The Alienware m17 R4 is a pricey but superpowered gaming laptop with a secret weapon: A Cherry M X … [ ] mechanical keyboard.
If you sell laptops, how do you differentiate your high-end model from all the other gaming laptops out there? It’s hard to compete on specs alone, because a lot of brands can engineer hardware with great displays and powerful cooling. If you’re Alienware, you lean into a sci-fi aesthetic, offer the best possible components, and occasionally throw in something truly insane, like a Cherry MX mechanical keyboard. That’s an option with the Alienware m17 R4, one of the most remarkable laptops you can buy today. Of course, you’ll need as much as $3600 for the privilege.
And that highlights Alienware’s multifaceted reputation. Many gamers trust Dell’s boutique gaming brand to deliver unrivaled performance, while others suspect that you can get similar performance for less money elsewhere by not paying for the alien-head badge on the laptop lid. Regardless, the brand’s aggressive sci-fi aesthetic is as unmistakable as the brand’s pricing, which is generally on the higher end of the scale among gaming laptops.
So what does the m17 R4 have to offer? Is it worth the heart-stopping price tag or is the Alienware name adding to the hype? Let’s find out.
Price as tested: $3,610 | CPU: 10th Generation Intel Core i9-10980HK | Display: 17.3-inch 1920×1080 pixels, 300 nits, 360Hz | Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 | Memory: 32GB DDR4 2933Hz | Storage: 1TB (2X512GB RAID0) PCIe M.2 SSD Boot 512GB PCIe M.2 SSD Data | Battery life: Approximately 1:15 as tested | Weight: 6.55 pounds
Alienware computers are rarely subtle, but the m17 aesthetic is surprisingly mature without losing its fun vibe. It has the same overall look as last year’s m17 R3—the so-called “Legend” design—that features a flared spaceship-like LED-illuminated exhaust port in the back.
You can choose between two color schemes, Lunar White and Dark Side of the Moon; our test unit was the light Lunar White, which nicely complements the black bezel and rear exhaust port accents. The top of the deck, between the keyboard and display, features a pattern of honeycomb-shaped air intakes and an alien-head power button (which cleverly changes color to indicate whether you’re on AC or battery power and flashes maniacally when the battery is about to die).
And while you’ll never mistake this laptop for a slim & light portable, the m17’s dimensions are remarkably restrained. It’s 0.66 inches thick (except in the back, which rises to 0.82 inches) and weighs 6.6 pounds. I traveled across the country with this laptop, and while I’d have preferred to carry my three-pound HP, the m17 just barely fit in my regular laptop backpack and was fine to sling over my shoulder. The power brick is another matter; it’s 2 pounds 10 ounces and measures 8x4x2 inches. It took up so much room in my carryon bag that I opted to check a suitcase at the last minute so I’d have room for clothes.
You get a solid array of ports spread across three sides of the laptop. There’s a micro-SD slot and pair of USB 3.2 ports on the right as well as Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.2 and a headphone jack on the left. Around back, you’ll find the power brick connector, a Thunderbolt 3 port, HDMI 2.1, DisplayPort 1.4 and Alienware’s Graphic Amplifier port. That’s all good, though it’s disappointing that there’s just that single USB-C connector.
The laptop is made with magnesium alloy and finished in what Dell calls a “High Endurance Clear Coat” that protects the surface from wear and tear. And the large glass touchpad is both beautiful and effortless to use.
There’s a lot to talk about here, but surely the place to start is with what differentiates the m17 R4 from virtually every other gaming laptop on the market: The 17.3-inch 360Hz display.
There are several display options available for the R4, but if you’re interested in this laptop, I’d drive straight past the 144Hz HD and even the 4K UHD option to get the 360Hz G-Sync HD display. It’s simply stunning, covering 100% of the sRGB color gamut and 80% of the DCI-P3 gamut, generating a vivid and readable 300 nits of brightness.
Complementing the 360Hz display is Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080. (The GeForce RTX 3060 and 3070 are also available, but Dell delivered this test unit with Nvidia’s current state of the art.) Note that this is the full mobile version of the GeForce RTX 3080, not a hobbled Max-Q design, and paired with Alienware’s upgraded cooling system to keep temperatures in check.
