Alienware m17 R4 Review
Since redesigning its flagship gaming laptops in 2019, Alienware has put out a number of stylish machines we've rated highly in both 15-inch and 17-inch screen sizes. The new m17 R4 (starts at $1,812.99; $3,609.99 as tested) follows the 17-inch blueprint we've seen before, but adds two key features: an Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 Series GPU, and an optional, low-profile mechanical keyboard co-developed with leading key-switch maker Cherry. Both are a success, boosting gaming performance to an impressive new level and delivering a uniquely satisfying typing experience. The battery life is still disappointing, and configuring a system with all the extras (like a 360Hz screen) will cost you, but the base design is top-quality and the options are plentiful. All of this adds up to our favorite current giant-screen premium gaming machine, and an Editors' Choice award.
A Familiar, Yet Alien, Appearance
At a glance, you wouldn't know that the m17 R4 was a different laptop than the R3. The design is almost identical, though there are some detail differences beyond the keyboard.Our Experts Have Tested 147 Products in the Laptops Category This YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (See how we test.)
The build quality remains strong, with a nice soft-touch plastic exterior and a sturdy frame. At 0.87 by 15.7 by 11.6 inches (HWD), it's a hundredth of an inch thinner than the R3, which is commendable given the mechanical keys and more powerful components—if anything, you'd expect it to be a bit thicker. Of course, the laptop still tips the scales at a hefty 6.5 pounds and comes with a beefy power brick, reducing its appeal as a frequent travel companion.
Otherwise, the latest m17 brings you the same sci-fi-inspired aesthetic Alienware has used in all of its recent laptops and desktops. You can check out our R3 review if you want specifics, but I think it looks fine, though you can judge if it's to your taste from the photos. It's bold and definitely stands out, so while I doubt everyone will like it, I appreciate the unique design.
Alienware m15 R4$1,777.71See Itat DellRead Our Alienware m15 R4 Review 4.5Outstanding
Razer Blade 15 Advanced Edition (2021)$2,452.93See Itat AmazonRead Our Razer Blade 15 Advanced Edition (2021) Review 4.0Excellent
Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 (GX550)$2,999.99See Itat AdoramaRead Our Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 (GX550) Review 3.5Good
MSI GE76 Raider$2,299.00See Itat AmazonRead Our MSI GE76 Raider Review
World's First: A Low-Profile Mechanical Laptop Keyboard
The biggest external difference is the keyboard, so let's get into it. First, I should make clear that the mechanical keyboard isn't standard equipment but an optional upgrade. Second, if you're skeptical or think a low-profile mechanical keyboard is a contradiction in terms, I understand. I'll say right off the bat that it doesn't give you quite the same typing experience as a desktop mechanical keyboard, which has room for deeper key travel and allows more complex switches with increased feedback. Some compromise was inevitable with a laptop design.
That said, this Alienware's keyboard is great, indeed better than I expected. It was developed in conjunction with Cherry MX, the leading name in mechanical key switches, though instead of a known product like Cherry's Blue or Red switches it features new switches made especially for this low-profile design. The feel is somewhere between a desktop mechanical keyboard and the pseudo-mechanical solutions some laptops have deployed over the years to replicate the real thing.
The key presses here are certainly lighter than those of many full-size mechanical keyboards in both feel and sound, but they do have some resistance. They emit a very satisfying click that's not too loud or high-pitched, and while the sound isn't too dissimilar from some laptop keyboards the feel is much improved. You know exactly when the keys actuate; they don't take too much pressure to do so; and they have just the right amount of travel.
Typing is a breeze, and I found my fingers flying across the keys in no time. For gaming, it's easy to hold down, say, the W and Shift keys for a long time to sprint, as the switches are light. It's safe to say I'll miss these switches compared to standard laptop keyboards, and maybe someday we'll see them (or another mechanical solution) on additional notebooks.
