Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

JT JT 25 May 2020
Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

The Alienware m15 R2 is a thinner gaming laptop with some powerful hardware inside and has quite a unique design, let’s check it out in this detailed review and find out what’s on offer.

My m15 has an Intel i7-9750H processor, 90 watt Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q graphics, 16gb of memory in dual channel, a 512gb NVME M.2 SSD, and a 15.6” 1080p 240Hz screen. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?For network connectivity it’s got 2.5 gigabit ethernet, WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.

The m15 is available with different specs though. The newer R3 version was recently announced, hopefully I can get that one to review faster than this one.

The laptop is made out of a magnesium alloy and comes in two finishes, lunar light which I’ve got here, or dark side of the moon which is a dark finish. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?The build quality felt great, the edges were smooth, however the two front corners could feel a bit sharp if you rub them straight on. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?The interior of mine is all white, and so is the lid, with a subtle number 15 towards the bottom corner. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?Dell lists the weight of the m15 R2 as 2.16kg, though my configuration was above this, and the total weight rose by over a kilo with the fairly large 240w power brick and cables for charging included.

In terms of dimensions it’s perhaps a little deeper than other 15 inch laptops as the back sticks out a bit, but it’s just 2cm thick at the thickest part. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?The bezel is 9.5mm thin on the sides, however it’s a bit thicker underneath, and this is where the Tobii eye tracking hardware is found. The 15.6” 1080p 240Hz screen has a matte finish and viewing angles looked fine.

Unfortunately there’s no G-Sync or option to disable optimus here, so you’re stuck with Optimus which will reduce performance in games. This is the first laptop review featuring my new response time testing. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?I recently invested in the tools required to test this, and in my testing the panel has a 6.7ms GTG response time, which seems fair given Dell advertises it as a 7ms panel.

I’ve tested the screen with the Spyder 5, and got 96% of sRGB, 68% of NTSC, 74% of AdobeRGB and 74% of DCI-P3. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?At 100% brightness I measured the panel at 323 nits in the center with a 760:1 contrast ratio, so all round pretty similar compared to most other high refresh rate gaming laptops I’ve tested, though a little lower on the contrast. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?Backlight bleed was minimal, just a subtle glow patch was detected down the bottom left corner, but I never noticed this during normal use, though this will vary between laptop and panels.

The m15 R2 is also available with 60Hz 1080p or 4K panel options too, so expect different results with different options. There was more screen flex than expected when you consider that the hinge runs along the majority of the base, I found the hinge sturdy enough though. It was just possible to open the laptop up with one finger, it’s definitely more back heavy, but no issues using it on my lap.

Despite the thinner bezels, the 720p camera is found above the display in the center, no Windows Hello support though. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? The keyboard has per key RGB backlighting which illuminates all keys and secondary key functions, and this can be controlled in the FX tab in the Alienware command center software. There’s no numpad so it doesn’t feel cramped, and the key presses feel nice and tactile with 1.7mm of key travel. Overall I liked typing with the keyboard, but it took some getting used to. When I first used it, it felt a bit far off to the right so I had a lot of mis-presses.

Above the keyboard at the back there are air intake vents to help with cooling, and the power button is up the top right and gets lit up. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?Keyboard flex was on the lower side when pushing down hard, it was quite solid and I have no problems at all during normal use. The precision touchpad physically clicks down anywhere when pressed, it makes an above average audible click sound when doing so. At times it did feel a little small compared to others, and I had this strange issue where basically two finger scrolling was choppy and inconsistent. Apparently it’s an issue with the Tobii eye tracking software, however due to other issues with the software I wasn’t able to attempt the suggested fix, either way it happened with Tobi disabled, so doesn’t seem like a great feature and honestly this isn’t good enough if it’s the default.

Fingerprints don’t really show up due to the white finish, but I’d expect this to be more obvious with the darker model. The white version, does appear to yellow over time with use, which is happening to the left of the touchpad and did not go away after a clean.

On the left from the back there’s a noble lock slot, air exhaust vent, 2.5 gigabit ethernet port, USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-A port, and 3.5mm audio combo jack. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?On the right there are two USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-A ports and an air exhaust vent. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?The back has two air exhaust vents towards the corners, then from left to right there are HDMI 2.0b and mini DisplayPort 1.4 outputs, USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C Thunderbolt 3 port with 4 lanes which also supports DisplayPort 1.2, no type-c charging though, the port for the Alienware graphics amplifier eGPU, and the power input.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? I confirmed the Type-C port is wired to the Intel iGPU, however both the HDMI and DisplayPort connections go directly to the Nvidia GPU, so this could be used for VR or to boost FPS with an external monitor.

