Alienware 18 (Hardware) Review: Power and Design

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to Alienware computers. I formed an early opinion of them as being ostentatious machines for the crowd who want to be seen to be gamers, rather than guys like me who just want to get on with their gaming. The New Alienware 18 notebook claims to be “the most powerful gaming notebook in the universe,” and it’s got a spec sheet to back up those claims, but how does it hold up after two weeks of intense probing?

Make no mistake: this may have a notebook form factor, but it’s not built for anyone's lap. The unit itself is incredibly well designed, its dark gray offset by silver trim. While its 5.5kg heft is unsurprising considering the 18.4” screen size and the hardware packed into it - the build quality is unimpeachable, with no creaky plastic, and a reassuringly sturdy hinge. The keyboard, trackpad, and every status indicator on the machine are backlit by user-reconfigurable LEDs, and the glow of the lights gives an inviting quality to the monstrous hardware. As soon as I had toyed with the settings so the machine throbbed green and blue, I felt as though the Alienware had ceded control to its new master.

Alienware 17 Notebooks - Beauty

And boy does this thing love to please.  Drunk with power, my first day was spent cranking up my games to absurdly high graphics settings, and seeing how far the system could go without breaking a sweat. Battlefield 3, Max Payne 3, Batman: Arkham City, and Saints Row IV all trounced their console counterparts, regularly with framerates in excess of 60fps. In a news cycle where all eyes are on the output of Microsoft and Sony’s new hardware, my time with the Alienware 18 confirmed that consoles are merely closing the gap on PCs, rather than leapfrogging them as they have in previous generations. There's never been a better time to be a PC gamer, and I was able to suck down great games from services like Steam and GOG without effort (I even snaffled a few titles from friends with unredeemed Humble Bundle codes). Controller support on cross platform titles is nigh ubiquitous, and driver updates (a canard long held as an impediment to PC gaming) brought themselves to my attention and installed in a painless fashion.

Gaming on the Alienware 18 is a process of man-machine symbiosis. The display presents stunning 1920 x 1080 resolution with vibrant colors and great contrast, and the when sitting up against the 18.4” screen, the world around me would fizzle out of existence. Developers can use the LED lighting with the game, which seemed like little more than a cute novelty, but 30 seconds with Hotline Miami changed my mind. Having every light source on the notebook pulsate with the same sickening neon as what’s on screen adds a sense of synesthesia, and each kill felt like an intoxicating bloodbath as red light seeped out from under my hands. Battlefield 3 also used this to great effect, with red flashes indicating damage, and strobing red indicating that I was low in health, regularly prompting frantic scrambles to safety.

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If you’ll allow them, the speakers can fill a room with bassy sound, and the system never feels hot to the touch, even during prolonged sessions, as the fans dutifully pushed hot air away from me without any perceptible racket. The keyboard provides the perfect amount of travel and resistance, and every surface that your palms and fingers interact with feels grippy and just exudes a premium feel. A line of programmable macro keys are accessible to the left and top right, which I didn’t make much use of, but look forward to exploring once I find a game that calls for them. Best of all, the Alienware 18 supports HDMI-In, meaning that it can also offer up its monitor for console gaming. I spent a few hours playing GTA V at my desk on the 18.4” screen, and I never want to go back to playing it on a couch across the room.

The Alienware 18 is absolutely in a class of its own, both in terms of design, and sheer horsepower. While the $2,099 minimum asking price could be spent on a desktop computer with better specs, there are enough unique features to make the Alienware a viable contender. If you’re a PC gamer who regularly has to schlep a monitor, tower, keyboard, and associated cables from one point to the other, this could be a godsend, and if you’re looking for a powerful, fuss-free gaming rig that won’t take up a lot of space while transporting you to other worlds, the Alienware 18 comes highly recommended.