Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

I've owned a grand total of two gaming laptops. It was depressing how quickly they aged. But the new Alienware 13 won't suffer the same fate. It's the first gaming laptop that lets you connect a external desktop graphics card for freaking awesome, truly unheard-of speed.

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What Is It?

Specifications
  • Display: 1366x768, 2560x1440
  • CPU: Intel Core i5-4210U
  • RAM: 8GB DDR3 (16GB as tested)
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M + Graphics Amplifier
  • HDD: 512GB SSD

A 13-inch gaming laptop with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove. The successor to the fantastic Alienware 14, shaved down to a far more reasonable 1-inch thickness and 2.04kg of bulk. A laptop that comes with a pretty meh 1366 x 768 screen and 1TB hard drive for its $US999 starting price, but can graduate to a gorgeous 2560 x 1440 touchscreen display and multiple SSDs.

And for an additional $US300, it's a laptop that can come with Alienware's proprietary Graphics Amplifier — a box that can let you use any recent single full-length, dual-width PCI-Express x16 desktop graphics card, up to 375W, instead of your laptop's GPU. And adds four USB 3.0 ports, too. It's a gaming laptop that becomes a 4K gaming desktop when you plug in a single cable.

Design

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

The Alienware 14 was an absolute tank. Big, beefy, solid. When the Alienware 13 reduced those first two traits, it also lost a bit of the third.

Don't get me wrong: the new 13-incher looks and feels like a fairly premium package, with those luxurious silky-smooth soft touch surfaces intact. The keyboard hasn't lost a beat, with the same large, perfectly RGB-customisable backlit keys with nice precise action. The trackpad struggles a bit with two-finger scrolling and clicking the pad feels a little weird, but it's still about as accurate with one finger as I've tried on a Windows machine. I'm just saying that there's a little less metal and a little more plastic in the construction this time around. The seams are larger, more visible. I can hear the computer creak a bit when I twist its frame or when I open the lid. There's a little less attention to detail, period.

Of course, there's also no longer an optical drive, and you also lose the crazy running lights that made the Alienware 14 look like a spaceship ready for takeoff, though I can't say I miss either very much. As far as I'm concerned, the bigger omission is an SD card slot. You get three USB 3.0 ports, headset and microphone jacks, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort and the proprietary Graphics Amplifier jack too, but for some reason an SD card socket didn't make the cut. But another thing you'll find embedded in the edges are a pair of side-mounted speakers that (at least combined with Sound Blaster Xi3 processing) sound pretty damn good.

Performance

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

But enough with creature comforts: what about the games? Oh, the Alienware 13's dual-core 1.7GHz Core i5-4210U processor and GeForce GTX 860M graphics are a pretty potent combination... as long as you don't expect them to outperform them to outperform a Razer Blade. While the Blade could very nearly manage to play intensive games on its crazy 3200 x 1800 screen with its quad-core processor and faster 870M graphics, my pumped up $US1,800 Alienware 13 config struggled to run some of my favs at 2560 x 1440. Tomb Raider and Borderlands 2 were playable at that resolution with a lot of the eye candy turned off, but we're still not talking buttery framerates. More intensive games like Titanfall, Crysis 3 and The Witcher 2 only thrive at 1080p. And because 1080p content blown up to 1440p looks a little jagged, you'll have to spend extra horsepower on anti-aliasing.

But unlike the Razer Blade, you have two wonderful solutions to this conundrum. First, I'd recommend you simply buy a Alienware 13 with a 1080p screen, where all your games will look gorgeous even if you can't max out their settings. Easy.

Or, you could spend upwards of $US300 on the laptop's most exciting feature: the Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

It's a black vented box roughly the size of a small toaster oven. It's about as barebones as can be. Cheap plastic latches (I already broke a few of them) let you flip open its hinged plastic shell to reveal a 460W PC power supply next to a tiny circuit board with a PCI-Express x16 slot. I ripped my GeForce GTX 660 Ti out of my desktop computer, clicked it into place, fastened two screws and connected the two GPU power connectors. I plugged in the power cord. Ready. I stuck one end of Alienware's proprietary cable into the back of the GFX Amp, and one into the back of the laptop — which prompted me to restart the computer.

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

But once I rebooted, there was no configuration, no drivers to change, nothing of the sort. As far as the Alienware 13 was concerned, I had a GTX 660 Ti inside the laptop. The difference was substantial. In Tomb Raider, I was able to jump up from 1440p and barely playable to 1440p and buttery smooth at high levels of detail.

