Alienware’s hefty big-screen laptops are well known, but its more portable offerings still feel new to the gaming scene. The original m15 was slim but not a standout; now, the Alienware m15 R2 (starts at $1,499.99; $2,659.99 as tested) rocks a massive redesign, as well as the latest components and top-end features. Not everyone will love the bold new look, but it has personality. The 4K OLED panel on our unit looks brilliant, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 2070 Max-Q GPU ensures 60fps gaming at most settings and resolutions. The m15 R2 is much improved, but the $2,599 Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model remains our top high-end gaming laptop for its tip-top build quality. Razer’s OLED Blade configuration costs a lofty $3,299, however, so if you’re set on a brilliant, dramatic OLED panel, Alienware’s m15 R2 OLED model may be a better option.
The New m15 Design: I Come From the Future
The from-the-ground-up redesign of the m15 is the main focal point of the R2, even more so than the OLED screen. Design is largely a subjective thing, and while I could see the new look being divisive, I like it quite a bit. No, it doesn’t blend in anywhere—”subtle” is far from the first thing you’d call it—and yes, it signals that it’s a gaming laptop, but it does so more tastefully than most. Alienware is a premium gaming brand, so the design should stand out a little. As long as that’s done with a clear vision and some restraint, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Many gaming laptops simply equate “gaming” with “garish.”
To that end, Alienware’s new design language is going for a clean look inspired by sci-fi and future tech. Our model is the white “Lunar Light” option, but Alienware also offers a grey “Dark Side of the Moon” scheme. The chassis on our sample is a greyish white, with a black rear portion that houses ports and thermal hardware. The black portion is also ringed with an LED, another calling card of this new aesthetic.
The m15 R2 shares its look with the hulking Alienware Area 51-m, but is the first slim laptop to adopt the look. As I’ve said about the Area 51-m, and about this laptop in my preview of it, the m15 R2 wouldn’t look out of place in Mass Effect or another sci-fi world. The previous-generation m15 was thin and relatively light, but it looked—in direct opposition to how I described the R2 above—safe, plain, and even a little boring. It’s worth noting that the previous m15 design did get an OLED-screen option added late in its lifecycle, but it felt like a holdover with new design on the way.
The R2, meanwhile, has premium parts inside, and it feels higher-quality, to boot. The lid and keyboard deck are magnesium alloy, with a smooth finish that feels nice to the touch. It’s not quite the pure milled-aluminum construction of the Razer Blade 15, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It measures 0.8 by 14.2 by 10.9 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.75 pounds, which is almost exactly the same as the original m15 design. Despite the new look, the general footprint and heft haven’t changed much, so this is still a relatively portable gaming laptop.
How About That Screen?
Then, of course, there’s the screen. First, here’s a quick primer on what makes OLED displays special. LED-lit LCD screens use a white backlight that’s passed through a fast filter, which tints the light to provide the correct color. In a nutshell, OLED screens (the acronym stands for “organic light-emitting diode”) use a whole different display paradigm: a self-emissive organic compound, allowing each pixel in the panel to produce its own light when current is applied to it.
That’s the main difference from LCD screens, and what enables OLEDs to produce extra-brilliant colors and deep blacks. To display black, that area of the screen simply stops producing any light, so it is truly displaying nothing, which in turn provides better contrast and “truer” blacks than blocking an ever-present LED backlight. All of this also allows the panels to be more efficient, and thus thinner. That doesn’t come into play with laptops as dramatically as with TVs; many OLED TVs are nearly razor-thin.
So, with all of that said, we return to this particular screen. As with the other laptops in this new wave of OLED displays, the panel is produced by Samsung, so they’re all starting from the same point. And, as we’ve seen with the others, the screen is beautiful. Thanks to the wonders of OLED, the colors do seem to pop out at you, looking incredibly vibrant and rich. The black areas, as they should, look extra deep and dark, creating a striking contrast with the colors. I can describe it, but OLED is the kind of thing that you really have to experience for yourself, in person. Looking at pictures of an OLED panel through a non-OLED panel doesn’t do it justice. The screen is part of what you’re paying a premium for, and it’s a hit.