The keyboard also features AlienFX customizable per-key lighting, so there's no compromise on the fun. (The Cherry MX keyboard is the top option; the base keyboard is lit across four zones and a middle option includes per-key lighting but not mechanical switches.)
A Fast Display and Plenty of Ports
The keyboard may be the new attraction, but the screen is just as important. There are three options, 144Hz and 360Hz panels with full HD resolution and a 60Hz display with 4K resolution. Ours is the 360Hz panel, a blazing-fast display fit for high-speed competitive multiplayer games. (We'll get into just how many frames this system is capable of pushing in the performance section below.) The display quality is good, with vibrant colors. If you're unsure of the benefits of a high-refresh-rate display, read our explainer.
There are plenty of ports packed on to this wide chassis, starting with a USB-A 3.1 port and an Ethernet jack on the left flank. The right edge houses two more USB 3.1 Type-A ports, as well as a microSD card slot.
As with most modern Alienware laptops, the rear block is home to the rest of the connections, including HDMI and mini DisplayPort video outputs, a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, and a proprietary connection for Alienware's optional external graphics amplifier.
Other features include Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth, and a 720p webcam (with an optional upgrade for Windows Hello face recognition). The system also comes with Alienware Command Center software for customizing lighting and other settings, notably overlocking and performance settings given the right components. You can squeeze more frames per second out of your system this way, but we'll get into that below.
Components and Performance Testing
Even the base model of the m17 R4 is on the pricey side at $1,812.99, so it won't be making any budget laptop lists. For that price, you get an Intel Core i7-10870H processor, 16GB of memory, an Nvidia RTX 3060 GPU, a 256GB solid-state drive, and the full HD 144Hz display.
Our review configuration kicks that up several notches, opting for upgrades at every turn to reach a whopping $3,609.99. Of course, there are many possible price points between these extremes, but Alienware wanted to send us a unit that shows off the R4's high-end potential. The test system features a Core i9-10980HK processor, 32GB of RAM, a GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, a 512GB boot SSD plus another 1TB of solid-state storage via dual 512GB drives in RAID 0, and the 360Hz display with 1080p resolution.
We put these components to the test with our usual suite of benchmarks and compared the results with those of four other premium gaming laptops including the previous generation of this one. You'll find the contenders and their basic specs below.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system's boot drive. Both tests yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
It should come as no surprise that the R4's Core i9 chip can handle everyday multitasking without breaking a sweat. It's meant for gaming and (as we'll see) workstation-style media editing, so you should experience no slowdown from running multiple applications while keeping a batch of browser tabs open and even playing a game. The Alienware's snappy SSD is in line with the competition, ensuring fast in-game load times.
More demanding media tasks, though, should push this blazing CPU further. First is Maxon's CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that's highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It's a timed test, and lower results are better.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image, timing each operation and adding up the total. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here.
The m17 R4 was the best performer on all three of these tests, flexing its muscle even against other high-end machines. There isn't a world of difference in most of these results (the thin Razer Blade 15 does run behind in some cases), but if it means shorter wait times when using this machine to edit photos or video, that's a plus. Many gaming laptops don't suffice for professional-level specialized media tasks in which time is measurably money, but those with Core i9 chips (or their AMD equivalents) and especially 32GB of memory can do the job.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to midrange PCs with integrated graphics while Fire Strike is more demanding and lets high-end and gaming PCs strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next up is another synthetic test or gaming simulation, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it's rendered in the eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload for a second opinion on each laptop's graphical prowess.
The raw power of an RTX 3080 is why you'd pick a larger 17-inch laptop in 2021, and it's on full display here. We've generally found more variation among RTX 30 Series GPUs than in past GeForce generations, even between the same part number in different laptops. As I explored here, this is due to the wattage differences manufacturers are implementing across various form factors.
For example, the Razer Blade 15 is also running an RTX 3080, but its performance in these two tests is visibly behind the larger 17-inch laptops with the same GPU (the new Alienware and the MSI GE76 Raider). The m17's GPU is configured at a full 160 watts, which it can achieve thanks to its larger chassis and power brick, while the Razer's RTX 3080 compromises some power for its thin form factor. Clearly, the m17 R4 is getting the most from its RTX 3080, making the price premium for that component more worthwhile.
