The Alienware 15 R3 represents the company's fresh new vision of a high end gaming laptop that looks reasonably grown up and slim. At 1" thick, it is indeed very slim for a gaming, or even a general purpose 15" laptop, though the 7.7 lb. weight and large footprint gives it away. This is a laptop for those with firm and toned thighs and backs suitable for hauling a 15.6" gaming laptop whose weight doesn't fall far short of 17" gaming laptops from MSI and Asus. But that weight affords a mighty build quality and an internal chassis that's a work of art (to geeks, at least). The looks are definitely gamer, but at the same time, the sleek chassis and lack of red and orange accents make it look more serious. Is it Alienware's best gaming laptop yet in the mainstream 15" size? Yes, it is. But just in case you want it larger or smaller, there's a 13 and 17 inch Alienware 17 R4 model too. The 13" is available with an optional OLED display as an added temptation, while the larger models stick with IPS and fast response TN panels.
Heat and Noise
Of course, there are still niggles-- the slimming means that the bottom gets hot (though not dangerously hot) when gaming and the fans are audible, almost what I'd call loud. They aren't high pitched or grating... it's more like a strong whoosh. Ever since Alienware (owned by Dell for many years) decided to make something that wasn't a laughable hunk, heat has risen, but they've dialed it back here. The good news is that the GPU, even in our top dog NVIDIA GTX 1070 version, doesn't run hot, nor does the CPU. When gaming, the CPU cores average a relatively cool 68C and the GPU 67C, which about 10C cooler than the competing Asus ROG Strix GL502VS with the same specs as our Alienware 15. The fans and casing do a good job of transferring heat away from the precious internals. And the laptop isn't nearly as hot as gaming laptops like the MSI Phantom and Stealth Pro or the Razer Blade that flirt with Ultrabook super skinny and light designs. Of course, the MSI and Razer models are much lighter than the Alienware-- this is a laptop for those who want something that's built like a tank and has the room to cool internal components to the max.
Specs and Configurations
The Alienware 15 for late 2016 has a 45 watt Intel H series quad core CPU. All but the base model are Core i7, and these are Intel 6th generation Skylake models (7th generation Kaby Lake aren't available yet in quad cores). The machines have 2 RAM slots fitted with DDR4, 2400 MHz RAM, a boot SSD and a 7200 RPM 1 TB HDD. Killer WiFi and Bluetooth are standard, as is Thunderbolt 3, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier port, HDMI 2.0, mini DisplayPort 1.2, two USB 3.0 ports, a USB-C port but no SD card slot. You can also get it with the Intel K series Core i7-6820HK CPU that can be overclocked.
The Alienware is available with a variety of matte, non-touch displays: our full HD IPS 300 nit 60Hz display (overclockable), a full HD 120Hz G-Sync TN panel with 400 nits brightness and TN's faster refresh rates (at the expense of weaker viewing angles and contrast) and a 4K Sharp IGZO display with 300 nit brightness. Gamers will likely go for the full HD option (either IPS or TN depending on how hardcore you are about refresh rates and G-Sync) and photo and video editors will gravitate to the 4K display.
While many manufacturers have conceded battery life to performance and simpler designs, Alienware still offers NVIDIA Optimus switchable graphics on the IPS and IGZO models for better battery life when not gaming. There's a hardware switch on the Fn row if you wish to set the machine to always run on dedicated graphics, which is a nice touch (MSI used to offer this, but has dropped it from this year's laptops). There are two battery options, a 68 Whr battery and the 99 Whr battery in our model. We recommend the $50 higher capacity battery option unless weight is a consideration, though what's 6 ounces when you're already pondering a 7.7 lb. portable.
