While shopping for a new laptop, I decided to give the Alienware m15 a try. It’s been a few years since I owned one and boy have they changed. I’ve gone from both extremes too, having owned an M11x in 2009 and then an Alienware 17 in 2016.
This 15” laptop not only feels like it meets in the middle somewhere, but is surprisingly portable in terms of thickness. It’s not even heavy, either. Before I got it, I was skeptical about the build quality, but even that is pretty good. Alienware’s decision to finally enter the thin performance-laptop realm was clearly a good one.
But there are some things about this laptop that aren’t so great. In fact, the plethora of small problems make this not the right choice for me. Some of these are model-specific though, and just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean it’s a bad laptop.
See my review below for more details and I’ll explain why.
Specs as reviewed – Dell Alienware m15 R4
||2021 Dell Alienware M15 R4
||15.6 inch, 1920 x 1080 px, IPS equivalent, 300 Hz, matte, 3ms response
||Intel 10th Gen Comet Lake i7-10870H CPU, octa-core 2.2 GHz (5.0 GHz boost)
||NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 with 8GB GDDR6 VRAM (115-135W with Dyn Boost)
||16 GB DDR4 2933Mhz (2×8 GB DIMMs soldered)
||256GB M.2 NVMe (WDC PC SN530)
||Killer AX1650w Wifi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1
||3x USB-A 3.2 gen2, 1x USB-C with Thunderbolt 3(PD 3.0 charging support), HDMI 2.1B, mini DP 1.4, mic/earphone, ethernet, microSD card reader, Alienware graphics amplifier
||86 Wh, 240 W charger
||360.3 mm or 14.19” (w) x 275.9 mm or 10.86” (d) x 19.9 mm or .78” (h)
||2.38 kg (5.25 lbs)
||individually lit RGB keyboard, HD webcam, 4-way stereo speakers
Design and build
Let’s start with the good. The build quality of the Alienware m15 is pretty impressive. It felt solid no matter how I handled it. I didn’t experience any creaks in the chassis and it feels like it was put together out of quality materials.
For the most part, it’s well balanced. It was a little awkward at first having such a large ventilation exhaust, but I ended up getting used to it. Carrying it by that end wasn’t comfortable though, as the angles made it awkward to grab and the edges were a little sharp. Handling it from all the other edges was fine.
The design of the laptop is a mixed bag to me. While I like things like the lighting effects and the overall look, I can’t help but get annoyed with some of the design choices they made.
Starting from the top, the lid is made of “Soft-touch” aluminum. It feels nice but this comes at a cost of being prone to scratches. In fact, some users even report that some of the coating peels off. I’m sure it takes some sort of abuse to go that far, but knowing what I know about coated aluminum, it’s certainly more scratch-prone than just bare aluminum.
The rest of the laptop appears to be made of a mixture of magnesium and plastic. Both materials are plenty solid and the chassis feels like it’s high quality, so no complaints there.
On the lid is a printed “15” decal in the corner and an Alienware logo is centered. The logo is RGB backlit and also has the ability to have its color changed through the Alienware Command Center. Also part of the RGB effects is the exhaust on the back of the laptop. A full ring bar is on the outer edge. Not quite my thing, but I think it actually looks pretty cool!
Lifting the lid can be done with a single finger, but the hinge is strong and the laptop will lift off the table a little in order to do it. With the lid up, you’ll see a matte 15.6” screen surrounded by the glossiest bezel I’ve ever seen. Not only is it distracting during the day, but it’s also very likely that this thing will show its share of scratches over the years.
On the top of the bezel is a small HD webcam. It’s not Windows Hello enabled on this unit, unfortunately, but if you want that option, opt for the model that has Tobii eye-tracking, as that can double as a biometric sensor. On the bottom is a reflective Alienware logo, which subtly takes the color of the keyboard backlighting. I really thought this was a nice touch, especially since their previous revisions have had glowing logos which I personally hated.
The palmrest area is another spot that I didn’t care for. Because they took up so much space for the ventilation, the keyboard had to be moved very far down compared to most other laptops. By consequence, the palmrest and trackpad are very short. I’ll admit I got used to it with the palmrest and keyboard, but the tiny trackpad annoyed me completely (more on that later).
As for IO, there’s quite a bit. On the left-hand side there’s a single USB-A, Ethernet and a headphone/microphone jack. On the right are two more USB-A ports and a microSD slot. I would have preferred a full-size SD slot, but it’s better than nothing.
