Introducing the Alienware M17x R3

We've had our hands on quite a few gaming notebooks here, but most of the time they're Clevo-based machines. These aren't necessarily bad notebooks; they're fast, typically have good screens, and they get the job done. Yet they also have some persisting drawbacks: build quality isn't often that hot, the battery is a glorified UPS system, and they feature some of the worst keyboards on the market. ASUS, MSI, Toshiba, and HP all offer fairly compelling alternatives, and today Alienware brings us a particularly interesting contender in the form of the M17x R3.

Truth be told, I was ambivalent about laying hands on the M17x R3. Gaming notebooks can tend to be gaudy affairs, and Alienware's notebooks (at least on the shelf) are practically exemplars of this goofy kind of excess. But there's something to be said for a little bling, and if the whole thing feels right, who's to really complain if it looks like the gaming equivalent of a racecar bed?

Performance-wise, it's definitely going to feel right. Alienware has upgraded the M17x R3 with Sandy Bridge processors, and graphics options start at the AMD Radeon HD 6870M, upgradeable to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460M. Or you can go for the big daddy like our review sample has: the AMD Radeon HD 6970M.

Alienware M17x R3 Gaming Notebook
Processor Intel Core i7-2720QM
(4x2.2GHz + HTT, 3.3GHz Turbo, 32nm, 6MB L3, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4x2GB Hynix DDR3-1333 (Max 4x4GB)
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6970M 2GB GDDR5
(960 stream processors, 680MHz/3.6GHz core/memory clocks, 256-bit memory bus)
Display 17.3" LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
LG Philips LGD 02DA
Hard Drive(s) 2x Seagate Momentus 750GB 7200-RPM HDD in RAID 0
Optical Drive Slot-loading Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CA30N)
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0
Internal WirelessHD (with external receiver included)
Audio IDT 92HD73C1 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Battery 9-Cell, 11.1V, 90Wh
Front Side N/A (Speaker grilles)
Right Side MMC/SD/MS Flash reader
Slot-loading optical drive
2x USB 2.0
eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
Left Side Kensington lock
eSATA/USB combo port
2x USB 3.0
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Back Side AC jack
2x exhaust vents
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.14" x 11.96" x 1.75-1.77" (WxDxH)
Weight ~9.39 lbs
Extras 3MP Webcam
Backlit keyboard with 10-key
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
Internal WirelessHD
Configurable lighting
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
2-year, 3-year, and 4-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting at $1,499
Price as configured: $2,503

The Sandy Bridge processor at the heart is the major part of this refresh of the M17x. You can custom order all the way up to the Intel Core i7-2820QM (the 55-watt i7-2920XM isn't available), but the i7-2720QM presents a nice balance of performance and value. With a 2.2GHz nominal clock rate capable of turbo-ing up to 3.3GHz on a single core (or 3GHz on all four cores), the i7-2720QM should offer more than enough processing horsepower. Alienware also joins four DIMM slots instead of two to the i7's memory controller allowing for a maximum of 16GB of memory, enough to get some serious work done.

Handling graphics duties is the AMD Radeon HD 6970M, basically a mobile version of the desktop Radeon HD 6850. This is arguably the fastest mobile GPU currently available, duking it out with NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 485M for the top slot. It features 960 stream processors, a 680MHz core clock, and 2GB of GDDR5 clocked to an effective 3.6GHz on a 256-bit bus for a staggering 115.2 GB/sec of memory bandwidth. The M17x R3 also supports GPU switching, allowing you to switch to the IGP while on the battery to substantially improve running time. Unfortunately the solution here isn't quite as automatic or seamless as NVIDIA's Optimus, but it gets the job done.

The M17x R3 sports two drive bays, but the storage options offered on the Dell website leave something to be desired. The default configuration is a pair of 320GB, 7200-RPM hard drives in RAID 0 and in fact outside of a single 256GB SSD option, everything is RAID 0. Understanding that the M17x R3 should be spending most of its life on your desktop, this is nonetheless a disappointing set of options. Ideally you'd want an SSD serving as the boot drive and a HDD handling mass storage duties. I use a RAID 0 on my desktop for my scratch video drive and gaming drive, but honestly for the latter it's not a substantial improvement. In a notebook, even one that will live its life on flat surfaces, this is still a questionable choice.

From here there are three fairly sizable selling points for the M17x R3: HDMI in, wireless display, and 3D. The HDMI input is only 1.3 and can't support 3D should you configure the M17x with the 120Hz 3D screen option, but for connecting your PS3 or Xbox 360 it's sufficient and works basically as a passthrough to the laptop screen. The built-in wireless display connectivity isn't tied to Intel's Wi-Di but instead uses WiHD. Like most wireless display technologies, though, I had some trouble getting this one working right. While Vivek is a big fan of things like Intel's Wi-Di, I'm not really sold on it; you still have to connect a receiver box to your TV's HDMI port, and frankly, if you can afford to buy this notebook, you can afford to buy a dedicated blu-ray player with Netflix and Hulu functionality built in. Finally, there's a 120Hz 3D-capable panel option for those so inclined, but unfortunately our review unit didn't include it so there's no way to test it.