The review unit came packed to the gills with performance components, and while it costs a premium, it’s the best way to experience the R4. If I had the money, this is exactly the configuration I would buy. The 10th generation Intel Core i9-10980HK offered 8 cores and a 16MB cache, and is ready to overclock directly from the Alienware Command Center desktop software. It also featured 32GB DDR4 RAM and 1.5 TB of SSD storage—a pair of 512GB drives configured with RAID0 for your boot drive and a third 512GB SSD for the data drive. Whatever storage configuration you buy (and there are a lot of options), make sure it’s the capacity you want, because these drives are soldered down.
You’d expect stellar experience with all that hardware, and that’s what you get; the m17 R4 posted solid numbers in a few common benchmark tests. Focusing on the CPU, it earned 3,993 on the Cinebench R20. Compare that to another of our favorite gaming rigs, the Razer Blade Pro 17, which mustered 2,566 thanks to its more modest Intel Core i7 processor.
The Razer Blade Pro 17 is a more even match in the graphics department, because both are equipped with the GeForce RTX 3080. 3DMark’s Time Spy test is an industry standard for assessing a gaming PC’s performance with DirectX 12, and the Alienware scored 11,414 compared to Razer’s 9,432. Likewise, the 3DMark Fire Strike test evaluates DirectX 11 performance. The Alienware scored 23,128 compared to Razer’s 19,180.
Synthetic tests are one thing; I was more interested in how it held up to actual gaming. The m17 R4 didn’t bat an eye no matter what I threw at it. Watch Dogs 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 were buttery smooth, clocking 75 fps or more with all the graphics settings dialed up. The same was true of Grand Theft Auto 5, which generally hit triple digit frame rates. And I was finally able to enjoy a flight around Manhattan in Microsoft Flight Simulator, which has a tendency to chug on my RTX 2080 desktop. I saw brilliant colors, sharp graphics and never a hint of tearing in any games. It was nothing short of breathtaking as I took off from EWR, buzzed my childhood neighborhood in Jersey City, and flew around the Empire State Building at highest image settings.
The sound system is adequate but uninspired—it features a pair of woofers and tweeters that fire downward and don’t distort even when you top out the volume. But the audio is seriously lacking in bass and the fans compete for your attention. They’re almost always running and can get pretty loud. With a jet-engine whine always in the background, you’ll want to use headphones with this laptop whenever you can.
Speaking of that jet engine whine, this laptop definitely gets hot. The chassis extension behind the laptop lid, as well as the honeycomb pattern above the keyboard reached about 142 degrees during gameplay. Even the keyboard got moderately warm (as much as 120 degrees), but it was never uncomfortable to use.
The display is admittedly impressive, but the biggest surprise in this year’s m17—and the what differentiates it from all other laptops in general—is its low-profile mechanical keyboard (an optional upgrade from the standard membrane keyboard, but the R4’s signature feature and well worth the price). That’s right; you get a true mechanical keyboard here, engineered in partnership with Cherry MX. If like me you’re a fan of mechanical keyboards, you’ll love this with the first clack. They keys have a satisfying feel and sound, and an authoritative 1.8mm travel without the slightest hint of mush.
Caveat: Dell chose to make the top row—mainly comprising Function keys—a row of membrane keys for some reason, so don’t be surprised when they feel mushy and lack the satisfying clack of the rest of the keyboard.
My first question when I sat down with this laptop: What color are the switches? Cherry MX Red? Blue? Brown? The answer is: None of the above. These switches are custom designed for the m17 R4 and don’t conform to the usual Cherry color chart, though if pressed (no pun intended), I’d say they behave most like Blues, with a satisfying click at the top of the travel.
Under the hood, the switches look nothing like what you’d expect. They resemble scissor-style switches, necessary to reduce the height from Cherry’s usual 11.9mm low-profile switch down to just 3.5mm. But they feel like true mechanical switches and are a joy to use, both for typing and gaming. Each key has its own switch, which means it has true N-key rollover, and I never encountered any hint of ghosting during gameplay. Alienware sweetens the deal with per-key lighting, controlled from the Alienware Command Center.
