Today we're taking a look at another gaming laptop, the all-new Alienware m15, the company's portable laptop, competing systems like the MSI GS65 Stealth, the Gigabyte Aero 15, and the Razer Blade. Historically, we weren't big fans of Alienware's chunkier laptop designs, but the m15 is one of the best we've seen from the company so far.
First, let's talk about the technical data. If you saw reviews of this laptop a few months ago, these were probably for the original model with GTX Pascal GPUs. What we're reviewing today is the RTX version, more specifically the RTX 2080 Max-Q model. However, there are other options available that may fit your budget better, including the RTX 2070 Max-Q and RTX 2060 options.
Like most Dell laptops, the m15 is highly customizable. The CPU of most models remains the same as that of an Intel Core i7-8750H, but from there you get a lot of memory, RAM and display options. Our test device came with a 16 GB dual-channel DDR4 and a combination of a 500 GB SSD and a 1 TB hard drive. The display is a 15.6-inch 1080p 144 Hz IPS.
Build and design
The m15 is Alienware's most portable 15-inch gaming laptop design to date. This is definitely a good thing, but probably only good if you compare the m15 to other Alienware laptops. For example, the normal Alienware 15 is 30 mm thick and 7.7 lbs (!), While the Alienware m15 is about 27 mm thick and only 2.8 kg. The weight difference is enormous, which makes the m15 a much more portable system.
However, when you compare it to the Gigabyte Aero 15, the Alienware 15 is bigger in all dimensions. The gigabyte system is only 22 mm thick and weighs just over 2.0 kg. Because of the slimmer bezels, it is also smaller. The Alienware 15 doesn't give you the awesome slim bezel design we've seen from other laptops, making it larger than its rivals.
We would say that this new device for Alienware is a big step forward, but there is still a long way to go before it achieves the best of its competitors. Something like the MSI GS65 is almost a pound lighter and for some people this could be a better option.
The quality of workmanship is not objectionable here, which is excellent. This isn't a unibody construction, and there are several materials to choose from, including metal for the lid, a soft, matte plastic coating around the keyboard, and glossy plastic around the display. But the key here is how seamlessly these materials are connected. It just feels very solid and well built.
Visually, this is not our favorite design, mainly due to the angular body and a game lid. It looks quite good when opened, but it is not enough to take the crown out of the elegant MSI GS stealth line. It is definitely the best Alienware design and the focus on slenderness helped a lot there.
In other areas, Alienware has done many things right. The keyboard has a nice, if somewhat spongy, tactile response, but the layout is good and includes a full number pad and four macro keys. The whole thing is illuminated with a four-zone RGB backlight. There are two more RGB elements: the on / off switch and the alien head logo on the lid.
The trackpad is a bit small in view of the space allocated to it, but has a nice coating and reacts very quickly. The speakers are in the lower corners of the laptop and are good for medium volume, but suffer a bit from distortion at high volume if you use them at all.
The I / O selection is fantastic. We get three USB 3.1 Type-A ports, Thunderbolt 3, HDMI 2.0, Mini-DP 1.3, a 3.5 mm audio jack, Ethernet and the graphics amplifier port from Alienware. We particularly like that the display outputs are on the back of the laptop. It is nice and convenient to connect a display without hindering both sides.
Let’s talk about performance. As always, it is important to set the scene with the settings we use. The main consideration is the fan profiles, with Alienware offering four options: Balanced (default) and the Cool, Quiet and Performance modes. We have not found a significant difference between the balanced and the performance mode, since both seem to bring the fan to the same level when playing. The power mode simply sets the fan to this speed at all times, while balanced makes the fan quieter for less intensive workloads. Our recommendation to use the balanced mode is obvious. We used this in this test.
Given that most of the other flagship gaming laptops are based on the same Core i7-8750H processor, it was important to consider whether the Alienware m15 performed differently from its competitors in productivity tasks. We noticed that the laptop performed the same as our average 8750H benchmark numbers, which indicates that the system is performing as expected. It is sometimes a little slower and sometimes a little faster across any workload, but on average there is nothing to worry about here.
This means we can take advantage of all the usual benefits of the Core i7-8750H. As a six-core CPU, it is ideal for tasks such as video coding, where it is 40 to 50 percent faster than a Core i7-7700HQ of the last generation. It's also about 10 percent faster with single-threaded workloads, which helps reduce CPU bottlenecks in some games.
