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Alienware 15 R3 Review

PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • From $1225
Gaming laptop brands don’t get much bigger than Alienware. If you want a computer from a name like this, you know you’re going to have to pay for it.


However, when a laptop is much more than a box of 'standard' parts like a desktop PC, paying the extra can be worthwhile. The Alienware 15 R3 is an excellent gaming laptop, with more class than an Asus ROG. It’s also a true showcase of what Nvidia’s latestp graphics cards can do.

The '15' refers to screen size, and there are 13in and 17in models to choose between if you prefer.

There are three problems with the model we tested, so let's get these out of the way before we get to the good stuff. First, the fans are loud and pre-emptive. Second, the price is a little high and third, display contrast could be greater. Oh, and like most high-end gaming laptops it’s very heavy. But it’s also great, and you'll want one. Read on to find out why.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
To think of the Alienware 15 R3 as one laptop is to mis-represent it. This is really a family of laptops that caters for everything from the mid range buyer to those after all but the very top-most gaming laptops in the world.

It misses out on the top slot as there’s no current Alienware 15 R3 that uses the GTX 1080 GPU.

The model we’re reviewing has the next best thing, though: a GTX 1070, backed by a high-end Intel Core i7 CPU and 16GB RAM. It costs £1849 from Dell. If you're in the US, it's $2209 from Dell at the time of writing.

There are eight versions of the 2017 Alienware 15, though. They start with a £1349 model ($1225 in the US)  which has a Core i5 CPU and GTX 1050 Ti GPU. Each base model is highly customisable.

All versions are covered by a one-year onsite warranty. This can be extended, but it’s not cheap. A 4-year warranty will cost you £973. Frankly, that is mad.
If even £1349 is too rich for you.

DESIGN
A lot of laptops are made using aluminium these days. Acer and Asus have brought the entry price for one of these fancy model to £500-600 in recent years. However, the Alienware is one of the only gaming laptops to make extensive use of metal. Even top-end models costing £2500 tend to use high-quality plastic rather than metal.

The Alienware 15’s shell is a mix of aluminium and magnesium on the outside, although the keyboard surround is still soft-touch plastic. Build quality is excellent.

The look hasn’t changed all that much from Alienware’s norm, with familiar lines and sharp angles, but there’s a sense Alienware is trying to make the Alienware 15 R3 seem a little more grown-up than its rivals. Laptops with giant glowing insignia have never done the argument that games aren’t just for kids any favours.

The look is less aggressive than most, without stripping out the gamer gloss entirely. LEDs are the key. Light-up strips border the sides of the lid and base, and sit under both the keyboard and trackpad. A preinstalled Alienware app lets you choose the colour of each. The keyboard also has three LED zones, each able to display a different colour.
With these on the Alienware 15 R3 looks like a party machine. Turn the lot off and the Alienware could almost pass for a high-end workstation rather than the sort of machine a competitive gamer might use. Aside from the ‘alien head’ Alienware logo on the back, anyway.

Don’t take this as a sign the Alienware 15 R3 is meant to be used for trips out to Starbucks, though. It’s not that thick (25.4mm) but is heavy, at 3.49kg. This kind of laptop is great for students who want to be able to carry their gaming setup between university/college and home, or those who might end up working away from home for long stints. Insert you own comparable situation here.

Ports and Connections
The Alienware 15 R3 is big. It's nothing like the Dell XPS 15, but it also makes great use of the space. Instead of just filling the back with a giant fan outlet, there is a slew of connections along the rear, complementing the basic array on the sides.

You get two USB 3.0 ports and a USB-C on the left/right sides, and mini DisplayPort, HDMI 2.0 and Thunderbolt (USB-C) ports on the back. There’s also an Ethernet socket and a special connector to let you hook up to an Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

This is a box that holds a desktop graphics card, which might be a sensible idea if you buy an Alienware 15 R3 with a lower-end graphics card and later want to add more graphical grunt. The box itself costs £254 though.

