Alienware M17 - Is this the ultimate gaming notebook?

For a few weeks over the holiday and New Year period I had the opportunity of spending a fair bit of hands on time with Alienware's mobile gaming apotheosis - the 17-inch M17. Does the M17 live up to the hype?

For a few weeks over the holiday and New Year period I had the opportunity of spending a fair bit of hands on time with Alienware's mobile gaming apotheosis - the 17-inch M17. Does the M17 live up to the hype?

The notebook

I won't bore you with the unboxing and jump straight to the point where you've ripped off the plastic bag and the screen protector and end up with matte black 9.5lb notebook on your lap. Once at this point I was stuck by several things simultaneously:

  • A 9.5lb notebook is a massive bit of kit.
  • The 1.7" thick just adds to the feeling of the M17 being massive.
  • The rubbery tactile nature of the case feels like it might take a long time to get used to, but it doesn't. This finish, called "soft-touch" and it is designed to be impervious to fingerprints and resist minor scratches. My tests seem to show that it's quite effective at both.
  • The charging block really is a brick - I didn't weigh that thing but it must have come it at around 3lb.
  • On first opening the notebook you are presented by what feels like acres of keyboard and screen.

In the subject of the screen, I have to say that once the system is fired up that 17" widescreen WUXGA 1920 x 1200 with Clearview really does look a beauty. It's the kind of screen that you can happily sit in front of for hours and over the time I had the notebook there wasn't a time when I saw fault with it. To achieve a great gaming experience, especially action games, you need a screen that can cope with both light and dark. The screen on the Alienware does just that.

Note: I make a point of being honest in all reviews so I do have to criticism Alienware's choice of default background wallpaper. Not because of asthetics but because it seemed to have a couple of random blue dots on it that made the screen look like it had a couple of stuck pixels. The screen was perfect, but if you've payed thousands for a notebook, your heart can do without that kind of scare!

Did the old Skullcap lid design put you off getting an Alienware notebook? If it did then you'll be pleased to know that you can now choose a plainer Ripley design. Which you choose depends on your tastes.

 

Then there's the keyboard. Regular readers will know how much I love keys that are back-lit, so the Alienware's brilliantly lit full-size keyboard with separate numeric keypad is an instant winner. There are three colors to choose from - Fusion Red, Astral Blue and Terra Green. Oh, and the keyboard is also nice to type on, which is a bonus!

The there's they trackpad. At first I didn't like this because it was also coated in that rubbery "soft-touch" stuff. At first the finish seemed to offer too much friction and made the trackpad difficult to use. I'm not sure if finger oils overcame the friction or whether the rubbery surface was smoothed out, but the trackpad soon felt fine.

Other external goodies that a worth a few words are the webcam and microphone array, speakers and the fingerprint reader. The 2.0 megapixel webcam is a of acceptable quality (the better the light, the better the image) and incorporates a vertical tilt feature. The sound output from the speakers is immersive and broad enough to accommodate a broad range of gaming (and the volume can be controlled both from Windows and using a small wheel on the right-hand side of the system), while the microphone array offers good multi-directional pickup. The fingerprint reader is nothing new on a notebook but it's a nice addition.

You also get three USB 2.0 ports, a 7-in-1 card reader, a single FireWire port, HDMI, digital optical, and an eSATA port that also doubles as a fourth USB port. On the front is a dual-layer DVD drive, which is unfortunate because it's easy to accidentally eject the tray.

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The software

The M17 runs on 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium to allow it to make full use of the 4GB of fast DDR3 RAM.

On top of this Alienware have loaded a few custom applications that power the facial recognition log-in system and power/performance/trackpad management settings. The AlienSense facial recognition scheme was better than I expected but a pain to use in low-light. The software also seemed to kick in when a UAC prompt was fired up by Windows but wouldn't allow me to use my face instead of a password. All in all, AlienSense comes across as gimmicky. The power/performance management software didn't seem to add anything above what's already on offer by Windows.

Also installed was Nero 7 disc burning suite, PowerDVD player and Acrobat Reader.

Battery

Since the M17 is a gaming notebook you really shouldn't expect to be able to wander too far away from a power outlet. In fact, you can think of the system more like a desktop PC running on UPS power. If you're just surfing the web over WiFi expect a fully-charged batter to give you about 100 minutes of usage. Fire up your favorite game and the battery life drains away much faster.

And remember, if you are on the move, not only do you need to carry around a 9.5lb notebook, you also need the 3lb charging brink too!

Cooling

A quad-core processor and fast GPU takes a lot of cooling. While it is possible to run the M17 on your lap and still be able to have kids, I'm not sure I'd want to do it for long. People sitting next to you and in front of you are also treated to a continual wave of hot exhaust air.

The M17's cooling system feels like it's having to work overtime, and while the fans aren't crazy loud, you're always aware of their presence.

Gaming performance

The M17 is fast ... really fast. My review system came equipped with a Core 2 Extreme Q9300 running at 2.53GHz and this could manage to get a 3DMark06 score of 12,783.

When it comes to gaming, you can expect great performance as long as you're not hoping for desktop-like performance. Games such as Crysis: Warhead and Far Cry 2 will run great on the M17 and deliver 30+ framers per second as long as you're happy with graphics set to medium level. DirectX 10 performance was also good, with Call Of Juarez managing a very respectable average frame rate of 32.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Excellent performance from a notebook.
  • Large screen and keyboard.
  • Plenty of power to run high-end apps.
  • Stylish design (OK, some like it, some don't).

Cons:

  • Cost!
  • Performance not on par with desktop system.
  • Weight - Notebook and charger brick comes in at 12.5lb! 
  • Heat.
  • Poor battery life.

Final verdict

With the Alienware M17 starting at $1,399 and going as high as $4,780 with all the extras (excluding games and additional warranties) you expect a lot of performance. And you get it, in spades with the M17 offering . Not only is the M17 a great gaming rig but it's also a great way to run system-intensive applications such as Adobe's Creative Suite and VMWare workstation when on the move.

All in all, the M17 is an excellent system, and one that I was sad to have to send back to Alienware!

So, to answer the question I posted earlier - does the M17 live up to the hype? Yes! Yes it does!

Check out the Alienware M17 online.

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