Introducing the Alienware M17x R4

Alienware recently updated their Bronze Editor's Choice award-winning M17x R4 gaming notebook to include Intel's Ivy Bridge processors and optional AMD Radeon HD 7900M series graphics or NVIDIA's new top end GK104-based GeForce GTX 680M GPU. With the move we also get mSATA support inside the chassis. The big draw with our review unit is the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M, which promises a substantial performance improvement over last generation's top end GTX 580M/675M, the kind of generational jump we haven't seen on the mobile side in some time.

At the same time, Alienware's M17x R4 remains largely unchanged while Clevo, MSI, and ASUS have all continued to incrementally update their gaming notebook designs. I've also had the privilege of owning my own M17x R3 over the past year and have new insights to offer on what it's like to live with this chassis design after an extended period of time. Is Alienware smart not to mess with what looks like a winning formula, or is the world passing them by?

With the M17x R4 I'm going to be a little lazy and refer you back to my review of the M17x R3. Why? Simply put, I can't find any changes between the two chassis designs...at all. Internally Alienware has definitely updated the M17x, but externally this is the exact same notebook and while I was in love with this design before, time hasn't been as kind to it as I'd like.

Alienware M17x R4 Gaming Notebook
Processor Intel Core i7-3720QM
(4x2.6GHz + HTT, 3.6GHz Turbo, 22nm, 6MB L3, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM77
Memory 2x4GB Samsung DDR3-1600 (Max 4x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M 2GB GDDR5
(1344 CUDA cores, 719MHz/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) Hitachi Travelstar 7K750 500GB 7200RPM SATA 3Gbps HDD

Samsung PM830 32GB mSATA 6Gbps SSD (Intel SRT)
Optical Drive Slot-loading Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CA30N)
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230 b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0
Audio SoundBlaster Recon3Di (CA0132) 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 3.0
eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
HDMI in
Left Side Kensington lock
VGA
HDMI
Mini-DisplayPort
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"
410mm x 304.3mm x 44.5mm
Weight ~9.39 lbs (4.26kg)
Extras 3MP Webcam
Backlit keyboard with 10-key
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
USB 3.0
mSATA SSD cache
SoundBlaster Recon3Di with THX TruStudio Pro
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: $2,599

Typically we get Ivy Bridge systems with the entry-level Intel Core i7-3610QM, but our Alienware systems tend to be a bit better equipped and that's true here. The i7-3720QM is a healthy step up from last generation's i7-2720QM, able to turbo up to an impressive 3.4GHz on all four cores or 3.8GHz on a single core. It also brings with it Intel's HD 4000 integrated graphics, and NVIDIA leverages them with their Optimus technology.

Speaking of NVIDIA technology, the big draw with the M17x R4 is the GeForce GTX 680M. Unlike last generation's GF1x4 derivative GPU, the GTX 680M is based on NVIDIA's current top end silicon. The GK104 in the GTX 680M is the same chip that powers the GTX 680, although here the 1536 CUDA cores have been cut down to 1344. That's about the only cut made, meaning this is basically the same silicon in the very impressive GTX 670, just run at substantially reduced clocks. The core clock now runs at only 719MHz with a boost clock of 758MHz, but the most painful cut is the GDDR5 clock. Where NVIDIA was able to hit a staggering 6GHz on the desktop (and their memory controller allows you to pretty much push the GDDR5 chips to their limits; my GTX 680 is at 6.7GHz on the memory), the GDDR5 on the GTX 680M is running at a paltry 3.6GHz. That means that while generationally shader and texturing power have increased tremendously, the memory bandwidth increase has been much more modest, and that's on a chip that's already throttled largely by memory bandwidth. Interestingly, the GTX 680M in the M17x R4 sports 2GB of GDDR5 while the GTX 680Ms offered by other vendors have 4GB, but this shouldn't be counted against it as even desktop GTX 680s with 4GB of GDDR5 haven't proven to need the extra video memory.

Of course, Alienware offers alternatives to the GTX 680M, which is a hefty $550 upgrade. The default GTX 660M is a glorified desktop GTX 650, built on the Kepler architecture and sporting 384 CUDA cores, a healthy 835MHz core clock, and 4GHz on the GDDR5. That chip really is a fine starting point for gamers, but leave it to AMD to offer what's probably going to wind up being the best price/performance option (just as they tended to last year), the Radeon HD 7970M. That's $200 for an upgrade to a fully enabled Pitcairn GPU that offers a notable improvement in performance over the $250 GTX 675M upgrade, which is just a rebranded GeForce GTX 580M. We have a review of the 7970M in the works right now, but there's really no reason to shell out an extra $50 for worse performance with the GTX 675M unless you absolutely have to stay in NVIDIA's ecosystem and don't want to spend up on the GTX 680M.