There are a few obvious omissions in the Alienware 15 R3 hardware. Optical drives are left out, which seems acceptable at this point, but we’re baffled by the lack of memory card slot. Some may not mind, but it’d put us off using this as a day-to-day workstation.

Display
One of the slightly odd, but explicable, elements of high-end gaming laptops is that the majority of them continue to use 1080p displays while often much cheaper, smaller style models have ultra-high res displays. The Alienware 15 R3 has a 15.6in 1080p anti-glare LCD screen. It’s a non-touch display that looks good in person, but is actually something of a middle-weight in terms of pure quality.

It’s a not an ultra-wide colour gamut display, covering a satisfying but not sensational 86.7% of sRGB, 63.4 percent of Adobe RGB and 68.6 percent of DCI P3. This is enough for the screen not to appear obviously undersaturated, but, no great surprise, clearly signals it’s not meant for photography, video or design pros.

Dell’s top-end XPS 15 with 4K screen is a much more capable panel, with far deeper colour as well as a much sharper picture.  

The other limited stat you might notice is the Alienware 15’s limited contrast. 600:1 is not great for a laptop as expensive as this. We’d like to see a ratio much closer to 1000:1. A much lower score means raised (grey-ish) blacks will become apparent if you like to play in a dark or dimly-lit room.

The Alienware 15’s brightness great, though. We recorded 429cd/m2. That’s bright enough to use outdoors. Again: you probably don’t want to use a laptop this heavy and chunky out in the park.

There is an explanation for both the limited contrast and high brightness, though. Alienware offers IPS LCD and an advanced 120Hz TN panel with (for TN) wide viewing angles. Our model uses the TN version. While often considered a dated tech, it’s a £200 upgrade if you pick a starting config with the IPS panel.

The benefit of TN is very fast response times, a great win for competitive gamers. However, those who play for pure enjoyment may be better off with the IPS version. It will have better viewing angles, and possibly better contrast too.

The screen tits back 180 degrees, and pushing it back a good way shows there’s still some contrast shift in the TN version. It is less apparent than virtually any other TN laptop screen we’ve seen to date, though. 

Making the ultimate gaming laptop doesn’t mean maxing-out every component, not when you want normal people to be able to buy the thing. The screen does have G-Sync, though. This is Nvidia’s hardware alternative to V-sync, synchronising the display refresh with frame rendering to avoid screen tearing.

There’s also a sensor above the screen that stops the display going off while you’re reading something. Some will find it annoying, though, as it uses a blinking red IR light above the screen.

Keyboard and trackpad
Like previous Alienware 15 R3 generations, the keyboard and trackpad are excellent. The keys are much deeper and chunkier than normal laptop keys, with some of the key-feel character of the mechanical keyboard some gaming nuts swear by.

As mentioned earlier, there’s a 3-zone keyboard backlight that can be customised using an app. There’s an air of indulgent silliness to this kind of backlight, but it does let you just light-up the WSAD key area if that’s all you’ll need.

To the left of the normal keyboard layout, the Alienware 15 R3 has a series of five macro buttons. These can be programmed to perform whatever series of presses you like, and can double up as app shortcuts when you’re not gaming.

Below the keyboard, the trackpad looks fairly small by the standards of today’s style laptops, but is perfect for gaming. The buttons are separated, sitting below the pad, and have a much deeper, softer click feel. It makes quick presses easier and more comfortable. The pad itself has an excellent textured surface too, and feels great to glide your finger across.

PERFORMANCE
The first priority for a laptop in this category is, of course, gaming performance. Alienware 15 R3 specs start with an Intel Core i5 CPU and Nvidia GTX 1050Ti GPU but we were sent a higher-end model with an Intel Core i7-7700HQ and Nvidia GTX1070 with 8GB RAM.

There is a still higher-end laptop GPU ou there, the GTX1080, but its use in laptops is relatively rare compared with lower-end versions. There’s no Alienware 15 R3 with one at present.

For playing on the laptop itself rather than an external 1440p or 4K display, the benefit would be minimal anyway.