It’s nice enough that creative professionals may want to use this panel for legitimate media work. This laptop has other, non-4K screen options, which Alienware rates for different color-spectrum coverage than the OLED display. For the OLED screen, the only full gamut coverage claimed was for DCI-P3. We tested that with Portrait Displays’ CalMAN Ultimate software and our Klein colorimeter, and the results are below…
As you can see, the panel hits the claimed coverage percentage almost directly on the nose. In an effort to see how it would fare with other gamuts, I also tested the sRGB (100 percent coverage) and Adobe RGB (96 percent coverage) gamuts. All but the most exacting creative professionals should be satisfied with those results.
Beyond the picture quality, the panel features a 4K native resolution, which certainly adds to the crispness. The OLED screen option tops out at a 60Hz refresh rate, which is arguably a downside for a gaming system. The full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) screen options come in 60Hz, 144Hz, and 240Hz flavors, the last two being better for gamers seeking super-high frame rates in competitive esports games. In this case, the 4K screen is definitely a tradeoff in terms of refresh rate, but given the quality of the display, it may be worth it for many.
As for the rest of the physical build, the keyboard feels roomier than on quite a few competing gaming laptops. On competitors I’ve tested, the keyboard doesn’t take up as much of the keyboard-deck space as it could, and the keys are sometimes smaller than average. The m15 R2 doesn’t have a number pad, but it makes up for it with a keyboard that doesn’t feel cramped. The keys do feel a bit plasticky, and there isn’t much feedback, but the typing experience is decent on the whole.
The touchpad, too, is good enough, with very smooth panning, though it does feel somewhat loose to click on. As with the build overall, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the Blade 15, but it is still better than many.
The keyboard is also fun to look at. The keys can be individually backlit, and out of the box, our unit put on a rainbow light show. Obviously, you can tone it down with the included customization software, but the multicolored lights dancing across the keys look especially good on this white laptop.
Rounding out the exterior are the side and rear ports, and the m15 R2 packs a wide variety. The left flank holds a USB 3.1 port, an Ethernet jack, and a headset jack. The right side has just two more USB 3.1 ports, with the rest of the connections on the black rear of the laptop. There, you’ll find a USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, an HDMI port, a mini DisplayPort connection, and the power connector. There’s one more wide, skinny port, which will mystify some observers. This is the proprietary Alienware Graphics Amplifier port, for connecting to the company’s venerable external GPU enclosure. It’s sold separately.
Extras and Configurations
Moving away from the hardware for a moment, the customization software I mentioned briefly is a cut above the average, so it deserves a shout-out.
It’s called the Alienware Command Center, and it was rebuilt a few years ago to be the standard control panel for all Alienware PC products. It wraps all of the usual gaming software—game-specific profiles, lighting options, audio settings, component tuning, system monitoring, and even a game library and launcher—into one program. Most usefully for gaming, you can flip the laptop’s thermal profile among several presets (five choices, ranging from quiet to full speed), and set overclock profiles to boost your GPU.
Command Center does all of this with a level of polish not usually seen in these free offerings. You actually want to use it.
That brings us to our final main feature, a somewhat optional extra. The m15 R2 is the first 15-inch laptop to include Tobii eye tracking, which comes standard with both the 240Hz and OLED display options. If you’re unfamiliar with Tobii, it’s an independent company that has developed eye-tracking tech that’s made its way into laptops and other devices, such as the HTC Vive Pro virtual-reality headset. The tracking hardware is the slim, semi-transparent black bar running under the display.
Tobii has several nongaming functions, meant for general laptop use. The most helpful is its ability to un-dim the display when the Tobii sensors detect that you’ve looked back at the screen. But it has more specific uses while gaming. It’s supported in more than 100 titles (many of them major AAA games), and you can find out which features are enabled in which games by visiting the Tobii site. Many of them revolve around eye aiming, as well as some selection features and enemy targeting.
I tested Tobii in-game for a bit, mostly using Far Cry 5. The enhancements are subtle, and not, ahem, game-changing, but they are there. Moving your eyes toward the edge of the screen will turn your character’s head slightly, giving you a subtle sense of looking through his or her eyes. I didn’t notice many effects beyond that, but the tech adds a degree of immersion. Between some in-game mechanics like the glance effect, and the advantages to desktop browsing, Tobii at worst doesn’t detract from the experience, and at best makes some games more enjoyable.
Tobii is bundled into the cost, however, so I wouldn’t blame you for wishing you could cut it to save money. If you really don’t want eye tracking, the lower two screen options (the full-HD 60Hz and 144Hz ones) don’t come with Tobii. If you want the OLED screen, though, you also have to pay for Tobii.
