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Alienware 18 review: big, heavy and outrageously expensive gaming laptop

Alienware is planning an update for its 17-inch gaming laptop that includes the new nVidia GeForce 800M series graphics cards. But even 2014's latest graphics processor is unlikely to match the sheer 3D gaming performance of the dual GPUs housed within this 18-inch screened behemoth. See also: what's the best laptop 2014?

There aren't many companies that still make laptops of this size, so the 18.4-inch display alone makes the Alienware 18 stand out from the crowd. It's a real dazzler too – the resolution is only 1920 x 1080 pixels, although at this price you could certainly argue that it ought to match the 2880 x 1800 resolution of the Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina display.

However, 1920 x 1080 is good for games, and watching high-defintion films with the built-in Blu-ray drive. The overall image quality is excellent. Dell unhelpfully states that it's a WLED display – white light emitting diode, like all displays now – rather than listing what screen technology it uses. Even so, the image is bright, sharp and colourful, with viewing angles that just won't quit.

Gamers are unlikely to complain about any lack of touch-controls, but we were a little disappointed to see that the screen has a glossy coating that throws off glare and reflection in broad daylight. Contrast this with the Alienware 17, which has a decent glare-reducing matte finish. Perhaps Alienware assumes that you'll spend all your gaming time in a darkened room and have your meals biked in from the local pizza parlour.

Of course, the disadvantage of such a large screen is that the Alienware 18 is unavoidable very big – but it's also very heavy. It measures a full 57.5 mm thick when folded flat – that's three Ultrabooks piled on top of each other – and weighs in at a whopping 5.5 kg. Needless to say, you won't be slipping this one into your backpack for a quick trip to your local coffee shop.

Mind you, one advantage of that size and weight is that the built-in speakers actually manage to pack a decent bass punch, which works really well for blowing stuff up in games or just listening to some music between fragging sessions.

The keyboard is roomy and comfortable, and firm enough to take a pounding in the heat of battle. Like most laptops with 16:9 widescreen displays, it also has room for a full-size numeric keypad as well as an additional set of macro keys located on the far-left of the keyboard.

The trackpad is rather small, given the amount of space available – just 100 x 55mm – but most people will plug in a mouse when they're playing games so that's not a real problem.

There are also four USB 3.0 ports available, so you've got plenty of scope for plugging in a mouse and other peripherals. It includes gigabit ethernet to minimize lag during your gaming sessions, and both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort interfaces in case you need an even larger screen.

But, of course, it all boils down to performance. There are three standard configurations available for the Alienware 18, starting at £2000 with an Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor.

We tested one of the mid-range models that includes a quad-core Core i7-4800MQ running at 2.7 GHz with 16 GB memory, 1TB hard drive and 256 GB solid-state boot drive. That configuration would normally cost £2650 with dual AMD Radeon M290X graphics cards, but our review unit was further customised with instead a pair of nVidia GeForce GTX 780M cards with 4 GB of video memory. That took the price right to £3080.

That may be too expensive for most people, but well-heeled gamers won't be disappointed with the results. A score of 6100 points when running the general-purpose PCMark 7 is impressive – but irrelevant since that particular test doesn't really benefit from the dual-GPU set-up.

The Alienware 18 did feel fast in general use, though, and the solid-state drive allowed it to boot in just 10 seconds when using the Windows 8 'fast-start' (restore from hibernation) option. In us, Windows programs would launch on screen almost instantly.

When it comes to gaming, the Alienware 18 breezed to 202 fps in our Stalker test at 1920 x 1080 resolution – compared to 23 fps for the integrated HD 4600 on the laptop's Core i7 processor.

We then switched to the more demanding Batman: Arkham City. That game's auto-detect default settings ran it at 1600 x 900 with DirectX 11 and all graphics options set to 'High', where it produced an average framerate score of 62 fps.

Then we turned the resolution up to native 1920 x 1080, and set every single graphics option to maximum – including 32x anti-aliasing – and the Alienware 18 still managed a full 53 fps. Not only is that the best 3D performance we've ever seen for this game, but those high settings added a vivid clarity to the game's graphics that we'd never really appreciated before.

The dual-GPU set up kills batteries, though. In fact, the Alienware 18 didn't even last long enough to install Batman from its two DVDs when on battery power alone. However, switching to the integrated Intel HD 4600 did allow us to get exactly 4 hours of streaming video from the Alienware 18. So at least there's some decent battery life available if you just want to carry the laptop around the house for web browsing or watching films.


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