When I took this notebook home for a weekend of gaming reviewing, my housemate, who is a bit of a nay-sayer when it comes to notebook gaming, stared at the Alienware, mouth agape.
Amongst the stuttering I managed to make out phrases like “this is going to be amazing”, “you have to let me try it” and “look how sexy it is”.
This shocked me for two reasons. The first was that I hadn’t mentioned a single spec the laptop boasted. The second was that when I revealed the GX700 water-cooled beast we reviewed earlier this year to him, he dismissed it entirely, saying, “it’s going to be shit though, because its a laptop.”
To me his reaction to the Alienware notebook spoke to how powerful the brand’s marketing is and how it has comfortably established itself as the go-to brand for the not-so well informed gamer who wants performance, sleek looks and isn’t afraid of spending a lot of money.
That last part is the most important because the Alienware 17 falls one rand short of R50 000. Sadly while the 17 is a good notebook, its out-shined by newer technology.
Alienware 17 R3 review: So what does R49 999 get you then?
On compute duties there is a quad-core 6th-generation Intel Core i7-6700HQ running at 2.6GHz though when its needed it can ramp that speed up to 3.4GHz. This is paired with 32GB of RAM which is more than adequate for gaming and decent for heavier applications such as video editing and photo manipulation.
The RAM is of the super speedy DDR4 variety running at 2200MHz.
Perhaps the biggest let down in this notebook is its GPU.
The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M contained within is not terrible. It has a clock speed of 1038MHz with the 8GB GDDR5 clocking in at a substantial 1253MHz, as I said, not terrible.
The trouble this GPU has however, is that Alienware is begging it to drive a UHD display. That is honestly what it feels like when you are doing anything other than browsing Facebook or running the lightest of application, begging it to run.
This UHD display is an option in the Alienware 17 and we wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, opt for the configuration with a 1080p display and you’ll have smooth (though not as crisp as UHD) graphics that run well.
Alienware 17 R3 review: Gaming at UHD is disappointing
While the Alienware 17 is able to run games at UHD resolutions it does this at the expense of settings. For instance, Rise of the Tomb Raider will run at ultra settings at a Full HD resolution but, crank that knob up to UHD and you see your consistent 60fps, drop down to 20-30fps.
Games are playable, but not as smooth as they are at Full HD.
While running games at that resolution there is a large amount of heat being kicked out of the keyboard and the exhausts at the bottom and back of the keyboard. After sessions more than an hour long at UHD settings the machine become unbearably hot. You can – of course – use the many ports to plug your own peripherals in should the heat be too much to handle.
This is easily countered however if you run games at high settings at 1080p, the heat still comes through but it’s not so hot you’ll sweat away your daily intake of water.
What is nice is that the Alienware 17 is able to run anything you throw at it competently. We tried out Hitman Absolution, Rise of the Tomb Raider and DOOM all of which hit 60fps at Ultra settings at Full HD resolution. At high settings on UHD resolution you can expect to hit between the 30 – 40fps mark.
Sure the UHD performance isn’t spectacular but you can play games at the monsterous resolution if you aren’t as much of a stickler for frame rates as I am.
All of that having been said, if you scale down the resolution to 1080p or even 1440p, your games will run at Ultra settings at a consistent 60fps.
To exemplify just how much of a difference there is between the NVIDIA GTX 1070 and the NVIDIA GTX 980M inside the Alienware take a look at Deon’s review of the Gigabyte P35X V6. In that review my colleague actually complains that he didn’t get a UHD display in that notebook. The point he makes is that the GTX 1070 is more than capable of running such a display.
Hell, this notebook fell short of the Fire Strike scores that Deon was scoring during his benchmark runs by almost 4 000 points. Worse still the Gigabyte is R13k cheaper than this beast.
Alienware 17 R3 review: Heavy metal
So, newer gear kicks the 17 up and down the street but as my housemate proved, this notebook is ridiculously pretty.
The keyboard is fully RGB backlit with almost no light bleeding from the keys and the track pad can also be illuminated in a colour of your choice.
The keyboard itself is large and the keys have a satisfying tactile feel. Travel could be a little more give the thickness of the chassis but its a minor complaint that is a matter of personal preference. The track pad is exceptionally smooth and the buttons are very responsive.
We can’t fault Alienware on its workmanship here, the 17 is beautifully designed and finished. It is however, quite bulky weighing in at 3.78kg. It’s also 34.4mm thick with the lid closed.
The RGB lighting extends to the lid and the speakers that flank the front left and front right of the 17 are also lit by the diodes.
The battery life is just as incredible. We managed to get six and a half hours from the notebook just doing basic tasks such as word editing, a bit of light photo manipulation and web browsing.
As to gaming on battery with this beast: it’s doable at 30fps but don’t expect to play for very long. I was able to run Dota 2, at UHD resolutions, on Ultra settings for just under an hour and a half before I was hit with a battery level warning. Not bad honestly.
Juicing the battery back up took just under three hours.
Alienware 17 R3 review: Life in the fast lane
The UHD display contained in the lid is spectacular, images look smooth and crisp. If there is backlight bleed its extremely minimal as I didn’t notice any. The lid is secured by magnets and stays closed even if its stored vertically in your back pack. Nice play Alienware.
As I’ve already said though, despite its beauty, a 1080p display would be a wiser choice here.
For storage our particular configuration housed a 512GB SSD as well as a hulking 1TB HDD. Performance from these parts is decent and as you would be expect them to be, if you aren’t sure what to expect, take a look down below.
|Seq Q32T1||1731 MB/s||592.8 MB/s|
|4K Q32T1||497.7 MB/s||428.5 MB/s|
|Sequential||1308 MB/s||321.15 MB/s|
|4K||37.97 MB/s||162.1 MB/s|
|Seq Q32T1||136.9 MB/s||137.5 MB/s|
|4K Q32T1||0.957 MB/s||1.69 MB/s|
|Sequential||136.7 MB/s||138.2 MB/s|
|4K||0.586 MB/s||1.602 MB/s|
As far as connecting to the internet goes, the Killer Wireless 802.11ac 5GHz adapter inside is fantastic. Latency is good, speed is fantastic and the experience is great.
|Same room||5m away||10m away|
The important thing to note is that the difference between the same room and a 5m distance is neglible, it’s only once you need to start punching through multiple walls that you’ll notice a substantial drop in speed. It’s a damn good chip inside there.
For those that prefer the stability of a wired connection, the Alienware does house a Gigabit enabled Killer Ethernet port as well.
Alienware 17 R3: Conclusion
There is very little wrong with the Alienware, its specs are good, the display is gorgeous and the build quality fantastic. The only let down in this entire notebook is its piddly graphics card.
Sure, back when it was released, a GTX 980M was the cream that rose to the top of the mobile GPU market, but today its put to shame by the its newer brothers, the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080.
It’s a shame really because had we received this notebook to review a few months back (i.e. before NVIDIA launched the 10-series) it would have likely scored quite high. Alas, we have it now and with what is currently on the market, we can’t recommend a notebook this expensive when you have the option of a better graphics card in cheaper notebooks.
If you really want this notebook, we recommend looking at the version with the 1080p display. This version however, we can’t recommend, especially if you’re looking for a viable, portable way to play games at UHD resolutions.