With new living-room game consoles from Sony and Microsoft hitting stores, it would be easy to ignore the PC side of the video game biz. And yet this year has given us more, and better, gaming laptops than we've seen in a long time.
The first round consisted of smaller, more portable systems, such as the Origin PC EON13-S, Maingear Pulse 14, and Alienware 14. More recently, we've reviewed 17-inch and 18-inch models from Alienware, with the Alienware 18 as the new gold standard, featuring a very high-end Intel Core i7 CPU and dual Nvidia graphics cards, plus plenty of solid-state drive (SSD) storage.
That Alienware 18 configuration cost around $4,200, and was unmatched -- until we tested the latest version of Origin PC's EON17-SLX. It's essentially similar to the Alienware 18, with a few minor spec and component swaps that largely even out in the end. The configuration we tested cost roughly the same at $4,449, although the system starts at $1,916.
With the Alienware 18, you get a larger, 18-inch screen, while the EON17-SLX has a 17-inch screen, both at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. Both have dual Nvidia GeForce 780M graphics cards, a rare feature even in a high-end gaming laptop, but our Origin has a faster CPU, the Core i7-4930MX. The last major difference is that the Alienware came with a whopping 32GB of RAM, although the 16GB in the EON17-SLX seems perfectly adequate.
At this end of the gaming laptop spectrum, the decision is often between a big brand such as Dell's Alienware, or something from a boutique PC maker such as Origin PC or Maingear. 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.
You'll be able to play new games, such as Battlefield 4, cranked up to "ultra" settings at 1080p resolution on both dual-video-card systems. After using both, I liked the feel of the keyboard and the overall physical design of the Alienware 18 better, but if I needed critical support for my $4,000-plus investment, I'd rather have the very hands-on Origin PC team on the other end of the phone.
|Origin EON17-SLX||Alienware 17||Alienware 18|
|Display size/resolution||17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||18-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen|
|PC CPU||3GHz Intel Core i7-4930MX||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ||2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ|
|PC memory||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||32GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M||(2) 2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M|
|Storage||(2) 120GB SSD + 750GB||256GB SSD + 750GB HD||512GB SSD + 750GB HD|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)||Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit)|
Design and features
Smaller gaming laptops, including recent 13-inch and 14-inch models from Alienware, Razer, and others, are getting slimmer, sleeker, and lighter. Big-screen desktop replacement models, on the other hand, show no sign of shrinking down much, or even making any real concessions to laptop design trends from the past few years.
The EON17-SLX is an easy example. It looks as if it could have been found on any serious gamer's desktop any time over the past half-decade or so. The boxy black chassis lacks the clean, seamless lines so many laptops strive for today. That's because this is essentially an off-the-shelf laptop case of the type that boutique PC makers such as Origin PC buy and then fill with custom components.
To give credit, each successive generation of Origin system I've seen takes a step forward in terms of tweaking the design, adding a custom A-panel (the back of the lid), new interior lights, and this time, a backlit touch-pad surface with a swirling Origin PC logo.
But you're still stuck with a thick, angular machine that doesn't feel as if it had been designed from the ground up for gamers. The not-quite-island-style keyboard looks largely the same as the one found on the last 17-inch Origin PC laptop we reviewed, in December 2012. The key faces are widely spaced, but the base of each key is wider and nearly touches its neighbor. This new version flexes less under the fingers than last year's, and the Windows key is now back in its proper spot to the left of the spacebar (last year it was on the right). Alienware's soft-touch keyboard feels better, but this is still very usable, and has a bright backlight for nighttime gaming.
The buttonless clickpad is large, and the backlit logo is a nice visual touch that gives the system a bit more of a custom feel. For basic online and system navigation it works fine, but when gaming you'll be using an external mouse or a gamepad, so it makes sense that gaming-laptop touch pads are not the most exciting parts of these systems.
The display, however, is one of the most important components. The 17.3-inch screen here has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is the standard for multimedia and gaming PCs (even as some more-ambitious 13-inch laptops experiment with even higher resolutions).
The display has a matte finish, a feature we're pleased to see popping up more frequently this year, and includes a 45-day "no dead pixel" guarantee, allowing you to get a repair or replacement for any dead pixels, which is exactly the type of expanded coverage more mainstream vendors don't offer. Games look great, especially without the excessive screen glare, and off-axis viewing angles are excellent.
Audio from the branded Onkyo speakers is loud enough, and works for basic gaming or video playback, but you'll still want headphones or external speakers for a truly immersive experience.
|Ports and connections||Origin PC EON17-SLX|
|Video||HDMI and DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone/line-in/line-out jacks|
|Data||4 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0/eSATA, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||BD-ROM/DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery
With all the real estate on the sides and back of the massive EON17-SLX, it's fair to expect a robust series of ports and connections, making use of both sides and the rear panel. I'm pleased to find five total USB ports, four of them USB 3.0 and one a USB 2.0/eSATA combo. The eSATA standard for connecting external drives has been eclipsed by both USB 3.0 and the newer Thunderbolt, but you get both of those here as well, and the Thunderbolt port doubles as a Mini DisplayPort output.
The system also includes a basic fingerprint reader along the right side of the wrist rest, but it feels like something built into the generic off-the-shelf chassis, and is certainly not nearly as modern-feeling as the fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5S or the facial-recognition log-in features on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Speaking of the new next-gen game consoles, a high-end gaming PC such as this is a pointed counterargument to the very idea of "next-gen" consoles, as the EON17-SLX is already far more powerful than the PS4 or Xbox One in terms of being able to push high-detail, high-resolution images at high frame rates. Some games, such as Battlefield 4, simply look their best on a powerful gaming PC. Others, such as Skyrim or XCOM: Enemy Unknown, either offer a more in-depth experience or better controls on the PC platform. With a half-decade or more between console hardware upgrades, investing in top-of-the-line CPU/GPU hardware feels more future-proof in some ways.
But, we should also be realistic. I'm comparing $400-$500 living room consoles with a $4,000-plus gaming laptop. For sheer value, the next-gen consoles represent a great opportunity for game fans.
Still, it's hard to resist the combination of two GeForce 780M graphics cards in an SLI configuration, along with the high-end Intel Core i7-4930MX processor, a step up from the Core i7-4900MQ in our Alienware 18 review unit. It won't surprise you that this beat recent Alienware and Toshiba gaming laptops in most (but not all) of our benchmark tests, even if the margin was small. At this level of performance, mainstream applications, even heavily multitasked, are no problem.
It's the gaming performance that we're really interested in. The EON17-SLX 17, as configured, ran our BioShock Infinite test (high settings, 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution) at 117 frames per second. The Alienware 18, with dual GPUs, ran the same test at 141 frames per second (and a single-GPU Alienware 17 got 71fps in this test). The very challenging Metro: Last Light test flipped the results, giving the EON17-SLX the top score of 41.7fps, with 35.3 for the SLI Alienware 18 and 18.7fps for the single-GPU Alienware 17. Anecdotally, Battlefield 4 ran at Ultra settings at full 1080p resolution with no problem.
The larger takeaway is, configure two of Nvidia's current top-end graphics card into any big, bulky gaming laptop and you're going to get amazing performance.
There is a price to pay for all that power, and it's shorter battery life. No one expects these monster laptops to run for very long away from an outlet, and true to form, the Origin ran for just 2 hours and 18 minutes, about evenly matched with the Alienware 18 and shorter, by a matter of hours, than several single-GPU gaming laptops we've tested.
With the excellent current high-end parts available from Intel and Nvidia, and something of a PC gaming renaissance going on right now, it's great time to be a PC gamer. Systems such as the Origin PC EON17-SLX, with powerful processors and battery-draining dual video cards, are a major investment, but they offer an experience beyond the game console. Keep in mind that there's a major living-room thrust coming from Steam, the PC game distributor, and systems such as this may become much more common in powering big-screen 10-foot experiences next year.
Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.
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 LiteOn-IT SSD, HDD No. 2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital
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
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
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 3GHz Intel Core i7-4930MX; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz;(2) 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M; (2) 120GB SSD RAID 0 750GB 7,200rpm WD hard drive