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Dell Alienware 18 review: Gaming laptop as big as a tank, and as powerful

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Sometimes nothing will satisfy quite like a desktop-dominating monster with an 18-inch screen and a body built like a tank. After a couple of years of ultrabooks and hybrids, it's surprising how much fun a huge PC, one that barely qualifies to be called a laptop, can be.

Alienware_18_35828495_09.jpg
8.2

Dell Alienware 18

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Dell's <b>Alienware 18</b> is highly configurable, with dual video cards, tons of RAM and storage space, and an understated design that you won't hate.

The Bad

The thick body raises the keyboard uncomfortably high, and getting primo parts costs a lot. Battery life is predictably poor, and this would have been a prime candidate for a better-than-HD screen.

The Bottom Line

There's a premium to be paid, but the massive Alienware 18 is a show-off-worthy desktop replacement that takes down even the newest PC games, and is just plain fun to use.

That's the appeal of the Alienware 18, a rare entry in the oversize gaming laptop space. It's even more of an outlier now, as 2013 has seen an influx of smaller gaming laptops, from the Alienware 14 to the Origin EON13-S to the Razer Blade 14.

Now, it's clear that Alienware parent Dell stacked the deck by sending us a system configured with nearly every high-priced upgrade possible. The Alienware 18 starts at $2,099, and can be ordered with either Windows 7 or Windows 8. Our review configuration included an upgraded Intel Core i7 processor, a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD)/750GB hard drive storage combo, two Nvidia GeForce 780M graphics cards, and a whopping 32GB of RAM, possibly the first time we've tested a laptop with that much memory. The cost? A budget-breaking $4,249.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And for that healthy investment, you get enough power to play games such as the brand-new Battlefield 4 from EA at the highest "ultra" settings at the system's 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution. (Although, with higher-res screens coming to smaller laptops now, is it too much to ask for a Retina-style display on a gaming rig?)

If you're looking to spend this kind of money on a gaming laptop, rather than building your own desktop, the choice is often between a big brand such as Dell's Alienware, or something from a boutique PC maker such as Origin PC or Maingear. A closely configured Origin 17-inch laptop costs about the same, and the biggest choice you'll have to make is whether you go for the custom design and chassis quality only a big company such as Dell can afford to develop, or the boutique-level hands-on customer service and overclocking you can get from a smaller PC gaming specialist.

Despite my love for small, slim, sleek laptops, the massive 18-inch screen won me over, and the Alienware 18 is a great way to take advantage of the current PC gaming renaissance we're experiencing right now. You really have to load on the expensive configuration options to make the system shine, but if you have the budget, a fully tricked-out Alienware 18 is an impressive gaming monster that manages to not look too much like a "gaming" machine.

Alienware 18 Alienware 17 Toshiba Qosmio X75-A9278
Price $4,249 $2,699 $1,899.99
Display size/resolution 18-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen 17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen 17.3-inch 1,920x1,080 screen
PC CPU 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ
PC memory 32GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics (2) 2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M 3GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 770
Storage 512GB SSD + 750GB HD 256GB SSD + 750GB HD 256GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive
Optical drive BD-ROM BD-ROM Blu-ray/DVD writer
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit)

Design and features
A thick, matte black slab that recalls the space obelisk from "2001: A Space Odyssey," this system is so massive that its form even overwhelms Alienware's typical kitschy light show. Closed, it absorbs light, not quite blending into the background, but as unassuming as a $4,000 gaming laptop can be. Make no mistake, however. This is still a thick, heavy, black laptop with colored lights and an alien head logo on the back of the lid, but it feels very high-end in the hand, with rock-solid construction and a soft-touch finish.

A laptop? Technically speaking. Portable? Only in the broadest sense of the word. The Alienware 18 weighs a back-breaking 12.3 pounds without its bricklike power cable, and 15.5 pounds with it. At 2.3 inches thick, it feels as if the keyboard and touch pad are hovering over your desk rather than resting on it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That issue creates one of the major ergonomic problems I had with the system. The lid itself is thick, so the keyboard sits 1.75 inches above the table, versus less than a quarter of an inch for many slim laptops. 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. If you need a refresher on computer ergonomics, you generally want your keyboard and mouse setup lower down, so that your elbows are at a 90-degree angle or lower.

Because the chassis is so large, the standard-size keyboard is set well back from any of the edges. The front lip is especially sharp, angled at more than 90 degrees, and I found my forearm resting uncomfortably at the edge because of both how far back the keyboard was placed and the extra height of the system.

Aside from that, the keyboard and mouse will be familiar to anyone who has seen the current-gen 14-inch and 17-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 row of user-definable shortcut keys is just to the left of the keyboard, and full number pad is to the right.

