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I tested Dell's $3,000 gaming laptop and it spoiled me with unconventional features

Dell's Alienware m18 R2 is a cutting-edge system that exudes power and presence. But it comes with some important considerations.
Written by Kyle Kucharski, Editor
Alienware m18 R2
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Alienware m18 R2 is a top-tier gaming laptop available now for a starting price of $1,899.
  • It has a commanding presence, is highly customizable, and is powerful enough to handle just about any game you want to play. 
  • This is a large, expensive laptop that requires plenty of juice, and when the fans are cranking, it can get quite loud.

Weighing nearly nine pounds and measuring 16 inches, Dell's Alienware m18 R2 is a beast. It's big, it's thick, and it probably won't fit in your laptop bag. It just feels powerful, and when you open it up, it looks like a high-end machine. Given its $1,899 price tag (with my review unit clocking in at closer to $3,000,) it definitely should.

Today's Alienware laptops are a little more grown-up than back in the day. They've left the lime green aesthetic from the 2010s where it belongs, and instead give consumers the option for more subdued exteriors and typical laptop colors. This is a laptop you could definitely take into the office (though it still might attract some looks) and, with the press of one button, can turn off all the RGB lighting -- like putting on a suit and tie.

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That being said, this is absolutely a gaming laptop. As the refresh of last year's m18 r1 model, the R2 is a powerful, top-of-the-line gamer's paradise stacked with a 14th-generation HX Intel 24-core 5.8 GHz max boost processor, high-end graphics capabilities, a sophisticated cooling system, and more ports than you'll know what to do with.

View at Dell

If you want to go crazy with the RGB lighting, the Alienware Command Center application lets you customize lighting however you like, key by key. There's also a host of settings and configurations that may or may not be useful to the average user, including operation profiles such as "Performance", "Battery", or "Quiet", as well as a clickable MUX switch. This is also where you can overclock your machine. 

Despite its colossal size, the m18 R2 is very comfortable to use. The touchpad is minimalistic and responsive, and just large enough. The rest of the texture on the keyboard is covered in matte black, which feels luxe and almost soft to the touch.

Also: The best gaming PCs you can buy: Expert tested rigs from Alienware, Lenovo, and more

Much like a desktop, the rear of the laptop is where most of the ports are on this laptop, including the power jack, an HDMI port, a full-sized memory card slot, and two Thunderbolt 4 ports. This part of the laptop also has a statement-making RGB light strip (if you have it turned on) that looks great.

Alienware m18 R2
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

The m18 R2 can come with either a traditional or mechanical keyboard, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on one with the Cherry MX mechanical. It feels exactly as satisfying as you'd expect, with each key getting the proper tactile "click" that feels the same no matter where on the key you press, and with a total key-travel distance of 1.8mm. This keyboard isn't exceptionally loud as mechanicals go, but they do make a little more noise than a regular keyboard.

The m18 R2's display is commanding. It feels sturdy -- monolithic, even -- and the V-rail edges at its base are framed by the keyboard's bottom plate in a way that makes it feel secure but also well-designed and characteristic.

Also: The best budget gaming laptops of 2024: Expert tested

The 16:10, 18-inch panel has options for 165Hz QHD+ or a blazing 480Hz FHD+ with low blue light technology. The screen is not the brightest out there, maxing out at 300 nits, but even at 165hz, it provides a very fast, crisp display completely free of blurring or motion artifacts.

During my testing, I fired up Helldivers 2, and it played like a dream. With the graphics turned up and with a maximum draw distance, it felt immersive and responsive, with minimal lag or stuttering. 

I did notice some slight performance changes when the laptop was plugged in or running on battery, particularly immediately after disconnecting the power adapter, as this seemed to trigger different actions such as disabling RGB lighting or the performance boost, depending on your settings.

Alienware m18 R2
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Speaking of battery power, this laptop, as expected, might not be winning any endurance marathons. This is a big machine with 270W total power performance, so it's going to work best when it's juiced up. That being said, it seems to be designed with this in mind. When left unplugged and idle, it quickly shuts down non-essentials like lighting and the display. In testing, I unplugged the machine and ran a live stream on YouTube at 50% brightness, and it lasted just short of six hours.

The m16 R2 comes with a host of preset multimedia functions bound to the F keys. For example, pressing F1 turns on the laptop's performance boost preset, while pressing F2 instantly turns off all the flashy RGB lighting by activating "Stealth Mode".

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Personally, I have mixed feelings when manufacturers add a host of new capabilities to the keyboard's function keys. Once you learn what they do, they can be convenient. But on the other hand, you have to actually take the time to figure this out, and then decide if you want to keep the presets as-is or customize them.

While I was testing the m18 R2, one of the games I tried was Guild Wars 2, a title that uses the function keys extensively for gameplay. With the function keys enabled and bound to the multimedia presets, pressing them in the game did nothing; it didn't activate the associated Alienware function (F1 to activate the performance boost, for example), nor was it recognized by the game. This was obviously a problem, as I had to look up how to toggle off the multimedia functionality. 

Alienware m18 R2
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

You can do this in the BIOS, but a much easier way is to just press the Function + Esc keys. With it toggled off, you then just press Function + F1 to activate the multimedia function. After they were toggled off, I had no further issues, but again, this comes down to personal preference.  

As a dedicated gaming machine, this laptop is well-equipped to stay cool; the fans here are no joke. There are four of them that move air through the cooling system efficiently, although they are by no means quiet. I wouldn't say they're unacceptably loud, but they do compete with sound coming through the laptop's speakers, which will require headphones if you want to hear sound effects clearly while gaming.

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There are a total of five vents on the m18 R2, allowing for maximum internal airflow. Additionally, the large vapor chamber that houses the CPU and GPU keeps the hottest parts of the machine within a safe temperature range, while the fans expel hot air out through the sides. This hot air can sometimes be felt if, for example, you're using a mouse, but it wasn't a bother for me, even when the fans were cranking.

In fact, one thing I noticed about the m18 R2 is that it never really felt hot to the touch at all. Both the keyboard and the wrist rest (above where the battery is housed) remained only slightly warm, suggesting that the fans were in fact doing their job effectively, which I'm glad for, given the sound they generate.

ZDNET's buying advice

Dell's Alienware m18 R2 is right at the top of the line when it comes to the best gaming laptops. This is a powerful machine with a distinct identity that can handle virtually any game you want with vibrant graphics, blazing fast speeds, and can even get dressed for the office at the press of a button.

However, this is also quite a large laptop, so although it's portable, it isn't exactly carry-and-go, and it isn't a machine that you can leave unplugged for hours at a time. Pricing can easily rise toward the higher end too, but the cutting-edge technology solidifies the m18 R2 as something that will be near the top of the laptop market for a while.

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