Awesome! Great review.
A non-gamer's review of the Alienware 17r3
Update: A lot of this information is out-of-date, and many things discussed are improved just by using the 4.4 kernel.
The Alienware 17 is a performance-oriented gaming laptop famous - and infamous - for being a high-end, near best in class laptop with a bold style and correspondingly high price tag. So why would a casual-, or even non-gamer be interested in such a device? There are a lot of reasons; some obvious and some less so, as well as a good number of caveats not well advertised about this uncommon use-case.
The machine is nicer in hand than it looks in pictures. The lid is metal, and like the rest of the laptop feels rock-solid. The base is plastic, but it's sturdier and looks just as nice as my previous XPS 15 9530 with a carbon fibre composite base. The struts keeping the base raised seem to be strongly connected, so aren't likely to fall off after extended use. The easy-access panel on the bottom is also not a weak point - it fits extremely tightly and a near-invisible curve means it feels as strong as if you had a solid sheet instead.
Lights swarm the machine, for good and for bad. The outside lights, as well as the trackpad light, are garish and are better left turned off - this is easy enough from the basic Alienware control panel. The good is that the keyboard lighting, as well as indicator and power-button lighting is extremely flexible.
Each light has RGB components with 12 levels (0-11 inclusive) per component. Sadly, brightness and color choice looks to be fixed to a set few in the Alienware's native interface. Given the quality and flexibility of the hardware, this is plain silly. Luckily, some minor modifications to qtFx (https://github.com/acyed/qtFx) gave a terminal application I can run in Linux to unlock this for all but the power indicator. This lets me have a low-brightness red keyboard for dark environments, and this interface can do ~30 updates per second if I ever want to integrate notifications or some such into it. Problematically, the Alienware software then resets these changes on boot, ruining the usability for Windows, which is especially upsetting if you just want a white or dim keyboard backlight. There's also no Linux-level configuration of the power button, although that's not to be ruled out for the future, and the default of flashing on low power is totally welcome.
I might publish the source once I've got things as intended, but all I did was rename alienfx.h to alienfx.c, add a main function that sets region and color and call usbTestCode. All other files in the project are unneeded.
The easy access panel is harder to access than its name suggests, since the clips join a really snug and rigid panel in place. However, it's only two screws and accesses much of what you care about. I wasn't aware there were only two SSD slots; it must have been prior generations that got four. This isn't a problem for me, or for most, though.
Ultimately, they did a good job. It's still physically edgy enough to come across pushily, and it's thick enough to make carrying it not totally trivial, but it's much less of a problem than the older laptops looked to be. Plus, it's nice to show off occasionally, even to the scorn of the misguided "Alienware is overpriced crowd". Heck, it's only 25% more than the XPS 15 9530 which compromised a lot more for the price, mostly just to make it thin and light. Frankly, 4kg is not as much as many make it out to be, and those that complain should probably just lift a bit and get over it.
I'd suggest to Alienware that a slightly more aggressive thinness and weight profile with a toned-down look should appeal a lot to this crowd, even if the crowd may not realize it. The Alienware Graphics Amplifier should even allow you to reduce the GPU further and get Razer-like thinness out of it. Of course, aiming here would mean attending to all the Linux hiccups I'm ready to mention.
This keyboard is fantastic. It's got good travel and a lovely tactile feel. It's pretty quiet, but just loud enough to sound right. The spacing is great. Heavy typers will be very glad for it, and I have pretty much nothing but praise.
Some people will be put off by the numpad and uncentered trackpad. I'd agree with you most of the time, but not this time. Alienware have made a very intelligent choice not to merge the numpad or arrow keys flush with the rest of the keyboard, making it much easier to focus your fingers at the correct, slightly offset position they need to be in. You'll see dedicated Page Up and Page Down buttons by the arrow keys - this works well in practice, although muscle memory does confuse Page Up for the right control and Page Down for the up arrow with some frequency. This is something I'm certain I'll get used to, though. The numpad is actually for good use - they contribute Home and End buttons right by the Enter key. Given most other 15" laptops forego dedicated editor-column keys altogether and 17" laptops normally have page keys far from the home row, this is a blessing.
There are macro keys, which I won't review yet since I haven't decided how to configure them yet. They are well placed, though, and seem to be pretty standard hardware (so they'll almost certainly be easily bindable).
