Dell Alienware 18 gaming laptop

Dell’s massive Alienware 18 is more ‘portable desktop’ than laptop, but can it justify its massive price?

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Alienware Alienware 18
  • Alienware Alienware 18
  • Alienware Alienware 18
  • Alienware Alienware 18

Pros

  • Desktop-like gaming performance
  • Solid and stylish build
  • Great keyboard with gaming macro keys

Cons

  • Weighs 5.5kg, 58mm thick
  • Costs about double an equivalent desktop

Bottom Line

An excellent desktop replacement for serious gamers, let down only by its ultra-premium price.

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Dell’s Alienware 18 is a 5.5kg behemoth of a gaming ‘laptop’, with an equally massive price (ours was NZ$6,996/AU$5,140) and desktop-like specs. Why would you ever consider such a terrifyingly large and expensive piece of kit? Let’s start with a little background (or skip ahead to the review if you’ve already got the picture).

The ‘why’ of it all

Whatever badly-written television comedies will have you believe, PC gaming is not exclusively the domain of basement dwelling shut-ins. In fact, both casual PC gaming and organised eSports are only becoming more and more social. Just look at the global phenomenon of BarCraft, where StarCraft fans get together to watch – not even play, but watch – live webcasts of competitive matches. At a bar.

When PC gamers get together to play, however, there’s a common impediment: carting around a full-sized gaming PC, monitor and keyboard is a logistical challenge. If you don’t own a car (or the gaming session involves ingestion of fermented beverages and you wish to avoid driving), upgrade that to ‘logistical nightmare’. Don’t doubt, it’s still commonly done – many companies sell special bags or slings designed to carry around your desktop PC and monitor, while some gaming PC cases have integrated handles for portability.

The obvious solution is a laptop, but there’s usually a big compromise involved. If you play something like StarCraft, XCOM or Minecraft, you’ll probably be okay with any decent high-spec ‘personal’ laptop. Even a high-spec Ultrabook might do you. However, FPS players wanting to fire up the latest Call of Duty or Battlefield title will generally have to turn the graphics right down from what you could manage on a desktop.

Before you jump in: yes, true ‘hardcore’ competitive gamers turn most graphical settings right down anyway, because all of those super-realistic explosions and clouds of smoke are distracting as a hyperactive unicorn at the abattoir. We’ll ignore those players: if you’re that hardcore, you probably know exactly what you do and do not need out of a gaming PC.

So. For those gamers who do want to dial all of the settings up to eleven, but don’t want to carry a thigh-high tower case and 23-inch monitor when attending LAN events, you have massive laptops like the Alienware 18.

In review: Build

The Alienware 18 is not ‘portable’ like an Ultrabook, or even like a conventional laptop. It weighs 5.47kg (give or take, depending on configuration). It’s 58mm thick – that’s as thick as some smartphones are wide. It has an 18.4-inch screen. It’s huge. However, it’s a whole lot more portable than a tower case, external monitor and keyboard, and there’s the sell.

Intimidation: Alienware's AlienFX lighting may be largely pointless, but looks amazing.
Intimidation: Alienware's AlienFX lighting may be largely pointless, but looks amazing.

As with all of Alienware’s designs, the 18 is elaborately decorated with sharp edges, imposing black ventilation grilles, user-controllable ‘AlienFX’ lighting and the company’s trademark alien-head logo on the lid. Take that, Apple fans, with your smooth rounded corners and glowing fruit.

We found the build on the Alienware 18 sturdier than previous generations – despite the showy style, the build feels exceptionally solid and not at all plasticy. The same is true of its smaller sibling, the Alienware 14 (review to come).

Over a third of the 18’s baseplate, and two-thirds of its rear, are made up of fine metal grilles for air circulation. It has a tendency to heat up whatever’s below it – if the size isn’t indicative enough, this is not a laptop you would actually use on your lap.

Keyboard and touchpad

Alienware’s keyboard layout is very close to the US standard, with full-sized arrow keys and a full numeric keypad that MMORPG fans will adore. Another very welcome addition is a row of six programmable macro keys along the left-hand edge, and four more above the numeric keypad.

Six programmable macro keys are well-positioned to the left of the keyboard.
Six programmable macro keys are well-positioned to the left of the keyboard.

A standard touch for Alienware, the ‘S’ key has a little raised marker to help gamers locate the WASD cluster, just as ‘F’ and ‘J’ have markings for touch-typists on standard keyboards.