This makes it more important than ever to individually test each laptop to see what its real-world performance is, even if the manufacturer lists the wattage on its site. These are synthetic scores, though, so let's see how this pattern holds up with actual games.
Real-World Gaming Tests
Synthetic tests are helpful for measuring general 3D aptitude, but it's hard to beat full retail video games for judging gaming performance. Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are both modern, high-fidelity titles with built-in benchmarks that illustrate how a system handles real-world gameplay at various settings. We run them at 1080p resolution at the games' medium and best image-quality presets (Normal and Ultra for Far Cry 5 under DirectX 11, Medium and Very High for Rise of the Tomb Raider under DirectX 12).
The beefier GeForce RTX 3080s show their strength again, though the Blade 15 does well to close the gap with these games. The m17 R4 leads the field in both charts, justifying its place as the performance-first enthusiast option. These are sky-high frame rates that will carry over into newer, more demanding titles as well, with plenty of headroom for bells and whistles. Granted, you'd hope for such performance at this price, but you can never assume from specs alone.
AAA single-player games like these will take some advantage of a high-refresh-rate display, but hardly push the 360Hz ceiling. Less visually demanding competitive multiplayer titles, however, thrive off super-high frame rates. To prove it, I also ran the in-game benchmark for Rainbow Six: Siege on the game's lowest and highest settings presets (both at 100% render resolution). The m17 R4 averaged 358fps and 129fps respectively. Gamers in this genre will often settle for low or medium settings to push more frames, so that first number is especially encouraging. It almost nailed the 360Hz limit of the panel to a T.
The aforementioned Alienware Command Center lets you push the system into Performance or Full Speed mode rather than Balanced (or tune it down to Quiet mode), adjusting the fan speed and power output of the CPU and GPU. You can also use overclock presets or manually set one. On the highest power setting, I saw increases of up to 5fps, so gains are real, but the fans get so much louder I'd say it isn't worth it. The system gets warm overall, but the heat is nothing out of the ordinary.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the same Tears of Steel short we use in our Handbrake test—with screen brightness set at 50% and volume at 100% until the system quits.
Unplugged runtime is a definite weakness of this system, as it was for the R3. The potent components and fast screen are power hogs, even with our relatively forgiving test settings. Gaming laptops don't have to be so short-lived, as you can see from the competitors' results, so it's a certain minus for the Alienware. Getting only a couple of hours off the charger (far less if you're actually gaming) makes the m17 a poor travel partner, though setting up a 17-inch laptop in a cafe or on a plane is a stretch to begin with. Call it a suitable solution for carrying from home and setting up at your destination, but much less so for use in between.
A Pack-Leading Premium Gamer
We were already fans of the Alienware m17 R3, and it's hard not to call the R4 an all-around improvement on its predecessor. The RTX 30 Series GPUs level up the power scale, and the Cherry MX keyboard is a unique and successfully executed new feature. Otherwise, you get the same standout design and quality build we've come to expect from Alienware machines, so there's little to criticize. The brief battery life is the most prominent flaw, but realistically it's not a deal-breaker as you'll be plugged in for gaming.
This isn't our favorite overall premium gaming laptop (the latest Razer Blade 15 and the Alienware m15 R4 share that honor), but it is our top recommendation among 17-inch models and thus still seizes Editors' Choice plaudits for that class of machines. That's especially true if you value performance and style above all else in your giant-screen gamer.
Alienware m17 R44.0Editors' ChoiceSee It $2,081.50 at DellStarts at $1,812.99ProsView MoreConsThe Bottom Line
Given its feature set and premium price, the Alienware m17 R4 is an aspirational laptop for serious gamers. Its blazing frame rates, quality build, and unique mechanical keyboard set it apart from the pack.Like What You're Reading?
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