Alienware M17 R4 (2021) Review

After 3 years, it became time. My old gaming laptop was beginning to disappoint me while gaming - Cyberpunk 2077 and Outriders both played rather poorly, and I wasn't able to make use of the DLSS options that many new PC games are getting that help stabilize frame rates. And with the release of laptops with GeForce RTX 3000-series GPUs, it seemed a perfect time to replace my mobile gaming PC. But with confusing nomenclature and massive question marks about how much power (and therefore how good a frame rate) any one particular GPU as configured by a laptop manufacturer could actually deliver - combined with the many delays and inventory issues we're now pretty much expecting major electronics releases to have since the pandemic started - gaming laptop buying just got a lot more complicated. 


The Alienware M17 R4 - Dell photo. I
promise we'll talk about this soon.


The Pitfalls of Gaming Laptop Shopping in 2021

The unfortunate fact about laptop shopping with this generation of machines is that it's impossible to make well-educated buying decisions based on just seeing a particular GPU's name like we could prior, and even a retailer or manufacturer listing of specs won't cut it. Last generation, a mobile RTX 2070 Super Max-Q was generally faster than any variety of mobile RTX 2060 (even if sometimes only by a little bit), and a 2070 Super Max-P would be faster than both. Simple rules made buying relatively easy once you get the naming down. But this generation, a laptop manufacturer can configure, say, a mobile RTX 3060 to pull a maximum of anywhere between 60 watts up to 115 watts to match whatever cooling they include, and an RTX 3060 that the manufacturer configures to use 115 watts will sometimes outperform even an RTX 3070 that pulls 85 watts.

This all probably sounds important enough to know these things before you buy, right? I certainly think so, and yet what are these new GPUs called? Any RTX 3060 is given just that one name regardless of wattage, and it's the same for the 3070 or 3080. In this way laptop manufacturers are not telling customers what kind of performance their laptops actually get and instead relying on other fancy features to sell to unsuspecting buyers. If you ask these manufacturers directly, you may or may not get a straight answer how the GPU is configured - and if you do, it may be entirely wrong. (Thanks for that, HP.) 

The Story 

After a false start buying a much less powerful gaming laptop with a poorly cooled and starved RTX 3060 that only barely delivered better performance than my old PowerSpec laptop, I realized I shouldn't be compromising. I returned it and kept shopping and a full six weeks later, and I found the Alienware M17 R4. I rarely even consider Alienware when computer shopping and that's generally because of their reputation for gaudy designs and their high prices. But over the years they've dialed back the crazy looks, and with a solid coupon code and mildly good sale pricing from Dell, I ordered the Alienware M17 R4 laptop with some decent specs for $1644. It's more than I wanted to spend, but as of this writing, no one is putting this much GPU horsepower into a machine at or below that price - more on that later.

Specs

The Alienware M17 R4 I ordered includes an Intel 10870H CPU, mobile Nvidia RTX 3070 GPU that can run at up to 140 watts (that wattage number, also called the TGP, is a critical part of game performance and one that you should always know before buying a laptop with 3000-series Nvidia GPU), 16GB of RAM that was unfortunately all soldered in, an 86Whr battery, and a blisteringly fast 360hz 17" 1080p G-SYNC screen. It also shipped with a rather pathetically sized 256GB SSD as configured, but as you may be aware, adding more storage from the manufacturer almost always costs vastly more than doing it yourself and I've already opened it up and added a 1TB NVMe SSD in the empty slot, which only took a few minutes. 

Shipping and Unboxing

It has arrived!
Dell shipped the M17 R4 well ahead of the scheduled shipping time and they even overnighted it, which was nice. Unfortunately, the laptop's own box was essentially the only box the laptop was in - no additional second box or foam to cradle the entire thing - and there was what I could best describe as a squared-off, fitted version of a brown paper bag covering the entire box instead, presumably there mostly just to hide what the item actually was from a casual onlooker or porch pirate. Luckily, everything inside looked great, and the overall unboxing experience is generally pleasant without piles of brochures or unnecessary e-waste-fodder peripherals like cheap mice. Inside the box is the laptop, a power adapter, a few small and forgettable pamphlets, and the rest is just dense foam for protecting the laptop while in transit. 

Exterior Quality and Size

Initial setup
Most of the M17 R4's exterior is made out of a magnesium alloy, which is generally considered premium in the laptop world, although we've seen with phones that metal exteriors aren't always the best choice for consumer electronics. The keyboard area flexes only a tiny bit when pressed, the fit and finish are very good, and the look is certainly striking, especially if you get the off-white "Lunar Light" color like I ordered. 