Outside of these components, the other gains are largely incremental. Most of the parts are actually identical to the M17x R3 (including the display), while memory speed has gotten a bump to DDR3-1600 and an mSATA port has been added along with Intel's SRT (Smart Response Technology) caching. We get a boost to Bluetooth 4.0 and the audio software/hardware has been bumped to SoundBlaster's Recon3Di. Nothing too exciting here.

Application and Futuremark Performance
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    I can't imagine many non-enthusiasts buying Alienware laptops. Maybe that's just me, though? Reply
  • JKflipflop98 - Saturday, September 22, 2012 - link

    Actually, only non-enthusiasts buy anything from alienware. Those of us who know what we're doing can get the same hardware for less somewhere else. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 22, 2012 - link

    Desktops? Yes. Notebooks and laptops? Only if you're willing to go with one of the Clevo or MSI offerings, which both have a large number of issues. Alienware's designs definitely aren't perfect, but I can guarantee you that the M17x R4 is better than the Clevo P170EM in so many ways that it's not even close. The only thing going for Clevo is pricing, but to save $300 on a $2500 notebook you have to get an inferior keyboard, touchpad, firmware (power management), and chassis. Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Sunday, September 23, 2012 - link

    Not true - some of us simply can't lug desktop & screen across the world, and are at the mercy of what laptop makers offer.

    My M18X R2 is head and shoulders above my last three Clevo's, in terms of construction, performance, and audio [oh, but the glossy screen!].

    Without it, I'd never game, as I couldn't be carrying around both Xbox / controllers / PSU / games, and a laptop.

    In addition, our in-house software is very heavy on CPU / memory, crashes frequently (necessitating reboots), and i7 Extreme, twin SSDs in RAID0, & 16GB of memory make a nice combination for getting things done, which is a BIG part of the draw for me on a purchase such as this.

    If you know where I can get this performance, in a mobile package, for less, please enlighten me. Do try to remember it must get pass the lady at the 'check in desk', and a desktop & monitor won't cut it.

    As for the name, suits me fine, but as a biker, I'm used to number/letter-names.

    Have a nice day.
    Reply
  • cheechms - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Wrong. I am in the industry and have built all my laptops up to this point. Yes, Alienware is expensive, heavy, and usually needs a cooling pad. I bought m17x r4 because of the form factor and packaging. All of the other gaming laptops are boring! Samsung's series 7 gamer is a boring piece of Charcoal color. Asus isn't any better. It's like buying a car. Am I gonna buy a Jeep Liberty or a Dodge Nitro when given the choice. I go for looks and packaging. Alienware's aesthetic is slick and sexy. In essence I'd say Alienware's marketing works just fine. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    I think it's fine too.

    M17x is the generic name, and as redchar mentions, the M even stands for mobile.

    Really the 'x' is the only part of the name that doesn't seem to mean anything. Personally I think this is one of the absolute best computer names on earth since it actually means something and isn't 308ch792y8-du219 like most computer models are lol
    Reply
  • bennyg - Saturday, September 22, 2012 - link

    Clevo should fire their marketing department... why is there no P170 based system on your benchmark comparison... Only two others with 580Ms as comparison and the one in the MSI barebones chassis (with the 675M) throttles like a b**ch.

    Wheres the other models with 680M or 7970M. Clevo's competing products offer better price/performance and the cooling is up to scratch (I have P150HM/2760QM/GTX580M)

    Similar hardware for a good discount, they have their issues (keyboard...) but it is just a glaring omission for this review not to consider ACTUAL competing products from the same class, either Clevo's for not supplying them (my suspicion) or AT for not putting them on. Even last gen would be worthy comparison, but for the only Clevo on this table to be an 11 inch with a mid range GPU is nuts...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 22, 2012 - link

    All in good time. I've got two P170EM models (HD 7970M and GTX 680M) and will post the 7970M review shortly. The delays for that review all stem from Enduro, incidentally. Reply
  • PubFiction - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    The alienware just costs way too much money. I wanted one but I could not justify the huge price increase. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Prince increase? These are if anything cheaper than ever. They actually make the Asus G75 look overpriced, I think. Reply

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