The keyboard is backlit with Alienware’s controllable AlienFX lighting, as is the touchpad (both pad surface and buttons).

Key travel is as deep as we’d expect from a laptop – i.e. not very – but that can work well for gaming where quick response is required. Keys have a clear tactile ‘click’ at the point of activation, and we didn’t notice any problems with ghosting during gameplay.

The touchpad is large and responsive. It would be fine for playing something non-twitch-based like Civilization V or XCOM (we tested it with the latter), but come on – you have an 18-inch laptop, of course you’re going to carry a mouse around with it.

The backlit touchpad is a nice touch.
The backlit touchpad is a nice touch.

Display

The 18.4-inch non-touch display has a glossy finish – we preferred the far less reflective matte finish on the Alienware 14, which doesn’t appear to be an option on the 18. However, if you tend to stick with stereotypes and play in a completely darkened room, the glossy finish does look great when there are no external light sources for it to reflect.

The resolution is 1920 x 1080, giving roughly 120 pixels-per-inch. That’s actually kinda low, when you consider how close you sit to a laptop screen due to the built-in keyboard. However, it’s a fine balancing act. Raising the resolution would make for a sharper display, but also decrease in-game framerates by adding a bunch more pixels to the equation.

It’s easier to see pixelation in text, vector art or high-resolution still images, than in fluidly-animated game graphics. If you want a great gaming experience and a minimum of motion sickness, framerate matters more than pixels. If the Alienware 18 were designed for photo editing, or CAD, we might say the resolution is too low for the panel size and viewing distance. As this is a laptop engineered from the ground-up for gaming and gaming alone, we think Alienware struck the right balance.

Unfortunately we didn’t have the Alienware 18 long enough to run detailed display tests – we were focused on extra gaming tests. Colours seemed accurate to the naked eye, contrast was good and animation was fluid – we wouldn’t endorse it for photographers or image editors without those detailed results, however. As a display for gaming, we weren’t at all disappointed.

Specs

As with most of Dell’s products, the Alienware 18 comes in a variety of user-modifiable configurations ranging from NZ$4,999/AU$3,499 upwards to the pricing of our model and beyond to the moon.

Our model, stamped ‘P19E001’ on the base, shipped with a 4th Generation (Haswell) Intel Core i7-4900MQ processor, with 4 cores, hyperthreading, 8MB cache and a clock speed of 2.8-3.8GHz. Backing that up was 32GB of DDR3L-1600 RAM, the most we’ve had in a laptop to date.

Graphics is where it gets a little nuts. NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 780M is a powerful mobile graphics card. Our Alienware 18 had two of ‘em, with 4GB of dedicated GDDR5 graphics memory, in SLI (NVIDIA’s multi-graphics-card setup). That proved more than enough to run contemporary games at high quality settings, at the screen’s native 1920x1080. More on performance later.

Storage – again, in the specific model we tested – was a 256GB mSATA SSD configured as the boot drive, with a 7200RPM 750GB hard drive for secondary storage. We installed all of our benchmark applications and test games to the SSD – the hard drive was not used in our testing at all.

The Alienware 18 includes a slot-loading Blu-ray reader/DVD writer, useful for installing retail boxed copies of games.
The Alienware 18 includes a slot-loading Blu-ray reader/DVD writer, useful for installing retail boxed copies of games.

Finally, Alienware makes good use of the thick build by including a slot-loading Blu-ray reader/DVD writer. With most mainstream PC games still available on DVD, that’s a useful thing to have on a dedicated gaming laptop. New Zealanders might find this slightly more of a plus than Australian customers – limited broadband data caps and download speeds can make the retail-boxed edition of a game slightly more attractive on the south side of the Tasman.

Performance

In raw CPU terms, measured by our usual set of synthetic benchmarks, the Alienware 18 performed well. In fact, it gave the best performance we’ve seen from a laptop in tasks like data compression, software-based rendering and photo manipulation. Its one weak point was video transcoding, as the dedicated rather than on-chip graphics solution precludes the use of Intel’s Quick Sync video transcoding engine.

None of those synthetic benchmark results are particularly relevant to the Alienware 18, however. It’s a machine built with one purpose in mind: gaming.

What left us with raised eyebrows was the performance we saw in real-world gaming tests. 83.5 frames-per-second at ‘Ultimate’ quality in Tomb Raider (2013). 109fps at ‘Very High’ in the original Crysis. 111fps at ‘High’ in Metro: Last Light. 79fps on ‘Ultra’ in Saints Row IV. There is no clearer way to illustrate the results than simply listing those average framerates.

