- Excellent build quality
- Great keyboard and display
- Fantastic gamer-focused performance
- "Upgradeable" with external Graphics Amplifier
- Thicker and heavier than competitors
- Adequate but unimpressive speakers considering the size and weight
- No optical drive ... considering the size and weight
Dell’s Alienware division has a history of making attractive gaming PCs, but the team at Alienware never rests when it comes to refreshing popular designs. Last year’s Alienware 14 is a distant memory and now the new Alienware 15 is the company’s mid-range gaming laptop resting between the more portable Alienware 13 and the high-end Alienware 17.
What makes the Alienware 15 a particularly lust-worthy machine is the range of customization options at a fair price. The most important part of most laptops is the processor (CPU), but heart of every gaming PC is the graphics card (GPU). In this case, you can order the Alienware 15 with a GPU from Nvidia’s GeForce 900M line of Maxwell-based hardware (GTX 965M, GTX 970M, or GTX 980M) or you can get AMD’s Radeon R9 M295X.
The rest of the hardware is no less impressive, but it’s the whole package that makes the Alienware 15 one of the best gaming notebooks you can buy for less than $2,000. Combine great performance with a beautiful display, great build quality, solid battery life, and even the keyboard and you end up with a notebook that delivers fantastic value for serious gamers.
Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned that you can upgrade the performance of this notebook by using the external Alienware Graphics Amplifier docking station. In short, this 15-inch laptop is as “future proof” as most gaming desktops.
Despite all that initial praise, we found a few things we didn’t like. Read on to find out more.
Build and Design
The new Alienware 15 shares much of the design heritage of the Alienware 17. Frankly, this is essentially a thinner and lighter version of the same notebook that consumes just a little less space on your desk. The family resemblance is strong and the design ID is basically the same.
The Alienware 15 is made of mostly matte black plastic and carbon fiber with touches of aluminum-colored cladding that looks almost like armor plating found around the bottom edges of the chassis and the entire back of the display. The display is impressively rigid and resists most flex or twisting unless you apply an abusive amount of force while trying to twist the display. A strong lid design is important for protecting the display during your travels. The display’s hinge is stiff to the point where two hands are required to open the lid, but still operates very smoothly.
The rest of the chassis is quite solid and should hold up to standard use and abuse as well as the larger Alienware 17. Fit and finish is overall good with clean and even gaps between parts.
The AlienFX LED lighting system is user-customizable with multiple different lighting zones. Each zone can be set to a different color, to morph between two colors or be turned completely off. We have a closer look at those lighting effects in the keyboard section below.
The Alienware 17 is also user-upgradeable thanks to the large removable panel on the bottom of the chassis. Removing this panel provides access to the memory modules standard SATA storage drive, M.2 format SSD and the wireless card.
Ports and Features
The left side of the notebook includes the AC power jack, security lock slot, two USB 3.0 ports, a dedicated microphone jack and a headphone/headset combo jack.
The right side ports include a full-size SD card reader, two USB 3.0 ports and an Ethernet jack.
The rear of the Alienware 15 contains a full-size HDMI out, mini DisplayPort out and the proprietary Alienware Graphics Amplifier port for connecting this laptop to an external docking station.
This brings us to the optional Alienware Graphics Amplifier. With a MSRP of $299.99 and an average real-world street price between $200 and $270, this unassuming black plastic box is roughly the same size as a shoebox but has almost everything you need to add desktop-class performance to your laptop.
Inside the Graphics Amplifier is a 460 Watt power supply and room for any standard full-length, dual-wide PCI-Express x16 desktop graphics card. At the time of this writing the Dell website allows you to purchase one of several desktop graphics cards that Alienware team has already confirmed will work. We used the PNY XLR8 GeForce GTX 980 card for our tests. We have more details on the performance boost from the Graphics Amplifier in the performance section of this review on page two.
Screen and Speakers
The 15.6-inch display in our review unit of the Alienware 15 is a FHD (1920 x 1080 resolution) IPS panel with a matte anti-glare finish and a maximum brightness rating of 300 nits. Dell also offers a 15.6-inch UHD (3840 x 2160) IPS panel with a touchscreen surface rated at 350 nits. In reality, both screens have comparable real-world brightness because the touchscreen surface hinders the output from the backlight. While the UHD upgrade looks nice, the higher resolution causes a noticeable reduction in battery life and you probably won’t play many games at more than 1080p resolution unless the Alienware 15 is connected to the external Graphics Amplifier.
The viewing angles on the 1080p display are nothing short of first rate. The contrast is among the best we’ve seen on any laptop with incredibly deep black levels. We actually measured the screen on our review sample as slightly higher than the advertised 300 nits (an average of 307 nits according to our light meter). Color accuracy is likewise good; we doubt you’ll find an IPS display with substantially better color accuracy.
The stereo speakers carry the Klipsch brand name and are generally good with a wide range from lows to highs with rich, distortion-free sound at low and mid-range volume levels. However, we noticed some significant distortion at higher volume levels; the bass starts to fall apart and some of the high notes sound flat. Frankly, we expected better speakers given the size and weight of this notebook. There is no dedicated subwoofer and the stereo speakers are quite small. Dell could have fit better audio hardware inside a chassis this large.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Regardless of whether you’re a gamer or just a casual user you will be hard pressed to find a 15-inch consumer laptop with a better keyboard than the one on the Alienware 15 … provided you can live without a dedicated number pad. The action of the individual keys is soft and quiet while still providing ample travel and positive feedback so you can feel when you’ve pressed a button. The four-zone customizable LED backlights and the dedicated macro keys also make this keyboard particularly attractive to serious gamers.
However, the inclusion of those extra macro keys combined with the removal of the dedicated number pad means that you may need to spend some extra time getting used to the layout of this keyboard if you’re used to having a dedicated number pad. Still, the keyboard feels incredibly nice during use and we became comfortable with the layout after a few days.
The touchpad is roughly identical to the one found on the Alienware 17 and features a smooth surface with gesture recognition, a high degree of cursor accuracy and a customizable AlienFX LED backlight. Thankfully, Alienware opted to use standard dedicated touchpad buttons for the left and right mouse clicks rather than replacing the touchpad and buttons with a buttonless clickpad like what we’ve seen on MacBooks and the countless MacBook alternatives.