The interesting thing starts with the GPU. The m15 packs the GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q in its 90 W configuration. If you don't know, two versions of the RTX 2080 Max-Q have actually been discovered, the standard 80 W configuration and the 90 W model, which has a higher power limit and is clocked around 100 to 200 MHz higher. It's almost impossible to tell which version a laptop is using on its product page, but we can tell you that the Alienware m15 uses the faster model.
If you've read our GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q review, you'll see how the 80W and 90W versions behave in a number of games. With the Alienware m15, however, it is a bit more complicated, because although this laptop has the 90 W version, its cooling solution in a typical application prevents the full performance of this GPU from being released.
Even when the fans are running at full speed, the distance between the base of the laptop and the desk is not sufficient to suck in air at the volume required to cool these components. Most of the inlet openings are located along the base plate, with a few tiny ventilation openings on the top, with air escaping at the rear and on the sides. However, there are some airflow bottlenecks due to the feet that raise this laptop a smaller height than usual and fewer vents on the top of the laptop.
This means that in a typical usage environment on your desk, the Alienware m15 is on average 4% slower than the "maximum" performance that the RTX 2080 Max-Q 90W variant can achieve. However, it is possible to get the full performance of the 2080 Max-Q by slightly lifting the base of the laptop, which means that the lower vents have less access to the airflow. You don't have to change any other laptop settings. Just make this physical adjustment. If you do this, the cooler works a lot better and you get the full performance of the GPU inside. It is not a very practical solution and we believe that this problem could have been solved with a better optimized set of ventilation slots around the design.
For the rest of this data, we show how the Alienware m15 behaves without a workaround, because we believe that most users will use the laptop this way. The good news is that when you sit normally on your desk, the Alienware m15 performs approximately the same as the RTX 2080 Max-Q 80W variant. So it's not throttled to the level below a typical RTX 2080 Max-Q, it's just the same.
Since the performance of the Alienware m15 roughly corresponds to that of an 80W RTX 2080 Max-Q, the distances between this laptop and other GPUs are quite similar. It's ~ 10% faster than the RTX 2070 Max-Q. So if you switch between the different Alienware m15 GPU configurations, this is something that will interest you.
The other available GPU is the RTX 2060. Here the RTX 2080 Max-Q is 16% faster on average, although it doesn't win in every game. For example, Hitman 2 with the Alienware m15 is unusually slow compared to the average result of other laptops we tested. On the other hand, there is a significant lead in games like Shadow of War, where the 2080 Max-Q is more than 30% faster.
The previous GTX-based Alienware m15 was available with the GTX 1070 Max-Q inside. This new RTX 2080 Max-Q model is 24% faster on average, which is an impressive improvement over the same cooler design and form factor. However, the RTX 2080 Max-Q models are much more expensive.
Finally, we have the comparison between the RTX 2080 Max-Q and the standard GTX 1070 for laptops. The RTX 2080 Max-Q is 6% faster on average, but it's a bit mixed: it wins in some titles and loses in others. It's definitely not a situation where the RTX 2080 destroys the GTX 1070, which is the case when comparing the desktop variants of these GPUs.
Cooling setup: could use some work
The following data shows that the cooling solution of the Alienware m15 is not up to date for the hardware it contains. The GPU temperatures are fine without being great. 84 degrees Celsius is fine for most gaming laptops. But it's CPU temperatures that are seriously crazy: The m15 reaches 99 degrees during a Watch Dogs 2 game session. Every time a laptop is around this 100 degree mark, you are throttled.
With this laptop, it is not the GPU, but above all the CPU throttling. If you raise the base of the laptop, which provides more airflow to the throttled cooler (without increasing the fan speed), the CPU drops significantly by 7 degrees and the GPU is similar, but it's more than that: CPU clock speeds also increase by 500 MHz or over all six cores.
This is a big difference and just shows that in a standard use case, this cooler cannot keep up with the requirements of the parts with high TDP inside. Without this CPU bottleneck, we see the full performance of these components.
And it's no surprise why the Alienware m15 can't push the fan faster: We are already at 46 dBA during a gaming load that is at the top end for a gaming laptop. So this system is both hot and loud and basically offers no freedom of movement. If you want to overclock this system, there is no room for it.
