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Gaming on the go doesn't need to break the bank. Starting at just $1,200 ($1,500 as tested), the Alienware 15 offers a solid mobile gaming machine with all the bells, whistles and customizable lighting that you've come to expect from Alienware. With a 1920 x 1080 anti-glare screen, Intel Core-i5 CPU, 16GB of RAM, combo 128GB SSD and 1TB HDD and an Nvidia GeForce 970M GPU, this affordable portable can push pixels fast, and even faster with the optional Graphics Amp. While the Alienware 15 isn't quite as sleek as other gaming notebooks, it also costs more than $500 less than competing systems from Razer and Gigabyte, and for that, it deserves some serious consideration.
When you buy an Alienware, you know it. The tri-section aluminum lid looks like paneling from a spaceship and features the trademark glowing alien head. The black carbon fiber body (Alienware says it's the lightest 15-inch system its ever made) offers a smooth matte finish, grilles in front that look like they came off of a Ferrari F40, and giant vents on the back and bottom. And because it's Alienware, almost every area features some sort of customizable lighting so you can announce your gaming cred with a flurry of colors.
At 15.2 x 10.6 x 1.34 inches and weighing 6.6 pounds, the Alienware 15 dwarfs both the 2015 Razer Blade (13.6 x 9.3 x 1.1-inches and 4.4 pounds) and the Aorus V3 Plus X3 (12.9 x 10.3 x 0.9-inches and 4 pounds) in size and heft, although the competing notebooks feature smaller 14-inch displays. The Alienware 15 is much closer to a desktop replacement than Razer and Aorus' more svelte machines, which are thin and light enough to carry around without breaking your back.
While I tend to prefer more spacious chiclet-style keyboards like the ones found on the Razer Blade and Aorus V3 Plus X3, I had no trouble adjusting to the Alienware 15's slightly more cramped layout. The keys have fairly deep travel for a laptop at 2.6 millimeters (1.5 mm is more standard), and a strong actuation force of 60 grams. This let me hit my typical 75 words per minute typing average on my first attempt at 10fastfingers.com.
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The keyboard also features a column of five programmable macro keys on the left side with a sixth up top for toggling additional presets, along with Alienware's signature multi-zone customizable backlighting.
Measuring 3.9 x 2.1 inches, the touchpad has plenty of room to move, but for serious gaming, you're still going to need a real mouse. Its two discrete keys have a squishy feel, as opposed to the more shallow clicky, one piece pads that have become more popular. The touchpad even gets the same backlit treatment seen on the keyboard, so you can illuminate the entire surface of the pad in your choices of colors and patterns.
Bucking the trend of glossy displays, the Alienware 15's IPS anti-glare screen is a joy to behold.
Alienware's Command Center is the heart of the system, consolidating four programs into a single app suite so there's just one place to go to control all pulsing lights and gaming functions on the laptop.
AlienFX allows you to customize the color, intensity and pattern of the backlighting, individually across all 10 lighting zones and using 20 different colors.
Alienware Adrenaline allows you to set up custom game environments for specific games, while TactX lets you create macros for use with the macro keys on the left side of the notebook.
Finally, AlienFusion provides a single place for configuring general laptop settings such as when the computer goes to sleep or what happens when you hit the alien head power button.
Bucking the trend of glossy displays, the Alienware 15's IPS anti-glare screen is a joy to behold. The 15.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 display lacks the slight haziness I've seen on non-reflective displays while also producing good brightness and vivid colors that make watching movies or games a pleasure. When I viewed the trailer for San Andreas, I got a sort of a guilty pleasure watching Mother Nature's towering blue tidal waves and building-shattering earthquakes turn Southern California into a detailed heap of broken glass and rubble. And with a screen that remains sharp and vibrant from almost any angle, it's easy to share a movie with a friend.
In our tests, the Alienware 15's screen produced 311 nits of brightness, slightly less than the 2015 Razer Blade's 337 nits, but significantly more than the Aorus V3 Plus X3 (200 nits) and the mainstream average of 246 nits.
