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Alienware M17x R3 review: Alienware M17x R3

The M17x is a glorious piece of kit. The sheer size of the thing means that it isn't for everyone, but for those who want outrageous gaming ability from their laptop, this is it. Unless you get the bigger one ...

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Craig Simms
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Craig Simms

Special to CNET News

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.

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4 min read

Power — it's something that Alienware has chased since inception. When it comes to thumping big laptops that have the ability to drive a small economy, let alone a mere AAA title, Alienware's usually been right at the bleeding edge.

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8.5

Alienware M17x R3

The Good

Huge amount of power. HDMI-in lets you use the screen as an external monitor. Lighting system allows customisation, or can be turned off.

The Bad

Big and heavy. AMD switchable graphics are awful.

The Bottom Line

The M17x is a glorious piece of kit. The sheer size of the thing means that it isn't for everyone, but for those who want outrageous gaming ability from their laptop, this is it. Unless you get the bigger one ...

The "R" in this particular lappy's title isn't just for decoration; rather, it means that it's the third revision, and quite a powerful lap-warmer it is, too.

Coming in a typically huge Alienware box, what's supplied is somewhat scant to previous releases: a soft cloth cover, a manual and a 3.5mm to TOSLink converter. The rest is all packing foam and cardboard.

Prying out the blood-red and black laptop, it's hard to ignore that it's been fitted out in a style that recalls both sports cars and a healthy dollop of sci-fi goodness. It's also hard to ignore that it's the weight of a toddler, and is unlikely to leave your desk frequently.

You can pick one of these up now with a GTX580M inside, which will be important to gamers for one and a half reasons: 1) it's bloody fast; and 1.5) it'll enable stereoscopic 3D using Nvidia's brain-smooshing active shutter glasses. We're thoroughly in the "meh" camp for sterescopic 3D gaming, but we're quite sure that there's someone, somewhere, who thinks it's a good idea (and who's not on a marketing team).

Radiating pain

Our clam-shaped contraption had a Radeon HD6970 inside, sparing us the 120Hz headaches. It introduced a new pain, though, in the form of AMD's switchable graphics. That is to say, they're unfathomably awful.

While Nvidia's Optimus offers seamless, auto-detecting and auto-switching of when to use discrete graphics for power, and when to use integrated graphics for battery saving, AMD offers multiple schemes, none of which really work.

The most elegant is an auto-detect, but non-auto-switch software, which recommends that you switch to discrete graphics when it detects them. It often tends to break games the first time you run them, as the game launches with Intel graphics and then gets dumped out by AMD's recommendation that you switch. Frustration ensues.

The worst is found on Alienware's M18x, the M17x R3's bigger brother. We can only assume that it's due to the CrossFire configuration (that's two AMD cards working in tandem for those not aware), but the machine insists on restarting Windows to switch between the video cards.

Then there's the middle ground: the direct switch. We've seen it supplied in both hardware and software switches, leaving it directly up to the user when to switch between the two. It's archaic, but it works. Well, mostly — while we've never had a problem with the hardware switch, the software switch in the M17x R3 often wouldn't switch between the two until we'd reset, and created annoying pop ups that didn't even do you the benefit of telling you which graphics card was enabled. While having Intel graphics inside is a benefit to battery life, we can imagine that to save themselves from the pain of this system, users will just leave the AMD graphics enabled.

The other stuff

The rest is a typical representation of Alienware extremes. A Core i7 2720QM, 8GB of RAM, dual 500GB hard drives in RAID 0 and a decent screen that runs at 1920x1080. Delicious.

If you decide to order one of these, we'd highly recommend breaking that RAID 0 set-up, despite the speed boost. If one hard drive fails, you'll lose everything. Best to opt for a RAID 1, or, at worst, a standalone scheme.

It's well apportioned for ports, too — as it should be, considering the size of the thing. Two USB 3.0 ports, three USB 2.0 (one with integrated eSATA), an SD card reader, gigabit Ethernet and 5.1-sound supplied by 3.5mm ports form the vanguard. Bringing up the support line is a mini-DisplayPort, HDMI-out, VGA and the optical drive.

Most impressive, though, is the existence of HDMI-in. If you'd prefer not to have to buy a big TV to plug your PlayStation into, Alienware's 17-inch and 18-inch models may give respite.

While there appears to be no noise reduction or filtering on interlaced scenes (failing all HQV tests), there is, at least, some post processing to reduce judder, with scenes 11 and 14 showing no judder whatsoever in vertical and horizontal panning.

Speakers had an admirable boom and an acceptable mid-end, but their highs lacked crispness.

Blinded by the light

The other Alienware thing, a mass array of lights, is certainly in force in the M17x. There are nine different zones, including three across the keyboard and two on the lip, that can have their colours changed. Some can have effects applied, such as smoothly transitioning from one colour to another, or pulsing. We'd much prefer a "breathing"-style pulse, though; as it stands, Alienware's implementation is just an annoying flash. Of course, if you're vexed by such displays of luminescence, you can just turn the whole thing off.

Crank it!

The M17x R3 made a mockery of our benchmark programs, with 3DMark06 returning a score of 18969, and PCMark05 spitting out an 11798. We feel completely comfortable in saying that anything you put on this thing is likely to run with the smoothness of melted butter.

Switching to Intel graphics, turning off all power-saving features, cranking screen brightness and volume to maximum and then playing back an XViD file netted us a respectable two hours and 42 minutes of battery life. Obviously, with less-intense tasks you'll get more time, and having the AMD card enabled will reduce the time.

The M17x is a glorious piece of kit, although we'd definitely opt for the Nvidia solution when customising to make the most of the switchable graphics. The sheer size of the thing means that it isn't for everyone, but for those who want outrageous gaming ability from their laptop, this is it.

Well, this, or the bigger M18x ...