The uncentered touchpad is perhaps a bigger concern, but the monolithic size of this machine makes is a surprisingly trivial non-issue. There's plenty of space either side for your hands and the trackpad is big enough that you're not going to struggle almost regardless of how you place your hand. I was expecting clicky, shallow mouse-like dedicated buttons on the trackpad, but they're actually more like the keyboard keys - only a bit mushier. Although I'd certainly appreciate them being tightened up a bit, the quietness and ease of pressing made up for any grievances I had. Certainly, dedicated buttons remain miles better than Windows clickpads.
The only sad part here is that, like with the lights, Linux does a much better job than Dell's software. The bog-standard Synaptics touchpad software in Linux feels better and produces GTK 3.0 smooth scroll events. For some reason that eludes me the Windows driver does not produce smooth scroll events and the only alternative driver that did performs exceedingly poorly. C'mon Dell, stop wasting good hardware with poor software! The result is still well ahead of the competition I've tried, but there's no reason to lose out on something so basic.
This is the real reason we're here, is it not? That 17" UHD, matte display is shared by few others. When using my Dell XPS 15 9530 with a 3200x1800 display, I thought it could do with a tad higher resolution, and the UHD display here achieves that. We're done with the resolution race now, guys, and this is the winner. Thanks for playing.
I use a tiling window manager, and the extra inches from 15 makes a big difference for some reason. A 3-wide tile makes a lot of sense on this display, and I also frequently do more complicated partitioning schemes. It just makes sense with this real estate. I don't use scaling on Linux, opting just for larger font sizes, because I'm rarely interested in higher-resolution window chrome and icons - which is the only thing left to scale in most cases.
Coming from a good glossy display with lots of experience with poor matte displays, I was apprehensive about getting a matte of my own. Even looking up "matte vs glossy" shows a whole lot of poorer, dimmer matte displays against vibrant glossy ones. In short, this isn't the case for this display. It's crisp, sharp, colorful and bright. The matte gives it a different feel to the image, as if it was printed on paper rather than laminated, and honestly it just looks better. I was apprehensive about the lack of a touch screen (and, yes, I'm probably the only programmer who cares) but I'm not sure it make all that much sense at this size anyway.
Something often overlooked, but vital to many, is how dim the screen gets. This screen gets dark. On Linux, xbacklight -set 1 results in something a bit too dim to use in the dark, IMHO, and xbacklight -set 2 is about perfect. If you need to go lower, echoing values to /etc/class/backlight/intel_backlight/brightness can reduce this even a little further. It's totally fine for me.
Windows, in a third consecutive case of software letting the hardware down, won't go this low. It's still pretty low, though, if using the full settings pane, and should be fine in practice.
There is backlight bleed. I'm not the first to notice this, so it's probably a systemic issue. It's not very noticeable in practice, and doesn't prevent this screen being kick-ass, but it is certainly a nontrivial and likely systemic complaint with the screen that's not expected at this price range. How important to view this is up to you.
I have no concrete numbers to offer, but this thing is pretty fast. Since the cooling is meant to handle a fully-loaded GPU, when you're just compiling on all 8 cores (4 physical + 4 virtual) the fans don't really kick in much. They do, but barely. Temperatures remain low even when lying on a blanket, which is really the worst-case for cooling.
This is probably also because I'm using the lower-end, not overclocked CPU, which is largely the same as the higher-end one but with less overclock capability, but whatever the reason it's really pleasant. The thermald package might be needed to get this behaviour, but it's standard on some distros anyway.
The Skylake chip here caused problems with X initially, and still causes problems now. Skylake graphics is experimental and you need to add i915.preliminary_hw_support=1 to the boot parameters for it to work at all. I do have occasional crashes from it, and I'm using the x11 renderer in mpv to prevent it breaking the kernel. So not all great. This should quickly become a non-issue, but for the next few months it will be a rocky road.
The SSD is fast, even by SSD standards. I don't know why, but even subjectively everything disk-involved feels much snappier than my Dell XPS 15 9530 did. The only real disadvantage is that the device is named /dev/nvme0n1, not /dev/sda or similar, which can be confusing both for the unexpecting user and for tools in general.
Strangely, ten or so seconds after resuming from suspend, my SSD errors up crazily. No idea why and it happens every time, so I just disabled suspending.
Gaming performance is decent, but you're better off looking at other reviews of the 980m for that kind of information. Recently I've been playing Fez, Guacamelee and Antichamber, which aren't particularly demanding. Strangely, Crysis seems to run better in 1080p than Antichamber, so I'm not sure my results mean anything anyway.