In terms of color range, the Alienware 15 covers 97.5 percent of the sRGB spectrum, a few percent shy of a perfect 100, and a little more narrower than the Razer Blade (101.8 percent) and the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (106 percent). This means that you can view media almost exactly as its creators intended, without the oversaturated colors seen on other displays.
For color accuracy, the Alienware 15's Delta-E (closer to zero is better) of 1.33 is better than the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (10.7), but slightly worse than the Razer Blade (1.18).
The Alienware 15 features Klipsch stereo speakers positioned on the front side of the laptop, enhanced by Creative's Sound Core3D-EX DSP (digital signal processor) and paired with Sound Blaster Pro Studio audio software so you can customize a whole range of settings, including the equalizer, jack setup, mixer, sound positioning, voice recording and more.
When I listened to Daft Punk's "Instant Crush," featuring Julian Casablancas, I enjoyed the crisp highs, and delicate vocoder-driven vocals, and after I boosted the bass in Sound Blaster Pro Studio, the lows stood out instead of getting lost in the mids.
Even with copper heatsinks, the Alienware 15's cooling system doesn't keep it cool enough. On the Laptop Mag Heat Test, which involves streaming Hulu in HD for 15 minutes, only the touchpad (90 F) stayed below our 95 degree Fahrenheit comfort threshold.
The space between the G and H keys reached 99 degrees, with parts of the vent that spans the bottom of the laptop hitting an alarming 135 degrees. When positioned on your laptop, that vent goes across both legs, and at these temperatures could cause burns after prolonged exposure. Even when gaming on a desk, I noticed the deck became hot enough to cause my hands to sweat, resulting in a slippery keyboard and a less-than-ideal gaming environment.
A side benefit of the Alienware 15's gaming-focused design is that it also makes short work of typical workloads such as editing photos or streaming movies.
The Alienware 15 takes full advantage of the left, right and back sides to maximize connectivity. On the left, there are two USB 3.0 ports, separate headphone and microphone jacks and a port for power, while the right features Ethernet, an SD card reader and the remaining two USB 3.0 ports.
In back, there's HDMI and mini DisplayPort, along with the proprietary connection for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier.
The 2-MP webcam above the display takes pictures at 1920 x 1080 and videos at 30 fps. In a picture captured at our office, the camera did an impressive job capturing details in my shirt and hair. I just wish the photo were a little less grainy.
A side benefit of the Alienware 15's gaming-focused design is that it also makes short work of typical workloads such as editing photos or streaming movies. Featuring an Intel Core i5-4210 CPU and 16GB of RAM, even with 10 tabs open in Chrome and 15 photos open in GIMP, I had no trouble streaming 1080p movies from YouTube.
Alienware 15 (2015)
Aorus X3 Plus V3
Razer Blade (2015)
Category Average (as of 10/31/15)
When we ran Geekbench 3 to test overall system performance, the Alienware 15 scored 6,321. Unfortunately that's less than the 2015 Razer Blade (10,915 with an Intel i7-4720HQ, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD) and the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (12,863 with an Intel i7-4710HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM and dual 256GB SSDs), although both the Razer and the Aorus cost over $700 more, at $2,400 and $2,200, respectively.
For storage, the Alienware 15 features a 128GB M.2 SSD boot drive and a large 1TB 5400 rpm HDD. When we duplicated 4.97GB of mixed media files on the SSD, the Alienware 15 finished with a time of 49 seconds for a transfer rate of 103.9 MBps. That's behind the 2015 Razer Blade's 182 MBps and nearly triple the 299 MBps of the Aorus X3 PLus V3.
Using OpenOffice to match 20,000 names and addresses, the Alienware 15 finished in 4 minutes and 49 seconds. Once again, that's slower than the 2015 Razer Blade (3:46), the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (3:53) and the mainstream average of 4:27.
With its Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M GPU and 3GB of vRAM, the Alienware 15 can keep most games above 60 fps even at its native resolution of 1920 x 1080 and high settings. Intense battles in StarCraft 2: Heart of Swarm were fluid, even with a maxed out army of Battlecruisers, Vikings and Banshees blacking out the sky.
