The last Alienware machine to make an appearance at PC Authority, the M17, wasn't good enough to win an award. Back then, the Asus W90 was faster in games, better-looking and cheaper. Alienware, however, has struck back.
Its new M17x makes a fantastic first impression. The aluminium exterior, dramatically angled front edge and mesh-covered speaker grilles make the M17x look like a futuristic Blu-ray player rather than a laptop.
Ease open the lid and the Alienware continues to impress, with the keyboard, touch-sensitive media buttons, trackpad and logo all kitted out with cool blue backlighting. Factor in the edge-to-edge screen and you have one of the most striking laptops we've seen.
It's a system packed with small, thoughtful details: the Alienware logo above the keyboard is both power button and hard disk status indicator all in one - the eyes flash to show activity. Alienware can engrave your name on the underside, and you can also change the colour of the numerous LED lights.
Distinctive design is backed up by build quality. Neither the 17in screen nor the wide wristrest flexed when prodded and pushed in anger, and the rest of the chassis feels rock-solid - but with a chassis this large and hefty (the M17x is 45mm thick and weighs 5.54kg), we'd expect nothing less.
The 17in screen has a better-than HD native resolution of 1920 x 1200 and is the same panel offered on the cheaper of Dell's Precision M6400 mobile workstations.
As well as covering 72% of Adobe's colour gamut, the panel - which is lit by a pair of CCFL backlights - offers a 1000:1 contrast ratio and 8ms response time. While these figures aren't quite up to desktop standards, games still look superb on the panel, with accurate colours and sharp detail, and there's acres of desktop space available for more menial tasks.
The keyboard is one of the best we've ever used on a laptop. Every key offers good travel and a comfortable, positive action that's reminiscent of a desktop unit. The M17x's size allows for a full-sized number pad to be squeezed in. The trackpad is sensitive and accurate, although the mouse button is a bit firm.
As usual, Alienware backs up its distinctive design with a powerful roster of components, even in this "budget" model. Its 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 is one of the most powerful mobile processors available and, when partnered with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, scored a superb 1.47 in our benchmarks. It's quicker than the Asus W90, which scored 1.38, but slower than the Alienware M17, which managed 1.59.
Gaming performance is stellar, thanks to the Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M graphics chip. The M17x ran our 1600 x 1200 high-quality Crysis benchmark at a playable 27fps, and averaged 41fps at medium settings and native resolution.
Here, the Asus W90 is quicker, but only just. Meanwhile, battery performance is as you'd expect, with the M17x lasting a mere 2hrs 20mins in our light-use test.
Our review sample came with plenty of muscle elsewhere, though. You get a pair of 500GB Seagate Momentus 7200.4 hard disks arranged in a RAID0 array, while Gigabit Ethernet and draft-n wireless offer the connectivity we'd expect.
Every possible port is offered, too, with five USB ports (one of which doubles as an eSATA port) joined by HDMI, mini-FireWire, a well-appointed card reader and even DisplayPort.
There's no Blu-ray drive, but you can upgrade for an extra $266, and a host of other upgrades are available as well. It's even possible to upgrade the machine yourself if you're more technically minded, with better access to the processor than most laptops.
The M17x is undeniably expensive at $4627, but you're getting a lot for your money, with great performance, brilliant build quality and stunning design. The W90 may be quicker in games but, thanks to the M17x's all-round prowess and lower price, it's now our favourite gaming desktop replacement.