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
HDMI in
Left Side Kensington lock
VGA
HDMI
Mini-DisplayPort
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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  • JarredWalton - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    I can add quite a few more concerns. All that weight in the screen would make it top-heavy. Also, the screen would now need to be an inch thick with a quarter inch thick keyboard. Yay? Maybe they should just make the whole bottom of the laptop aluminum and then use it as part of the heat sink, and then they could somehow make the whole laptop a lot thinner. Wait... Apple tried this with the MBP 17 and while it's thin, it also runs extremely hot and it has a GPU that's 1/3 as potent as the 6970M. Incidentally, the 6970M can draw up to 100W, give or take, so you're going to need a lot of airflow and heatsink to dissipate all that heat.

    If you want a thin, light, and inexpensive gaming laptop, you're right: they don't exist. Given current technology and the laws of physics, such a laptop simply can't exist. In ten years when CPUs and GPUs are a lot more powerful, software will be more demanding as well and such a design will continue to not exist.

    If you still don't think that's correct, take tablets as an example: the Tegra 2 stuff puts all of that performance into a package that's less than a centimeter thick, and the iPad 2 is similar and it's even faster! But how much performance are we really talking about? The CPUs in these tablets are slower than a dual-core Atom. Looking at the iPad 2 for instance, in Geekbench an i7-2720QM is generally anywhere from 5-10X faster on single-threaded tests, and 15-40X faster on multi-threaded tests. In general, it's easily more than an order of magnitude faster.

    The GPU is a similar story: 8 "shader cores" is basically what you get -- never mind that these are DX9 cores compared to modern DX11 cores on the PC stuff. Peak performance, the 543MP2 at 300MHz is capable of around 19.2GFLOPS. By comparison, NVIDIA's GTX 460M is capable of 518.4GFLOPS (27 times faster!), and the 6970M tested here can hit a whopping 1305.6GFLOPS.

    So yes, power requirements are higher, and thus size requirements are higher, but we're looking at roughly 20 times the CPU performance in multi-threaded workloads and over 50 times the GPU performance. What does this have to do with your "put the hot components in the screen" idea? Mostly I'm hoping to show you that just because you can get a lot of "stuff" into a tablet like the iPad 2, there's a reason the cooling system in a notebook like the M17x weighs a couple pounds and has a large fan: it's because it has to have it.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    I've had the same idea, except I wouldn't put the GPU/CPU behind the lid, I'd just run a couple of flexible heatpipes through the hinges to a passive radiator built into the LCD cover. The point wouldn't be to create a significant amount of additional cooling, though. The surface area of a lid with reasonable physical properties (i.e. not too heavy and without lots of delicate fins) would only be a small fraction of the cooling capability of a typical fan driven cooling system. The point of such a system would instead be to allow the laptop to run completely silent at light to moderate loads, then spin up a typical fan cooling setup when stressed. Reply
  • Thale - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Hold S, D, and then press the space bar on an M17x R3. You won't jump/roll/ do whatever else the combination would usually do. It's mildly annoying for FPS style games or WoW, and an absolute killer for overhead style games that use WASD controls.

    For a quick example off the top of my head, it makes some sections of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light unplayable (anywhere where you need to make a jump while running down+right).

    Dell's priorities seem to lie more with charging a lot for silly lights than making a real game machine if they can't even be bothered to pay extra attention to rollover for the usual 'gaming cluster' of keys.
    Reply
  • colinw - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    I'd love to see how this thing stacks up against a Dell Precision M6600. The prices are similar for high-spec machines, but I do love the aesthetics of the Precision line, as well as their general high quality. They make surprisingly able gaming machines. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    We reviewed the M6500 a while back; the M6600 is mostly the same design with a few upgrades on the hardware. We won't get into upgrade pricing on the RAM and HDDs, because Dell really rips you off there ($330 to upgrade to 8GB RAM, and another $420 to go from a single 250GB HDD to two 500GB HDDs!). If you grab an M6600 with the current sale, though, you can get the FirePro M8900 (basically a workstation version of the 6970M), 2GB RAM, and a single HDD with the anti-glare 1080p LCD for $1924. That includes a 3-year warranty as well.

    Add in your own RAM for $73 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... a high-performance SSD for $470 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... and even a single large HDD for $90 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... That would bring the total up to around $2600, with a much higher performance SSD + HDD setup.
    Reply
  • colinw - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Yeah, when I was looking at the configurations I definitely counted on buying a few after-market upgrades from newegg. Rather ridiculous upgrade prices.

    As you spec'd it, it's a pretty good system for $2600!

    But as far as I can tell they don't feature switchable graphics? I haven't seen any reviews of the SNB M6600 yet, so I'm not sure. Battery life won't be quite so happy with the M8900 in use all the time.
    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Yes, Dell does charge a bit for the M line workstations. These are, however, workstations and not gaming laptops. As you've suggested buying the minimum and upgrading it yourself, if you're up to the task, is far far less expensive. Although I'm an Engineer and not an IT person, I upgrade the PCs and laptops to save our department money all the time hahaha Can use the savings for a free lunch, all win-win :D Reply
  • ggathagan - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Not sure if it's universal, but everything I've ever owned with that "incredibly comfortable rubberized plastic surface" turned into "incredibly sticky dirt/dust magnet surface" in a year or so.
    Given the heat this can put out, I wouldn't be surprised if it starts feeling tacky in 6 months or so.
    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Yea, I know what you're thinking hehe. I have my R2 for about a year now and it runs pretty much 24/7. Aside from the accumulated dust balls and water/soda spilling it still looks like brand new. I am assuming the R3 differes little btw. Plus, taking it apart isn't that difficult which makes cleaning easier than on a desktop. Reply
  • Brad4 - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    Two reasons why I won't buy this laptop.

    1. The most important reason is the resolution. 10x9 resolution laptops are horrible and are only good for watching movies.

    2. The laptop looks like it is marketed for young teenagers. How about a nice laptop without the silly lights?
    Reply

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