Those who undercut thermal paste and want to replace it with something like liquid metal may be able to get more out of this cooler design. It is also possible that lower-class GPUs like the RTX 2060 will not encounter the same thermal bottleneck, but it's hard to say for sure.
Storage, battery & display
To improve storage performance, our Alienware m15 was equipped with a 512 GB SK Hynix PC401 SSD, which performed quite well. There were no real complaints here. It's not the absolute fastest SSD for gaming laptops we've ever seen, especially for sequential workloads, but enough for most people.
The battery life was rather disappointing. The m15 comes with two battery options. If you want a 1TB hard drive inside, you only get a 60 Wh cell, which was the case with our test device. If you do without the 2.5-inch drive bay, you can increase the battery capacity to 90 Wh, which will undoubtedly give better results than the disappointing runtime of less than 4 hours in our video playback test.
Given that you get two M.2 slots internally, one of which was free in our device and both of which are easily accessible to the user, most buyers should better choose the 90 Wh model and cheap M. Use 2 storage options to get extra space when needed. Especially if you want better battery life, which we think is important in a portable system like the m15.
Like many similar laptops, Alienware uses a 15.6-inch 1080p IPS with a maximum refresh rate of 144 Hz. The combination of IPS and 144 Hz works very well for gamers. The high refresh rate is perfect for the RTX 2080 Max-Q, which often reaches frame rates above 100 FPS at 1080p. So this is the display option you want to select.
Many of the basic properties are good: 300 nits of peak brightness are good for indoor use, especially as this is combined with excellent viewing angles. A contrast ratio of 1200: 1 is also ideal for this type of display. However, some IPS glow occurred when displaying dark or black content. Not a big problem, but something to consider.
The bigger problem with this display is the lack of a color calibration. The standard white point is 8000 KB, which is far too cold, which gives the display a shade of blue. In fact, there seems to be no calibration at all, at least not according to the sRGB standard, since the DeltaE average values are above 4.0 across the board.
Usually, calibration for gaming laptops isn't a big problem, but the Alienware m15 is a little different. DeltaEs above 4.0 are higher than many other laptops, especially the 5.7 grayscale DeltaE average, making this display particularly poorly calibrated. In addition, many competitors to this system – such as the MSI GS65 and the Gigabyte Aero 15 – have factory-calibrated displays. While this may not bother every buyer, calibration is something you won't get as part of the package here.
Overall, we are in two locations with the Alienware m15. This is clearly their best laptop design. It's thinner and lighter than regular Alienware laptops, and it's a step in the right direction. Since most gaming laptop competitors have this type of system on the market and come from the chunky Alienware beasts, this focus on portability is to be welcomed from a design perspective.
On the other hand, we believe that Alienware has not performed some of the features. In particular, the cooler is simply not powerful enough to cool both the Core i7-8750H and the RTX 2080 Max-Q without throttling. There is an airflow problem that results in less than expected performance when using both the CPU and GPU as in games. This becomes less forgiving when you consider that the m15 is larger and heavier overall than its direct rivals.
However, the performance is not bad and still corresponds to the brand of a typical RTX 2080 Max-Q laptop. But it could have been better, especially since this laptop contains the 90 W variant of the GPU, it could have been the best of its functions. Future versions of this laptop will undoubtedly need a revision of the cooling layout.
The build quality of the m15 is great, but there are other opportunities and goals that are not so good. The display is not calibrated and has no slim bezel design. The keyboard and trackpad are fine without being amazing. The standard option is a small 60 Wh battery and you have to pay to get a bigger one.
We don't see what the Alienware m15 can do better than a laptop like the MSI GS65. There is no key function that could lead me to recommend it in certain situations, e.g. B. with a better price-performance ratio, a unique design or first-class performance. In every metric we tested, this system is surpassed by the excellent MSI option, which basically offers the same price for an equivalent configuration, regardless of which RTX GPU you choose. And without discussing the general value proposition of Nvidia's Turing laptops.
The Alienware m15 is a big step forward for the company, but in the end we do not recommend it. Building the perfect portable system on the first try is difficult, and many competitors have simply been doing it for a long time, and today have refined, better options that you should consider instead.
The Alienware costs from $ 1,275 with a GTX 1060 GPU and 8 GB DDR4, while the full-fledged RTX 2080 model we tested costs around $ 3,000.