The Alienware m15 R3 was one of our favorite gaming laptops of 2020, standing out with unique styling and the muscle to back it up. The m15 R4 (starts at $2,149.99; $2,499 as tested) is a component-level revamp that uses the same chassis but adds Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 30 Series “Ampere” GPUs, newly announced for laptops at CES 2021 earlier this month. Our test unit packs an RTX 3070, which delivers demonstrable frame-rate gains over its previous-generation counterparts, especially at higher resolutions, and makes 60-frame-per-second (fps) ray tracing a possibility on laptops.
The m15 R4 is a promising first look at what should become commonplace in high-end machines by year’s end, even if it’s not as much of a leap over the GeForce RTX 20 Series as it was on the desktop. Our particular m15 configuration adds some cost with 1TB of solid-state storage and a 4K OLED display. (Alienware’s lower-resolution, higher-refresh-rate screen options will be better picks for avid gamers.) But the core takeaway? One of our favorite laptops is now even faster, thanks to Nvidia’s latest silicon. It retains our Editors’ Choice award for high-end gaming laptops.
More Sci-Fi Style: Internal Changes Only
In terms of design and size, this edition of the m15 is identical to the last. The updates are entirely internal, with the new GPU the star. Since this isn’t an improved build, I won’t spend too much time on the design, but here are the fundamentals.
The chassis measures 0.8 by 14.19 by 10.86 inches (HWD) and tips the scale at 4.65 pounds. That makes for a moderate-size laptop but perfectly acceptable for a powerful gaming machine. In a sense, it’s also impressive that the body hasn’t changed, considering greater GPU power is being added internally.
The styling is a standout sci-fi aesthetic that may prove divisive but adds some unique flair. Ours is the mostly white Lunar Light color scheme, but the laptop also comes in Dark Side of the Moon, dominated by gray. The look is rounded out by some customizable LEDs on the keyboard and rear edge, as well as some honeycombed ventilation. For more thoughts on the build, including the keyboard and touchpad, check out our mid-2020 review of the m15 R3.
The only area where this unit visibly differs from the last is the display, though that’s due to a configuration difference rather than a redesign. The m15 R4 seen here boasts not only the RTX 3070 GPU but a 4K OLED display. The R3 offered the OLED panel as an option, but the unit we reviewed had a high-refresh (300Hz) full HD screen. This model sacrifices the high refresh rate, offering 60Hz only, in exchange for 3,840-by-2,160-pixel resolution and the richer hues of OLED technology. This is arguably a worse fit for gaming, but some shoppers will value the raw panel resolution more.
It’s a nice-looking display, no doubt, with the extra-vibrant colors you expect from OLED, and the very crisp text and fine details you choose a 4K panel for. The plasticky bezels around the display diminish the overall sleekness of the laptop somewhat, but they’re not thick enough to be distracting. The Windows desktop and web pages look great, as do videos, but the screen really makes games pop.
We’ll take a quick pit stop to look at the ports. The left flank holds one USB 3.1 Type-A port, an Ethernet jack, and an audio jack. On the right, there are two more USB-A ports and a microSD card slot. The rest are located around back, including a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, HDMI and mini DisplayPort video outputs, and a proprietary connection for Alienware’s external graphics card enclosure, the now-venerable Graphics Amplifier.
Never Fear, ‘Ampere’ is Here
Now for what you came for—as mentioned, the 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 GPU is the main draw. This is one of the first laptops we’re testing with an RTX 30 Series GPU following the laptop parts’ debut at CES 2021, highly anticipated after the success of the GeForce RTX 30 Series on the desktop. It will be up against some RTX 20 Series GPUs in the benchmark results section below to see how much of an improvement it brings. It should be noted that this is not a tuned-down Max-Q version of the GPU, but the full-power laptop version of the RTX 3070; Alienware supplemented the cooling to support it.