The bulk of the IO is on the back of the laptop, which includes the power jack, HDMI, miniDP, Thunderbolt 3, and the Alienware Graphics Amplifier ports. The Thunderbolt 3 port also supports PD charging.
I always thought I preferred the power jack in the back, but on this model, I didn’t care for it. I think it was because of the increased footprint, due to the large ventilation exhaust, but it’s also contributed to the power connector being straight and long. A 90-degree connector would have helped.
I think even with all the negatives I listed, Alienware still has a decent design going here. It’s not necessarily for me, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen and I certainly could live with it if I had to. This is still a vast improvement from their older brick designs from a few years ago.
Keyboard and trackpad
Alienware offers two keyboard options with zone and per-key backlighting. The one I have is the latter, which costs a little more. But know that the physical keyboard is the same for both and the illumination is probably just an option controlled by a software lock or something.
The keyboard is surprisingly good, with what I consider to be the “perfect” keyboard layout. Pretty much all the keys belong where they do and there are no undersized or cramped key placements anywhere to be seen.
The keystrokes are firm and accurate and typing on this model was pretty easy for me to adjust to. I took my typical typing test and scored right on my average with very low inaccuracies. I also typed this entire review on it and have no complaints there.
The only minor complaint I have is small and that’s with the noise of the spacebar. In a quiet room, every spacebar click was noticeably louder than all the other keys. Seriously though, if that’s the only complaint I have, that’s a good thing.
The trackpad on the other hand is a different story – not great… I mean, it’s not horrible because I’ve definitely seen worse in terms of performance, but it’s really small and comes with a couple of quirks that I found annoying to deal with.
The size is the biggest problem. Because so much of the upper part of the footprint is reserved for the hinge and ventilation, the palm rest is abnormally short, allowing the trackpad to only be 105mm x 60mm. This is probably the smallest trackpad I’ve used since owning the Alienware m11x about 11 years ago.
At least it’s a glass touchpad though, so tracking and gestures are smooth and accurate. It’s a clickpad style so there aren’t any physical buttons, but the left and right clicks are integrated into the lower corners of the trackpad.
If you’re a single and double-tap user like me though, prepare to be annoyed. The effort it takes to click the touchpad is very light, so when you’re merely trying to just tap, you’ll probably end up clicking instead. It doesn’t affect the double-taps (they will still register as a right-click). But it will likely annoy you like it did me, because it just makes the trackpad feel unnecessarily cheap.
The screen is good on this model. My model comes with an AUO matte 1920 x 1080 px screen, clocked at 300Hz. It’s IPS equivalent, has good viewing angles and decent brightness options. Unfortunately, my panel had some backlight bleed in the lower right corner, but your mileage may vary, since this is random with modern screens.
I took some measurements on my X-rite i1 Display Pro sensor and here’s what I got:
- Panel HardwareID: AU Optronics AUOB98C;
- Coverage: 98% sRGB, 69% NTSC, 72% AdobeRGB;
- Measured gamma: 2.2;
- Max brightness in the middle of the screen: 284 cd/m2 on power;
- Contrast at max brightness: 1578:1
- Native white point: 7130 K;
- Black on max brightness: 0.18 cd/m2.
The screen appeared to be calibrated as my correction did little to improve the colors. The panel is slightly dimmer than 300 nits, as advertised, but it’s plenty bright enough for typical use. Assuming you don’t use it outside that is.
Although the display is pretty good, I really think that most users should steer clear of it. The reason is that, according to Dell, Intel HD graphics cannot handle a 300Hz screen and therefore Dell has decided to disable Optimus on this model. On top of that, this panel doesn’t even support GSYNC, so there’s a little tradeoff to missing out on the good battery life.
To be blunt, I think Dell is wrong. I’ve tested 300Hz panels on other laptops and they work just fine with Optimus. Perhaps *this* panel isn’t compatible, but then Dell should just have picked a better one that is.
If I had to choose over again though, just choose the 144Hz FHD panel that Dell offers for this m15. It’s most likely the same 144Hz panel that’s on most of the other laptops out there, it supports advanced Optimus and it also supports GSYNC.
There’s also a 4k OLED option, but unless you’re doing color-sensitive work, you’re probably wanting this laptop for games, and the 3070 is much more suited to drive a FHD screen than a 4k one. Dell missed an opportunity by not having a QHD option, like some other OEMs offer these days.