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. As on the 14-inch version we reviewed recently, the touch pad is fully backlit, can glow in any of a couple of dozen colors, and lights up when touched.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're investing in an 18-inch laptop, the display is one of the things you're going to be the most interested in. In this case, it's a 18.4-inch display, with a full 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution. The IPS display is glossy (while the Alienware 14 we tested had a matte display) but it wasn't overly reflective, as long as you're willing to shift around or turn off any offending lights. Playing games pushed all the way to 1080p resolution is stunning, especially games with a lot of eye candy. Unlike some of the smaller gaming PCs we've seen recently, you won't feel the need to connect this to a bigger external display. Note that, unlike the vast majority of new laptops, this is not a touch-enabled display.

One issue with the 18-inch screen is that 1080p may not be enough for the highest-end gamers any more. 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. It might push the limits of the mobile CPU/GPU combo to allow greater resolutions, but if you're going high-end, and willing to spend more than $4,000, it could be something you'd want.

Alienware 18 Ports and connections
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 BD-ROM

Connections, performance, and battery
Even though 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Alienware 18 is a very flexible system when it comes to possible configurations. The base $2,099 model isn't exactly going to set your world on fire, with an Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor, dual GeForce 765 GPUs, no SSD, and only 8GB of RAM. On the other hand, you can get a nice SSD/HDD combo and 16GB of RAM, and make your major investment in two GeForce 780M GPUs for around $3,500. Check the configuration options carefully, as Dell/Alienware always seems to be deeply discounting one upgrade or another on a rolling basis.

When you're running a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ CPU with 32GB of RAM, and the high-end video cards suggested above, you pretty much know what to expect from application performance. Frankly, even a PC that costs a quarter as much as this one probably has more than enough computing power for your day, even if you're a heavy multitasker, so at some point, it's just about bragging rights. If you're the type of user who really needs this much CPU/RAM horsepower, there's probably a new silo-style Mac Pro in your future. It's worth noting that, as with most other dedicated gaming laptops, heavy workloads cause the internal fans to kick in, and they are just plain loud.

The real test of a gaming laptop is, of course, games. Only the biggest gaming laptops can fit in dual video cards, allowing two GPUs to work together to boost frame rates (Nvidia calls that type of setup SLI). We ran a pair of 4GB GeForce GTX 780M cards, giving us a top-of-the-line mobile experience, times two.

Most of our other recent gaming laptops have been single-card systems, so the performance difference is large. The Alienware 18, as configured, ran our BioShock Infinite test (high settings, 1,920x1,080) at 141 frames per second. The Alienware 14 from earlier this year ran that same test at only 35 frames per second. The very challenging Metro: Last Light test, also at high-quality/high-resolution settings, ran at 35.3fps. Dell's current Alienware 17, with a single GeForce 780M card, ran that same test at 18.7fps.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A very similar gaming laptop we're testing now, the Origin EON17-SLX, has a better CPU, and the same video cards, but half the RAM of the Alienware. In a preliminary round of testing, it scored 116 frames per second on the BioShock test and 41.7 frames per second on the Metro: Last Light test.

In an anecdotal test with the Alienware 18, I loaded up Battlefield 4, a new high-end game that's much more ambitious on a PC than on consoles. I was able to crank the video setting up to "ultra" at 1080p without a problem.

Of course, if you're looking for all that performance and decent battery life, too, you're out of luck. The Alienware turned in battery life numbers the likes of which we haven't seen in some time, running for just 2 hours and 25 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. Note that the GPUs aren't taxed during this test, so actual gaming time could be even less.

Conclusion
Fully tricked out, as our review model was, it's hard not to like the Alienware 18 as a game-playing monster, but it's so big it's likely to eat all your desk space, and gamers this serious are just as likely to go with a build-it-yourself (or at least configure-it-yourself) gaming desktop.

Aside from a few ergonomic tics, however, using the system was just plain fun, especially when it easily ate through the latest PC games. The Alienware 18 is big, ambitious, and an overwrought example of conspicuous consumption, at least when it comes to gaming laptops. It's also the least ugly an Alienware has managed to be in some time, even if that's a fairly low bar.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 17
194

Alienware 18
200

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 17
84

Alienware 18
84

Multimedia multitasking (iTunes and HandBrake, in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 17
170

Alienware 18
181

Bioshock Infinite (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 18
141

Alienware 17
71

Metro: Last Light (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 18
35.33

Alienware 17
18.67

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Alienware 17
220

Alienware 18
145

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.

System configurations

Alienware 18
Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ; 32GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; (2) 4GB Nvidia GTX 780M; HDD No. 1 512GB Samsung SSD, HDD No. 2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Alienware 17
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GTX 780M; HDD No. 1 256GB Lite-On IT SSD, HDD No. 2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Origin EON13-S
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; (2) 120GB SSD RAID 0 750GB 5,400rpm WD hard drive

Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298
Windows 8 (64-bit); Intel Core i7-4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770; 256GB SSD+ 1TB 7,200rpm HD

Alienware 14
Wndows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; HDD No.1 256MB Lite-On SSD HDD No.2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Maingear Pulse 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-4720MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M; (2) 128GB SSD RAID 0 1TB 5,400rpm WD hard drive

Alienware_18_35828495_09.jpg
8.2

Dell Alienware 18

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 10Battery 5