Joining the GPU and 4K display in our $2,499 configuration are an Intel Core i7-10870H processor, 16GB of memory, and 1TB of SSD storage (via two 512GB drives in RAID 0). Note that the processor, unlike the GPU, does not mark an update to the latest generation; Intel announced 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” H Series CPUs for gaming laptops at CES 2021, but Alienware is sticking with Intel’s 10th Generation chips for this update.
The $2,149.99 base model gets you the same processor, memory, and GPU as our test unit, but with only 256GB of storage and a 300Hz 1080p display. The latter is arguably better for hardcore gamers, as I noted, but I can insist that most gamers will want more than 256GB of storage. Alienware m15 R4 models with Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080, meanwhile, start at $2,649.
Below is the list of laptops (and their parts) that we pit against the m15 R4, notably including the RTX 2070-bearing Alienware m15 R3 version to see how things have improved with the new GPU.
Productivity, Storage, and Media 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 jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s boot drive. Both tests yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
There’s not much to say on the CPU front since this isn’t a new chip and the competitors are right in line with this machine. The PCMark 10 score demonstrates more than enough speed to power through your everyday multitasking and many browser tabs. That’s the least you would expect from a capable gaming laptop, but this goes well beyond the minimum. PCMark 8 shows us for the umpteenth time that today’s speedy SSDs ensure snappy load and boot times.
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.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better.
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 add up the total. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here.
The new Alienware did indeed lead in these tests, posting a comfortable win in Cinebench and a more modest advantage in the other two benchmarks. It’s not quite up to the level of the strongest mobile workstations—none of these systems is—but it’s more than competent if you need to edit some photos or encode a video in a non-professional capacity.
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 more suited to midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test or gaming simulation, this time 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 rendered in the eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario for a second opinion on each laptop’s graphical prowess.
This is where we get into the meat of this system’s performance, as we can see how the RTX 3070 stacks up. Even a quick glance at the charts is promising: This GPU is head and shoulders above its RTX 20 Series competitors. That even includes several RTX 2080 Super GPUs, meaning the second-best RTX 30 Series GPU (the current hierarchy is RTX 3080, RTX 3070, and RTX 3060) comfortably outpaces the best RTX 20 Series. That’s in line with what we’ve seen from desktop systems, showing just how big the leap is for the Ampere platform. If these raw scores are hard to digest, let’s move on to some more concrete gaming frame rates.
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, high-fidelity titles with built-in benchmarks that illustrate how a system handles real-world gameplay at various settings. We run them at 1080p resolution at the games’ medium and best image-quality presets (Normal and Ultra for Far Cry 5 under DirectX 11, Medium and Very High for Rise of the Tomb Raider under DirectX 12).
These scores perhaps don’t show as big a jump as the synthetic results, but the RTX 3070 is clearly superior. Gaining roughly 10fps to 15fps at the highest quality settings over those of the previous generation’s top GPU is definitely something to pump your fist over, even if it doesn’t put this system in a clearly different performance tier. Given a higher-refresh display and an extra cushion for visually demanding games, this new GPU can be the difference between maintaining 144fps in competitive multiplayer titles or seeing dips. The leap over last gen isn’t as big as it is on the desktop, but there are usually diminishing returns as the GPUs battle the laws of thermodynamics in compact laptop chassis.
All of these benefits are only for 1080p resolution, too. We’ve seen the RTX 30 Series show even greater gains over the 20 Series at higher resolutions on the desktop, especially at 4K. To put this to the test, I ran the same game benchmarks on the Alienware m15 R4 at 4K resolution. Using the top quality presets for Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider, the system averaged 57fps and 61fps, respectively.
Those aren’t sky-high results, but I must stress how much more demanding 4K is, usually cutting frame rates down well below 60fps. For comparison’s sake, I pulled up one of our favorite recent 4K gaming rigs, the Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15, which has an RTX 2080 Super (Max-Q) GPU. It averaged a noticeably choppier 43fps and 44fps in the two games.
