Alienware 13: Australian Review

Gaming and laptops aren't two terms that long-time gamers generally associate with each other very happily. It usually means massive compromises in battery life, size, price, or actual gaming performance. But recent upgrades to Intel and Nvidia's CPU and GPU line-ups mean good things for the future of portable PC gaming. The Alienware 13 is one of the first VR-ready gaming laptops on the market, but even if you're not keen on VR, you'll find it a more than capable gaming laptop for just about any title you could think to run on it.

What Is It?

The $1999-plus Alienware 13 sits well and truly in the crowded gaming laptop space, in all its various specs and guises. That starting price gets you a machine with a quad-core Intel Core i5-7300HQ CPU, 8GB of DDR4 RAM, a 180GB SSD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics all running through a 1366x768pixel LCD panel. Stepping up in spec to the $2399 model gives you a Core i7-7700HQ processor, 1080p display, a 256GB SSD and a slightly more powerful GTX 1050 Ti graphics card. The sweet spot, I think, is the $2699 model with GTX 1060 graphics and 16GB of RAM, although there's good reason to step up to the top $3599 model with a beautiful 13-inch 1440p OLED screen.

The 330x269x24mm Alienware 13, heavy at 2.6kg, hides away a 76Wh nonremovable lithium-ion battery, and keeps itself charged with a (chunky) 180-Watt power brick. You might be interested to know that despite having a 13-inch display, the Alienware is quite big for a machine in its size class: because there's extra cooling to keep those toasty internal components at a reasonable temperature while gaming. There are two separate thermal systems in the redesigned Alienware 13 -- one for graphics, one for processing -- allowing both to work to their fullest extent without being throttled.

Being an Alienware laptop, the 13 does have some cool tricks up its sleeve in addition to its powerful components and Alienware's own brand of gaming-ready industrial design cred. Tobii eye-tracking keeps the screen switched on when you're looking at it and powers it down when you're not, also making the 13 Windows Hello ready for face sign-on. And a full suite of fancy colours under the keyboard and the glass-topped trackpad -- which lights up entirely when in use, which is a really cool visual effect -- rounds out what really is a complete package for a gaming laptop.

What's It Good At?

With the top two variants of the Alienware 13 -- the $2699 and $3599 models, which include Intel's most powerful mobile Core i7 quad-core CPUs and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics cards -- you get a package made for mobile gaming. The 1060 is a fantastic card for a laptop, especially when it's driving smooth and stable 60fps gameplay at 1080p in most of all modern gaming titles. That i7 is more than powerful enough even in mobile form that it's not bottlenecked at all, and combined with a fast SSD and (at least) 16GB of DDR4 RAM the 13 makes for a more than powerful enough machine for anything up to and including video editing or heavy-duty Photoshop work.

It's also one of the best-built laptops outside of Apple's MacBook family that I've ever used. The Alienware 13's keyboard doesn't have the most amazing key feel, but you can't deny the fact that the keyboard itself is rock solid, as is the trackpad and its bottom-mounted left and right tactile mouse buttons. The screen hinge is smooth, the screen itself has barely any flex, and the chassis of the inch-thick laptop itself is stronger than you are -- even if you put effort into it, you won't be able to do any damage. This is a laptop that will definitely stand up to the punishment of regular daily use for years and years.

And the Alienware 13 continues to set itself apart from the crowd with its optional 2560x1440pixel OLED screen, which at 13 inches in size is an amazingly pixel dense panel that also has the infinite contrast -- courtesy of OLED's perfectly dark black levels -- that makes colours practically pop off the screen. If you haven't seen an OLED display larger than the one on your Android phone, I highly recommend you search one out, because seeing really is believing. Alienware's 13-inch OLED is a pricey $600 option, but considering it's also significantly brighter and more pixel-dense than the 1080p or 768p screen options, there's a good reason to upgrade to it.

Alienware's range of inputs and outputs on the 13 puts just about every other 13-inch laptop on the market to shame. With a total of two USB 3.0 USB-A ports, two USB-C ports (one Thunderbolt 3, one USB 3.0), 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet and a Graphics Amplifier port -- to which you can connect a $199 Alienware box and install your own desktop graphics card. If I was buying a gaming laptop these days, I'd almost certainly go for one with this kind of future expandability; the fact that it comes with four extra USB 3.0 ports and support for extra external monitors is just an extra bonus.

