The M17 is yet another polygon-munching monster from the games-obsessed fanatics at Alienware. Unlike the identical-looking Area-51 m17x, which sports Nvidia graphics hardware, the M17 uses an ATI graphics solution, in addition to a choice of quad-core mobile CPUs. Prices start at around £1,050.
The M17 probably shouldn't be called a laptop, since hauling this beast onto your lap may cause you physical damage. It measures an enormous 397mm by 299mm by 45mm, which is approximately the same size as two copies of the Yellow Pages laid side by side, and weighs a considerable 5.4kg. It is, incredibly, seven times heavier than the 12-inch Toshiba Portege R500.
The M17 is available with a choice of lids. The first of these, the 'Skullcap' design, has the rib-like protrusions we've seen on countless other Alienware laptops. The alternative 'Ripley' design, which we prefer, is totally smooth. Both sport the grey alien-head logo and are finished in a matte black plastic that doesn't attract grease and grime.
The M17 is fairly attractive on the inside, too, mainly because it's so minimalist. Again, matte black is the order of the day, except for the screen and surrounding bezel, both of which are glossy. The keyboard is backlit, which means it's easy to use in dimly lit or completely dark rooms, but the blue LED light it uses isn't very evenly spread, so some keys appear more brightly lit than others. This makes the M17 look cheaper than it otherwise would.
Just above the keyboard is a row of capacitive touch-sensitive buttons, for launching a Web browser or email client, and controlling multimedia playback. Below the keyboard, you get a large mouse trackpad and a fingerprint reader for logging in without using a password.
Interestingly, this isn't the only means of securely logging in without the use of a password -- you can also use the highly advanced facial-recognition system, which works in conjunction with the webcam above the screen. More on this later.
The sheer size of the M17 means the laptop can accommodate a wealth of input-output ports and other physical features. The right side is home to a volume adjuster wheel, headphone and mic ports, four-pin FireWire port, two USB ports and an optical SPDIF audio port. The front edge houses a DVD rewriter drive, the left side has an SD memory card reader and ExpressCard/54 slot, and the rear has HDMI and D-Sub video outputs, Ethernet, USB, eSATA and coaxial ports.
The M17 is heavily geared towards gaming. As such, it uses an ATI Radeon HD 3870 CPU with 512MB of dedicated memory. Gamers who want more oomph can opt for two HD 3870 graphics cards running in a tandem CrossFireX configuration, but that'll cost you an extra £205 or so over the base model.
The M17 comes with a range of CPU options, too, starting with a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400. Our sample shipped with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9000 2GHz chip, but serious (or seriously rich) gamers have the option of buying the 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme quad-core QX9300 -- although that carries a £980 premium.
Alienware provides plenty of memory options for the M17: 2GB, 3GB or 4GB of DDR3 1,067MHz RAM is available, but, if you buy the latter, be sure to make the most of it by upgrading the operating system from the standard copy of Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit to Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit.
Storage varies from a fairly rubbish 160GB hard drive up to 1TB across twin 500GB drives. Those desperate to improve disk-access times should consider upgrading to a solid-state drive. This offers numerous benefits. Solid-state drives speed up operating-system boot and application launch times, eliminate disk noise, and are less prone to damage, since they have no moving parts. They are phenomenally expensive, though: the 256MB version retails for around £410, while the 512MB version sells for roughly £650.
You may have guessed from the name that the M17 has a 17-inch screen. The standard display runs at 1,440x900 pixels, which Alienware quite understandably describes as 720p, due to it being very closely related to the resolution used by HD Ready TVs.
For about £165 more than the laptop's base price, you can upgrade the panel to one that runs at 1,920x1,200 pixels. Alienware, rather confusingly, describes this as '1200p', but it is most closely related to 1080p 'Full HD' televisions. We'd recommend the 1200p panel if you're interested in running games or movies at a high resolution, or simply need more room to manoeuvre application windows around the desktop.
Earlier in this review, we mentioned that the M17 has face-recognition technology. This isn't so unusual -- many Vista laptops do -- but Alienware has implemented the most comprehensive commercial face-recognition technology we've ever seen. The accompanying AlienSense software uses the webcam to continuously monitor for faces, logging in when a face is detected, logging out when a user walks away from the laptop, and logging in as a different user if another face is detected. If an unrecognised face is detected, the laptop takes a picture of the 'intruder' so that you can take appropriate action -- whatever that may be.
Alienware sells a range of accessory options for the M17, including hybrid digital/analogue TV tuner cards with remote controls, and Blu-ray drives, for example. Before thinking about these, we'd recommend investing in some form of gaming mouse. The Logitech MX Revolution is our current favourite.
Our review sample shipped with a Core 2 Quad Q9000 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and an ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards, so it's no surprise it's the fastest gaming laptops we've tested. It refused to run our PCMark05 benchmark, but we'll forgive it that, because its 3D performance more than makes up for this. With a single HD 3870 card enabled, it stormed its way to 11,315 in our 3DMark06 test, at a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. With twin cards enabled in CrossFireX formation, gamers can expect scores above 15,000. The Dell XPS M1730 chalked up 8,870 with twin GeForce 8700M graphics cards at 1,024x768. Rubbish, eh?
Battery life is laughable, but that's to be expected from a gaming laptop. It lasted a miserable 48 minutes in the Battery Eater Classic test, which runs the CPU at full tilt until the batteries are exhausted. With that in mind, you probably won't want to venture too far away from a mains supply.
The Alienware M17 is an awesome piece of kit. It's attractive, can be kitted out with a good range of high-end components and is blisteringly quick. There are alternatives, such as the Asus G71V, but few laptops can match the M17 for customisation options, features and speed.
Edited by Charles Kloet