In simple terms, there was nothing we could not play on the Alienware 18. There was nothing in our test suite that we could not play at its highest settings. Unfortunately we were unable to get Max Payne 3 running (a Steam backup-restore issue, confirmed unrelated to the laptop itself), which might have offered some resistance. However, the performance in Tomb Raider (2013) and Metro: Last Light were particularly telling, both fairly demanding titles.

Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 ranked the Alienware 18, based on the company’s globally collected results, as much closer to a ‘gaming desktop’ than ‘gaming laptop’. It scored almost double the highest results we’ve seen from any laptop to date.

The power supply, like the laptop itself, is massive.
The power supply, like the laptop itself, is massive.

Another point of difference to other gaming laptops we’ve tested is the Alienware 18’s ability to run graphically-demanding games at playable framerates while running on battery power. Most gaming laptops simply revert to the performance of ‘normal’ laptops when the power cable is pulled, regardless of how many ‘maximise performance’ settings you tweak in Windows or the graphics drivers.

There is a huge framerate drop when unplugging the Alienware 18, to be sure: at ‘normal’ quality we saw just 21% the framerate (of mains power) in Tomb Raider (2013), and 37% in Crysis. As we started with such high framerates, though, that still works out to averages of 55 and 60fps respectively, with minimums of 49 and 31fps. Not ideal, but completely playable.

Battery life was less than 60 minutes of Crysis (used for that test primarily because of its in-game laptop battery gauge), which reinforces the ‘mobile desktop’ use case.

The battery on the Alienware 18, while able to sustain gameplay, is more like a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) on a desktop: it stops the laptop from crashing when someone trips over a power cable at the LAN event you’re playing at, unplugging everyone sitting in your row. Given that such an event has occurred at every LAN I’ve been to, ever, the battery is neat to have.

You would not use the Alienware 18 to game on a trans-tasman flight, however. Even if it didn’t blow away your carry-on weight allowance and promise to collapse your tray table, it just doesn’t have the stamina.

Connectivity

Four USB 3.0 ports allow for a good collection of peripherals to be plugged in without a hub, with two ports on the left and two on the right. That’s useful for a wired or wireless gaming mouse, set up for either a left- or right-handed user (never underestimate the importance of port placement).

Dual headphone ports are useful at LAN events. Note the AlienFX strip-lighting between the black upper and silver lower sections of the case.
Dual headphone ports are useful at LAN events. Note the AlienFX strip-lighting between the black upper and silver lower sections of the case.

A dedicated microphone socket allows for analogue gaming headsets (i.e. those that don’t connect via USB), and there are two headphone sockets: good for LAN use where everybody is wearing a headset and you want to share a YouTube clip with a friend. We do wish there was an optical output for super-high-end gaming headsets such as those made by Astro Gaming, to get the best sound quality possible.

An HDMI port serves as either output for an external screen, or an input to use the Alienware 18’s massive display as a monitor. Great if you’re at a LAN with both your laptop and console, and don’t want to bring a separate screen for the latter. There’s also a mini DisplayPort connection for higher-resolution screens than HDMI can drive – given the graphical prowess of the Alienware 18, that’s well worth having. Though we ran all of our benchmarks at the native 1920x1080, the results suggest that you could easily drive a 2560x1440 or similarly high-res display at playable framerates.

Gigabit Ethernet, optional 802.11ac ultrafast Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0 round out the connectivity. If you don’t opt for an 802.11ac-capable model, you still get 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. Gamers tend to prefer wired connections for gameplay anyway, so the Ethernet port is the real critical point.

Overview

The Alienware 18 is a laptop that walks like a gaming desktop. Downside? It’s going to cost you about twice as much as a gaming desktop of equivalent performance. Upside? It’s going to be much less than half the size.

Unless you are one of the world’s few professional gamers, Dell’s Alienware 18 is a luxury item. It is a Lamborghini of Laptops, a Porsche of Portables.

If you can afford to drop five, six grand on a gaming laptop, we thoroughly recommend this one – it’s not going to disappoint you. You’re going to feel like you got your money’s worth.

Just remember to keep paying your gym membership, or you’ll have a hard time carrying the Alienware 18 around.

Price:NZ$6,996/AU$5,140 (configured as tested)

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