There’s nothing going on on the front. The Alienware logo on the lid lights up with RGB lighting, and you’ve probably noticed that there’s also a ring of RGB lighting on the back too. In addition to the keyboard, this is all controlled through the Alienware command center in the FX tab.

Underneath is pretty clean, with just some air intake vents towards the back.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? The white panel comes off easily by just taking out 8 phillips head screws of different sizes, the 4 at the front don’t come out of the panel.

Once inside we’ve got the battery down the bottom, it’s split in an odd shape with the two M.2 slots in the middle of it, one slot supports PCIe and SATA while the other is SATA only. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?That’s all we get access to, the RAM and WiFI are soldered to the motherboard and cannot be upgraded. The two speakers are found towards the front on the left and right sides. The speakers sound pretty average, they’re clear, there’s not really any bass, but they get quite loud at maximum volume and the latencymon results look good.

The m15 R2 is powered by a 76Wh battery. I’ve tested with the screen brightness at 50%, background apps disabled and keyboard lighting off.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? With the screen at the default 240Hz speed it lasted for 5 hours and 5 minutes while watching YouTube, and Optimus was enabled as it’s not possible to turn it off. While playing the Witcher 3 with medium settings and Nvidia’s battery boost set to 30 FPS the battery lasted for 44 minutes, one of the lower results, however the FPS didn’t dip below the cap at any point.

I’ll just summarise the thermals. The Alienware Command Center software lets you select different performance modes, including quiet, cool, balanced, performance and full speed, and these adjust fan speeds and power limits. There are also a couple of overclocking modes, 1 and 2, which overclock the GPU by these amounts. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?Thermals were tested with a 21 degree Celsius ambient room temperature.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? Idle results down the bottom were a bit warm but no real issue with that. Worst case stress tests were done with the Aida64 CPU stress test with CPU only checked and the Heaven benchmark at max settings at the same time, and gaming was tested with Watch Dogs 2 as I find it to use a good combination of processor and graphics. The CPU would thermal throttle at 100 degrees celsius which was happening at times, though no thermal throttling was ever observed on the GPU.

Read more: Alienware m15 R2 temperature

Clock speeds were decent once we did some tweakingAlienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? the cooling pad and undervolting allowed us to hit the full 4GHz all core turbo boost speed even under these heavy workloads, however performance could vary a fair bit depending on the mode in use, and this was due to the power limit changes done by the different modesAlienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? for instance quiet and cool mode cap the CPU to 25 watts, balanced and performance cap it to 33.75w, while full speed mode sets PL1 to 80W, meaning thermals will instead be our limit as we saw earlier.

Here’s how CPU only performance looked in Cinebench with the different modes in useAlienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? with the undervolt in place at the top we’re able to get one of the best multicore scores in this test out of all 9750H laptops I’ve tested, and that’s one of the benefits of the high power limit, we’re able to get more performance, but at the expense of thermals. Basically it’s a tradeoff, and despite being a thinner machine Alienware have made the choice to pump up those power limits to boost performance, so hotter internals are expected when under heavy load as the thermal cap is 100, many other laptops limit this lower to say 90.

As for the external temperatures where you’ll actually be putting your hands, at idle it was in the mid 30s in the center but warmer up the back. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?With the stress tests going regardless of the mode in use, the center of the keyboard warms up to around 50 degrees, however the keys themselves didn’t feel hot.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? It’s a little cooler in full speed mode as this boosts the fan. At idle in quiet mode it was completely silent, there was some extremely subtle coil whine but this wasn’t noticeable once the fans were going. With the stress test going in quiet mode it’s still on the quieter side, cool was a little louder, balanced and performance were a little louder still though about the same as each other.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

Full speed mode was strange, when you first enable it the fans spin up louder to about 58 decibels which is quite loud, however it only lasts for a few seconds before spinning down to around 52 decibels which is where it remained indefinitely.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? This is strange because full speed isn’t actually giving us full speed, well it does for the first few seconds then it slows down. Granted the slowed down speed is still faster than any other mode, it can clearly go faster.

I tried making a custom fan profile in the Alienware command center software and set both to max speed, but I had the same issue as the full speed profile. Considering thermals can run hotter in this machine due to the high power limits, it would have been good if we can actually utilize these faster fans if we want to.

Next, let’s find out just how well the m15 R2 actually performs in games. I’ve tested with full speed mode and the overclock 2 profile enabled for best results.

In Battlefield 5 I’ve got the m15 R2 highlighted in red, and due to request I’ve started sorting this graph by average FPS. 

Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

Out of this selection of laptops tested with similar specs, the m15 is performing quite well, with one of the highest average frame rates in this game, however the 1% low performance is on the lower side out of these machines which I suspect is due to the CPU throttling back which creates some inconsistencies.

