One reason folks buy Alienware is guaranteed premium performance, and this AMD variant generally delivers on the pedigree (but not without a few hurdles). The synthetic tests we run on gaming laptops say as much, and so do the games. Here's how it fared:
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 89,348; Cloud Gate: 17,444; Fire Strike: 4,727
- Cinebench CPU: 627 cb
- Bioshock Infinite: (1080p, Ultra): 47.08 fps; (1080p, Low): 146.38 fps
- Metro: Last Light: (1080p, Ultra): 14.33 fps; (1080p, Low): 36.67 fps
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hours and 15 minutes
As you can see, the AMD R9 M290X in this rig just about destroys 3DMark Fire Strike, not to mention its rival gaming laptops. The Asus G750JX scored a meager 3,123 points in comparison, while the MSI GS70 Stealth fared even worse at 2,211.
As for the games, the machine trounced the best of Bioshock Infinite at a smooth 47 frames per second on average, while the GS70's GTX 760M clocked a still-playable 42 fps. However, Metro: Last Light brought this Alienware to its knees – a reality check for those hoping for top- tier performance from a mobile GPU. (The Asus model was not tested on either game.)
Don't bother bemoaning the battery
Discussing the battery in a 17-inch gaming rig is almost moot, but the power-friendly Haswell chip inside did all it could to keep this monster alive. In my own test, the Alienware lasted a bit longer than on PCMark 8: 3 hours and 6 minutes. That was on the "Balanced" Windows power setting with the AlienFX lighting turned on, the volume at 10% and screen brightness at 50%. That also included streaming high bitrate audio via Spotify, running Google Chrome with 10 to 15 tabs, a heavyweight chat app and TweetDeck.
Cutting the lights and dimming the screen even further could eke out another 30 minutes or so, maybe, but that's not the point. The Alienware 17 wasn't designed to follow you from outlet to outlet, but rather for raw performance. (The included power brick weighs a pound or two on its own for a reason.)
Don't even bother trying to game on this laptop while on its battery. AMD's Enduro graphics switching technology will instantly turn the graphics chip off in favor the integrated Intel GPU, anyway. Speaking of which, how does AMD's latest handle, say, the Call of Duty makers' latest?
Driving me up a wall
There is one area in which Nvidia is clearly far ahead of AMD: drivers. Updating drivers on an Nvidia GPU, whether it's a mobile or desktop chip, happens with a single button press through the company's GeForce Experience app.
Given that Alienware equipped this laptop with AMD's best yet, naturally I fired up the latest major PC shooter, Titanfall. It was immediately noticeable that performance wasn't nearly where it should be for a graphics chip this powerful, even for mobile.
So, I attempted to update the driver through AMD's Driver Autodetect tool, which mistook the Radeon HD R9 M290X for the Radeon HD 8970M and overwrote the driver with an incorrect version. This led to a host of performance and detection issues that eventually forced me to reinstall the graphics adapter entirely.
The confusion is somewhat understandable, considering the only difference between these two GPUs is that the M290X packs double the video RAM. Nevertheless, AMD has plenty of work to do in simplifying this process for players.
Performance to match the panache?
After the dust settled on the driver debacle, the R9 M290X more than lived up to its $2,000-plus asking price as I stomped through the war torn streets of Titanfall. However, this was only after settling some nasty switchable graphics issues.
I've found that AMD's Enduro graphics switching requires some serious massaging, from flagging games in AMD's Catalyst Control Center (to guarantee that the GPU is active during play) to restarting to system. You know, just to make sure things are really in order – and it works.
While using FRAPS to read frame rates, I locked Titanfall's texture settings to "high" at 1920 x 1080 resolution, with vertical sync and 2x anti-aliasing enabled. The result was me staring down the boots of various robots at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second. Only in particularly chaotic scenes did the frame rate drop to 45 fps, but I'll take it.
As for MMOs with vast vistas and deep draw distances, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV ran at a silky 60 fps at high to maxed detail settings. With marquee shooters like Destiny on the horizon, this Alienware 17 should be able to keep up, so long as AMD gets Enduro in order.
BYOK (Bring Your Own Keyboard … and mouse)
The Alienware 17 keyboard, closer to the mechanical gaming keyboards of old than the membrane keys found on most laptops, offers near-perfect travel and spacing. However, typing on a surface raised nearly an inch off the desk was a struggle, especially in games that rely heavily on the WASD keys.
My fingers and wrist quickly cramped while conquering the dungeons of Azeroth, if only due to the extra height I had to lift my arm to reach the number keys. If your desk is tailored to typing at a certain height, put the Alienware 17 on a stand and pick up a gaming keyboard.
And while the backlit touchpad offers smooth scrolling and tracking throughout Windows 7, it's nothing to game on. That said, with comfortable, soft-touch palm rests, this keyboard should serve you well in a pinch. Plus, the lighting is simply brilliant.
Alienware is visibly aware of the stigma against bloatware, and as result only includes its own proprietary software. Collectively known as the Alienware Command Center, this suite of apps controls all of the system's unique features:
- AlienFX: Control all of the lighting zones on the unit, giving each a unique hue and intensity. It's all done through intuitive color wheels for simplicity.
- AlienTouch: Tweak the Alienware 17 touchpad's sensitivity and other features. You can disable the touchpad automatically upon using a mouse too, though I had trouble getting the touchpad to turn back on after resuming from sleep.
- AlienFusion: Here, you can adjust how certain components, like the GPU and Wi-Fi adapter, behave under certain conditions or when running certain apps.
- AlienAdrenaline: Temporarily get rid of extraneous Windows processes in one step upon launching a game with this tool, though the effect on performance is minimal.
- Alienware TactX: Here is where users can program the four dedicated macro keys on the Alienware 17 keyboard. Users can also share profiles tailored to specific games.