Alienware 17 (R4, 2017) review: A battle-hardened but not yet war-weary gaming laptop
The 17-inch model starts at $1,350 (£1,500, AU$2,800), which is only $100 more than the 15-inch's base price, but that's with a Core i7 instead of Core i5 -- unless the slightly smaller size really matters to you, the 17-inch is actually a better value.
Our test configuration costs about $2,750, which seems like a really good price given the components. The closest configuration in the UK is £2,757, with a different version of Killer wireless; prices start at £1,500. In Australia, it's AU$5,000 with alternatives starting at AU$2,800.
There are various display options: a basic 1,920x1,080 60Hz IPS 300-nit panel, the same but G-Sync enabled, a QHD (2,560x1,440) 120Hz TN 400-nit G-sync with Tobii Eye-tracking, and a UHD (3,840x2,160) 300-nit IPS panel with Tobii. You can also opt for an AMD Radeon RX 570 GPU.
4K probably looks pretty good on this system, though I think 2,560x1,440 is a nice price/performance compromise. It works out to 173 pixels per inch, which makes it sharp enough for all sorts of work, and a 120Hz refresh plus G-Sync compatibility, which is right for all sorts of play. 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.
|Alienware 17 (R4, 2017)|
|Price as reviewed||$2,925, AU$5,000|
|Display size/resolution||17.3-inch 2,560x1,440 display|
|PC CPU||2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK (OC to 4GHz)|
|PC Memory||16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz|
|Graphics||8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080|
|Storage||1TB HDD+512GB SSD|
|Ports||1 x Ethernet; 1 x Mini DisplayPort (1 x G-Sync); 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)|
Plus, the battery life isn't great with this panel; it uses the same size battery as the Alienware 15 we tested (99 Whr) but it's driving a ton more power and a bigger screen for a depressing 3.2-hour life on our tests. 4K would likely tank that even more. At least there's an option with 4K and G-Sync (though only 60Hz) on the higher-end models.
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 90 percent of sRGB, worse than the similar HD panel in the AW15. In practice, games look fine and pop sufficiently. It hits a peak luminance of about 458 nits -- typical is closer to about 320 nits unless you leave it at the default 100 percent brightness. There's little ghosting, and at 120Hz games run quite smoothly. When pressing the system, I could see the difference between G-Sync enabled and disabled using the Metro Last Light benchmark -- some tearing when running at 60-70fps and 100fps with the refresh rate at 120Hz, for example. Nothing unusual, though.
If you want better color you can always hook it up to an external monitor. 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. You have to use the Mini DisplayPort for that.
Tobii or not Tobii?
One of the main features (aside from the size) that differentiates the AW17 from the AW15 is the Tobii Eye-Tracking built into some of the higher-end monitor options on the AW17. I'm not a huge fan of the eye tracking; it reminds me of Canon's eye-controlled focus introduced to its film cameras in the '90s. You found it either invaluable or in the way.
Tobii's system currently works with about 90 games, not a huge number given the breadth and variety of games that exist. It consists of two sensors below the screen and software.
In theory, it should feel more natural than other forms of game navigation, but I find my eyes wander around the screen too much, and if I start heading one way with the mouse while I briefly glance elsewhere, it just gets confusing. Aiming didn't seem any quicker or more precise, either, at least in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided -- and that's where I need it most.
It incorporates a feature called Gaze Trace, where a blob zips around the screen to indicate where you're looking, and it was kind of fun for 5 minutes before I started to get a headache. That's really more for working with alternative, hands-free operation in accessibility cases than for games, though I could see how the technology in general might be great in VR. Microsoft's also working on adding support for it in Windows 10.
The system also works in conjunction with power management to wake when you gaze at it, for instance. Nice, but not really that necessary.
Some Best Buy stores have stations set up where you can try it before you buy if you're on the fence. You don't have to use it if it comes on your system, though, and it only costs extra when upgrading from the base display option to the next one up.
The design is exactly the same as the AW15, just bigger. Without the lighting effects it's an almost old-fashioned looking system, and feels really solid -- it should at almost 10 pounds/4.4Kg, and that's without the Acme Anvil of a power brick.
The TactX keyboard and software give you a decent amount of control over the keyboard zone lighting, racing stripe illumination, and of course the glowing alien heads, 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, and it runs almost constantly even on passive cooling and when I'm just typing with nothing notable happening in the background.
The system doesn't seem to run as hot as the AW15, even with BioShock Infinite overworking it and despite the more powerful components -- probably because there's a lot more room for air to flow around. Alienware's command center monitoring dashboard (CPU, GPU, network and memory) is really unimpressive relative to the rest of the system -- there's no temperature monitoring, for instance, and if you want to overclock the CPU, or simply check how the factory overclocking is set, Dell refers you to third-party utilities like HWiNFO64.
It also wastes a lot of space and can't be collapsed into a compact display for monitoring. Even on the relatively large 17-inch display it takes up too much real estate.
I'm a fan of the keyboard, though, 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 and climbing in Inside trying to avoid packs of dogs and diseased pigs.
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.
The front-firing speakers are fine for gunfire, explosions and screams, but a little too thin-sounding for my taste in when it comes to a more musically atmospheric game like The Lion's Song.
Our test configuration is great for VR -- it goes up to 11 on the SteamVR test, for example. But given its size, I expect a lot more connectors to support VR. 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.
The processor speed of our overclocked AW17 fell a little short of the generally faster Origin PC Eon17-X, which otherwise had a similar configuration, though even the AW17's middling battery life fared better that that system's miserable-even-for-a-gaming-laptop life of 2 hours. That's what a 4K display gets you.
The system handled everything I threw at it, with the exception of the usual endemic BioShock Infinite stuttering after a couple hours, just as I had to fend off the infinitely reviving army in the Bank of the Prophet atrium. I've become convinced that's the game's way of telling me it's time to stop playing. (Though at some point the system had configured itself to run the PhysX engine off the internal GPU, which was a fun 20 minutes of teeth grinding until I figured out what had happened.)
Go for it
While you can certainly do it, this isn't a system for endlessly squeezing out another frame of speed; it's tweakable, but Alienware doesn't make that particularly easy compared to other setups I've seen. But if you just want to sit down and get your game on, it's a great choice: Fast out of the box, with a solid display and enough connections and features to handle most entertainment, plus a keyboard that can handle your work needs, too. Just sit by an outlet.
|Acer Predator Helios 300||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060; 512GB SSD|
|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, 2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK (OC to 4GHz); 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|
|HP Omen (17-inch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD|
|Origin PC Eon17-X (2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4.2GHz Intel Core i7-7700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GTX 1080; (2) 256GB SSD RAID 0 + 2TB HDD|