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Alienware 17 review: Beauty and beast in one gorgeous gaming notebook

At a Glance
  • Alienware 17 (2014 edition)

    PCWorld Rating

    The Alienware 17 is undeniably attractive and incredibly powerful, but only hardcore gamers will want to take this 9.5-pound beast on the road.

Dell completely redesigned its Alienware gaming laptop line in 2013, debuting new, sleek-looking chasses at E3. The Alienware 17 sports curves where there used to be lines, lines where there used to be nothing, and steel-gray, anodized aluminum and magnesium alloy where there used to be rubbery plastic. This machine also has a customizable 10-zone lighting system, which is a huge draw for visual nerds like me.

Granted, we saw this redesign last June. We’ll forgive the retread, though, because this is a gaming notebook, and it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.

On that score, this 2014 Alienware 17 is one of the first laptops to ship with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M graphics card, which has 8– yes, 8GB of GDDR5 memory. That’s 8GB of dedicated RAM just for your graphics card. And that’s not all: Nvidia’s 800M series GPUs also have several new gamer-oriented features, including Battery Boost and ShadowPlay. Battery Boost is a battery-saving mode that can reportedly extend your gaming time up to twice as long. ShadowPlay is game-capture software that lets you record your best battles.

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

LED light pipes around the edge of the Alienware's aluminum and magnesium-alloy chassis lend a bit of flair.

Like any high-end gaming laptop, the Alienware 17 is packed with other sweet specs, including a fourth-generation Intel Core i7-4910MQ processor (overclocked to 4.1 GHz), 16GB of DDR3/1600 memory, a 256GB solid-state boot drive for fast startup, and a 1TB/5400rpm hard drive for mass storage.

The notebook also has built-in Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and a gigabit ethernet port, as well as a slot-loading Blu-ray reader and four USB 3.0 ports. Our review model came with Windows 7 Home Premium. You can order a Alienware 17 with Windows 8.1 on Dell’s website, but be aware that this unit is not equipped with a touchscreen.

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

The medium-sized trackpad lights up when you touch it. 

As configured, our review model cost $3385, with online discounts reducing it to $2968. That price tag puts it about in the middle of the pack of high-end gaming notebooks, with Origin’s EON 17-S going for $3480 (same GPU, an Intel Extreme Edition processor, 16GB of memory, and dual SSDs in RAID), and MSI’s GT60 Dominator Pro priced at $2400 (same GPU, a slightly slower CPU, and 16GB of RAM).

Performance: Excellent

The Alienware 17 performed very well in our tests, blowing away most of the laptops we’ve tested, and holding its own in the desktop realm. The notebook delivered a Notebook WorldBench 9 score of 122, meaning it’s 22-percent faster than our base testing model (Dell’s XPS 15, which is powered by an Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor and Nvidia’s GeForce GT 750M).

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

The 2014 Alienware 17 is the fastest notebook we've ever tested. 

That makes the Alienware 17 the best performer we’ve tested so far on WorldBench 9. It’s almost 13 percent faster than our second-best performer, the Asus G750JH Gaming Notebook, which has an i7-4700HQ processor, 16GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M graphics card.

Graphics performance on the Alienware 17 is excellent—as you might expect from an all-new graphics card with 8GB of GDDR5—but it still can’t rival the insanely powerful dual-, triple-, or even quad-GPU setups you can stuff into a desktop tower. Good news, though: If you're desperate for dual-GPU performance, there is a dual-GeForce GTX 880M option available with the 18.4-inch Alienware 18.

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M, with its 8GB framebuffer, helps the Alienware 17 deliver phenomenal gaming performance. 

With its single 880M graphics card, the Alienware 17 delivered excellent frame rates with all of our medium-quality graphics tests at resolution of 1920x1080. In BioShock Infinite, the Alienware 17 popped out 122 frames per second (fps) suto the Asus G750’s 105. In Grid 2, the units were more evenly matched: The Alienware 17 managed 135 fps, while the Asus G750 was slightly ahead with 138 fps.

Design: Alienware steps up

There’s not a lot a system designer can do to make a massive, 17.3-inch, 9.8-pound laptop look sexy. But it's still worth a try. Dell’s Alienware team—which operates with at least some autonomy from the mothership—has done a great job of redesigning its gaming machines to look more refined and polished. This iteration has an attractive metal cover, with well-placed curves and lines vaguely reminiscent of a Lamborghini. The notebook also feels extremely solid, like I could throw it out of a second-story window and not have to worry about the chassis.

Inside, Alienware keeps it simple: There’s a full-size keyboard, a numeric keypad, and a medium-size trackpad with two discrete mouse buttons. The upper-right corner houses a large power button, and there are a few extra hotkeys above the number pad, but there are no extraneous buttons cluttering up the keyboard deck.

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

Don't expect to travel light. Despite its aluminum and magnesium-alloy chassis, the Alienware 17 still tips the scales at 9.5 pounds.

The keyboard itself is comfortable, with large, soft-touch keys; but it’s not the best keyboard I’ve used. The keys are a little slippery, which you’ll notice if you type quickly, and they offer weak tactile feedback. The trackpad is average—it’s not quite as responsive as I’d like—but at least the mouse buttons are large and easy to press. A poor-quality trackpad isn’t as much of an issue on a gaming notebook, because most gamers opt for an external mouse. But a mediocre keyboard can be a deal-breaker.

The keyboard is backlit, as you’d expect, and Alienware provides a 10-zone lighting system you can customize with a software utility. Most of the lighting is just novelty, but gamers will appreciate the four zones dedicated to the keyboard and number pad (three for the former and one for the latter). The zone covering the trackpad, which lights up each time you touch it, is particularly fun, if perhaps a little distracting.

Screen and speakers: Yeah and meh

The Alienware 17 has a 17.3-inch display with a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. The anti-glare screen looks good: It’s bright, colors are crisp and accurate, and off-axis viewing angles look great. My only complaint is that it looks a tiny bit pixelated, especially if you’re used to smaller, higher-res screens. If you use this laptop primarily for work, you’ll notice this more than if you use it to play games. HD video plays back nicely, with deep blacks and just a little artifacting in fast-paced scenes.

Alienware 17 2014 Edition

The Alienware 17's battery life doesn't exactly impress, but the machine should deliver an entire movie without its power brick. 

The Alienware 17 has good audio capabilities: The speakers offer up relatively full, bass-inundated sound. They’re better than average laptop speakers (what isn’t?), but I’ve definitely heard better sound on similarly-sized desktop replacements. The notebook has three audio jacks: A dedicated headphone jack, a dedicated microphone jack, and a combination headphone/microphone jack, which is good news for gamers with headsets.

The bottom line

The Alienware 17 is attractive, fast, and specced to the max. It’s the best performer we’ve tested so far, and it’s comparatively lightweight for the category. It does have its drawbacks, though: Lower-than-average battery life, a slippery keyboard, and a mediocre trackpad. This is one of the better-looking 17.3-inch notebooks out there, and it definitely delivers on performance.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Alienware 17 is undeniably attractive and incredibly powerful, but only hardcore gamers will want to take this 9.5-pound beast on the road.

    Pros

    • Rugged yet pretty chassis
    • Exceptional performance
    • Customizable 10-zone lighting system

    Cons

    • Relatively short battery life
    • Could use a better keyboard and trackpad
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