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Alienware M17x review: Alienware M17x

Alienware M17x

Dan Ackerman

Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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7 min read

With a brand-new look and some of the highest-end tech available in a laptop, we're semi-surprised that Alienware has kept the M17x name for its newest 17-inch laptop (even if it loses the X-Files-esque "Area-51" moniker). While the system starts at a reasonable $1,799, you'll need to configure something closer to our $4,849 review unit to really get the benefit of Alienware's years of experience making high-end gaming PCs.


Alienware M17x

The Good

Subtle improvements to Alienware's dorm-room-chic design; amazingly fast and powerful; highly configurable.

The Bad

Good configs can get very expensive; no 16:9 display; garish lights don't scream "high end."

The Bottom Line

Alienware's new version of the M17x makes some welcome design tweaks and offers the best laptop gaming hardware you can get. Just be warned: it ain't cheap.

We appreciate the evolved design of the new M17x, which does away with some of the dorm-like qualities of past Alienware systems, making for a (slightly) more sophisticated-looking package. The somewhat goofy custom lighting system remains, but the automotive-inspired front-end grille and edge-to-edge glass on the display offset that.

With an Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9300, dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M GPUs, and 1TB of hard-drive space, this is about as powerful as laptops get without resorting to stuffing actual desktop parts in a chassis (as with the AVAdirect Clevo D900F). We often point to less expensive gaming laptops, such as the Asus W90 or the Gateway FX P-series as offering a better bang for your buck, but if you want the very best, and are willing to pay for it, dropping several Gs on the new Alienware M17x will make you the coolest nerd on your block.

We've always gotten down on Alienware for its dorm-room-chic design sensibilities, which seemed more like adolescent sci-fi fantasies than anything someone who could actually drop five grand on a laptop would be interested in. The previous M17x made a few steps in the right direction, de-emphasizing the brand's iconic glowing alien head design and offering a smart matte black finish.

This new version continues the march toward modern minimalist design, with fewer distracting flourishes on the keyboard tray, and a slick edge-to-edge glass overlay on the display. The front edge has also gotten an overhaul, with an angled automotive-inspired grille that helps the overall look from being too slablike. The anodized aluminum case feels heavy and substantial--but also means you won't be taking it on too many trips outside the house (unless you like lugging around almost 15 pounds of computer equipment).

Alienware's Fusion FX lighting and settings control system returns--even more over-the-top than ever. You can now set the color for the backlit keyboard in four separate zones, meaning you can create a rainbowlike design across the keys. The same software package also provides a fairly comprehensive power control suite, which offers more detailed options than the basic Windows Vista power settings, as well as security controls, including facial recognition log-in software.

The previous version's flush touch pad--previously demarcated only by a backlit outline--has been improved, with a very subtle texture, so your finger can more easily tell when it's actually on the touch pad (even if most gamers will plug in an external mouse).

The keyboard has a more traditional tapered key design, rather than the wider, flat keys many laptop makers are partial to these days. Alienware explains that for its core gamer audience, the traditional keys provide more space between the individual letters, which is better for first-person shooters, which make heavy use of the WASD keys. There's also a strip of touch-sensitive controls above the keyboard (also with an adjustable backlit color), but their response was a little slow for us, and there was a confusing lack of onscreen confirmation for some of the commands.

The 17.1-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is what we'd expect from a high-end 17-inch laptop (less expensive desktop replacements can have 1,440x900 displays). The screen looks crisp and bright, and the edge-to-edge glass overlay adds a seamless feel, but it is subject to glare from light sources. We also wouldn't mind seeing Alienware embrace the trend toward 16:9 displays.

No shortage of ports and connections here, including a rarely seen mini-Firewire port and three separate video output options, including DisplayPort. Multiple audio-outs mean you can easily hook up a set of big PC speakers, which is a plus for high-intensity gaming.

While our review unit was configured with nearly every high-end option available and cost almost $5,000, the M17x actually starts at a much more reasonable $1,799. The specs for that system are somewhat less impressive, with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600, a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M GPU, 4GB of RAM, a 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive, a DVD burner, and a lower-resolution 1,440x900 screen.

In contrast, we had a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9300, along with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and dual Nvidia GeForce GTX280M graphics card, which moves the M17x to the top of our laptop performance list. One laptop we recently reviewed used a desktop PC 3.33GHz Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Quad Core processor, and was technically faster--but putting desktop parts in a laptop chassis is an entirely different animal. The quad-core Extreme-edition CPU helped in our multitasking tests, but the real-world difference between this and the non-Extreme Core 2 Quad Q9000 found in other high-end desktop replacements isn't enough to call it a must-have upgrade (especially for $750 more than the Q9000).

The real star here is the SLI configuration of Nvidia's GeForce GTX280M. With two of these powerful GPUs working together, we got 168 frames per second at 1,920x1,200 in Unreal Tournament 3, making this our gaming laptop performance leader by a wide margin. Anecdotally, we fired up F.E.A.R. 2 at 19x12 and set most of the graphics options to medium or high for a smooth, impressive experience. Of course, with very few high-profile PC games currently in development, there may not be that many titles that deserve this kind of high-end treatment (one exception may be Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins, one of the few buzz-worthy upcoming games that's being developed for the PC and ported to consoles, rather than the other way around).

Nvidia's GeForce GPUs also include the company's CUDA technology, which lets the GPUs provide extra processing power to certain nongaming tasks, such as video rendering. Keep in mind that you'll have to use CUDA-compatible software, such as CyberLink PowerDirector 7.

Juice box
Alienware M17x  
Off (watts) 0.98
Sleep (watts) 1.24
Idle (watts) 46.13
Load (watts) 166.95
Raw (annual kWh) 286.22
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $32.49

The Alienware M17x ran for 1 hour and 15 minutes on our video playback battery drain test--not that we expected much more from a huge desktop replacement. It's also one of the most power-hungry laptops we've tested, so be sure to turn it off or put it to sleep when not in use.

Alienware includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system, which also includes in-home service. Upgrading to a three-year plan will cost an extra $299, and several other options are available for purchase, including "Tech Team" coverage for all your Dell products, and "Complete Care" coverage for accidental damage. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base and driver downloads, and Alienware will include a full factory restore image DVD for $49.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

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

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1280x800, 0X AA, 0X AF*  
1440x900, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
1920x1200, 4X AA, 8X AF  
Alienware M17x
Gateway P-7808u
Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q725

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

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Alienware M17x
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9300; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; (2) 512MB SLI Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M; (2) 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

AVAdirect Clevo D900F
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.33GHz Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Quad Core; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M; HDD #1: 30GB, OCZ Vertex SSD / HDD #2: 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Gateway P-7808u
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9000; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTS; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus W90VP-X1
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600; 6GB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Dual ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4870 X2; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

MSI GT725-212US
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9000; 4GB DDR2 SDRAM 1066MHz; 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4850; 320GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q725
Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9000; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 667MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTX; HDD #1: 64GB Toshiba SSD / HDD #2: 320GB Hitachi 7,200rpm


Alienware M17x

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9Battery 5Support 7
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