While most manufacturers are paring down their laptops to Ultrabook proportions, Alienware’s M17x R4 looms at the other end of the scale. This giant will spill over the edges of the average lap, comes with a 17.3in Full HD screen, and houses a super fast graphics card. And also uses the first Ivy Bridge laptop processor.
The quad-core Core i7-3610QM is a 45W CPU with a nominal 2.3GHz clock speed that Turbo Boosts up to 3.3GHz. As with all the new Ivy Bridge parts, the die shrink to 22nm combines with Intel’s Tri-Gate transistors to provide even more performance per Watt. The integrated GPU has been upgraded to the HD Graphics 4000, which adds DirectX 11 support and an extra four execution units to bring the total up to 16.
Tasked with the challenge of our Real World Benchmarks suite, the new Ivy Bridge hardware teamed up with the M17x R4’s 64GB Samsung PM830 SSD and 8GB of DDR3 RAM to produce a scorching result of 0.94. By comparison, the Samsung Series 7 Gamer, with its 2.2GHz Sandy Bridge Core i7-2670QM, scored 0.84. The Alienware is only 6% slower than our reference desktop PC, powered by a Sandy Bridge Core i7-2600K. It’s a stunning achievement, even more so when you consider the Alienware’s performance in the media encoding portion of our benchmarks, where it proved quicker than the desktop PC.
Gaming isn’t bad either. The Alienware comes with a top-end AMD Radeon HD 7970M, which we’ll come to in a moment, but first we disabled that to test the processor’s integrated graphics. With Crysis running at 1366 x 768 and Low quality, it managed an average of 43fps, 25% faster than the HD Graphics 3000. At 1600 x 900 and Medium quality that dropped to 22fps. Given that Ivy Bridge’s Crysis performance is almost on a par with AMD’s new Trinity platform, AMD will have to work hard to remain price competitive.
Of course, on this laptop you won’t be gaming using the processor, as the AMD GPU is a beast: with 1280 pixel shaders and 2GB of RAM it tore through Crysis, pushing an average of 42fps at Full HD and High quality. Only at Very High did it drop below 40fps, finishing with a final average of 35fps.
That’s superb, but it means we can’t properly test Ivy Bridge’s efficiency with this laptop. The CPU certainly runs cool – we never saw the core temperatures exceed 83°C, even after running at 100% load for several hours. But that huge 17.3in display and the high-performance components take their toll on battery life. The M17x R4 ran dry after only 3hrs 2mins in our light-use test, and taxing the CPU with our looping Cinebench test saw the Alienware expire after only 1hr 10mins. We’ll have to wait for the first Ultrabook to see if Ivy Bridge can really deliver on its promises.
Built like a tank
Physically, this is very much an Alienware laptop. The AlienFX lighting array can illuminate the laptop in multiple colours or be switched off completely, so the M17x R4 can gently glow or adopt all the subtlety of an Ibiza nightclub. It’s entirely up to you.
The thick, contoured body has an air of brutishness, but there’s one downside to the bomb-proof construction: it’s almost impossible to carry with one hand, tipping the scales at a massive 4.37kg.
That bulk, however, proves the perfect ally for the high-end components within, leaving plenty of room for sizeable internal heatsinks, large twin exhausts and a pair of internal 2.5in hard drive bays. Those rear exhausts aren’t only for effect, either – they provide the processor and GPU each with dedicated cooling, so temperatures remain reasonable even when they’re both flat out.
With the GPU cooled by a triple heatpipe and the CPU by a dual heatpipe arrangement, the Alienware brushes off the demands of all-day gaming effortlessly. The only downside is noise – push it flat out and both fans spin up to intrusive levels.
Fire up one of the latest titles, such as Diablo III, and the Alienware delivers a full-bodied, luscious experience. Our model came with the Full HD 17.3in display option, and while colours are a little cold, the 621:1 contrast ratio and 298cd/m2 brightness are plenty to make games pop off the screen.
With Klipsch speakers firing out of the glowing front grilles, audio is crisp, detailed and underpinned by only enough bass to make us hesitate before reaching for the headphones.
The backlit keyboard has a delightful soft-touch feel under the finger, and the keys have plenty of travel, and a cushioned break at the end of the stroke. While few gamers will use the touchpad, it’s equally good. The discrete buttons are welcome, and the wide touch area provides lag-free cursor control and responsive two-fingered pinching and scrolling.
Around the huge chassis you’ll see acres of space for connectivity. With four USB 3 ports, HDMI 1.4, mini-DisplayPort, D-SUB, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD card reader, an optical digital output, headphone and microphone jacks, and a dedicated headset output, there’s nothing missing. If we have one quibble, it’s with the single-band 802.11n Centrino chipset, which seems out of place on such a high-end laptop. We’d pay the extra $65 for the Killer Wireless-N upgrade with its triple stream and dual-band support.
Indeed, the sheer level of customisation on offer is astonishing. The base model starts at $2199, and it’s easy to send the price soaring over $6500 by adding faster CPUs, hard drive setups, RAID arrays and SSD boot drives; by swapping the AMD or Nvidia graphics; or by upgrading to a 120Hz 3D-capable, display. This is one flexible beast.