Making the Case for Bling
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  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - link

    That MBP has the same CPU and a GPU that is only a little bit slower. These aren't massive differences in performance here, but one has a much better keyboard, multitouch trackpad, real battery life, slimmer/lighter chassis, 16:10 display, etc etc.

    Bashing Alienware is like shooting fish in a barrel anyway. Lenovos are also great, if you're dead set against a Mac then at least give a reasonable alternative.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - link

    I take back what I said re: GPU performance, I got one of the numbers mixed up when checking on other sites. The Macbook Pro is surprisingly good for a gaming laptop, its great for Starcraft 2, Team Fortress 2, LoL, etc etc, but the Alienware can legitimately be a full desktop replacement if one was so inclined based on these numbers:

    Its still not going to make me sell my SLI desktop PC, but its nice that the option is out there. :)
  • Shinya - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Protip: intelligent computer users dont care about battery life on a GAMING/HIGH PERFORMANCE laptop. We all know these are supposed to be plugged in. These tend to be desktop replacements/lan machines.

    "Paying this kind of money and getting a bouncy keyboard should be illegal!"
    so should spending the same amount of money on a apple computer and getting dated hardware, crap cooling, and a fraction of software availability. All while labeling yourself an in insecure macf** in the process.

    Go back to Engadget you'll fit right in with the rest of your kind. Your Lord n Savior (Jobs) will be waiting for you.
  • ganjha - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Don't poke the trolls. If you ignore them long enough they'll go somewhere else...
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    "intelligent computer users don't care about battery life on a GAMING/HIGH PERFORMANCE laptop"

    What total BS. Only an idiot wouldn't care about battery life on a laptop. If you have to plug it in, then it's not a desktop replacement, its a small form factor desktop with average performance and a $2500.00 price tag. Oh yeah - I forgot butt ugly.

    The MacBook Pro uses the same Sandy Bridge processors found on the Alienware systems.

    Yes, people complain about the heat while gaming on the MacBook Pro, but the Alienware in this review got same complaint. Obviously Dell doesn't have a magic solution for the heat either.

    The MacBook Pro can run Mac OS X *and* Windows 7 - therefore could run a much larger suite of applications than any PC ever could.

    Yes the Alienware has a couple better features, like the faster GPU option. But given all the pluses and minuses, I'd take the MacBook Pro every time. It simply is a better value for my $2500.00.

    If I'm a troll for thinking that, well at least I'm a troll that can back up my rant with facts. And not insane musings from insecure winf***s.
  • The0ne - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    So now you're thinking because Apple uses Sandy that the performance is the same? Or did I misread that. What do you mean by that statement so we're all clear. Let us all forget about the surrounding designs around the processor for argument sake.

    There is hot and there is hot hot. Not like your Sandy bridge comment.

    I can run Mac OS, why do you think I can't? And are we referring to raw install, emulated or VM? You do realize the difficulty in using a Mac OS on a non-Mac PC is right? Go have a chat with the VMWare dev team. Currently I have Windows 7, Redhat, Fedora, Unbuntu and XP SP3 available for my business use. I have absolutely no use of Mac OS for work or play. Absolutely zero of my business associates here or in China (contract manufacturing) has a Mac. So while I can use it, I have 0 need to use it. And if you have to ask why all the flavors of Linux then I'll just have to slap you silly.

    So for a high end laptop, in which most users pay to be able to play games much better, having a better GPU option is not such a big concern to you. Ok. Fine, that's fair. It's also fair that with all the +/- the user gets to choose the laptop of their liking. Cool. Value sure has its niches.

    I don't mind you choosing a MBP but please at least try to be reasonable and have some common sense in your comments. Just looks so redneck and childish...see, kinda like what I just said!
  • DanNeely - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    This is a gaming laptop not a general purpose system, and the MBP gets stomped in any relevant comparison. The 6750m it offers is less than half as fast as the alienware's 6970 (half the cores and slower clocks), the 6490 that's the baseline option is about 4.5x slower.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Actually, the 6870M is about twice as fast as the 6750M, and thus the 6970M is more like three times as fast as the 6750M. If you want a comparison, on the High quality gaming charts the 6750M would be around 5-15% faster than the GT 540M. (That's the line second from the bottom in most of the games... and that's not even running at 1080p, where the limited memory bandwidth on the GT 540M and 6750M becomes even more of a handicap.)
  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - link

    I would really like to see some gaming benchmarks from the 15" MBP under Windows, because a 3x increase in performance with the 6970m seems quite massive. I've tried Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Starcraft 2, and Bad Company 2 on a 2011 MBP. Not the most straining games by any means, but they were all very smooth from what I saw.

    Unfortunately is the only place I found stats on the 6750m, and their testing methodology isn't the best since they just aggregate random data from different hardware and displays that aren't necessarily the same:

    Based on those benchmarks the difference seems to be under double, with the 6750m yielding about 40fps in Bad Company 2 with high settings while the 6970m gives about 65fps based on the results in this review.

    Again, the 6750m numbers can only be taken as ballpark since the rest of the machine specs are unknown. Again, too bad there aren't many 2011 MBP reviews out there with gaming benchmarks, it'd be interesting to see how well the medium end AMD GPUs stack up to the monster in the Alienware machine.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - link

    Well well well:

    Such impressive numbers there. You're compromising size and battery life, but man that thing screams, truly a desktop replacement.

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