Introducing the Alienware M17x R4

Alienware recently updated their Bronze Editor's Choice award-winning M17x R4 gaming notebook to include Intel's Ivy Bridge processors and optional AMD Radeon HD 7900M series graphics or NVIDIA's new top end GK104-based GeForce GTX 680M GPU. With the move we also get mSATA support inside the chassis. The big draw with our review unit is the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M, which promises a substantial performance improvement over last generation's top end GTX 580M/675M, the kind of generational jump we haven't seen on the mobile side in some time.

At the same time, Alienware's M17x R4 remains largely unchanged while Clevo, MSI, and ASUS have all continued to incrementally update their gaming notebook designs. I've also had the privilege of owning my own M17x R3 over the past year and have new insights to offer on what it's like to live with this chassis design after an extended period of time. Is Alienware smart not to mess with what looks like a winning formula, or is the world passing them by?

With the M17x R4 I'm going to be a little lazy and refer you back to my review of the M17x R3. Why? Simply put, I can't find any changes between the two chassis all. Internally Alienware has definitely updated the M17x, but externally this is the exact same notebook and while I was in love with this design before, time hasn't been as kind to it as I'd like.

Alienware M17x R4 Gaming Notebook
Processor Intel Core i7-3720QM
(4x2.6GHz + HTT, 3.6GHz Turbo, 22nm, 6MB L3, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM77
Memory 2x4GB Samsung DDR3-1600 (Max 4x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M 2GB GDDR5
(1344 CUDA cores, 719MHz/3.6GHz core/memory clocks, 256-bit memory bus)
Display 17.3" LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
LG Philips LGD 02DA
Hard Drive(s) Hitachi Travelstar 7K750 500GB 7200RPM SATA 3Gbps HDD

Samsung PM830 32GB mSATA 6Gbps SSD (Intel SRT)
Optical Drive Slot-loading Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CA30N)
Networking Atheros AR8151 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230 b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0
Audio SoundBlaster Recon3Di (CA0132) HD Audio
Stereo speakers
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Battery 9-Cell, 11.1V, 90Wh
Front Side N/A (Speaker grilles)
Right Side MMC/SD/MS Flash reader
Slot-loading optical drive
2x USB 3.0
eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
Left Side Kensington lock
2x USB 3.0
S/PDIF, mic, and two headphone jacks
Back Side AC jack
2x exhaust vents
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.14" x 11.96" x 1.75-1.77"
410mm x 304.3mm x 44.5mm
Weight ~9.39 lbs (4.26kg)
Extras 3MP Webcam
Backlit keyboard with 10-key
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
USB 3.0
mSATA SSD cache
SoundBlaster Recon3Di with THX TruStudio Pro
Configurable lighting
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
2-year, 3-year, and 4-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting at $1,499
Price as configured: $2,599

Typically we get Ivy Bridge systems with the entry-level Intel Core i7-3610QM, but our Alienware systems tend to be a bit better equipped and that's true here. The i7-3720QM is a healthy step up from last generation's i7-2720QM, able to turbo up to an impressive 3.4GHz on all four cores or 3.8GHz on a single core. It also brings with it Intel's HD 4000 integrated graphics, and NVIDIA leverages them with their Optimus technology.

Speaking of NVIDIA technology, the big draw with the M17x R4 is the GeForce GTX 680M. Unlike last generation's GF1x4 derivative GPU, the GTX 680M is based on NVIDIA's current top end silicon. The GK104 in the GTX 680M is the same chip that powers the GTX 680, although here the 1536 CUDA cores have been cut down to 1344. That's about the only cut made, meaning this is basically the same silicon in the very impressive GTX 670, just run at substantially reduced clocks. The core clock now runs at only 719MHz with a boost clock of 758MHz, but the most painful cut is the GDDR5 clock. Where NVIDIA was able to hit a staggering 6GHz on the desktop (and their memory controller allows you to pretty much push the GDDR5 chips to their limits; my GTX 680 is at 6.7GHz on the memory), the GDDR5 on the GTX 680M is running at a paltry 3.6GHz. That means that while generationally shader and texturing power have increased tremendously, the memory bandwidth increase has been much more modest, and that's on a chip that's already throttled largely by memory bandwidth. Interestingly, the GTX 680M in the M17x R4 sports 2GB of GDDR5 while the GTX 680Ms offered by other vendors have 4GB, but this shouldn't be counted against it as even desktop GTX 680s with 4GB of GDDR5 haven't proven to need the extra video memory.