So I decided to go for broke. I stuck Nvidia's latest GeForce GTX 980 graphics card inside the Amp, and hooked up a 4K monitor while I was at it. The result was heaven.

With the most powerful gaming graphics card virtually inside my laptop, Titanfall, Crysis 3, Tomb Raider, and Borderlands 2 were all playable at 4K resolution and respectable levels of detail. I could practically max out every game at 2560 x 1440. (The Witcher 2 ran at 2560 x 1440 on High, in case you're wondering.)

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

Sure, you'd probably expect that from $US900 of additional hardware, not counting the price of a 4K monitor, but this kind of upgrade has simply never been possible before. The only external graphics options for laptops have been crazy bandwidth-limited hacks or one-off solutions that didn't allow upgrades like the Sony Vaio Z. Here, if you've ever got a spare graphics card lying around that's more powerful than the laptop's own, you can put it to use.

The only catch seems to be games that rely on physics: even with a GTX 980, I had to turn off PhysX in Borderlands 2 and reduce the system spec in Crysis 3 to get them running smoothly.

Like

Silky-smooth soft-touch palmrests that no longer dig into my wrists. Ahhh, soft. The keyboard's also a pleasure to use.

The machine stays nice and cool, and reasonably quiet, even running at full bore. Can't say that about the Razer Blade.

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

With a solid state drive, this PC screams. Everything is speedy. Everything.

Love the extreme stereo separation and virtual surround sound from Sound Blaster's Xi3 sound processing. I used to make fun of software audio processing, but it's gotten so much better over the years. This version is tuned wonderfully for the Alienware 13's speakers. Shame they're still a bit tinny. (Insert "All About That Bass" joke here.)

Don't Like

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

Despite using a nice low-voltage Intel Haswell processor, the Alienware 13's battery life is pretty shitty. I haven't managed to get more than 3 hours and 10 minutes of work done on the machine. The Razer Blade manages 4 hours with a quad-core standard voltage processor, a higher-res screen AND a way thinner chassis. What gives, Alienware?

The Graphics Amplifier works like a dream, but it feels pretty janky for a $US300 product. I'd love to see it included in the price of the machine.

You have to reset the computer every time you plug in or remove the Graphics Amplifier. It's not a big deal if you bought a solid state drive, because reboots take like 10 seconds.

That soft-touch material picks up finger oil like nobody's business.

Speaking of business, Alienware has none outfitting this machine with a 1366 x 768 screen or a 5400RPM hard drive. Don't buy them.

Should I Buy It?

   
       
            Alienware 13        

        Price: $TBA        

           
                Like            

           

                   
  • Amazing keyboard.
  •                

  • Not too loud.
  •                

  • The external graphics card is a cool idea.
  •            

           

                Don't Like            

           

                   
  • Poor battery life.
  •                

  • Graphics Amplifier shouldn’t cost extra.
  •                

  • Picks up fingerprints.
  •            

           

                                  

       

   

I'm not entirely sure. The idea of taking all my games on the go, then coming home and plugging them into a desktop graphics card, monitor, mouse, and keyboard sounds pretty damn fantastic.

But the Alienware 13 is still pretty chunky and still lacks the battery life to make it as quite as portable as it should be. Right now, it's less powerful AND less portable than the Razer Blade.

Personally, I'd rather buy a Dell XPS laptop without discrete graphics that gives me the battery life I need for work, but also has the Alienware Graphics Amplifier port so I can take it home and play. But that doesn't exist. (Yet.)

For now, the Alienware 13 is a pretty damn capable computer that can play pretty much all your PC games at high settings, and can be upgraded to levels of potency of which other laptops can only dream.

If that's what you want, this is your machine.

Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

Comments

    doesnt this defeat the purpose of a laptop..... might aswell by a small tower and a fully fledged monitor..... no less convenient

      Yeah that's exactly what I was thinking.. But then, it seems pretty redundant to buy an alienware laptop at all - they're barely more portable, and barely usable as an actual laptop.. And overpriced to boot.

      They key advantage I could think of is if you don't want multiple computers and you travel a lot. Your work sends you to heaps of locations, and you've got to do something while you're in the middle of nowhere. This laptop would allow you to play games quite comfortably while you're away from home while also allowing you to bump up the graphics at home... Even go as far as connecting it to your TV and playing on that instead.

      This definitely won't be a popular product and I surely have no interest in it, but there will be a market for those that want power while at home and portability while on the road.