Alienware computers were once famously expensive, but Dell has done a good job of keeping the price in check: a desirable Core i7 with NVIDIA GTX 1060, 16 gigs of RAM, a 128 gig M.2 SATA SSD and the 1 TB HDD is $1,599. Our model with the GTX 1070, a 256 gig PCIe NVMe SSD and Killer 1535AC WiFi is $1,899 at Microcenter. That's competitive with though still a few hundred dollars more than MSI and Asus' higher quality offerings, including our favored Asus ROG Strix GL502VS that retails for $1,699 and a well-configured MSI GT62VR. That said, many of Asus and MSI's offerings look a bit cheap and plasticky compared to the aluminum-clad Alienware with its soft touch matte black interior.
We have the base 1920 x 1080 full HD 300 nit (our Spyder4 Pro colorimeter measured it at 315 nits) IPS matte display. Given the fast GPU in our GTX 1070 model that allows for a solid 60 fps (and way above) in today's AAA titles, we saw very little tearing with VSync enabled on the 60Hz LG-Phillips panel when gaming. For those who want G-Sync, the full HD 120Hz TN panel is worth a look, if you're OK with its more limited viewing angles and lesser contrast. There's a 4K option too, and it's a vibrant Sharp IGZO panel not unlike what's available on the Dell XPS 15-- a nice choice for those of you who are buying this for photo and video editing rather than gaming. All are matte and non-touch, which is typical of gaming laptops. Given history, Alienware might introduce a gloss touch panel too.
Our IPS base display is a very good panel that's typical of high end gaming laptops. With calibration, it's fine for professional photo and video work for the web. It represents 91% of sRGB and 71% of Adobe RGB. Black levels are 0.47 at max brightness and that results in a good, but not outstanding 660:1 contrast ratio. The hardware white point of 7400K is higher than the ideal 6600K for pro photo work, but calibration brings that in line, along with the slightly high 2.3 gamma (2.2 is ideal).
Deals and Shopping:
Alienware R15 R3 Video Review
Alienware 15 R3 vs. Asus ROG Strix GL502VS Comparison
Like most gaming laptops of this size, the Alienware 15 R3 is available with the 6th generation Skylake quad core, 45 watt Intel Core i7-6700HQ and Core i7-6820HK processors. It has two RAM slots and our model shipped with 2400Mhz DDR4 RAM. Faster RAM is available when you order from Dell, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to pay for that unless you're also getting the overclockable i7-6820HK CPU. Max RAM is 32 gigs and there are several M.2 drive bays (2 full height 2280 and one half height). A fast PCIe NVMe SSD is standard on all but the lowest end models, and is available in a variety of capacities. This is the usual manufacturer-included very fast read, but not super-fast write speed sort of SSD. If you want something really high end, you can install your own Samsung 950 Pro.
A 1TB, 7200 RPM HDD is standard on all configurations, and I'd recommend replacing with a 2.5" SSD like the Samsung EVO 850--your games will launch and load new scenes much quicker. The Killer 1435AC or 1535AC WiFi + Bluetooth card is socketed and easy to upgrade, but those cards are excellent and I see no reason to change them. If you want to get to the fans or re-paste the CPU/GPU, you'll have to remove the bottom cover (easy, and that grants access to the HDD, SSDs and RAM) and then remove the secondary inner cover to get to the fans, heatsinks and processors.
The NVIDIA GTX 1070 card is powerful enough to play any game on the market at 60 fps (often much higher, except Witcher 3) on high or ultra settings. It's powerful enough for 1440p, but 4K with AAA titles won't reach 60 fps on high for today's most demanding games like Fallout 4 and Far Cry Primal (you'll want the GTX 1080 for that, found only in larger gaming laptops). The GTX 1060 manages 60fps at 1920 x 1080 too, though a few years down the road, some games may require that you lower quality settings to maintain that frame rate. All GTX 10 series cards can handle VR.
Heat and Noise
Heat and noise didn't impress us when we first got the notebook in with BIOS 1.02. It was every bit as loud as the competing ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS, despite having a larger casing and a rear behind-the-display section devoted to cooling that should've guaranteed peace and quiet and temps that wouldn't endanger the finish on the coffee table. A week in, we downloaded the freshly minted BIOS 1.06 that both reduced fan noise and bottom section heat levels. That same BIOS also fixed a bug in the higher end Core i7-6820HK overclockable CPU model where it reported incorrect high temperatures.