These are the results from Far Cry 5 with ultra settings in the built in benchmark. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?This time the average frame rate was more around the middle of the pack and the 1% low was more in line with many other laptops. This test seems to be more CPU heavy than GPU though, which would explain why the undervolted Helios 300 is only just below it despite having a 1660 Ti.

These are the results from Shadow of the Tomb raider with the built in benchmark at highest settings.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? As this is a more GPU demanding test the m15 is back towards the top of the bunch, and was able to beat a few 115 watt 2070 machines, granted the GS75 with lower 80 watt power limit 2080 Max-Q was a couple of frames ahead here.

If you’re after more gaming benchmarks check the review where I’ve tested 20 games in total on the Alienware m15 R2. Overall the gaming performance was good with the m15 R2, at least at these higher setting levels where the GPU can actually get put to work, as you’d expect.

At lower settings in many titles tested there was notably lower performance compared to other laptops I’ve looked at. Some of this will be due to the inability of disabling optimus, and it’s unfortunate that we’re not given this option to further boost performance or gain the benefits of G-Sync.

I’ve used Adobe Premiere to export  video at 4K, and the results weren’t that great given the GPU we’ve got available.Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? I generally find a 1660 Ti and above to offer diminishing returns.

Now for the benchmarking tools, I’ve tested Heaven, Valley, and Superposition from Unigine, as well as Firestrike, Timespy and Port Royal from 3DMark. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?

Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?For the first time in a laptop review I’ve also got some VR testing. This test is basically only used for comparison purposes, the FPS values don’t mean much. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?In any case, I found it interesting that the m15 R2 was able to outperform the GS66 with higher tier 2080 Super Max-Q, granted that is lower wattage.

I’ve also tested SPECviewperf which tests out various professional 3D workloads. Alienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost?I’ve used Crystal Disk Mark to test the storageAlienware m15 R2 - Thin & Powerful, But at What Cost? and the 512GB NVMe M.2 drive was performing quite well, but expect different results with different storage options.

In the US this configuration of m15 R2 goes for $2500 USD. Based on the CPU already running quite hot, I don’t think it’s worth spending $1000 extra to go for the i9 unless you’re running multicore applications and time is money. Here in Australia we’re looking about $5000 AUD for the same config, though it’s less of a jump to go for the i9, more like 400 USD there, but in most cases still not worth it if gaming is the priority.

With all of that in mind let’s conclude by summarising the good and bad aspects of the Alienware m15 R2 gaming laptop. The design is definitely quite unique and different compared to most other gaming laptops out there with plenty of RGB lighting. The over the top RGB is definitely going to come down to personal preference, but you can turn it off and customize it.

Overall I thought the build quality was good, however I’d probably go for the black version rather than white, as the area near the touchpad on my unit has yellowed over time. Speaking of the touchpad, I had a strange issue with mine where two finger scrolling in any app was barely working.

According to the Internet, this is due to the Tobii eye tracker software, however I was not able to change the required settings to fix this due to some other unknown issue with the software. Another software issue was that I couldn’t install some of the updates through the Alienware update software, it just sat there for hours saying installing but never did anything on multiple occasions, I still haven’t been able to fully update it.

The m15 R2 has some decent I/O, it’s got 2.5 gigabit ethernet, a good range of display ports, Thunderbolt, and the port for the Alienware graphics amplifier which will outperform thunderbolt if you plan on using an external GPU. It would have been good to see USB 3.1 Gen2 for the Type-A ports at this price rather than Gen 1 though.

There are limited upgrade options with the m15 R2, as the RAM and WiFi are soldered to the motherboard pretty much all we can change is the M.2 storage drives. Honestly I don’t think this is great, while you could argue that it’s required as part of a thinner machine, there are other options of similar thickness that don’t have these compromises, say the MSI GS66. It would have been good if we had the option of disabling optimus, or otherwise G-Sync, as this would have offered a nice performance boost, however with these higher end specs and above average power limits, we’re still able to get some nice gaming results.

The battery life wasn’t great, but it was able to give me the best VR score I’ve had so far. The good performance seems to be due to Alienware’s preference of power over thermals, so as a result under heavier loads in the full speed mode temperatures definitely do get up there, particularly with the CPU, though with undervolting and using a cooling pad it was still possible to get some improvements.

All things considered, the m15 R2 is a visually striking laptop, but for me personally there’s not enough good features to recommend it over alternatives, especially at the price point. Hopefully the new R3 model that was just announced resolves many of these issues, and I look forward to comparing the two in future. Let me know what you thought about the Alienware m15 R2 gaming laptop down in the comments.

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