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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  • The0ne - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Holding on to my M17xR2 until a "good" change comes along. I can't give up my screen resolution as I use mine for both work and home. I need the extra space. The second issue is that all the new versions are rehashes to me, as what you've said. I wouldn't mind a complete overhaul of the platform as it is beginning to get stale, outdated and as someone had mentioned before litter with defects from previous if they haven't address them (whether yours have them or not).

    The R2 still runs great and I can get better performance even I do a video and cpu upgrade in the future. With this is the mix, I'm not looking forward to buying another anytime soon. Changing the screen back is a win/buy for me, instantly. They just have to do it :)
  • will54 - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Are you talking about the 16:10 resolution? Also did the R2 have SLI or was that just the R1?
  • rsgeiger - Saturday, September 22, 2012 - link

    The Alienware m17xR2 has a 16:10 aspect ratio RGB LED screen, and has 2 mxm slots for SLI and Crossfire. The Bios is also rather flexible as it allows up to 16gb of ram and gpu upgrades. I know people who have gotten m7970s to work in crossfire on the R2. It is the modder's laptop. :)

    It does not support Optimus or Enduro.
  • Notmyusualid - Sunday, September 23, 2012 - link

    Dam, if only I had known that...
  • will54 - Friday, September 21, 2012 - link

    Just wondering if Alienware 680M's have a mod for the Vbios like the MSI and Clevo 4GB models that are letting guys get over 8,000 3D11 scores? If not does the chip overclock well with the standard voltage?
  • shatteredx - Sunday, September 23, 2012 - link

    It's significant to note that Alienware is the only company offering a laptop with a 17" 120hz display to go along with the 680m.

    ASUS offers a 120hz version of their G75 but no 680m, which is very disappointing, as I am a big fan of their laptops.
  • johnxfire - Monday, September 24, 2012 - link

    Out of curiosity, why did you guys not opt to add in the latest 15" Clevos for comparison? Those can sport the HD 7970M, GTX 680M, and a flurry of other cards...

    .. As most Clevos do!
  • 'nar - Monday, October 1, 2012 - link

    As an M17xR4 owner I had to point out an issue to potential buyers. I purchased the WD My Passport 2TB external USB 3.0 drive for this and it has a problem where it will constantly disconnect. Sometimes, it can transfer large files, but as it changes to a second or third file it disconnects.

    I have troubleshot this in a forum with others since July. There has been an Alienware tech there that was not much help, and I called in on my own, but got nowhere. They do not support third party hardware, even though it is "universal." They will not tell us the results of their testing, or give us a work-around.

    The problem is not just the big drive I have, but nearly all of the WD line. My guess is that the WD SES driver conflicts with the Intel chipset eXtensible driver, but I get no traction from WD either. The drive works fine in other computers, and it works fine when connected to the M17xR4 in the USB 2.0/esata port.

    What irritates me most is the complete unwillingness to do anything. Support is one of the reasons I justified the price of purchase. I found a work-around: just use a USB 3.0 hub, powered or not. I got a small 2-port hub, and while it is a another adapter I need to carry, it is not too bulky. Why could WD or Alienware not suggest that? I think they do not want to admit any kind of responsibility.

    While most of this has been negative, I do otherwise love this laptop. I chose it over the Clevo units to to design and sound/thermal characteristics. I do love the keyboard, although only an Alienware has me wanting more. I wish the colors would smoothly transition constantly rather than from one to another and then pop back. It is certainly bigger than the standard 17" size that most bags support, but it never fails to impress people when I pull it out.
  • Imp@sse - Thursday, October 4, 2012 - link

    A laptop which uses previous gen graphic card 675 (580) for more than $3000... thats what is in the alienware india site..
    It seems as if they dont want to sell any laptops in India...charging RS 1,70,000 and dont even have the option of the 680m card...
    They are dumping r2, r3 etc which the US customers dont buy on the Indian consumers and that too for more
  • PitaChip - Friday, January 11, 2013 - link

    I'm really gonna sound like an idiot here, because reading your posts, I understood about 1 out of 10 words/numbers you put there so I'll try my best. I'm a young gamer and I've been saving up for my own laptop for a while now and I really love the looks of alienware... I'm looking for high performance and speed. I'm not a huge whiner about screen quality... But i would love the extra convenience of having something like that... Would this laptop be a good recommendation? I just need a pointer because I really want something quality :)

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