Alienware M17x gaming notebook review – here comes the Alien mothership
When we first talked about the M14x, in an earlier review, you may have realized that we probably went a little overboard by praising just about every aspect of its design and styling to the heavens, right down to its hardware layout and even its well-thought out bulkiness. Of course, some of you will probably disagree with our assessment of the M14x, but it is not going to change our stand that Alienware has clearly got the "badass" aspect of gaming notebook design down pat.
The M17x R3 which has landed in our labs essentially boasts more of the same things that the M14x won us over with, but with a few extra "blings" and whatnots, and for good reason. After all, if one is going to spend good money on a top-of-the-line notebook, it is only fair to expect that it comes with some exclusive features to set itself apart from the competition.
The M17x R3 gaming notebook boasts a design template that is similar to the M14x; this means that as far as looks are concerned, the M17x R3 is virtually indistinguishable from its sibling at first glance, save for its significantly larger footprint. It also sports the same matte rubber finish which we had earlier lauded as one that has proven itself to be extremely stubborn in ensuring that the M17x R3 remains as stain-free as possible.
That being said, turning the notebook over to bring up its rear reveals the first of many design differences between the smaller M14x and the M17x R3 gaming notebook. Unlike the M14x, which makes use of a built-in battery pack for powering the notebook while on the move, the M17x R3 utilizes a more conventional design, where the notebook's battery makes up a part of the rear, as can be seen below, although the placement of the heat vents remain unchanged.
Also unique to the M17x R3 gaming notebook is the presence of what appears to be some kind of alien text that has been inscribed directly beneath the notebook's service tag, ostensibly to reinforce the fact that the Alienware M17x R3 is an otherworldly product capable of performing at levels beyond the comprehension of our own world's species. Sounds cocky? Perhaps. But hey, it is the attention to these kinds of little details that makes Alienware and its line of gaming laptops stand out from the competition in their own special way.
We have already mentioned that the M17x R3 utilizes an external battery pack, but there is more to the notebook's secondary power source than meets the eye. Apparently, Dell thought it would be a good idea to build a status indicator into the battery pack so that users will be able to monitor the amount of charge left in the battery without having to power up the notebook and boot into Windows to do so.
By the way, the M17x R3 gaming notebook uses a nine-cell battery that boasts a 90Wh capacity, as opposed to the 63Wh battery pack which serves as the M14x's secondary power source.
Sliding off the rear panel reveals the M17x R3's hardware in all its glory. That being said, there are some differences in layout between the M14x and our M17x R3; for example, the M17x R3's dual hard disk bays are now immediately accessible as soon as the rear panel is removed. In contrast, getting to the hard disk bay on the M14x required that users detach the slot-loading optical drive from the chassis first.
As is the case with many OEMs all over the world, Dell offers a wide range of storage options for consumers to choose from when ordering the M17x R3 gaming notebook through its online store, and the good news is that gamers who are willing to spend good money on a complete out-of-the-box solution can choose to have Dell bundle an SSD instead of the typical mechanical hard disk. And the even better news? Our review unit came with a Samsung SSD for faster read/write speeds.
That being said, not everything different about the M17x R3's design is good. For starters, we noticed, upon trying to extract the bundled SSD, the storage device was connected to the notebook's motherboard via a proprietary adapter that seemed to do absolutely nothing. That's right: there is nothing about this adapter to suggest that it was put there for any useful reason other than to annoy users who are essentially locked out of performing their own hard disk (or SSD) upgrades to the M17x R3 in the event this all-important adapter is lost or misplaced.
We initially thought that this adaptor might have been used to connect a typical SATA hard disk to the mini-PCIe interface, as SSDs could potentially achieve greater read/write speeds and gain access to greater bandwidth in the process. However, a closer look at the adapter and the slot which it connects to reveals that this is, unfortunately, not the case.
The M17x R3's second hard disk bay also makes use of the aforementioned proprietary interface, but if it is of any consolation, Dell has already included an additional adapter as part of the notebook's bundle, where it is safely hidden away underneath the empty hard disk enclosure.
Last but definitely not least, providing the M17x R3 gaming notebook with the memory it needs to multitask efficiently are two sticks of DDR3 10600 memory which provide a total of 8GB of RAM.
The M17x R3's left boasts the same three video-out ports via VGA, HDMI and a mini-DisplayPort, along with the typical array of audio-out and line-in jacks, but with one major exception in that Dell has thrown in a 3.5mm jack for SPDIF-out for good measure. Also present here are two USB 3.0 ports, along with the Ethernet port.
The right boast some impressive ports as well: there is the obligatory multimedia card reader which is located directly above the slot-loading Blu-ray optical disk drive, as well as as three USB 2.0 ports, one of which also doubles up as an eSATA port, followed by an additional HDMI port which is designed for video-in.
Flipping the M17x R3's massive lid open reveals the notebook's full-sized keypad (complete with its own dedicated number pad), as well as the oversized palmrest and trackpad. And yes, they have all been treated with the same matte rubber coating that is present on the M17x R3's exterior to ensure that users do not have to deal with the likes of fingerprints and stains on the palmrest, trackpad or keyboard.
While we are at it, we should point out that the M17x R3's keyboard is a joy to type on, with the keys boasting a certain "soft" feel that comes across as rather pleasing to the touch. In addition, the keys require extremely little force to depress and be registered by the notebook, but at the same time, there is sufficient resistance to ensure that users do not feel as if the keys are being depressed on their own by merely touching them.
The trackpad also performed extremely well, with its oversized tracking area meaning that users will seldom (if ever) find themselves out of tracking real-estate when navigating the arrow cursor from one corner to the other on the notebook's full high-definition screen. Unfortunately, we were not able to get multitouch working on the trackpad, but we are confident that this is a minor issue that can be solved by a simple driver update.
Situated directly above the keyboard is the M17x R3 gaming notebook's power button, which, like the M14x, has been stylized in the form of an alien head. More specifically, an alien head which can glow in any color you want, as long as that colour choice is available in the AlenFX software utility.
Also unique to the M17x R3 is the addition of a dedicated strip of touch-sensitive buttons which are designed to carry out specific multimedia-related tasks, such as increase or decrease the volume of the notebook's speakers, skip between audio/video tracks, eject an optical disk or turn off the built-in wireless card. And once again, it has been stylized in such a way that it resembles some kind of alien font.
We will not talk about the various utility tools and applications that Dell has preloaded into the M17x R3 simply because they are essentially the same as those found in the M14x, although we felt that the former's BIOS merited a little mention of its own, simply because it comes with more features and options available for customization.
One of the biggest difference we noticed between the M17x R3 and the M14x is that the former comes with the option to explicitly select which video card he or she wants to utilize to provide the notebook with its graphical crunching power. Although Dell has not commented on the exact nature of the options, we gather that the IGFX, PEG, PCI and SG options stand for Integrated Graphics, PCI Express Graphics, PCI graphics and Switchable Graphics respectively.
Interestingly, the M17x R3's BIOS does not seem to support processor overclocking, although the option to tweak the notebook's memory frequencies is still present. This is a bit of a disappointment, as Intel's Sandy Bridge-based processors are known to be highly overclockable, and for a powerful notebook such as the M17x R3 which boasts ample cooling and what appears to be total disregard for battery uptime, we'd have expected the notebook's BIOS to offer support for such functionality.
Last but definitely not least, where the M17x R3's design and looks are concerned, here is a little gallery showing off Dell's most powerful gaming notebook in all its blinged-up glory: