The gaming laptop that's so smooth it Hz.
For the uninitiated, a first foray into the world of PC gaming can be an undoubtedly overwhelming experience. With a near infinite amount of choice, ranging from pre-built desktops, sleek and slim netbooks ideal for office work, all the way through to complex custom builds glowing with RGB and filled with so many fans they're at risk of taking off. It's a bit daunting really.
However, almost 10 years ago, I was introduced to the world of gaming laptops by a late friend of mine. His hand-me-down Alienware m17x gaming laptop was an absolutely colossal unit - a powerful machine in 2012; built like a brick and twice as heavy. Although not the most portable of devices, this laptop allowed me to explore PC gaming on the go with minimal compromise. Being able to take games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas with me while moving to/from residential college over the semester break is a fond memory.
For this reason, I keep coming back to Alienware laptops. The flagship X17 - an absolute beast of a laptop - has been my device of choice over the last year and cemented my strong belief that uncompromised PC gaming has the potential to be portable. This is further proven in the newer design, the m15 R6, which provides a gaming experience on par with many desktops at only a fraction of the size. Starting at an RRP of $2899.00 through to a bank-breaking $4499.00 for its most powerful model, is this the portable PC experience to dethrone the desktop? Read ahead and find out.
Upon first glance, the overall design and aesthetic of the m15 R6 appears quite understated, sporting a sleek black matte finish and few eye-catching features when the device switched off. Once opened, the design of the R6 has a minimalist style that cannot be faulted.
Upon powering on, the laptop is bathed in a cool light blue glow thanks to its AlienFX lighting, which emanates particularly from a rear lightbar but also from the Alienware logos and keyboard. Would it really be considered a gaming laptop if every inch of it wasn't covered in RGB lighting?
Despite its sleek matte exterior, which initially is aesthetically pleasing, users will quickly find their devices easily covered in fingerprints, as this attractive finish comes at a cost. Every single particle of dust too seems to be glaringly obvious, so leaving the laptop open for days on end is not advised and a microfibre cloth will be your best friend if you invest in this device.
At a mere 23mm thickness, you'd be forgiven for thinking this device is just a standard run-of-the-mill laptop, as the era of chunky and cumbersome gaming laptops is quickly becoming history. Thankfully there are few compromises to the R6 in order to achieve this ergonomic design, which packs in more than enough hardware to satisfy almost every gamer. If using the laptop without an external screen, users who choose the Rolls Royce model will be treated to a ridiculously smooth visual experience, with an absurd 360Hz display enabled for GSync to provide tear-free gameplay.
When talking portability, one aspect that is often overlooked is the humble power adapter: a large brick of electricity that needs to be brought along with the laptop at all times to avoid disappointment mid-boss fight. Prior Alienware laptops, such as the Alienware M17 R3, seem to forget that ergonomic design for power supplies is crucial, expecting the user to cart around an adapter almost as hefty as the laptop itself. Design like this almost defeats the purpose of portability. Thankfully this has been addressed in the R6, which sports an optional small form factor adapter almost half the volume and a quarter lighter than its predecessor; a worthy investment for those who take their laptops on the go.
One serious perk of the R6 is its low-profile keyboard, which comes with either the stock standard Alienware keys, or a Cherry MX ultralow-profile mechanical keyswitches, each of which are in-built with their own individual lighting. The model provided for the purpose of this review included the premium option, which is an absolute pleasure to use for writing. Any user considering purchasing this laptop for a purpose other than gaming, whether taking this laptop to university or into the office, should seriously consider opting for the superior keyboard. It's a small difference the makes a massive improvement - I'd argue this is the most comfortable keyboard I've encountered on a laptop to date.
Leaving this laptop at home and setting up a work station of carefully placed peripherals and accessories might be preferable for some, but for users who prefer to take their devices on the go there are unfortunately some elements that detract from its practicality. If spending several thousand dollars on a device, one would expect to receive the complete package, but this is not necessarily the case.
The laptop includes several standard inputs: two regular USB ports on the right-hand side, one regular/one USB-C, and HDMI 2.1 on the rear, and an ethernet port and 3.5mm jack on the left-hand side. The complete lack of either an SD card or MicroSD slot is disappointing, particularly for a gamer/photographer like myself who is needing to regularly manage images or game data on MicroSDs. Carting around an adapter is tedious, especially when I could instead use my prior laptop without this worry.
It's also worth noting if you own Alienware peripherals, such as the 510H headset and 510K keyboard (both of which I use regularly), you're only going to be left with a single USB port available. This becomes another inconvenience, forcing users to consider to add USB hub or forego certain peripherals that are specifically designed for these devices. It's a small drawback, but an irksome one if moving the laptop regularly.
It wouldn't be a bold to assume that anyone purchasing a gaming laptop is likely to be using it almost only for the sole purpose of gaming, particularly due to the financial investment required. This is exactly where the m15 R6 comes into its own, allowing users to experience uncompromised PC gameplay at maximum visual fidelity. There are few games that will test the limits of this laptop, and for the purpose of this review I decided to use the benchmarks of three strenuous PC experiences: SteamVR, Forza Horizon 5, and the GPU-melting Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Each of these were run using the laptop's native resolution, 1920x1080, and best performance mode while plugged in.
If paying several thousand dollars for a piece of hardware such as this, one should expect it to perform flawlessly in even the most intensive situations, especially in a market where a console can hold its own at a fraction of the cost. So how does the m15 R6 hold up? Well, the real driving force behind this portable powerhouse is the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080, meaning you'll be able to pump up the graphics to the maximum on (almost) every game.
After running the game's performance benchmark, Forza Horizon 5 came in at a satisfyingly smooth 75fps on "Ultra" settings, which at moments manages to look even better than real life. Easily one of the most visually impressive games to date, and one of the most well-optimised, having the option to take Forza Horizon on the go should be reason enough to try out the m15 R6. You could even play it in the car if you're feeling game, though I wouldn't suggest that.
Pushing the graphical limits even further, Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) is arguably the new Crysis, with photorealistic graphics and vast environments pushing PCs to their limits and overheating them in the process. The game performs reasonably well on "Medium" settings in busy environments such as the New York City map (above), and runs similarly on "High" settings in more sparse environments. Holding a steady 40fps, the game is likely just outside of the capabilities of the R6, but still worth playing if you're not overly concerned about framerate.
My final test for the R6 was to check its capabilities for running VR through the SteamVR Benchmark, a simple visual test that any budding VR user should run prior to purchasing a headset. Having gotten hands on with the Valve Index earlier this year, having a device powerful enough to achieve a consistently smooth framerate at the highest possible settings has become one of my highest priorities.
The laptop passed this benchmark with flying colours, making it capable of running VR at a high standard; something that can't be said for many laptops on the market. Framerates during this test were generally between 90 - 100, slightly less than an ideal 120fps for VR gaming, but still enough for an immersive experience. Considering this is the future of gaming, it's definitely worth investing in a computer that can handle it.
When running these benchmarks and playing through various games, there is a notable difference in terms of laptop noise and heat. During general use or even less graphically intensive games, the fans remain almost completely silent. Flight Simulator, however, was something completely different, as the fans kicking in have a noise akin to a small aircraft. There's a need for fans like that though, as the GPU while playing Flight Simulator sat around 85°C and CPU at an uncomfortably warm 100°C (granted this was on a hot QLD summer day).
As mentioned earlier in the review, the R6 comes with a display capable of up to 360Hz framerate, an incredible (if not somewhat excessive) visual experience for those who like their games as smooth as expensive whisky. Although using the device in a darker indoor environment is likely for anyone who owns a gaming laptop, I was quite impressed at the lack of reflection when using the laptop in bright areas or even outdoors. The screen seems to be coated with a matte finish that minimises reflections an can be viewed easily from any angle.
Weighing between 2.4 - 2.6kg, this is by no means the lightest gaming laptop on the market, especially with competitors like the Razer Blade 14 coming in at almost 1kg less. But for size and weight of this device, the performance is more than adequate and given the option I would likely choose this over a larger, more powerful model simply due to its portability and ergonomic design.
Finally, battery life is a staple component of any laptop, and the R6 with its 86Wh battery lasts for approximately 2 - 3 hours of intensive gaming. Not incredibly impressive, but far from inadequate. So be sure to have the power adapter handy if you're gaming, as this does also improve the laptop's performance while plugged in, but otherwise expect to get about 7 hours of standard usage like word processing or a few browser tabs.
Having set the bar for gaming laptops since 2009, Alienware have continued to polish and refine their hardware for a more demanding market. No longer do gamers need to compromise on power in order to achieve portability, as the m15 R6 is an impressive portable powerhouse that provides an ideal combination of each. The price tag for particular models is somewhat justified when considering the individual components, particularly its graphics and display, though avid PC gamers won't be disposing of their desktops any time soon. If price is not a concern and users are looking for a portable laptop that can impress with its performance, the m15 R6 definitely deserves consideration.
So, why should you buy it?
You're new to PC gaming and looking for a simple, powerful portable option.
Sleek understated design and iconic AlienFX lighting.
Far more ergonomic compared to many prior Alienware laptops.
Premium model has an absurdly smooth refresh rate.
Base models can be purchased at very reasonable prices.
But why shouldn't you buy it?
Matte finish is aesthetically pleasing, but fingerprints very easily.
The more powerful X17 is a superior choice for those not concerned about size/weight.
Lack of some basic ports that many other models feature as standard.
A review unit with RTX3080 GPU and 360Hz display was kindly provided by Alienware Australia for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com