Alienware 15 review: Bigger, but not necessarily better
Getting your hands on a bleeding-edge gaming laptop is an exercise in chasing chip architecture. It’s sort of a waiting game. You wait for Intel and NVIDIA to upgrade their GPU and CPU standards, you wait for early adopter manufacturers to put them through their paces and, finally, you wait for the machine you want to hit the market with the new bells and whistles. In spring, we saw Dell’s Alienware 13 kitted out with Intel’s new Kaby Lake Core i7-7700HQ CPU and NVIDIA Pascal graphics — and now that same combo is available in the company’s larger 15-inch notebook.
If you’ve seen the Alienware 13, you’ve pretty much seen this 15-inch variant. That’s not a bad thing — Alienware’s design language walks a fine line between the stereotypically aggressive aesthetics of modern gaming laptops and, well, something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to use in a coffee shop.
For the Alienware 15 (and the aforementioned 13) that means simple, muted grays accented by a stylish anodized-aluminum lid, the company’s trademark Alien head logo and just enough angled lines to keep it from looking like a square. Looking for just a little bit more flare? You can have it. Dell’s AlienFX LED lighting system will illuminate the machine’s keyboard, trackpad and strips of lights on the side of both its chassis and display in 19 colors.
Alienware’s modern design language looks every bit as good on the 15-inch model as it did on the smaller notebook, but not everything about it scales well. Behind the laptop’s screen is a small shelf extending about an inch past the display’s hinge. This extended piece of the chassis lends the machine an aggressive look and helps dissipate heat — but the overhang pushes the laptop’s front-to-back footprint out to a full 12 inches. That measurement is a little more in line with what we’d expect out of a 17-inch gaming laptop. In fact, it’s bigger than the depth measurement on both larger size MSI Dominator and Razer Blade Pro notebooks.
This larger-than-average footprint isn’t a deal-breaker, but it hampers the laptop’s portability. Most 15-inch laptops walk a fine line between power and mobility — but the Alienware 15 barely fits into my largest backpack, and only if I keep nothing else in the bag’s main pocket. It was a struggle to get it in and out of that bag too, which made taking the machine through airport security a disaster. During my month with the laptop, it lived in my luggage as often as my personal bag.
Unlike most notebooks, the Alienware 15 hides most of its connections behind the screen. That protruding shelf is home to Ethernet, mini DisplayPort and HDMI connectors, a USB Type-C thunderbolt port, the AC adapter socket and the Alienware’s proprietary Graphics connector. There are also headset, microphone and an additional USB Type-C connectors on the machine’s left edge. Users looking for standard USB 3.0 ports will find one on each side.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Somehow, we still live in a world where otherwise great laptops can be spoiled by sticky keyboards, mushy mouse buttons and inaccurate touch pads. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The Alienware 15 features the same great keyboard and mouse we saw on the company’s smaller notebook — featuring an alphabet of firm yet springy full-size key-caps, a spacious, smooth tracking surface with excellent multi-touch gesture recognition and two large, responsive mouse buttons. It’s wonderful when a keyboard is so good that there’s practically nothing negative to say about it.
If I had to stretch for a complaint, however, I’d call out Alienware’s set of five TactX hotkeys. These buttons are located just to the left side of the main keyboard and can be programmed to launch applications, run recorded key macros or duplicate any other key. It does all of that perfectly fine, but I repeatedly found myself tapping the TactX’s top button whenever I reached for the laptop’s Esc key. It would be nice if the keys were positioned in a way that made that mistake impossible. Or, you know, I could learn how to type better. Either way.
Display and sound
Our review unit didn’t ship with one of those fancy 4K displays that’s all the rage these days, but what it does have is just about perfect for a gaming laptop. Not only is this bright, 400-nit, 1080p display offer ideal compromise between resolution and in-game graphics settings, but it also boasts a 120Hz refresh rate — which means it can comfortably display games at up to 120 frames a second without suffering from screen-tearing or frame-skip issues. Its viewing angles are a little shallow, but it’s a worthy trade off for buttery-smooth gameplay. If you’re not looking for high frame rates, Dell also offers the machine with a 3840 x 2160 IGZO IPS option.
The Alienware 15’s speakers are a bit of a disappointment, however. Not because they are bad themselves — they’re perfectly fine, producing loud, clear audio without distortion — but the machine’s "virtual surround" trick somehow doesn’t work quite as well as it did on the Alienware 13. That machine had me turning my head to see if something fell down across the room. The 15, on the other hand, can boast only of clear, separated sound. Stereo speakers that are merely good, and nothing else.
PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 3DMark (Sky Diver) ATTO (top reads/writes) Alienware 15 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1070) 6,847 7,100 E17,041 / P16,365 20,812 2.9 GB/s / 0.9 GB/s Alienware 13 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1060) 4,692 4,583 E16,703 / P12,776 24,460 1.78 GB/s / 1.04 GB/s Razer Blade Pro 2016 (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 6,884 6,995 E18,231 / P16,346 27,034 2.75 GB/s / 1.1 GB/s ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ , NVIDIA GTX 1070) 5,132 6,757 E15,335 / P13,985 25,976 2.14 GB/s / 1.2 GB/s HP Spectre x360 (2016, 2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,515 4,354 E2,656 / P1,720 / X444 3,743 1.76 GB/s / 579 MB/s Lenovo Yoga 910 (2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, 8GB, Intel HD 620) 5,822 4,108
E2,927 / P1,651 / X438
3,869 1.59 GB/s / 313 MB/s Razer Blade (Fall 2016) (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,462 3,889 E3,022 / P1,768 4,008 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s Razer Blade (Fall 2016) + Razer Core (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 5,415 4,335 E11,513 / P11,490 16,763 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s ASUS ZenBook 3 (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,448 3,911 E2,791 / P1,560 3,013 1.67 GB/s / 1.44 GB/s HP Spectre 13 (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,046 3,747 E2,790 / P1,630 / X375 3,810 1.61 GB/s / 307 MB/s Razer Blade Stealth (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,131 3,445 E2,788 / P1,599 / X426 3,442 1.5 GB/s / 307 MB/s
The Alienware 15 might be a little cumbersome, but there’s a lot of power in its oversized chassis. Powered by a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, 16GB of memory and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 GPU, it ran circles around my gaming library. Games like Overwatch, Battlefield 1, Just Cause 3 and Resident Evil 7 all punched above 100 frames a second on their highest settings at the machine’s native 1080p resolution. My more intensive games, like GTA5 and The Witcher 3 and Watch Dogs 2, would occasionally drop into the low 50s, but on average, every game in my library averaged out at 60fps at a minimum.
With a score of 8,152 in VRMark’s Orange room test (and 1,730 in the more intensive Blue Room benchmark), the machine has the chops to handle most consumer virtual-reality games at their default settings, too — though hardware setup might be a little cumbersome. The Alienware 15’s default ports are more than enough to power an HTC Vive, but Oculus Rift users won’t have access to enough USB ports without using a USB-C converter.
Alienware 15 4:31 Surface Book with Performance Base (2016) 16:15 Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (13-inch, no Touch Bar) 11:42 HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2015) 11:34 Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015) 11:23 Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (15-inch) 11:00 HP Spectre x360 15t 10:17 Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (13-inch, Touch Bar) 9:55 ASUS ZenBook 3 9:45 Apple MacBook (2016) 8:45 Samsung Notebook 9 8:16 Alienware 13 7:32 Microsoft Surface Pro 4 7:15 HP Spectre 13 7:07 Razer Blade Stealth (Spring 2016) 5:48 Razer Blade Stealth (Fall 2016) 5:36 Dell XPS 15 (2016) 5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger) Razer Blade Pro (2016) 3:48 ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS 3:03
The machine handled my normal workflow fine too, easily managing the disorganized mess of windows, browser tabs, editing software and chat clients I use on a daily basis. It’s nice to have a machine that can run circles around the Adobe Creative Suite, but sadly, the Alienware 15 can’t do it for very long. Our standard battery test ran the machine down in just over four and a half hours. That may be about par for a high-performance gaming laptop, but low expectations won’t get me through my workday without a power outlet.
Despite its screaming performance, the 15 did give me a few issues. Fresh out of the box, the laptop had a little trouble staying connected to WiFi — quietly dropping the connection at the Engadget office a few times every hour. The issue subsided after a system update, but it made my first day with the machine mildly annoying.
The Alienware 15 is almost everything you could ask for in a midsize gaming laptop. It’s a stylish, powerful machine with the latest GPU architecture, Intel’s new seventh-gen CPUs and a fantastic build quality — it’s just a little large for a machine of its class.
That’s not a deal-breaker, but it is a little weird. Fifteen-inch gaming rigs usually fill a sweet spot between portability and power, but the Alienware 15’s oversized footprint throws that balance off. If you’re dead set on the Alienware brand and are sure you want the machine’s GTX 1070, it’s still not a bad option — but if you find yourself looking at the laptop’s cheaper 1060 configuration, consider looking at the Alienware 13 instead. Bigger isn’t bad, but it’s not always better, either.