What's It Not Good At?

The Alienware 13 is, despite its 13-inch size, not a thin and light laptop like many of its competitors are. There are good reasons for this -- the long term durability that Alienware is known for is one, and a cooling system that has to adequately manage the heat output of a relatively hot 45-Watt processor and 80-Watt graphics chipset, alongside RAM and SSD and other components is another. But those combine to create a laptop that weighs 2.6kg and is over an inch thick. If you're looking for thin and light, the 14-inch Razer Blade is 6mm thinner and weighs 800 grams less at around that same $2500 price point.

One thing you don't get with the 13 despite its size is a removable battery. And that's understandable -- nonremovable batteries can be larger and charge faster -- but it does also mean that if you want to game while you're out and about, you'd better have that 180-Watt power adapter, chunky as it is, with you. No matter how good the Alienware 13's battery life is, and it's really quite good all things considered, gaming is going to chew through those precious joules no matter what. A removable battery would have made the Alienware 13 a little more convenient; because it's not a USB-C machine, too, Dell's portable power banks aren't an option.

Alienware machines have always divided the PC gaming public with their looks. Are they avant garde, or are they just a bit ugly? I happen to think that the Alienware 13 is quite an attractive machine in its way -- with its matte rubberised surfaces and sturdy metallic lid -- but there are more straight-up sexy gaming laptops out there from the likes of Aorus and Razer. My main complaint with the 13 is that it just doesn't really have any right angles in its design; everything is an obtuse angle. I mean, it's fine, but I would have liked the Alienware 13 just a little bit more if it was a little bit more squared off.

And it doesn't matter one bit to me at all, but if you're paying $2000 for a high-end laptop that you expect to use for several years you might be disappointed to find out that only the top-spec OLED screen option is touch-capable. It, too, is the brightest of the three screen options; the $1999 spec has a relatively low-brightness 768p 200-nit panel, so I'd always opt for at least the $2399 option and probably the $2699 which pairs a brighter 1080p 300-nit panel with a GTX 1060. This combo, which I tested for a month during this review, never felt low-res or not bright enough for everyday use while in the office, at home and out and about.

Should You Buy It?

What the Alienware 13 mainly brings to the table for its relatively high asking price is build quality that can't be matched by any laptop without an Apple logo on it. Once you add in the fact that the Alienware rig is built for gaming, not general purpose computing like the MacBook Pro line, you have a machine that really is worth investing in: something that lasts for a long time, and remains a powerful and capable piece of hardware for the entire time. Friend of the site Junglist has an Alienware 13 that's more than a few years old and still in good nick, so that speaks volumes about Alienware and Dell's build quality.

The big drawcard of the current Alienware 13 is its high-res, super-high-contrast OLED display, but even the 1080p LCD in my review unit was a good performer -- and matches up slightly better with the internal GTX 1060 in terms of processing power than the 1440p OLED, although you can definitely run games comfortably at lower resolution on the higher-res display as well. My advice would always be to choose at least the GTX 1060 in the Alienware 13 -- the 1050 and 1050 Ti choices just aren't going to last as long with modern titles at 1080p, making that $2700 spec far more valuable in the long run than the Alienware 13's $1999 starting price, which also uses a lower-power Core i5.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Alienware 13 is VR-"ready", like Alienware suggests, it does meet the minimum spec that Nvidia and HTC and other VR players suggest for immersive virtual reality content. And the fact remains that within its size class, it's one of the more powerful laptops that you can find. And, of course, if it comes to it you can always hook up one of Alienware's external Graphics Amplifier boxes and install a more powerful graphics card to increase its longevity. That also takes some of the strain off the laptop's internal cooling, which does make the machine quite warm and the fans quite loud under extended load.

As 13-inch laptops go, the Alienware 13 is thick and heavy. But that has its benefits -- Alienware has outfitted the 13 with a huge range of connectivity options for a 13-inch machine, for example. It's also a laptop that is decidedly not fragile. Is it an ugly laptop? That's up to you to decide. Whatever your opinion on its looks, though, you can't deny that the Alienware 13 is a powerful gaming laptop that's small at the same time and with good battery life to boot. If you're prepared to lug it around, it'll be up to the task of gaming and any other computing tasks you could ask of it, now and in the years to come.

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