A finely balanced 17in gaming laptop with a superb 4K display
- Bright 4K display
- AMD SmartAccess Graphics
- Optional mechanical keyboard
- Good value
- No DLSS support
- Mediocre webcam
- Slow USB ports
The Alienware m17 is the slightly older, fatter, less stylish brother to the rather stunning x17. That may not sound like a glowing introduction, but the m17 is cheaper than the x17 and is now available as an AMD Advantage model which, as the name suggests, combines an AMD processor and GPU. The burning question, however, is whether this AMD pairing can hold its own against the Intel and Nvidia double acts inside the Alienware x17 and rival 17in models from ROG and Razer.
Alienware m17 R5 review: What you need to know
AMD Advantage is the banner under which AMD is promoting machines that run on AMD’s Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs. The pitch is that by using integrated components from the same manufacturer rather than from two – Intel and Nvidia obviously – you’ll see benefits in performance and efficiency.
Judging by our experience with the Lenovo Legion 5 AMD Advantage there is some substance to AMD’s claims. That said, there is one major distinction to be made here: the Legion 5 is an affordable gaming laptop while the new m17 costs more than twice as much. Expectations will be higher. Much higher.
Also, the all-new all-AMD Alienware is up against some of the very best large-screen gaming laptops from the likes of ROG and Razer, as well as its Intel/Nvidia stablemates in the m17 and x17 lineups.
Luckily the m17 has a few arrows in its quiver, including a potent GPU with 12GB of vRAM, a lovely 4K display, Alienware’s trademark styling and a price that’s quite a bit lower than the similarly specified competition. All in all, it looks to be a pretty tasty package.
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Alienware m17 R5 review: Price and competition
Configuration tested: AMD Ryzen 9 6900HX CPU, AMD Radeon RX6850M XT GPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, 17.3in 3,840 x 2,160 IPS non-touchscreen; Price: £2,769
With Alienware being part of Dell there is a typically wide range of options available, including two AMD processors, six GPUs (two AMD, four Nvidia) and five display options: Full HD 165Hz, Full HD 340Hz, Full HD 480Hz, 2.5K 165Hz and 4K 120Hz. The cheapest all-AMD machine will set you back £1,979, nearly £800 less than the machine we were given to review. If you max out the spec with 64GB of RAM, 4TB of storage and the optional mechanical keyboard, you’ll be spending £3,919.
Alienware’s x17 R2 stablemate is the most obvious competition, with an equally exquisite but thinner design. The cheapest 4K model will set you back £2,449, but raising the rest of the spec to more closely match the m17 R5 will push the price well over £3,000, and the optional low-profile mechanical keyboard adds another £100.
ROG’s 17.3in Strix Scar 17 is one for hardcore gamers and in terms of design is almost the quintessential gaming laptop with a Close Encounters RGB light show and a great keyboard. For £2,425 with an RTX 3070 Ti GPU it’s good value but the sharpest screen available is 2.5K.
The 4K version of the Razer Blade 17 is a beautifully understated but rather expensive machine. The superbly engineered chassis may eschew the typical gaming light shows, but the performance is epic and build quality beyond reproach.
If all these machines are a little too pricey, Acer’s 17.3in Nitro 5 may be the answer. Costing just under £2,000, it uses the same AMD Ryzen 9 chip as the m17 but couples an Nvidia RTX 3080 GPU with a 2.5K 165Hz display. When we reviewed the 15.3in version with an Intel Core i7 processor we were mightily impressed. As with the ROG machine, there’s no 4K option.
Alienware m17 R5 review: Design and build quality
The m17 may not be as stunning to look at as the slimmer x17, but the basic Legend 2.0 design language is the same – and that makes it the second-best-looking 17in gaming laptop on the market. Sadly you can’t specify the m17 with the Lunar Light white colour scheme of the x17 so you’re stuck with black (or Dark Side of the Moon, as Alienware calls it).
Common to all Alienware (and Lenovo Legion) machines is the way the hinge is set forward from the rear edge by 30mm. This brings the display a little closer to you while at the same time moving the main exhaust vents away from the display base. It’s always struck me as a clever piece of design.