Hardware and performance
This model of the Alienware m15 comes with an Intel octa-core i7-10870H processor, which is basically a binned model of the i7-10875H with insignificantly slower clock speeds.
Also included is an Nvidia RTX 3070 Laptop GPU, which is unofficially the Max-P version as it receives 115W of power (an up to 135-140 in supported games with Dynamic Boost 2.0). This card includes 8GB of GDDR6 VRAM, which should be more than enough for any game, especially with just a FHD screen.
Also bundled in this model is 16GB of RAM, which is dual channel and clocked at 2933Mhz. It’s very important to note that this RAM is soldered and cannot be upgraded. If you are the type that needs 32GB, you need to purchase that model from the beginning. A totally weird decision on Dell’s part, as there seems to be plenty of space in the chassis to have removable modules.
Another weird decision is the 256GB SSD option. Kind of small, right? I mean, after downloading just two of my test games I was out of space. Luckily there are two open SSD bays. BTW, this included SSD is not that fast at all.
I was able to open the laptop up and populate one of those bays with a spare SSD of mine. The cover comes off pretty easily and you have complete access to all three bays. Slot 1 is SATA/PCIe compatible. Slot 2 is PCIe only. I’m actually not sure about slot 3 as it seems to only support SSDs 50mm and below.
I took a lot of synthetic benchmarks at different configurations in Alienware Command Center. For this run I had it set to Balanced power, Balanced thermals, and no overclock:
- 3DMark 13 – Fire Strike: 21699 (Graphics – 27320, Physics – 20771);
- 3DMark 13 – Time Spy: 10231 (Graphics – 10608, CPU – 8516);
- 3DMark 13 – Port Royal (RTX) Graphics: 6200;
- Uniengine Superposition – 1080p Extreme: 6629;
- Uniengine Superposition – 1080p Medium: 19312;
- GeekBench 5: Single-Core: 11197, Multi-core: 6805;
- CineBench R15: OpenGL 128.61 fps, CPU 1701 cb, CPU Single Core 187 cb;
- CineBench R23: CPU 10369 pts, CPU Single Core 1159 pts;
For these tests I set the thermals to performance and the overclock to OC2 (which adds +50 MHz Clock) :
- 3DMark 13 – Fire Strike: 22136 (Graphics – 27898, Physics – 20490);
- 3DMark 13 – Time Spy: 10438 (Graphics – 10836, CPU – 8641);
- 3DMark 13 – Port Royal (RTX) Graphics: 6330;
- Uniengine Superposition – 1080p Extreme: 6729;
- Uniengine Superposition – 1080p Medium: 19425;
- GeekBench 5: Single-Core: 1224, Multi-core: 6867;
- CineBench R15: OpenGL 128.25 fps, CPU 1710 cb, CPU Single Core 189 cb;
- CineBench R20: CPU 10517 pts, CPU Single Core 1198 pts.
These are solid results if you ask me, especially on the GPU side. Note that I did all these tests in the Balanced power profile and not on High Performance. This is because I actually got better results on Balanced.
It appears that the only difference between the profiles is that the CPU frequency is always on boost when on High Performance mode. This is a missed opportunity because the Balanced profile really should have had a lower TDP or something. The thermals I was getting on both modes were pretty high so it would have been nice to have the option for lower temperatures and fan noise in a mid-level power profile such as Balanced.
Keep in mind that this 300 Hz screen configuration directly hooks the internal display into the Nvidia dGPU, which positively impacts the graphics scores and gaming results. However, even the 144 Hz screen options will perform similarly, as those get Advanced Optimus and also know to route the display signal through the dGPU, in comparison to the standard Optimus on other laptops, which route the signal through the iGPU and suffer from associated performance losses. Get in touch in the comments section if this part isn’t clear to you.
Also, as far as the CPU scores go, this configuration runs on a 10th gen Intel platform, which lacks the IPC and real-use performance of the AMD competition. The i7-10870H is still an 8Core processor and runs at high clocks in this implementation, as you can see in the following Cinebench loop test.
There seems to be no difference in switching between the power profiles or undervolting the CPU in this test.
I’ve also put the i7-10870H next to a couple of other AMD and Intel options available out there, mostly 8Cores, and one 6Core, just to see the difference. AMD’s Ryzen 5000 is still impossible to match in this sort of load, with this Intel implementation trailing those by about 20-25%.
Overall, Dell opting for an Intel processor here won’t matter much for games, but might for some workloads that would benefit from a more capable processor, in which case you should look into the available AMD Ryzen 5000 alternatives, or wait for the updated 11th-gen Core variants of this Alienware m15. Update: Here’s our review of the AMD version of the Alienware m15 R5.
