The Alienware 17 R4, like the Alienware 15 R3 we recently reviewed represents the realization of the company's fresh new vision of a high end gaming laptop that looks reasonably grown up and slim. It still looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, but a tasteful one. At 1.18" thick, it is indeed very slim for a gaming, or even a general purpose 17.3" laptop, though the 10 lb. weight and large footprint give it away. With that big footprint, largely thanks to the display-forward hinge that allows for big fans and heat fins behind the display and that kind of weight, this is a laptop in name only. Most will find it too big and heavy to carry in a backpack to classes or on an airplane for business trips. Instead, it's meant to be readily portable from room to room in a house or business. Want to game in the living room or bedroom? No problem. Want to drag it around the country or globe? Not so much. In return for these inconveniences of portability, you get an extremely powerful laptop that runs relatively cool and fairly quiet. The low CPU and GPU temperatures give peace of mind for those who want their expensive purchase to last. Even if you max it out with the Intel Core i7-6820 overclockable CPU and top dog NVIDIA GTX 1080, surface temperatures remain tolerable and the chips won't get so hot that you'll worry about longevity. You also get very robust build quality with a combination of a metal inner chassis and durable plastics that hold up to bumps and knocks while looking a bit more chic than much of the competition. The MSI GT72VR Dominator and various Asus ROG models (except the G752) look a little plasticky in comparison.
Should you wish to update to a new graphics card a few years down the road, the Alienware 17 R4 has both an Alienware Graphics Amplifier port and a Thunderbolt 3 port. The 17" Alienware includes a Windows Hello IR camera for Windows login, and Tobii eye tracking (a so far not terribly useful game enhancement).
Specs at a Glance
The Alienware 17 R4 runs Windows 10 on Intel 6th generation Skylake CPUs, which is the latest version available in a quad core mobile CPU as of this writing. It surely will get the very, very minor performance bump with Intel 7th generation Kaby Lake CPUs in the first half of 2017, but I wouldn't hold off a purchase if you want a laptop now given the tiny performance jump. These are 45 watt CPUs, and you can get it with the 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ or the 2.7 GHz Core i7-6820HK overclockable CPU. The notebook ships with the new and much faster NVIDIA GeForce 10 series graphics, in your choice of GTX 1060, GTX 1070 (our review unit) and the top of the line GTX 1080 GPU. Most configurations ship with 16 gigs of DDR4 RAM (32 gigs is max), a boot PCIe SSD and a 1TB 7200 RPM HDD. The laptop has a 17.3" display available in 1080p, QHD and 4K resolutions. Alienware's zone backlit keyboard with side, lid and front logo backlighting is standard (you can turn it off at the office).
While many manufacturers have conceded battery life to performance and simpler designs, Alienware still offers NVIDIA Optimus switchable graphics on the 1080p IPS and 4K 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 competing GT72VR Dominator Pro, while leaving it on the higher end GT73). 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 10 lb. portable.
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.
Alienware computers were once famously expensive, but Dell has done a good job of keeping the price in check: the Alienware 17 R4 starts at $1,500, and our review unit with GTX 1070, 16 gigs of DDR4 2400 MHz RAM and a boot 128 gig SSD with 1TB HDD and IPS 1080p display sells for $1,650 to $1,800 depending on sale prices.
Heat and Noise
When gaming the fans are very audible, though not as loud as thin and light gamers like the MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro or the waifish Razer Blade. The fans aren't high pitched or grating... it's more like a loud whoosh. The thicker Acer Predator 17 and MSI GT72VR Dominator Pro are a quieter when gaming at the expense of higher (though still very safe) CPU temperatures.
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 NVIDIA GTX 1070 version, doesn't run hot, nor does the CPU. When gaming, the Core i7-6700HQ CPU cores average a relatively cool 65C and the GPU 62C (room temperature 70F when gaming at 1080p resolution 60 fps V-Sync on ultra settings). Those are impressively low temperatures, even for a big desktop replacement gamer. Surface temperatures are never burning hot, and the keyboard and deck are at most warm. Heat is well directed out the rear vents behind the display, and the air coming out is generally warm rather than hot when gaming at 1080p resolution and ultra settings in games like Far Cry Primal, Fallout 4 and Overwatch. If you game at 2K or 4K resolution or go for the hotter GTX 1080 and/or Intel 6820HK CPU, temps will of course be higher.
Some early owners of the Intel 6820HK CPU model reported uneven, high core temperatures, particuarly when overclocking. Their input helped Alienware make a slight revision to heatsink tape (thinner tape is used so the CPU heatsink makes good contact with the CPU). Since early December, the laptop is made with the thinner tape and has better core temperatures. If you have an early model with 20C differences between core temperatures under stress or CPU temperatures above the low 80's C, contact Dell to have your machine updated with the new tape.
We have the base 1920 x 1080 full HD 300 nit (our Spyder4 Pro colorimeter measured it at 332 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 QHD 2560 x 1440 120Hz TN 400 nit panel is worth a look, if you're OK with its somewhat lower contrast (viewing angles are remarkably good for a TN panel and rival IPS). There's a 4K option too, and it's a vibrant Sharp IGZO panel with even wider color gamut-- 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 95% of sRGB and 72% of Adobe RGB (similar to the Alienware 15 R3 with IPS 1080p display). Black levels are 0.51 at max brightness and that results in a good, but not outstanding 660:1 contrast ratio. The hardware white point of 6900K is relatively good for laptops that tend to run even higher than the ideal 6600K. The 2.0 gamma is slightly low (2.2 is ideal), but that's compensated for with calibration.