With the 1.06 BIOS, laptop's fans are inaudible when working in MS Office or streaming video, and are quite audible but not loud (by gaming laptop standards) when gaming. There's certainly no need to use headphones to hear game audio, and the front-firing stereo speakers are reasonably full and have decent volume. The underside has a hotspot dead center where the large vents are located, and that area hit 118F when gaming (it's otherwise just warm). The keyboard and wrist rest area don't heat up since the CPU and GPU are well back toward the rear. In comparison, the Asus ROG Strix GL502VS stays much cooler on the bottom-- it never gets hot when gaming, which is remarkable.
CPU and GPU temperatures are excellent for a relatively slim gaming laptop (the huge footprint and big chassis help, as do the two large fans). In light use, the CPU cores run at 41C, and when gaming they average 59C to 64C. The GTX 1070 runs in the low 40's with light use and 65C when gaming (both CPU and GPU are 10C cooler than the Asus, though the Asus' temperatures are still very good).
This is rarely the upbeat section of a gaming laptop review, but the Alienware 15 R3 with the 99WHr battery and NVIDIA Optimus (in all but the G-Sync model) averages 6 hours of mixed productivity and streaming video use. Many competitors without Optimus manage 3 hours, and even a few with Optimus (the ability to use Intel integrated graphics for non-demanding tasks) often fall short.
The notebook ships with a 240 watt power brick that's slim but has a big footprint, not unlike the laptop itself. That's a perfectly adequate power supply with watts to spare, so the charger never gets burning hot and charge levels don't drop when gaming plugged into power.
The laptop ships with a 99WHr battery standard if you get the NVIDIA GTX 1070 card. You can get it with a 68 WHr battery if you go with the GTX 1060, or the 99 WHr if you like for $50 more. 99WHr is the highest allowable battery capacity available in a laptop, and it certainly helps here, as does the power-sipping Intel HD 530 graphics.
Alienware laptops have grown up in looks and are modernized--gone is the ultra-chunky and aggressive look. We welcome the modern cooling design and lower heat internals that are very 2016, and the (dare I say) classy looking aluminum and soft touch black finishes. Pricing is more attainable too, and for a few hundred dollars more, you get a more high end look than the competition (honorable mention to the Asus ROG G752 that's out there but still looks like high class goods). Of course, you get an unparalleled AlienFX LED lightshow too, in all its zone programmable chroma goodness--and that can all be turned off with the press of a button so you can take it to work and not be teased. We're impressed with the low CPU and GPU temperatures that should ensure a long life, but then Alienware had a lot of space to work with to make that happen here. Performance is as you'd expect for the hardware inside, and the laptop can handle any (any!) game on high to ultra settings up to 1440p. Oh hey, it's VR ready too, even if your wallet isn't.
Display:15.6", 1920 x 1080 IPS 60Hz matte, non-touch display. Also available with a 120Hz TN panel with G-Sync and a 4K Sharp IGZO display. Intel HD 530 integrated graphics switchable with NVIDIA GTX 1060 6GB GDDR5 or GTX 1070 8GB GDDR5 graphics (except G-Sync model with no Optimus switchable graphics, then it's solely dedicated graphics). HDMI 2.0, mini DisplayPort and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Battery:68 WHr or 99 WHr Lithium
Ion rechargeable, sealed inside (requires bottom cover removal to service).
Performance:2.6GHz Intel Skylake 6th generation Core i7-6700HQ processor (also available with Core i7-6820HK processor). 2 RAM slots, DDR4 RAM up to 32 gigs. Intel CM236 chipset.
x 12.0 x 1.0 inches. Weight: 7.7 pounds.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Killer 1425AC and 1535AC dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth.
Expansion and Ports:2 USB 3.0 ports, HDMI2.0, mini DisplayPort, Alienware Graphics Amplifier port, two 3.5mm audio and
2 USB-C ports (one on the rear supporting Thunderbolt 3).