If I had any concerns about this keyboard, it would mainly be in the lighting; only the key’s primary function is illuminated, making the secondary functions absolutely invisible if you’re typing in low light. And incidentally, don’t look for a key-puller in the box with the laptop; you can’t replace these keycaps like you can with most mechanical keyboards.
It goes without saying that when you pack a laptop with a 17-inch display, GeForce RTX 3080 GPU and an Intel Core i9 processor, you’re not going to get all-day battery life. Even so, I expected a little more than I got; when set to the best performance end of the battery slider, I was able to run for no more than one hour and 15 minutes. The m17 R4 did better in Battery Saver mode, which optimizes the laptop to run as long as possible at the cost of performance. In that mode, it managed 2 hours and 5 minutes, and even that is barely half of what you’ll get from the Razer Blade Pro 17.
It turns out that the laptop’s 360Hz display soaks up power like a dry sponge. When I forced the display to step down to a more typical 60Hz refresh rate, Battery Saver mode was able to run for 3 hours and 10 minutes. If all you’re using the laptop for is productivity and web browsing, that’s a practical way to get more life from the battery, but if you routinely use the m17 R4 at the lower refresh rate, you don’t deserve to own it and I will personally come to your house and take it away from you.
The bottom line: This laptop is simply not useful unless you bring the power brick with you, but given the total heft, I suspect few actual users will move this desktop replacement around very often. That doesn’t make it bad for the cause. If you need a beast of an all-in-one system with enough power to handle the most intense games and heavy multimedia applications–and you occasionally want to bring it with you without lugging towers and monitors around–the Alienware m17 R4 does it as good or better than pretty much anything else on avail.
As tested, this Alienware m17 R4 clocks in at a considerable $3,610. That’s a lot of money—arguably, too much money for a gaming laptop. But you’re getting a tremendous value for the investment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a faster laptop, and even with an 11th generation Intel Core i9 you probably won’t get a noticeably better performance; it’s the RTX 3080 that’s doing the heavy lifting here, and that’s going to be the state of the art for a while. Throw in the mechanical keyboard and 360Hz display, and you have a formidable machine that should resist obsolescence a little longer than most high-end laptops.
But just as importantly, all these parts work together to give you a laptop that’s functional, ergonomic and fun to use. I never felt like I was fighting with the laptop or struggling to make it work for me. Dell also thoughtfully ships its Alienware laptops free of “crapware,” so you get a pretty clean Windows 10 install save the single My Alienware utility that includes the Alienware Command Center.
You’ll never confuse this with a thin and light laptop, but it’s hard to complain about its … [ ] specifications.
Is it super portable? Of course not, and it would be crazy to expect this desktop replacement gaming laptop to compete with a thin and light. Even so, it’s less than an inch thick despite its formidable components and massive cooling, so its not as hard to carry around as you might expect.
All that said, you certainly don’t have to buy the configuration I tested. You can ease back on the CPU, get less SSD, step down to the 144Hz display or even dump the Cherry MX switches in favor of the default membrane keyboard. A more modest configuration can get you an m17 R4 for as little as $2,000. But here’s my opinion: That would be a mistake. If your budget can make room for the m17 R4, definitely order one—and don’t skimp on the upgrades.
I’m a senior editor at Forbes and though I started out in New Jersey, I am currently living in Los Angeles. After college, I served in the Air Force where I operated
I’m a senior editor at Forbes and though I started out in New Jersey, I am currently living in Los Angeles. After college, I served in the Air Force where I operated satellites, taught space operations and performed space launch planning.
After that, I spent eight years as a content lead on the Windows team at Microsoft. As a photographer, I have photographed wolves in their natural environment; I have also been a scuba instructor and co-hosted several podcasts that include Battlestar Recaptica and currently, Rick and Dave Control the Universe.
I am the author of nearly three dozen books about photography, mobile tech, and more; I’ve even authored an interactive storybook for kids. I have contributed to sites including CNET, PC World and Business Insider before joining the team at Forbes Vetted.
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