Gaming performance of the GTX 1070 is fantastic, to the extent that we had to turn off the screen’s G-Sync feature to see its real potential. G-Sync caps the frame rate at 120fps. Thief runs at an average 93.8fps with all settings maxed at 1080p, creeping up to 107.8fps at 720p.

This is a fairly CPU-intensive benchmark, with usage at over 90%. Few games will cause this effect, but it’s proof of quite how powerful Nvidia’s latest laptop cards are.

Alien: Isolation puts less strain on the CPU and runs at 120fps at 1080p with all settings maxed, and 175fps at 720p. Anyone complaining the GTX 1070 isn’t really a top-end GPU is missing the point.

For today’s games, even the laptop version of the GTX 1070 isn’t really challenged at 1080p. There’s enough spare power to make this a good brain for a 1440p monitor setup, and some games will run very well at 4K.

The Alienware 15 R3 is a killer gaming laptop, among the most powerful you’ll find under £2000.

Alienware does focus on the CPU and GPU speed, though. The SSD in our model is fast, but not as fast as, for example, those used in MacBooks. It reads at a blistering 1610MB/s, but writes at a more conventional 422MB/s. There are many storage config options, though, if you want to upgrade.

Productivity performance is among the best we’ve seen from a laptop. It scores 4196 points in PC Mark 8 (Home test) and 13128 points in Geekbench 4. For all its gamer cred, the Alienware 15 R3 would also make a great laptop for video editing and other processor-intensive work.

Under pressure, the Alienware 15 R3 is loud, although it’s the largely inoffensive whoosh of a large diameter fan pair. It’s important not to block the underside, as a large part of it is taken up by a fan outlet. It appears to be a secondary one, though, with the main air intake on the sides and the main ‘exhaust’ on the back. 

In our testing, the Alienware 15 R3 seems to be a little louder and fan-use-happy than the top Asus RoG models. Laptops like the Asus RoG G753 dedicate the entire backside to the heat-dissipating cause, and it works better than this system. However, we didn’t experience any overheating and the heat doesn’t bleed onto the keyboard much.

Battery life
The serious power of the Alienware 15 R3 makes great battery life highly unlikely, although we did hold out some hope after the Dell XPS 15 (a sister laptop of sorts) proved itself surprisingly long-lasting despite using a powerful CPU. This laptop’s battery life is rather more conventional, though.

Playing a 720p video on loop with the screen brightness set to 120cd/m, the Alienware 15’s battery lasts three and a half hours. There is a version of the laptop with a much larger 99Wh battery if you need longer battery life.
While we have a lot of admiration for this laptop, we have to end on a slightly sour note as the Alienware 15’s speakers are pretty disappointing given its size.

They fire out from each side of the front, delivering a fairly narrow soundstage. Top volume isn’t impressive and the sound quality is pedestrian, lacking the power and bass of the best. Still, it isn't something we imagine will prove a deal-breaker since you’d be mad to spend £1899 on a gaming laptop and then make do with built-in speakers.

SPECS
  • 15.6-inch (1920 x 1080)TN WVA anti-glare
  • 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ (3.8GHz boost) 4 cores, 8 threads
  • Windows 10 Home 64-bit
  • Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU with 8GB RAM
  • 16GB 2400MHz DDR4 RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • 1TB HDD
  • 802.11b/g/n/ac single-band 2x2 MIMO
  • RJ-45 Killer Networks e2400 Gigabit Ethernet Port
  • 2x USB 2.0 port
  • USB-C 3.0 port
  • USB-C Thunderbolt 3 Port
  • Alienware Graphics Amplifier Port
  • HDMI 2.0
  • Mini-Display Port 1.2
  • Noble Security Slot
  • SDXC card slot
  • Stereo speakers
  • HD webcam Single mic
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • UK tiled keyboard with numberpad
  • Two-button trackpad
  • 68Wh lithium-ion battery, non-removable
  • 25.4 x 389mm x 305mm
  • 3490g
  • 1-year onsite warranty

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