So here is some testing I did on some games. All gaming tests were done on the High-Performance thermal profile with OC2 overclock.
|Battlefield V (DX 12, Ultra Preset, Ray-Tracing OFF)
||126 fps avg (108 fps – 1% low)
|Battlefield V (DX 12, Ultra Preset, Ray-Tracing ON)
||75 fps avg (57 fps – 1% low)
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (DX 11, Ultra Preset, Hairworks On)
||109 fps avg (88 fps – 1% low)
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (DX 11, Ultra Preset, Hairworks Off)
||132 fps avg (117 fps – 1% low)
|Horizon Zero Dawn(Ultra)
||87 fps avg (75 fps – 1% low)
|Cyberpunk (Ultra, Ray Tracing On, DLSS Auto)
||65 fps avg (58 fps – 1% low)
|Cyberpunk (Ultra, Ray Tracing On, DLSS off)
||42 fps avg (38 fps – 1% low)
|Cyberpunk (Ultra, Ray Tracing Off, DLSS off)
||76 fps avg (68 fps – 1% low)
These are stellar results, clearly showing the advantage of a 115+W 3070 over the lower-powered ones you see in most typical thin laptops. This also supports Dynamic Boost 2.0, which increases the GPU power up to 140W in supported titles, as well as benefits from the internal display being directly connected to the Nvidia dGPU.
The performance comes at a cost though, because the extra GPU power translates in increased generated heat. The GPU temps are perfectly fine on the tested titles, in the low to mid-70s, but the CPU spikes rather excessively on the stock settings. More on that below.
Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers, and others
The cooling system on this laptop is an inverted vapor chamber design. What this means is the motherboard is actually flipped around so that the heatsink is between the keyboard and the motherboard, as opposed to being between the bottom and the motherboard, like most other laptops out there.
This is very similar to how MSI does it on their older GS series laptops, and it shows with the ventilation that is above the keyboard. I’d like to say that I like this design, but it does have its limitations which I experienced with this model.
For normal usage, the laptop stays pretty cool. With thermals set to Balanced, you can pretty much do a lot of things with minimal fan noise and the CPU temps float in the 60-70s C. Gaming is where things start to change, though.
In fact, when gaming, I can hardly recommend using the Balanced thermal profile, because I was experiencing thermal throttling on the CPU for nearly every game that I played. Temps were spiking as high as 100C and average CPU temps were in the mid-80s which isn’t terrible, but could be improved.
Setting the thermal profile to Performance helps a lot. For many games, you’ll still see some high CPU spikes. Cyberpunk for example had spikes in the high 90s. But average temperatures were in the mid to high 70s, which are alright on a thin laptop such as this one.
At this point though, there are two other choices to reduce temps. The easy one is to set the fans to full speeds, which I hardly recommend. I’ll get more into fan noise shortly, but spoiler alert, it’s insanely loud hitting 60dB at ear level on this mode!
The more referable option is to undervolt the CPU using Throttlestop. On my unit I was able to achieve a -100mV undervolt, which further reduced my spikes and lowered my average CPU temps in games to the low-70s. If you decide to do this, please do your homework on how to use Throttlestop safely.
So now let’s talk about those fans. Like I said before, in Balanced mode and during normal use, the laptop stays pretty cool, which also makes it quiet. I barely hear the fans turn on. When they do, it’s a low hum measuring around 32dB.
Gaming is where the fans really ramp up though. Like I said, you’ll want to be in Performance mode for heavy gaming, and when you do, the fans immediately hit 45dB. During heavier sessions though, expect the noise to level out at 50dB.
I measured the surface temperatures while surfing the web and watching a movie, and then again while gaming. The temperatures were slightly warm for the normal stuff, and you’ll probably want to use a lapdesk while gaming as the underside gets extremely hot.
*Daily Use – streaming Netflix in EDGE for 30 minutes, Balanced profile, fans at ~32 dB
*Gaming – Performance – playing Cyberpunk for 30 minutes, fans at 45-50 dB
One of the limitations of having a flipped motherboard and cooling system is that a lapdesk or cooling pad does little to nothing to improve laptop temperatures. The only thing they’ll do is save your lap.
Onto the other stuff, the Killer AX1650W module provides a solid Wifi connection. I reached 538Mbps from a 30 ft distance from my router and never had a single dropped connection. It also provides Bluetooth 5.1.