I don't really mind the GPU non-optimality since external graphics makes more sense to me, and I don't mind waiting for the next-gen series of graphics cards (or the gen after that) before getting a meaty upgrade. Gamers who need a good laptop anyway should keep this in mind.
Both of these things work unexceptionally in Windows. As they should, in other words. I have little clue how one would check the network performance of these cards, nor do I really care that much.
Linux is another story. Neither the wireless nor even the wired connections work out of the box. To enable the wired connections, I am able to do
echo 1969 e0a1 > /sys/bus/pci/drivers/alx/new_id
systemctl start firstname.lastname@example.org
to enable alx, add the ethernet as a new interface using it and start the ethernet dhcp daemon up in Arch Linux. Other OSs should be similar. Once you do connect, it works great.
Wireless is harder, since you can't just force another driver to accept the wireless card. Following the hints from the ath10k mailing list,
I downloaded and installed the firmware:
(other OSs might want to look to https://github.com/sumdog/ath10k-firmware/ directly)
and replaced /usr/lib/firmware/ath10k/QCA6174/hw3.0/board.bin with eeprom_ar6320_3p0_NFA344a.bin extracted from
(Modem/Communications → Killer Wireless-AC 1535 Driver)
Then I rebooted. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to work perfectly, and sometimes on boot it won't load, or on reboot - even to Windows! - it won't work at all. The solution is to turn off, wait a few seconds, and boot back up. Once you do get the wireless showing under ip link, it should run fine while the power stays on.
If this is too much for people, please just remember you can get any old USB wireless for cheap, or probably even replace the internal wireless (it's accessible through the easy-access plate) for not much either.
Performance of the networking is fine, but I'm bottlenecked elsewhere anyway so it's a little over the top for my needs. The hacky drivers happily don't cause any trouble on that end.
At low brightness and loads, Windows forecasts 6-7 hours of battery life.
At low brightness and loads, Linux forecasts (and gets) about 5 hours of battery life. This is still better than the stereotype, especially given the QHD screen, and it's just about enough for me.
Gaming battery life in Windows is probably around 2-3 hours.
The Alienware has an unconventional audio setup that sounds great, but just doesn't work with headphones out of the box on Linux. To fix this, I used hda-analyzer to change Node[0x0f] PIN to OUT. You can export the change to a script (Exp at bottom-left) for more convenient toggling. To mute external audio, remove OUT from Node[0x0b] PIN.
This is not convenient, but I feel I can probably make use of a macro key or two to get 95% of the convenience back. Official support for issues like this would help a lot, but we're probably not going to get it.
But is this malarkey worth it? Certainly.
The laptop speakers are very good, as far as laptop speakers go. The base enhancement helps, but overall the whole thing just sounds good. I don't mean loud, as I don't play things loud, but I mean good. It's well balanced, although much bass-heavier than I'm used to laptop speakers managing.
But even my earphones just sound way clearer from this machine. The Dell XPS 15 9530 was not a cheap device, so I would have though the audio was decent, but this is just miles beyond. Not being a desktop user (at least of any real value), I had no idea a proper sound card setup could make so much difference to the clarity of headphones and external speakers, although I was aware they could reduce noise.
So I'm more than happy to pay for the inconvenience here. I've been going through some tracks just to hear how much better they sound, although finding out that some of my files have noise or muffled sound is a little disappointing. Desktop users will be unimpressed, no doubt, but isn't this even more of a reason to go for a card that works like you expect?
The only downside is that I don't know how fair the base is - whether it's being exaggerated by the amps or it was just muffled by the worse cards I was using before. I don't want to claim it's reproducing anything perfectly if I actually have no idea.
I've never had more difficulties with Linux on any device, but I've also never been so happy with a piece of hardware. It's not without its caveats, but they're easily outweighed by the benefits.
The perfect trifecta of the best screen, best keyboard and best touchpad I've used on a laptop outright makes this great, and the addition of great audio, decent battery life, a fast CPU, decent gaming performance, quiet fans, graphics expansion capability, macro keys, fully-adjustable lighting, a PCIe SSD, solid construction, good finish and Thunderbolt 3 combine to make regretting this laptop almost impossible.
There's a lot of trivial stuff Alienware could do to make it better, especially in the software department, and Linux support is problematic. I really wish Alienware focused more on getting this stuff to work right, rather than look cool (and, frankly, the software is just gaudy).
But these would just be going from amazing to perfect, and I shouldn't end this review on a complaint.
I love it. No regrets.