Criticising a 17in gaming laptop for being big and heavy is like criticizing a Sumo wrestler for being chunky: it goes with the territory. That said, the m17 isn’t excessively bulky or heavy for the breed, weighing in at 3.3kg and measuring 397 x 299 x 26.7mm (WDH).
Scattered around the sides and back of the m17 you’ll find three 5Gbits/sec Type-A USB ports (two on the left, one at the back), a single 10Gbits/sec Type-C port, HDMI 2.1 video output and a drop-jaw 2.5G RJ45 LAN port. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack on the right side and a DC-in, which is sensibly positioned at the rear. There’s no memory card slot, but I can’t quibble too much about the rest of the choices – I’d maybe have liked the Type-As to be faster, but that’s about it.
The external light show (or AlienFX Lighting Zones to give them their proper name) is limited to a glowing LED strip around the rear of the chassis and the illuminated Alienware logos on the lid and keyboard deck, the last doubling as the power button. All are full RGB and support various lighting effects. As a system, it’s not as impressive as the ROG Scar Strix 17, but it does offer more than the Blade 17.
Unscrew the bottom panel and you’ll find easy access to two PCI-E 4 SSD slots, two DDR5 SODIMM memory mounts and the wireless card. Maximum system capacity is 64GB of RAM and 4TB of storage, and it’s nice to be able to upgrade to that from the 16GB/512GB entry level. The 97Wh battery looks as though it would come out without too much drama, which is handy if you need to replace it after a year or two.
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Alienware m17 R5 review: Keyboard, touchpad and webcam
The m17 is available with two keyboards: a standard membrane chiclet affair called the AlienFX keyboard and a low-profile mechanical version using Cherry MX keys. The latter adds £100 to the price but didn’t come fitted to our sample machine.
Not that the absence of mechanical keys is keenly felt: the standard keyboard is perfectly solid and responsive and there’s a decent amount of key travel. Alienware doesn’t specify how much travel but it doesn’t feel far short of the 1.8mm of the mechanical option.
Considering the size of the m17, the keyboard is not the most feature-laden. You get a row of volume keys on the far right and full-sized cursor keys in the corner below but there’s no numeric keypad which, given the absence of speaker grilles flanking the keyboard, seems like a missed opportunity.
As you’d expect there’s full per-key RGB backlighting, which can easily be controlled through the Alienware Command Centre app. Rather annoyingly, though, the backlight doesn’t illuminate any of the secondary graphics on the keycaps, which can make finding secondary symbols in the dark a challenge.
There are some useful little features. For instance, press the Fn1 key and the m17 goes into Performance Mode, which maxes out system performance and spins the fans up to full speed.
The touchpad is a bit on the small side at 115 x 80mm but works perfectly well. The corner click-action is positive, well-damped and quiet, and while it’s offset a little to the left for no obvious reason it doesn’t cause any problems.
The webcam is a very plain and typically grainy 720p affair that does the basic job but it does support Windows Hello IR facial recognition, which makes up for the lack of a fingerprint scanner.
Wireless duties are handled by a MediaTek MT7921 Wi-Fi 6 (so no 6E 6GHz reception) and Bluetooth 5.2 combination chipset.
The 1TB SSD in our machine was an SK Hynix affair and it proved reasonably fast, recording sequential read and write speeds of 4,899MB/s and 2,730MB/s respectively.
Alienware m17 R5 review: Display and audio
There’s a lot to like about the R5’s display. My colourimeter recorded an impressive maximum brightness of 478cd/m² and it’s very colourful. The display reproduced 140.2% of the sRGB colour space, 96.6% of Adobe RGB and 99.3% of DCI-P3. For a gaming laptop, it’s pretty colour accurate, too, with a Delta E variance of 2.9 suggesting that only the most trained eyeballs will notice any colour deviations at all.
The 4K resolution produces a stunningly crisp 255dpi pixel density on the 17.3in panel, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if the high pixel density is worth the trade-off for a relatively low 120Hz refresh rate. If you crave a higher refresh rate then the 360Hz or 480Hz Full HD options may be a better fit.
As you’d expect at this price the m17 has a multiplexer switch, but it also features AMD’s SmartAccess Graphics. Similar to Nvidia’s Advanced Optimus, this acts as an automatic MUX switch and connects the dGPU directly to the display without requiring a restart. It’s a great feature that works well with only one small foible: there are a few seconds of stall when the system switches between the two graphics processors.