The speakers are not bad on this model. There are only two speakers but they are both two-way, pointing downward and forward. They are pretty punchy too, as I could feel the vibration from the bass in the chassis. I measured up to 85dB on these speakers and was able to detect bass as low as 75Hz.
The sound in general was good on the ears and I certainly was able to watch movies on this laptop without wanting to switch to earphones. Gaming was also decent, but the fan noise tends to spoil that experience here.
There’s a webcam above the screen. It’s average for a gaming laptop and at least it exists, unlike some other models I’ve been seeing. I’d like it to have been a Windows Hello camera, but it looks like Dell expects users to buy their Tobii eye-tracking technology in order to get that feature.
The Alienware m15 r4 has an 86Whr battery, which is pretty darned big especially since the laptop has a lot of hardware in a thin chassis. Unfortunately, the battery life is poor, since there’s no Optimus on this RTX 3070 configuration.
Here’s what I got on my laptop, with the screen set at 30% brightness, roughly 100 nits.
- 24.5 W (~3 h 31 min of use)– idle, Best Battery Mode, screen at 0%, Wi-Fi ON, backlighting off;
- 41.33 W (~2 h 8 min of use)– text editing in Google Drive, Better Battery Mode, screen at 30%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 32.6 W (~2 h 38 min of use)– 1080p Youtube fullscreen in Chrome, Better Battery Mode, screen at 30%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 38.9 W (~2 h 13 min of use)– 1080p Netflix fullscreen video in Edge, Better Battery Mode, screen at 30%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 50.8 W (~1 h 41 min of use)– browsing in Chrome, Better Performance Mode, screen at 30%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 96.5 W (~53 min of use)– Gaming – Witcher 3, Maximum Performance Mode, 60fps, screen at 30%, Wi-Fi ON.
No surprises here – the battery life is crappy without Optimus. I’m positive the 144Hz screen option with Advanced Optimus would have yielded better results. If you care about using this laptop unplugged for more than an hour, avoid the models that don’t say they have Optimus.
The power brick is 240W, sufficient to supply the CPU and GPU. It’s not the typical brick-sized design I’ve seen from previous Alienware laptops, but it’s still fairly large. It’s not the thickness as much as it is the footprint. I would have preferred to see something smaller like what Razer or Asus offers with their 230W PSUs.
Price and availability
The model I purchased is actually no longer available (go figure). I paid around $1750 for it, which is good value for what I got. The next similar 3070 model is available for $2099 MSRP, with the main difference being the 144Hz screen and a 512GB SSD – both very good things in comparison to what I have. The price is high, but you’ll find it for less if you’ll look into occasional sales and discounts.
If you purchase on Dell’s website, you get to choose from the different screen and SSD options, which alter the price from there. The base CPU, GPU, and RAM options are what you want to pay attention to though, as they cannot be upgraded. So make sure the model you are looking for has the GPU and RAM you want, before you adjust the other options.
Amazon also has some models available. Expect more models to appear in the future, as there aren’t many right now. At the time of this review, there’s a 3080 model with 32GB of RAM for $2667 – not too bad, although there’s better value with the 3060/3070 models.
I can’t say this laptop is for me, but it definitely has it’s place for some users. I think Alienware loyalists will be happy with what’s offered here, and even regular gamers that just want something reasonably sized and yet still very powerful and with a screen directly hooked into the Nvidia GPU.
Like I mentioned before, the 300 Hz screen option that kills Optimus is a major deal-breaker that you should be aware of, especially if you plan to use the laptop unplugged. If it’s going to sit on your desk all the time, perhaps it won’t bother you as much. But at least it can be avoided with another screen model. The soldered RAM could also be a deal breaker for many, as well, so make sure you’re getting the right amount from the beginning, as there’s no way to ugprade it later on.
Add in the high temps with demanding loads and games, and the weak trackpad, and I’m out. But for those who just want to game? I think you could get around these problems and the higher temps/noise levels with some repasting and undervolting. But keep in mind there are other options out there that don’t require this kind of tweaking.
At the end of the day, I do have to give Dell credit where it’s deserved. They did manage to put a high powered GPU in a laptop that’s under .8” thick, so that has to count for something. The keyboard and overall build quality are both excellent too. This laptop may not be for me, but I’ll sure miss these features.
That about sums up my review of this 2021 Dell Alienware m15 R4. If you have questions or have a different experience than I did, please leave a comment below.
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