High-end gaming isn’t always compatible with folks who have places to be and things to do. Sure, a Nintendo Switch can travel, but it’s a generation or two behind the times technologically. On the flip side, a nice custom-built PC can do everything from gaming to web browsing and work — but it can’t go on the road with you.
Luckily, Alienware’s M15 R3 gaming laptop tackles all of these problems.
Gaming laptops have always been limited by technology and the laws of physics. It’s really, really hard to put top-of-the-line graphics hardware inside of such a small form factor without the risk of overheating. But the steady march of technological progress means laptops like the M15 R3 can handle your Steam gaming library as well as all those Zoom happy hours you might still have to attend.
Make no mistake: It’ll cost you a pretty penny to pack VR and ray tracing capabilities into a laptop shell. But even with some noticeable limitations, the Alienware M15 R3 makes a case for itself.
Alienware is selling the M15 R3 in several different configurations, with differences in graphics cards, internal storage, processors, and display quality separating each one. I did all of my testing on a $1,549 mid-tier option with these specs:
10th-generation Intel Core i7 processor
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060
16GB DDR4 RAM
512GB SSD storage
15.6-inch, 1080p, 144Hz display
The M15 R3’s display size and general build stay the same no matter how much you pay. Though, it does have a bit of an odd design, as part of the base with fans and ports juts out behind the monitor. Still, I think it looks kind of cool. But your mileage may vary on that.
Lower-priced models come with just 256GB of storage and older Nvidia cards like the GTX 1660 Ti, while going up in price can net you a 300Hz refresh rate, an RTX 2080 card, and as much as 4TB of storage. The beefiest M15 R3 model, which ships with a 4K/60Hz monitor and a 4TB hard drive, will run you a staggering $3,399.
I’m going to go ahead and say you probably don’t need to spend that much on a gaming laptop, period. Sure, the relatively cheaper model I used only has a 1080p display instead of 4K, but that 144Hz refresh rate more than makes up for a few jagged edges here and there. On occasions when you can run a game at higher than 60 frames per second (FPS), you’ll really appreciate how smooth everything looks.
The included keyboard is also a nice treat, and I say this as someone who spends most of his computing time with the Macbook Pro’s sinful typing contraption. It’s got 1.4mm of key travel, making key presses feel weighty and substantial without feeling mushy or unresponsive. And although the keyboard doesn’t take up much of the laptop’s 14.2-inch width, leaving plenty of empty space on either side of it, I never felt like it was too small for gaming purposes.
The M15 R3 has basically every port you could want — whether you need to plug in gaming accessories or transfer files for work or school projects. On the right side of the laptop, you’ll find two USB-Type A ports, and a microSD card reader. Over on the left, there’s an additional USB Type-A port, along with an Ethernet port and headphone jack. On the back, behind the monitor, you’ve got a USB-C port, a Mini DisplayPort, and even HDMI 2.0 if you want to plug this bad boy into a TV.
My only gripe with the M15 R3’s port arrangement concerns its Ethernet port. I would’ve preferred this to be more conveniently placed on the back of the laptop for my specific desk setup. But other than that, I’m very pleased by the port situation here.
All of the M15 R3’s internal and display specs pay off when playing traditional PC games.
Let’s start with World of Warcraft, which still manages to look nice despite being more than 15 years old. With the graphics settings juiced all the way up to 10 out of 10 on the in-game preset scale, WoW regularly sticks close to and occasionally locks down a silky smooth 100FPS performance. This isn’t particularly surprising given the game’s age. But, hey, old games deserve some love and getting all those frames while you play makes for a smoother, more enjoyable experience.
The good news is that the M15 R3 is no slouch when it comes to newer PC games. Almost everything I played was able to hit a consistent 60FPS target with the highest graphics settings turned on. This was true for big multiplayer shooters like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone, as well as the trendy Norse mythology-inspired survival game Valheim. Even CD Projekt Red’s massive RPG The Witcher 3, one of the best-looking games of the past decade, performed without a hitch in my time with it.
If you’re cursed with the ability to perceive slight frame rate dips in video games like me, then instability can really kill the experience. But I’m happy to report the M15 R3 nailed that coveted 60FPS mark in every game I tested with every graphical flourish enabled.
At its best, the Alienware M15 R3 plays traditional games with rock-solid performance that could surely match any decent tower PC out there.
The same held true of more cutting-edge applications, too.
Minecraft RTX, a ray-traced version of the massively popular, blocky construction game, ran with only occasional dips down to the 50FPS range despite the intense horsepower required to make ray tracing happen. These dips mostly occurred whenever I would look out onto a vast landscape, with more intimate indoor scenes performing much better.
While you’re probably better off getting a real-deal gaming PC for VR purposes, the Alienware M15 R3 can hold its own for both simple and high-quality VR games.
VRChat, a popular and confounding virtual reality social space where copyright law seems not to exist, ran smoothly when paired with an Oculus Rift S headset. That said, minor performance dips are possible since user-made worlds run the gamut from small and sparse to huge and dense, but I didn’t see anything in my testing that hampered the experience at all.
As for high-end VR, I put the M15 R3 through its paces with Valve’s killer app Half-Life: Alyx. (That game is as much reason to get a PC and a headset as Half-Life 2 was a reason to make a Steam account more than 15 years ago. Good lord, time flies.) Anyway, I’m pleased to report the technically advanced Alyx ran adequately well on the M15 R3 using the “medium fidelity” graphics option, with gorgeous visuals creating a highly detailed post-apocalyptic world filled with physics-based objects.