The shape and size may initially seem compelling, as the M17 R4 is only 22mm thick, which comes out to less than 7/8". But don't mistake this as a "thin-and-light" machine, though, as the other dimensions are larger than nearly any other gaming laptops so far this year - it's 400mm/15.7" wide and 294mm/11.6" deep. You can even see that extra chunkiness behind where the screen's hinge sits. It seems that space is dedicated to bigger heatsinks and fans.

Weight

I'm hoping that anyone who is considering buying a 17" gaming laptop isn't too concerned about getting something super-light, and the fact is that at 6.6lb, this thing is heavier than nearly every gaming laptop I've researched in the last six months. But for a 17" machine, it's honestly not bad overall, and it's certainly better than those 10-12lb monsters we used to occasionally see a decade ago when looking at high-end gaming laptops. 

In addition, the 240w power adapter included with this configuration is pretty sizable and weighs in at a fairly hefty 2lb, so expect the entire thing to weigh a bit under 9lb when in your backpack. That's not light by any means so this is not a good machine to have to carry around in a bag or backpack all day (and battery life is abysmal - more on that later), so even though this laptop is relatively thin, I would not consider it terribly portable.

Ports, Vents, and Connectivity

The connectivity is split up well
between the sides and the back.
Connectivity is generally quite good on the M17 R4, and I am happy to see lots of ports on the back panel (most importantly to me, the power connector) rather than trying to stuff them all in on the sides. We do still get a few connections on each side - but overall everything seems reasonable considering that Alienware has set this machine up to take in and exhaust air from the bottom, sides, the rear, and even on the top via some vents positioned above the keyboard. Since there are vents on the sides of the laptop towards the rear, the side ports do sit forward of that.

Along the left side we see 2.5Gbit Ethernet, a USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type A port, and combo headphone jack. On the right, Dell included a MicroSD reader and two USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type A ports. On the back, centered (since each side has vents), we get full-size HDMI 2.1, Mini DisplayPort 1.4, a Thunderbolt 3 port, Alienware's proprietary Graphics Amplifier port for plugging in the proprietary external GPU dock that Alienware just, uh, discontinued, and finally the DC power jack. 

The speakers are on the forward corners on the underside, facing down and are tuned to fire down and bounce off of the surface the laptop sits on. This seems to have become a bit of a trend since my last laptop purchase and I figured I'd hate it, but the sound quality coming out of these speakers is honestly not awful (which I think is high praise at this point considering how low my expectations have gotten on laptop audio). It's far from the best I've heard out of such a machine, but it works well enough.

Screen

I configured my laptop with the 360Hz 1080p screen with G-SYNC, although Alienware does offer a more inexpensive 1080p 144Hz panel without any sync options. What I can say is that if you play modern AAA games, not many are going to need more than 144Hz unless you set details to the minimum possible, but if you're into any eSports titles like Overwatch, CS GO, League of Legends, or Valorant, well, then the 360Hz panel will be perfect as this machine can easily deliver frame rates nearing that. Sure, the in-game detail settings might need to be turned down a bit to get frame rates over 200, but many eSports players do that anyway. 

Overall, I don't find the 360Hz screen to be particularly bright (for a 2021 gaming laptop, it's a rather middle-of-the-road 300 nits) or beautiful (it's got 72% NTSC output which is considered "pretty good"), so its biggest strength is the refresh rate and the G-SYNC. I mention the latter because many gaming laptops use Nvidia's Optimus technology which is incompatible with these sync technologies that eliminate screen tearing. 

OK sure, there is that new Advanced Optimus feature included with Alienware's new M15 R5 that has shown to be the best of both worlds, and I'm sure that works well, but this laptop includes a more old-school option which is to simply wire the display directly to the RTX GPU. It's not fancy, and it proves to be terrible for battery life, but it works perfectly for the intended purpose and it maintains performance whereas many budget-oriented 2021 gaming laptops are still sadly losing frames, giving up on sync options, and adding input lag by using the older Optimus configuration. And they do all that just so that they don't get roasted by reviewers who for some reason are still making a big deal out of battery life on a gaming PC. 

Bling

Shown: rear panel light up ring and light-up
alien logo on lid. Dell photo.
I'm one of those people that built those ugly, beige gaming PCs in the 90s (for a long time, it was the only choice we had, even when custom building!) and I still like to maintain at least some of that aesthetic, so while I obviously use modern hardware, I generally avoid blinged-out setups with fancy RGB lights and such. Alienware has seen fit to kit out the M17 R4 with plenty of RGB lighting, which admittedly is becoming more of a standard in gaming laptops in the last year or two. Here we get configurable colored rings around the back cooling, the alien logo on the lid and another that also serves as the power button, and of course the keyboard. It's all configurable, which is good, because all I want is the keyboard backlighting as that is actually practical. Having this control suits me, but those who want to go for the rainbow vomit look are welcome to do so as well. 