In World of Warcraft, the Alienware 15 pumped out 63 fps at 1920 x 1080 and max settings, about the same as the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (65 fps), but half that of the 2015 Razer Blade (124 fps), which also features Nvidia 970M GPUs.
In BioShock Infinite at the same settings, the Alienware 15 managed 66 fps, which was slightly behind the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (72 fps) and the Razer Blade (71 fps). In Metro: Last Light at 1920 x 1080 and high settings, the Alienware produced 27 fps, barely behind the Razer Blade's 28 fps and the Aorus X3 PLus V3's 29 fps.
If you aren't satisfied with the mobile graphics cards available on the Alienware 15, you can purchase the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, an external box that holds a desktop graphics card and connects to the notebook via the proprietary connector. Prices start at $200 for an empty Amplifier (for those who want to buy their own GPU), with an extra $200 for an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, and going up to $600 for a GTX 980 or an AMD Radeon HD R9 290X.
Aside from the obvious boost in graphics power, the Amplifier also doubles as a hub of sorts, so you can connect multiple monitors or peripherals to the Amp's array of connections, including four powered USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, DVI and two DisplayPorts.
When connected, our Graphics Amp with its Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 (non-mobile) card pushed the laptop's already potent gaming performance even further, with framerates increasing by around 25-30 percent. In World of Warcraft we even saw framerates jump a staggering 85 percent from 63 without the amp to 116 fps with the amp at 1920 x 1080 and max settings.
Gains were a little more modest in Metro: Last Light, increasing from 27 fps to 41 fps with the amp, again at 1920 x 1080 and high settings. In fact, Metro: Last Light was one of the few games I played that the Amp couldn't push above 60 fps; other games such as Dota 2, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Diablo III: Reaper of Souls consistently had framerates north of 60 at 1920 x 1080 and max settings.
On the Laptop Mag's Battery Test, the Alienware 15's 8-cell 92 Watt-hour battery lasted 6 hours and 18 minutes of continuous Web surfing at 100 nits of brightness. That's about 25 minutes longer than the mainstream laptop average of 5:54 and the Razer Blade (5:52), and 40 minutes longer than the Aorus X3 Plus V3 (5:38).
A base Alienware 15 starts at $1,200 for a 1920 x 1080 anti-glare display, Intel Core-i5-4210H CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB 7200 rpm HDD and an Nvidia GTX 965M GPU with 2GB of vRAM. From there you can customize almost every component, including storage, CPU, graphics, display resolution and the GPU inside the optional Alienware Graphics Amp.
Our midrange review unit looks to hit the sweet spot between price and performance at $1,500. It features a 1920 x 1080 display, Core-i5 4210H CPU, 16GB of RAM, Nvidia 970M GPU with 3GB of vRAM, a 128GB M.2 SSD boot drive and a 1TB 5400 HDD for storage.
If you've got money to burn, a fully loaded Alienware 15 tops out at a whopping $3,000 for a 3840 x 2160 touch screen, Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM, 256GB M.2 SSD, 1TB 7200 rpm HDD, Nvidia GTX 980M GPU with 4GB of vRAM and a Graphics Amplifier with a full-fat desktop GTX 980 graphics card with 4GB of vRAM.
Alienware starts with an almost pristine installation of Windows 8.1 and adds its Alienware Command Center 4.0 software suite and a short tutorial on how to connect and use your Graphics Amplifier if you choose to get one.
The Alienware 15 comes with one year of Alienware Enhanced Support, which includes in-home service after remote diagnosis, and 24/7 phone support. This can be extended up to four years for a total of $500. You can also downgrade to Alienware Basic Support for a $100 savings, which still features in-home service, but without the 24/7 phone support.
While our midrange Alienware 15 doesn't quite match the gaming performance of the 2015 Razer Blade or the Aorus X3 Plus V3, it's significantly more affordable. The optional Graphics Amp also means you can get performance unmatched by any laptop GPU, and at a total price of $2,300, it costs about the same as the Razer or the Aorus. If it wasn't for its poor heat management and thick, heavy case, the Alienware 15 might be the top choice for portable gaming. Even so, for gamers looking for affordable mobile gaming, the Alienware 15 offers a lot of value in a pricey market.