Before we get to the performance testing of our unit, let’s stop for a quick look at other configuration options. As a reminder, our $2,659.99 test unit includes an Intel Core i7-9750H processor, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD, and (of course) the 4K OLED panel. Those are far from the only options, though, so I’ll start with the processors.
You can choose a Core i5 chip for less money, or pick between two Core i9 CPUs (one with the “K” designation, meaning it’s overclockable). Graphics options range even wider, from a light-hitting GeForce GTX 1650 (barely sufficient for 1080p gaming) up through to the muscular GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q. Having many storage options is common on any type of laptop, so it’s no surprise you can get a small 256GB SSD or a roomy 2TB SSD (both M.2 drives). You can also configure dual drives in RAID arrays, up to 4TB. (Our tester had just a single SSD.)
All of this is to say you can fashion an m15 R2 to fit your budget, so long as your budget is $1,500 or up. Unlike what I’ve experienced with some laptops, the physical build quality is good enough that using it for both low- and high-end configurations doesn’t leave the latter a disappointing compromise. Using the same chassis at each end of the pricing spectrum is all well and good in theory, but some laptop bodies feel subpar once you pump up the components to a several-thousand-dollar configuration. Alienware avoids that pitfall with premium construction, so those paying the $1,499 starting price should be just as pleased as those paying more than $2,000 for a decked-out m15 R2.
Testing the m15 R2: A Potent Performer
For performance-testing comparisons, I selected a group of laptops that serve both as competition and context. All but one are similarly priced and/or equipped gaming machines, but all help give an idea of the Alienware’s power and value. In the cheat sheet below are the basic specs of each…
The Blade 15 Advanced Model released earlier this year was already a favorite, and the recently reviewed updated OLED model ($3,299 as tested) is a perfect competitor here for an OLED head-to-head battle. The Acer Predator Triton 500 ($2,499 as tested) is another top-end 15-inch gaming laptop, while the MSI GS65 Stealth ($1,699 as tested) represents our top midrange pick. It should give you an idea of what a step down in GPU power and cost will get you.
The XPS 15 7590 ($2,649 as tested), meanwhile, is the newest model of Dell’s 15-inch desktop-replacement laptop. While not a gaming laptop, our unit does include a low-end discrete GPU and an OLED display, making it a relevant inclusion here. It also boasts the best CPU in the bunch, demonstrating what a Core i9 can do.
In addition, this is a good place to note that Alienware has engineered extra-efficient voltage regulation to back its GPU and CPU. It has eight-phase power delivery for graphics, and six-phase for the processor, where most notebooks use four-phase regulation. This should allow these components to sustain higher performance levels for longer. (Read on to see how that plays out.)
Productivity & Storage Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet use, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a specialized Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the PC’s boot drive.
This powerful group of laptops performed very similarly on both of these tests, so I’ll cut to the chase. For pricier systems with gaming-grade parts, the daily home and office tasks measured by PCMark 10 are a breeze, and you shouldn’t be concerned about their ability to handle them. Similarly, the snappy solid state drives in these laptops finished within a very tight cluster of one another on PCMark 8. They’re all going to provide fast boot and load times, as has more or less become the standard in modern laptops. Let’s move on to something a bit more strenuous.
Media Processing & Creation Tests
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. This stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters. (Systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.)
On these tests, more variation between the chips shows in the results. The XPS 15’s Core i9 was a step above, as it should be, while the rest fell into a similar ballpark. There were more differences on Cinebench, and the m15 R2 did stand above the rest (barring the XPS 15, of course). Photostop was much tighter, but either way, the m15 R2 is very well equipped to handle media tasks. Only true workstation laptops, or those with a very high-end Core i9 CPU, will perform markedly better than this, so look for one of those if you’re a serious media professional or work with ISV-certified pro software.
Synthetic Graphics Tests
Next up: UL’s 3DMark suite. 3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
The following chart is another synthetic graphics test, this one from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s done in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, whose different 3D workload scenario presents a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess.