    Wow that battery life is atrocious. Something like this I can use on the go, and plug in at home without faffing about transferring my files to another computer while getting full graphics ability would be great.

    But 3 hours? Plus a reboot to plug in the graphics card? Pass.

    Last edited 28/10/14 1:20 pm

      A reboot to load the graphics card is more likely down to the fact that the computer has to change the display adaptor. Even on a desktop this sort of thing would be an expected occurrence if you had 2 different and independent display adaptors to send the display from. Plus if your running an SSD to boot windows, is a maximum of 30 seconds to a minute really that much of a setback?

        Closing everything and disrupting my workflow is the setback. If I was going to do that, I might as well just have a desktop PC. It defeats the purpose of an all in one device.

          All the work I'd do on the laptop would be requiring a high powered gpu, so I guess my interpretation is that before I start my work I'd be connecting to the GPU. But this is a no sale from be as the cost alone does not justify the utility. Most of the work I do on my computer these days is video editing and rendering. Applications like office function well enough on my cloud that I use my galaxy note 10.1 if I have a need while my computer is busy encoding videos.

    Gonna wait for Broadwell, it'll be released to the wild sooner, rather than later... Me hopes..! :)

    Really odd device seeing as GTX 980M/970M are on the market now. Unless it was properly cheap, it'd be hard to justify that need for expandability.

    Yeah, the battery life of my Alienware 17 is about the same, probably a bit less actually. But in my history of laptops, I've only ever had an early Acer with 1.5 hours life, a Toshiba I left away to a friend six weeks after I purchased it and ignored it (two years ago, still has it, I see it every once in a while) - Battery life was about 2 hours. A Dell Inspiron Netbook counting 6 hours or more! Then finally the aforementioned Alienware.

    Call me old fashioned, but I'm apparently just used to the poor battery life of laptops and don't let it bother me anymore. If I'm doing anything 3D Intensive, I'm probably in a place where I can use a cord. I can't think of anywhere I've used my laptops without the option. (If you're ever on vLine. Ask for an unreserved seat and board ASAHP. You're the furthest away from the dining-car but you can snag a power-plug seat without the hassle of hoping you're randomly assigned one - first in best dressed. On the line I used frequently for a while, most people jumped out after Colac, leaving me with almost an entire car to myself for like, three hours. Bliss.)

    I can see a use for this. Have a nice 4k monitor, gaming inputs etc, and the external monitor toaster set up on your desk, then plug the laptop in and your good. When you go out, grab your everyday pc, loose a little power, but still have the exact same computer with you!

      exactly! what is so hard to grasp about this idea? i've been waiting for this solution forever! well.. done properly that is.. Have a nice light laptop with a mid range card in it for casual gaming on the go or even just an ultra book for portability and then come home and dock it with a full fledged pc graphics card. Sounds perfect.

    I work in I.T and while I personally wouldn't use this configuration, I know A LOT of my customers who would find this type of set up incredibly useful, its just a pity it comes in the form of an alienware.

    That graphics amplifier is almost as big as the entire PC I built to replace my Alienware M17X R2.

    Hi Campbell. It is possible to future proof the older Alienware M17x's particularly R2 and R3.

    I upgraded my R3 from the 6990m to the 8970m late last year for about $600. Best decision I ever made. The graphics cards in the M17x models aren't soldered to the board like most gaming laptops so they can be switched out from the PCIE slot. There's plenty of guides on the internet

    would be a cool article for you guys to write up.

    C'mon Gizmodo - futureproof? Really?

    That's something I'd expect out of some backyarder operation and not one of the leading technology sites in the country.

    NO PC is futureproof.

    Plus as other posters have stated, for the price of this machine, you can buy a ultrabook (or even a hybrid tablet) for $900-1200 and still have enough change to start building a desktop PC rig for your gaming.

    Dell needs to build the port for the amplifier into the back of more professional and portable laptops, like the XPS series, so that graphics designers, video editors, and other people who need this functionality on the job can use them.

    They'll sell a lot more $300 amplifiers then.

    Last edited 29/10/14 12:49 pm

      As laptops go, the expandability makes it *more* futureproof than a comparable slimline unit. But you're totally right, it's not nearly as futureproof as even the most basic desktop for example.

    I still fantasise about plugging an external GPU into my 13" MacBook Pro's Thunderbolt port to give it a boost when doing After Effects work, but I don't think it'll ever be cost effective :/

    Damn, it uses a proprietary port instead of Thunderbolt? I would have loved one of these with my laptop (if I had the cash), but obviously I was smart and went Asus instead of Alienware.

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