And then there’s ray tracing. The advanced real-time lighting technique is the calling card of the GeForce RTX series, but even on the RTX 2080, it drags down frame rates significantly. The GeForce RTX 30 Series has proven much more capable, though Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider don’t take advantage of the technology.
For a game that does, I tested with Metro Exodus, one of the more demanding ray-tracing-enabled titles, across a variety of settings. I can testify that even my desktop GeForce RTX 2080 Super card struggles to hit 60fps in Metro Exodus at 1440p and higher settings. (The game isn’t the most optimized available, as ray tracing was added, rather than built in from the ground up as with the title Control. But the latter sadly lacks a built-in benchmark.)
Metro Exodus’ visual quality settings max out at Extreme, and its top ray tracing preset is Ultra. The combination proved a bit too demanding for the Alienware m15 R4, as the system delivered an average of 49fps at 1080p. The RTX settings preset, which should still be a pretty lofty target, takes one step down to Ultra visual quality and High ray tracing, along with DLSS. The R4 averaged 68fps, an impressive number for a laptop pushing such challenging visuals.
Moving to 4K and ray tracing, though, was a bridge too far. I think the mobile RTX 3070 is equipped to do one, but not both (at least if you are targeting 60fps). The RTX 3080 is likely better equipped, though if you’re a dedicated 4K gamer you’ll need to accept that laptop graphics still haven’t quite caught up with their less thermally restricted desktop counterparts.
Nevertheless, the mobile RTX 3070 clearly delivers more power than its predecessors at what shouldn’t be a painful price premium—eventually all high-end gaming laptops will make the switch to RTX 30 Series GPUs, essentially a passive upgrade for end users. The frame rates on display here are top-notch, especially if you’re looking to play at higher resolutions. Look for more high-refresh 1440p notebook screen options to arrive as the new GPUs take over the market.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available 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 same Tears of Steelshort we use in our Handbrake test—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system quits.
The R4’s battery life didn’t set any records, but it did surprise me. Given the system’s power and demanding 4K display, I would have banked on less battery stamina, but nearly seven hours is plenty for this type of system. We have found that OLED screens improve battery life, so that’s likely one place to look for credit even considering the 4K resolution. Gaming laptops are rarely daily travelers, but with battery life like this, it’s much more viable to take the system with you without needing to look for the nearest outlet all day.
Mobile Ray Tracing Is in Reach, at Last
The Alienware m15 R4 isn’t changed much from its predecessor—perhaps a redesign will come with the eventual, inevitable R5 revamp—but adding more power is never bad for a gaming machine. The RTX 30 Series will push this (and other) laptops further into high-refresh-rate glory and smooth 4K gaming territory. The RTX 3070 is still a bit shy of 60fps ray tracing in the most demanding games, but shuffling settings makes it much more practical than before.
The new system isn’t a run-out-and-buy-one temptation for owners of RTX 2080 laptops, but being able to more plausibly play with ray tracing might appeal to some. And those upgrading from an older gaming rig should be truly excited. This isn’t a ground-breaking laptop in and of itself, but is still an improved—or should we say, Ampered up?—version of a system we can highly recommend.
The Bottom Line
The Alienware m15 R4 shares its design with its predecessor but crucially adds Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 Series GPU power, bringing improved gaming performance and 60fps ray tracing to this standout gaming laptop.
Alienware m15 R4 Specs
|Processor||Intel Core i7-10870H|
|Processor Speed||2.2 GHz|
|RAM (as Tested)||16 GB|
|Boot Drive Type||SSD|
|Boot Drive Capacity (as Tested)||1 TB|
|Screen Size||15.6 inches|
|Native Display Resolution||3840 by 2160|
|Variable Refresh Support||None|
|Screen Refresh Rate||60 Hz|
|Graphics Processor||Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070|
|Graphics Memory||8 GB|
|Wireless Networking||Bluetooth, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6)|
|Dimensions (HWD)||0.8 by 14.19 by 10.86 inches|
|Operating System||Windows 10|
|Tested Battery Life (Hours:Minutes)||6:46|