Keyboard and General Usage

The basic "4 zone" (lighting, that is) keyboard is the cheapest one the M17 R4 can get but I found that it feels great, with a surprisingly large and satisfying amount of key travel and quiet and tactile feel. Maybe I'm just spoiled since since my last gaming laptop purchase was a budget model over 3 years ago. I understand laptops are now coming with various attempts at real mechanical keyboard feel, including Alienware partnering with Cherry on some new thin keyswitches, but I'm already loving the feel of this one. Now, I'm not much of a keyboard aficionado and while I do prefer and use a mechanical keyboard, it's a basic Chinese off-brand one and nothing too fancy overall. I might not be the best judge, but so far I love the keyboard on the M17 R4. 

There's only one nitpick I have, and that is the placement of the PGUP and PGDN keys on either side of the up arrow. They seemed to have been moved there because four Alienware-specific keys were added in the area where the editing keys usually go in this kind of layout over in the upper right, and I will never understand the idea of moving a key that in a given layout has been there for years in order to replace it with something new. 

Otherwise, using this laptop is a joy, and it required very few tweaks to get an enjoyable experience with great performance. Nothing was misconfigured, and about the only tweaks I did that I can say objectively improved the experience were the undervolting of the CPU and GPU using ThrottleStop and MSI Afterburner, respectively. 

Game Performance

Try to avoid attacking anyone with the
massive power brick. They could die.
Simply put, the gaming experience on the M17 R4 is pretty amazing right out of the box - and not just for a laptop, just amazing period. Sure, I have a desktop PC that's more powerful, but the overall experience right from the start is just wonderful. I tweaked Cyberpunk 2077 just a tad to run on high details at the screen's native 1080p resolution and then turned on DLSS Quality and all the RTX features, and within minutes I was cruising around in Night City with 60fps as basically a minimum frame rate. Borderlands 3 at Ultra settings ran in excess of 90fps, Diablo III clocked in at between 100 and 200fps in frantic Torment XVI rifts, and Overwatch ran at high settings and 100% resolution scale at blistering speeds ranging from 200 to 350fps. Forza Horizon 4's benchmark at Ultra details resulted in a 132fps average, and the game itself largely mirrored that speed.

I did all of this at the "Balanced" thermal setting in the Alienware control panel which is the default profile and frankly, as someone who likes tweaking things, I couldn't find much fault with it. The fans did reach into that lower-jet-engine pitch and tone, which I don't exactly love and yes, I can hear the whine even with game sounds at a mid-level volume over the speakers, but they're not terribly loud, and they spin right back down once a game is closed. Alienware also includes Quiet and Performance fan settings, but the Quiet profile causes the CPU and GPU to thermal throttle, dropping their speed and overall frame rates substantially, while Performance doesn't really improve frame rates plus it annoyingly keeps the fans running all the time including while just at the desktop. You can use the Control Center to tweak these settings yourself, create new profiles, and can even design your own fan curves, though, and you could probably improve the above profiles in this way, but I haven't dialed any of that in yet - the Balanced setting seems perfectly fine for me so far.

Now, one thing I learned is that the i7-10870H CPU can run rather hot and pull more power than it probably needs to as configured, so a program called ThrottleStop can be used to undervolt the CPU, which is to say it tells the CPU to run at the same range of speeds but pull less voltage to do so. This takes a bit of trial and error but this guide worked for me at -105mv on both the CPU and the cache. Additionally, I was able to use MSI Afterburner to undervolt the RTX 3070 a bit, which there isn't a true guide to do directly just for this GPU but a tutorial like this will work - although I'd warn you not to follow that exact voltage number of 900mv and instead find roughly that place on the curve, whatever that voltage is, and experiment with that. These tweaks allow the hardware to run cooler, use less power, and often run just as fast or even faster than before - and yes, these steps can be used to tweak CPU and GPU speeds on many similarly equipped laptops, although your success may vary.

Benchmarks

I've run benchmarks that cover the move from my previous laptop with i7-7700HQ CPU and GeForce 1070 Mobile GPU to the Alienware. Now this is not meant to be a fair fight, as we're talking about a 3-year-old machine versus one of the better gaming laptops you can get right now, but I wanted to specifically try and quantify how much the experience was improving - after all, it's not an upgrade if it's not noticeably faster, right? I was already seeing huge improvements in some games, but let's see how the rest came along.