I did, however, notice some minor graphical jittering when panning the camera horizontally in certain scenes, such as an early sequence in a clandestine lab filled with screens and another friendly human character (a rarity in the Half-Life universe). But the exploration and puzzle-solving that made up the rest of my time with the game ran at a high frame rate.
Alyx did suffer a bit when turning the graphics settings up to high or ultra, so maybe don’t push your luck with the RTX 2060 version of the M15 R3. Still, on medium settings, Alyx is fully playable.
There’s obviously room for some variance with regards to performance because there are so many different versions of the M15 R3. I can’t speak to how well the cheaper models work, though it’s safe to assume the more expensive ones will perform even better than what I experienced. That said, you needn’t question this laptop’s ability to play the most popular games around, even hardware-intensive ones.
Of course, one of the main benefits of PC gaming over its console equivalent is that a PC can do a whole lot more than just play games and run streaming apps. As an everyday work machine, the Alienware M15 R3 checks all the performance boxes, but misses the mark on battery life.
There’s a more powerful engine underneath the M15 R3’s hood than you’d likely find in a sub-$1,000 general use laptop and it shows. It’s speedy and never seized up once during multiple days of use as my primary work laptop. Basic applications like Chrome, Slack, MS Word, and Zoom all ran without any noteworthy problems.
The M15 R3’s inbuilt 720p webcam isn’t anything special, but for Zoom or Google Meet hangouts, it’s sharp enough that your friends and family won’t likely complain.
Battery life is, unfortunately, irksome and unreliable. I unplugged the M15 R3 at full charge during a Zoom call and, an hour later, the low-power LED was flashing at me, with the taskbar battery icon saying I had less than 20 minutes of juice left. Sadly, the lack of portability due to the battery doesn’t just apply to everyday work or school tasks.
As we’ve established, the M15 R3 is a pretty excellent little gaming machine when it’s at peak performance. The only problem is that it can only sustain 60FPS at high settings for most games when plugged into a power source.
I kept the M15 R3 plugged into its included charging adapter for the majority of my testing and ran into serious issues anytime that wasn’t the case.
For one, battery life drains dramatically when gaming, as you might only get somewhere between one to three hours of juice if you’re playing any game that uses real horsepower, like Warzone or Apex Legends. That’s not unexpected, as a ray tracing and VR-ready graphics card would be more at home in a PC tower than in a laptop shell. Until those physical limitations can be negated completely, this is probably always going to be a drawback to gaming laptops.
It should also be noted that the fans on this thing run loud pretty much anytime you play games on it. The game itself didn’t seem to matter; even low-intensity titles like World of Warcraft had the fans screaming. It’s not overwhelming or anything, but it is audible enough that you’ll hear it across a small room. I’d advise wearing headphones while you play. On the same note, the laptop gets fairly warm during long gaming sessions, which you’ll feel in the keyboard. It won’t singe your fingertips off, but you’ll notice it.
A more pressing concern is the performance dip that occurs when you unplug the power cable. It seems the M15 R3 relies a lot on having a consistent power source for running high-end games, as Apex Legends went from flawlessly smooth at max settings when plugged in to choppy and difficult to play when not. This was consistent across multiple games. Even World of Warcraft, with its 2004 technical roots, dipped from around 100FPS to consistently below 60FPS at max settings when the M15 R3 wasn’t plugged in.
You can mitigate some or all of that depending on the game by turning down the graphical settings, as even something newer like Apex Legends ran smoothly with everything set to low without a power source. But you shouldn’t spend a minimum of $1,400 on gaming hardware to play games with every effect turned off.
There are plenty of other gaming laptops out there to consider before you pull the trigger on the M15 R3. In fact, if you’re willing to pay about $200 more, you can get even better graphics hardware without leaving the Alienware laptop’s general price range.
Acer’s Predator Triton 300 ($1,399) comes with a similar 1080p and 144Hz display, the same storage and RAM specs, and a more powerful Nvidia RTX 3060 graphics card, not to mention a battery that’s rated for 10 hours.
Razer Blade 15 ($1,699) also includes the RTX 3060, the same resolution and refresh rate in its display, and a battery that’s rated for 6 hours.
Alienware M15 R4 ($1,619) the next step up from the R3 has an identical build, resolution, and refresh rate, along with a GTX 3060, though at that price you only get 256GB of storage.
While I can’t judge how any of those laptops handle everyday applications without testing them, the more advanced graphics hardware inside does knock the M15 R3 down a little bit in terms of value. That said, an RTX 2060 is nothing to scoff at, as my performance evaluations demonstrate. It’s all about what you’re going to do with the laptop.
Alienware’s M15 R3 is ideal for the type of person who wants to use it for a combination of heavy PC gaming and work or school needs. It’s quite good as a pure gaming machine, but if that’s all you need, some of the other gaming laptops out there, or even a custom-built tower PC, can do that better. On the other hand, if web browsing and document editing is all you’re looking for, you do not need to spend any kind of four-digit figure on a laptop.
But as a portable gaming and productivity device, the M15 R3 checks almost every box it should. You get speedy performance for regular tasks and mainstream games in addition to acceptable VR and RTX capabilities. Sure, it’s next to useless when not plugged into an outlet, and it becomes both loud and hot during gaming sessions, but compromises are necessary to fit great gaming specs into a laptop’s shell.
It might burn through your bank account, but if the Alienware M15 R3 fits your specific needs, you won’t be disappointed.