Of course, Alienware offers alternatives to the GTX 680M, which is a hefty $550 upgrade. The default GTX 660M is a glorified desktop GTX 650, built on the Kepler architecture and sporting 384 CUDA cores, a healthy 835MHz core clock, and 4GHz on the GDDR5. That chip really is a fine starting point for gamers, but leave it to AMD to offer what's probably going to wind up being the best price/performance option (just as they tended to last year), the Radeon HD 7970M. That's $200 for an upgrade to a fully enabled Pitcairn GPU that offers a notable improvement in performance over the $250 GTX 675M upgrade, which is just a rebranded GeForce GTX 580M. We have a review of the 7970M in the works right now, but there's really no reason to shell out an extra $50 for worse performance with the GTX 675M unless you absolutely have to stay in NVIDIA's ecosystem and don't want to spend up on the GTX 680M.

Outside of these components, the other gains are largely incremental. Most of the parts are actually identical to the M17x R3 (including the display), while memory speed has gotten a bump to DDR3-1600 and an mSATA port has been added along with Intel's SRT (Smart Response Technology) caching. We get a boost to Bluetooth 4.0 and the audio software/hardware has been bumped to SoundBlaster's Recon3Di. Nothing too exciting here.

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  • shadowyani - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    At least the keyboard no longer ghosts.
  • knekker - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    I don't understand why Anandtech are wasting their time reviewing this laptop, when (appart from the CPU) MSI for quite some time has a significant better offer, compared to this overpriced brick.
  • DanNeely - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    I think that's the same laptop platform that they reviewed in iBuy Power branding a month ago. Specs aren't identical with laptopmag's test model; but reviewing two models of the same platform offers little value compared to looking at a second vendors design.
  • nerd1 - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    M17XR4 with 7970M can be found around $1800 from various vendors - and 7970M is not too shabby against 680M and totally smokes 675M / 6990M GPU.

    I'd rather get m17xr4 w/7970M than spending almost the same money to cz17 with 680M. If I'm paying almost $2000 for a gaming laptop, I won't get fugly laptops.
  • tviceman - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Why does Nvidia hate memory bandwidth so much?
  • DanNeely - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    high clock rates suck power; in mobile platforms they want to minimize that as much as possible. They're also not stupid and I see no reason not to assume their default GPU/memory clocks were picked to give the maximum average fps scores within their target TDP.
  • Harmattan - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    I've owned and spent hours and hours with both single and dual configurations of the 7970m and 680m (have an m18x with dual 680ms right now). In single configuration, on an Alienware, 7970m is the way to go: drivers are nearly as good as nVidia's and performance with the 680m is neck-and-neck (which 680m being about 7% faster on avg.). The $250 lower price of the 7970m vs. the 680m wins.

    That said, a single 7970m has problems on Clevo laptops in the form of AMD's god-awful power management system, Enduro. You see around 10% reduced performance on Clevos/Sagers when compared to Alienware's which do not have the Enduro issue. If you're going Clevo/Sager, go 680m.

    Finally, 7970m Crossfire drivers are a bit of a mess: lower gains than nV and, in some games, no gain at all over a single GPU. If you're going dual GPU in a laptop, go 680m SLI.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Enduro can be even more than a 10% loss of performance -- try more like 30-50% in some games (depending on settings). However, AMD is aware of the problem and tells me they're working on a fix that should hit in the next month. We'll see... 7970M Clevo review coming soon from me, though!
  • prophet001 - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    That GPU is impressive. Even on Civ 5 it holds its own.

    Nice review, nice laptop.

    Thank you
  • Death666Angel - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Really a pity they didn't do any updates except replace the innards. If there every was a time to buy a gaming laptop, it would be today, 60 fps @1080p with their hardware being up to date until late 2013 when the new console generation hits. Not bad.

    I like the HDMI in btw. Don't see that very often. :-)

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