Alienware m17 Desktop Replacement Notebook

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Darren Gladstone, PC World
PC World
Monday, February 2, 2009; 12:19 AM

When I think of Alienware PCs, two words come to mind--and "cheap" usually isn't one of them. This boutique game machine maker creates premium packages with premium prices. For an Alienware laptop, the m17 is priced within a reasonable ballpark (our review unit sells for $1999 as of 1/27/2009)--even while packing 1GB of ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphics processing power on board. As a result, this monstrous desktop replacement runs modern games at a respectable clip.

The million dollar question (give or take $998,001): Does the m17 deliver the goods? Yes. I've roamed Fallout 3's post-apocalyptic wastelands at the laptop's 1920-by-1200-pixel native resolution. It's completely playable, and I didn't run into any game-killing snags.

What caught me off-guard is that it didn't exactly blow the doors off PC WorldBench 6, scoring only an 84. Frankly, between the GPU, the 4GB of RAM, and the 160GB hard disk drive (spinning at 7200rpm, no less), I was expecting a little better. I suppose the 2.26-GHz Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU shoulders some of the blame, but the good news is that this won't affect your gaming experience in the slightest. Both Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament III, running at 1680 by 1050 pixels and high settings hum along at 44 and 51 frames per second, respectively. By comparison, HP's HDX18, also a desktop replacement, has a bigger, bolder screen and earned a commanding score of 102 in WorldBench 6--but squeaks along in modern games. Running the same two games at the same settings, the HDX18 manages only 17 fps in ET:QW and 38 fps in UT3.

The M17 has a big 17-inch screen. Though not as eye-blastingly bright as some laptop displays I've seen, it's certainly sharp enough for watching Blu-ray movies (though our unit came with a DVD-RW drive), and it handled some of the murkier corners of the Left 4 Dead zombiethon game. Even so, the screen doesn't get the picture quite right at the default settings. Some colors get a little muted and warmer colors get cool. Also, the screen is glossy. That means colors look good when viewing the LCD indoors, but viewing anywhere near daylight will bring a little glare.

It also goes without saying that desktop replacement notebook batteries don't last long. In this case, you get just under 2 hours on a charge.

That's really not surprising given this laptop's big, gawky, heavy design: It weighs a full 9.5 pounds and measures 15.6 by 11.7 by 2 inches. Even compared with Alienware's Area 51 m15x, which we reviewed a number of months ago, the m17 is a half-step backwards to old-school boxy notebooks.

I have a love/hate relationship with the keyboard on the m17. For a moment, let's dwell on the positive. I like the unusual font and the backlighting on the keys that make them easier to see in dim lighting conditions. And being able to change colors is a nice, if goofy, touch. Though the QWERTY key spacing is a little on the tiny side, it is functional and more than springy enough to satisfy me. And the shortcut buttons are neatly labeled and work exactly as you'd expect.

Now the negatives: First, I like that the laptop's keyboard has a number pad, but this pad is so tiny and scrunched together, I'd almost prefer Alienware not bother and just stick with a larger standard keyboard. And while the lit keys are neat, they pretty much always need to be on. Without the backlighting, seeing the keys is tricky. For touch typists, that's not a big deal, but for advanced hunt-and-peckers (like me) it's a problem.

My biggest beef is with the rubberized wrist rest. Or maybe I should say, "wrist landing pad." Its so huge, I could park a can of coke on it without fear of hitting it as I type. Seriously, it feels like an unnecessarily large gap between the keys and the edge of the notebook (my guess is that the beefy GPU needs room to breathe). I do like the touchpad and its long, thick mouse button bar, but trying to go back and forth between that and the keys forced my hands into an awkward angle. So make sure you've got good carpal tunnel coverage on your medical plan before buying this laptop (or get an external mouse). A plus, though, is that the machine's coating feels good. Its supple, rubbery matte covers most of the beefy computer. It's even on the Batman codpiece-like laptop lid.

The rest of the case offers a reasonable stable of features: A PC Card and SDHC card slots, three USB 2.0 ports, VGA, FireWire, and ethernet jacks. This machine also has some solid multimedia nods that I like: an eSATA port, an HDMI out, and an optical audio-out (TOSLINK). And thank you, Alienware, for throwing in an old-time analog dial for cranking the audio. I'm not joking: I actually prefer the analog dial. And the laptop provides fairly solid audio with its 2.1-speaker configuration. While a little tinny, the two front-firing cones are acceptable enough for cube rocking--and surly looks from neighboring officemates.

On the software side, Alienware gives you a gussied-up launch page. Basically, the Command Center breaks down the lighting and offers some power management, but not much more--though it sure looks pretty. I just think the notebook would be better served with more sophisticated tweaking options. Maybe it's me, but I assume gamers are a little more comfortable flipping switches to eke out performance.

That gripe aside, those who want to get their game on will get a good deal out of the Alienware m17--especially considering that last year the m15x sold for over twice as much. As a gaming machine, the m17 delivers speed where it counts, but it lags a little in more conventional office-application tests.

--Darren Gladstone


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