14

92

Maingear Pulse 14

96Multimedia multitasking (iTunes and Handbrake, in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Origin Eon 17-SLX
164

Alienware 17

170

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298

178

Alienware 14

180

Alienware 18

181

Maingear Pulse 14

196Bioshock Infinite

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 18
141

Origin Eon 17-SLX

117

Alienware 17

71

Alienware 14

35.73

Maingear Pulse 14

33

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298

29.91Metro: Last Light

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Origin Eon 17-SLX
41.67

Alienware 18

35.33

Alienware 17

18.67

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298

14.67

Alienware 14

11.33

Maingear Pulse 14

10.67Video playback battery drain test

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Maingear Pulse 14
365

Alienware 14

233

Alienware 17

220

Alienware 18

145

Origin Eon 17-SLX

138

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298

105

System configurations

Alienware 17
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 4800MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GTX 780M; HDD#1 256GB LiteOn SSD, HDD#2 750GB, 7200tpm Western Digital

Toshiba Qosimio X75-A7298
Windows 8 (64-bit); Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770; 256GB SSD+ 1TB 7200 HD

Alienware 14
Wndows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; HDD#1 256MB Lite-On SSD HDD#2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Maingear Pulse 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7 4720MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M; (2) 128GB SSD RAID 0 1TB 5,400rpm WD hard drive

Alienware 18
Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit);2.8GHz Intel Core i7 4900MQ; 32GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; (2) 4GB Nvidia GTX 780M; HDD#1 512GB Samsung SSD, HDD#2 750GB, 7200tpm Western Digital

Origin Eon 17-SLX
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 3GHz Intel Core i7 4930MX; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz;(2) 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M; (2) 120GB SSD RAID 0 750GB 7,200rpm WD hard drive

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.

Alienware_17_35828496_07.jpg
8.1

Alienware 17

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9Battery 6