It’s no surprise to find that the AMD GPU doesn’t support Nvidia’s proprietary G-Sync adaptive sync technology but you do get AMD’s open-source FreeSync alternative.
The sound system consists of a brace of 2.5W speakers firing downwards out of two small grilles on the curved underside towards the front of the body. That doesn’t seem like an ideal arrangement, but it works rather well. The sound system is pretty loud, averaging 84dB from a pink noise source recorded at a 1m distance and delivering peaks of 87dB from a music source, and there’s a decent amount of bass and a spacious yet refined sound.
Alienware m17 R5 review: Performance and battery life
I expected this to be a tale of two components. On paper, the 8-core Ryzen 9 6900HX shouldn’t be a match for the latest 12-core Alder Lake Core i7 processors from Intel. However, the Radeon RX6850M XT GPU boasts a TGP of 140W and 12GB of vRAM, which sounds altogether more interesting.
Expert Reviews’ 4K media benchmarks returned a score of 385, the lowest in our comparator group. The GeekBench 5 scores told a similar tale and underlined the fact that Intel’s Alder Lake i7 and i9 chips have the legs on AMD’s Ryzen 9 CPUs.
AMD does claw back some ground when it comes to graphics performance. The M17 ran the SPECviewperf 3dsmax 3D modelling test (at 1080p) at 139fps, within a frame or two below the Razer Blade 17 and Alienware x17 R2.
When it comes to gaming the elephant in the room is the absence of Nvidia’s trick DLSS AI upscaling technology. AMD has its own version called FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR), but while it can produce impressive results it’s not as clever nor as widely supported. If you’re interested in the current level of support for each upscaling tech, then check out a list of FSR games here and a list of DLSS supporting titles here.
The m17 ran the Hitman 2 benchmark at 68.9fs at 1080p, which is close to the best efforts of the ROG Scar Strix 17. Increasing the resolution to 4K saw the framerate drop to 20fps, but knocking the Super Sampling down to 1, again at 4K, pushed the frame rate back up to 77fps.
Our usual Wolfenstein: Youngblood benchmark, which we used to judge the impact of upscaling and ray tracing on performance, isn’t much use here: thanks to a proprietary Nvidia API you can’t run it with ray tracing on an AMD GPU. Without ray tracing enabled, the Alienware averaged an impressive 80fps at 4K. The m17 similarly aced Shadow of the Tomb Raider: with graphics details maxed out, it averaged 53fps at 4K and 130fps at Full HD.
To see how well AMD’s FSR works I ran the Horizon Zero Dawn benchmark at 4K with the highest detail settings. Without FSR it ran at 49fps, but with FSR enabled, which runs the game at 1440p and upscales the output to look like 4K, it jumped to 92fps.
Rounding off with Metro Exodus Enhanced, I settled on 2,560 x 1,440 with graphics set to Ultra, which gave me a frame rate of 43fps, a result that struck a happy balance between fluidity and detail. Dropping the resolution to Full HD upped the frame rate to 62fps. That’s the great thing about having a 4K display on a powerful gaming laptop: you can always choose between Full HD high settings and 4K low settings to find the optimum trade-off between smooth frame rates and image quality.
I was also impressed at the relative lack of noise from the fans even when running at full speed. Obviously you can hear them, but the noise is not what I’d call overly intrusive or annoying. The body gets rather hot at the back on the bottom so I wouldn’t recommend gaming on your lap, but there’s little sign of thermal throttling. Running the Metro Exodus benchmark for a full hour only saw the average frame rate drop from 62.3fps to 60.9fps.
In our standard battery rundown test, the m17 lasted 7hrs 2mins. This makes it the second-best performer in the group and only loses out to the ROG Scar Strix 17 by 13 minutes. Both machines leave the Nitro 5, x17 R2 and Blade 17 in the dust.
Alienware m17 R5 review: Verdict
The Alienware m17 R5 is a very nicely balanced machine. The optional 4K display offers superb image quality, gaming performance is good, especially at 1080p, and the build quality and styling are absolutely top drawer. Even the battery life is rather impressive. Factor in the rather reasonable price and this burly AMD-powered package shoves many contenders forcefully out of the ring.