Alienware's new laptops are thinner and more powerful, but maybe not enough

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Listen, Alienware, we need to talk. Once upon a time you were the company when it came to gaming laptops. And I mean that quite literally—nobody else even made gaming laptops, so it was basically Alienware or nothing.

But it's 2015, and your competitors are innovating all over the place. Razer has the market cornered on slimness, with its Blade and Blade Pro packing decent power into something I'm not ashamed to pull out in public. Origin's highest-end laptops aren't nearly as slim, but I can cut them some slack because they're shoving full desktop processors inside and focusing on performance. Even MSI is innovating by shoving an entire mechanical keyboard inside its latest laptop.

Which brings us back to you, Alienware. What are you doing?

Stuck in the middle with you

At CES this week Alienware announced refreshes of its Alienware 15 and 17 laptops, and I should state up front: They're both perfectly alluring game machines. The Alienware 15 and 17 are each packed with performance parts that would make any enthusiast happy.

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But it's hard to believe that the same company that's doing things as interesting as the Alienware Alpha and the new Area-51 in desktop design is going with such a boring refresh on the laptop front this year.

So let's talk power, because on that front at least Alienware is mostly holding its own. The updated Alienware 15 and 17 are heavy haulers, with Intel 5th-gen Core i7 processors and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics, up to 16GB of 1600MHz RAM, and up to a 512GB SSD and 1TB 5400RPM hard drive. That's nothing to sneer at, certainly, though the full-blown desktop processors in Origin's new EON laptops can bring more muscle to the table by their very nature.

Alienware's major ace in the hole is that you can upgrade the Alienware 15 or 17 to a 4K display, but I wouldn't plan on gaming at those resolutions—even with this hardware, most 4K-ready games will stutter to a halt at anything but the lowest quality settings. You'd need to purchase Alienware's nifty standalone Graphics Amplifier—which lets you use a desktop graphics card with your laptop—to have a real shot at 4K gaming. And Alienware would be more than happy to sell you that Graphics Amplifier (which is actually a pretty cool innovation in its own right).

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As for design, the Alienware 15 and 17 look practically identical to last year's models, which impressed us despite their heft. The updated editions are apparently twenty percent thinner than previous iterations, so there's some improvement, but at 1.4 inches thick these are still chunky machines—though that bulk no doubt helps with heat dispersion from the powerful components inside the laptop.

Alienware is effectively fighting a war on two fronts: "Do we focus on thinness to compete or do we say damn it all and go for head-crushing gaming power?" Instead of making a choice, however, Alienware is trying to appease both crowds. 

The result? Gaming laptops that are undeniably still great, yet somewhat inoffensive and unremarkable compared to the competition. On the other hand, Alienware's starting the pricing uncharacteristically low—$1,200 for a baseline Alienware 15 and $1,500 for a baseline Alienware 17, available today. That's competitive even for standard gaming laptops, and the more innovative Razer Blade and Origin EON15-X laptops are much more expensive in their baseline configurations.

Bottom line: These updated models will no doubt be just as effective gaming machines as their predecessors, but I know Alienware can compete on innovation. Its experiments with Alpha and Area-51 this year confirm that suspicion—there are some real bright folks at Alienware coming up with some fascinating concepts. Alas, none of that seems apparent in 2015's laptop refresh. 

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