With these games' built-in benchmarks, we can see that the Alienware machine is delivering somewhere in the realm of 35% (in the case of Forza Horizon 4) to more than 100% frame rate increases (looking at the 1% lows in Borderlands 3's Ultra preset) depending on the complexity of the scene and the game. Now for some more non-game or not-quite-game benchmarks:




Here we are seeing 100% or greater increases across the board. Cinebench R20 is a CPU benchmark that tests rendering capabilities, 3D Mark Time Spy is a solid measure of that sort of pre-raytracing DX12 gaming capability, and Superposition Extreme does a good job of testing dense and complex game scenes. And it's not in the chart above but the Superposition 1080p Extreme benchmark's average FPS on the PowerSpec machine was 25, while it was 53 on the Alienware. Minimums were 19 and 41 respectively.

Upgradeability

The bottom cover is easy to remove, but
you may not be happy with how little can
be done once you're inside. Dell photo.
Unfortunately, the upgradeability on the M17 R4 is worse than in most gaming laptops. Removing the bottom cover is simple enough and is held in only by screws and no annoying snaps, but the only things you're really intended to be able to get at easily are the NVMe SSD slots - the laptop has three total slots (two at the 22x80mm size, which is the industry-standard size as well as one tiny little 22x30mm slot), and depending on your config, one or two of these will be occupied coming from the factory. 

The WiFi card is soldered directly onto the motherboard, meaning users will not be able to replace or upgrade these components. It's disappointing, but something had to be sacrificed for this laptop's performance combined with its thinness, I guess. The included WiFi card is Intel's Killer WiFi 6 AX1650 and we'd better hope that's good enough for the life of the laptop and that it doesn't die (something I've seen occur on more than one machine), because if it does, then we're left with USB-based options only. 

Even more frustrating is the fact that the M17 R4 is currently available in 16GB or 32GB varieties and that is also soldered onto the board with no expansion slots available. Sure, 16GB is generally enough for today's games if you have little or no background tasks going, but 32GB is kind of convenient. If you think you might need 32GB down the line, then you'll want to have the laptop shipped with that amount right from the start. And then unless Dell offers more in their configurator in the future, anyone looking to mix in gaming with any application that uses more than 32GB - i.e. certain types of rendering, photo or video editing, or virtualization work - will want to look elsewhere.

In addition, Dell inverted the motherboard inside the laptop, presumably because their cooling system worked better with it, so even if you wanted to some maintenance like clean the heatsinks from inside or redo the thermal paste on the CPU or GPU, you can't get to them just by taking the bottom cover off and unscrewing a heatsink. In such a case you'd need to disassemble a good chunk of the internals and take the motherboard out to even start getting access to these components. At least Dell supplies a detailed service manual on their site.

Battery Life

Let's be clear - the M17 R4 is not built for battery life at all, and is intended to be used on battery only when in a pinch. Even with light usage like web browsing, we're looking at some of the worst battery life (if not the actual worst) of nearly any 2021 gaming laptop so far. Sure, you can probably turn on the Quiet profile, use software like ThrottleStop to limit clock speed, and dim the screen down and you might squeeze 2 and a half hours of very basic usage out of the 86Whr battery, but obviously that's still pretty terrible. 

And as far as gaming on battery goes, the frame rates will suffer greatly due to the throttling circuitry in the R4 (the same as basically every gaming laptop running on battery does now), and you won't even complete a lunch hour's worth of intense gaming before the laptop starts throwing critical battery alarms. In summary, it's not worth it to run this laptop on its battery for any longer than it takes you to find a socket and plug in.

With all of that said, I don't consider this a negative, as this laptop is very clearly intended for plugged-in usage. If you want to carry a laptop around the house while on a Zoom family meeting via webcam, or if you want something to toss in a bag for running around a college campus so you can type up notes during class, there are many cheaper, lighter, and more battery-friendly laptops that are perfectly suited for those jobs. 

Overall

For the roughly $1600-and-change price I paid for the Alienware M17 R4, Dell has packed a lot of power and a relatively premium feel into an impressive package. Every mobile computing platform has compromises of some kind, and here Alienware chose to take the hit on battery life, upgradeability, and a little bit on weight, size and shape (especially compared to competitors). And I would also say they compromised on allowing too much noise too, and there are at least a couple of competitors in 2021 that can game a little quieter than the machine we're talking about today, but they're still not whisper quiet - not while gaming - so I'm not going to fault Alienware on this.

My usual complaint about Alienware is that even with the newer toned-down look, the premium features they add do not justify the exorbitant price tags we often see, but with Dell at least occasionally pricing these machines aggressively to really compete (my guess is they're doing this on their current laptop line to make way for the new models sporting 11th-gen Intel CPUs coming in just a few months), then this one comes highly recommended assuming you have no issues with the trade-offs mentioned above. And if you look Dell up and see they're still asking for $2000 or more for this machine, then I'd recommend waiting on a proper sale and decent promo code before clicking that Buy button. 






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