The m15 R2 had a good showing on the synthetic 3D tests, with about as high scores as you could hope for from the hardware. I’ve noted multiple times through reviews of Max-Q laptops that the RTX 2080 Max-Q doesn’t perform much differently than the RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU, and that’s proven here with how similar the m15 R2 is to the Triton 500. There’s a much bigger performance gap between the two with the full-power GPU, but the down-tuning required for Max-Q (so that the powerful GPU can fit in a slip laptop) neuters the RTX 2080 more than the rest. The Blade 15’s 2080 Max-Q did perform slightly better, but given the price jump between the two, the 2070 Max-Q looks a better value on a pure price-to-power scale. As a gaming laptop, it’s important to see how this translates to real frame rates, so on to the next tests…
Real-World Gaming Tests
The synthetic tests above are helpful for measuring general 3D aptitude, but it’s hard to beat full retail video games for judging gaming performance. Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are both modern AAA titles with built-in benchmark schemes. These tests are run at 1080p on both the moderate and maximum graphics-quality presets (Normal and Ultra for Far Cry 5; Medium and Very High for Rise of the Tomb Raider) to judge performance for a given laptop. Far Cry 5 is DirectX 11-based, while Rise of the Tomb Raider can be flipped to DX12, which we do for that benchmark.
If anything, the conclusion from the previous results only gains stronger evidence here. The m15 R2 outperformed the RTX 2080 Max-Q-bearing Triton 500 and the Blade 15 on Far Cry 5, at just under 100fps on maximum settings. Those two did top the m15 on Rise of the Tomb Raider, but not by much. Indeed, the eight-phase graphics voltage regulation may have helped it edge or match the competition.
For its part, the midrange GS65 Stealth shows what to expect from a less expensive, but still capable, machine, while the XPS 15 demonstrated the gap between an entry-level GPU and the top dogs. Overall, at 1080p, the m15 R2 is very well suited to AAA games at maximum settings. The 60Hz refresh rate means you don’t really need to worry about pushing frame rates as high as possible—there’s enough of a cushion above 60fps that dips should be nonexistent or infrequent.
I also ran the tests at native 4K, which was, unsurprisingly, much more of a strain. On maximum settings at 4K, the m15 R2 averaged 37fps on Far Cry 5 and 39fps on Rise of the Tomb Raider. Those are at least above 30fps, but far short of the ideal 60fps. This is not exactly surprising given the hardware, but don’t see the 4K screen and assume this laptop can play at that lofty resolution with high frame rates.
Battery Rundown Test
Finally, the battery-life testing. After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video-rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in Airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
The battery runtime isn’t much to write home about, but it does fall in line with the rest. MSI and Razer’s machines lasted a bit longer, but within the same range of general off-plug usefulness. Dell’s non-gaming system lasts twice as long, so as far as an OLED laptop with a long battery goes, that’s your winner. Six-and-a-half hours is enough battery life for travel and use away from an outlet, even if it’s not all-day battery.
I ran some extensive extra battery tests on the other OLED laptops to confirm some theories about OLED’s effects on battery life. I didn’t re-run those on the Alienware m15 R2, since the results of those earlier tests confirmed the theories, so I am confident that they hold true here as well. In short, an OLED screen uses much less power when displaying black or mostly dark images, resulting in battery savings. As a result, all of these manufacturers are shipping their OLED laptops with Windows Dark Mode turned on, and from my testing, it does confer a noticeable difference in battery life versus Light Mode. Even high brightness levels with dark screens have less of a battery-drain impact than Light Mode does, so it’s a good idea to keep Dark Mode on!
Your Best Bet for an OLED Gaming Laptop?
The Alienware m15 R2 is an excellent rework of the company’s more compact gamer. It signals “gaming laptop” without being overbearing; it performs like a premium machine; and it includes the types of legitimately useful features that should be exclusive to high-end systems. On our unit in particular, the 4K OLED screen looks superb, even if you won’t be playing most games in actual 4K. It’s only slightly pricier than Acer’s Predator Triton 500 for equal or better power, while offering a far superior display.
As for the Razer Blade 15, its OLED configuration costs $640 more than the Alienware m15 R2’s OLED model, and it delivered only slightly better gaming performance in our tests. If you are set on an OLED screen (and I wouldn’t blame you!), the m15 R2 is actually better bang for your buck than Razer’s alternative. The Blade 15 OLED levies an additional premium for the step-up GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU and the screen, but the GPU isn’t all that much peppier in practice.
That said, it’s the $2,599 non-OLED Blade 15 (also with an RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU) that we originally granted an Editors’ Choice award, and it still comes out on top versus the m15 R2. Alienware’s machine is a fine offering, and perhaps the best pick if you want an OLED gaming laptop, but the non-OLED Razer Blade 15 remains our top recommendation among high-end gaming machines based on its power, build, and price. Alienware, however, has made it a very near-run thing.