Alienware 13 gaming laptop
A highly mobile laptop that's possible to use as a main gaming system
The Alienware 13 certainly is a powerful kit when compared to other laptops of a similar form factor, mainly because it packs a discrete graphics adapter that can be used capably for a variety of games, and it can be maxed out with 16GB of RAM and up to two solid state drives (SSDs). Furthermore, it has been designed as product that can be used as a main gaming system, rather than a fill-in, because it makes use of Alienware's Graphics Amplifier technology.
Graphics for mobile, graphics for desktop
It's a great example of a portable computer that can be used as a main system for most everyday tasks, but especially gaming. Rather than targeting users who would otherwise prefer a custom-built PC for a fancy computer desk, the Alienware 13 is more of a game-wherever-you-are solution, and it's a good one at that, weighing barely 2kg and easily fitting into most backpacks. At the same time, it gives you the ability to harness more graphics power via Alienware's Graphics Amplifier, again, without needing a full tower PC set-up.
The Graphics Amplifier is a separate part to the Alienware 13. It can be purchased as an option, and it's meant for desktop gaming only. It's a deep box with its own power supply and one PCI Express x16 slot in which you can install your own desktop graphics card, up to the latest double-width, flagship models from AMD or NVIDIA.
It's not a hot-plug device, which means that if you want to use the Graphics Amplifier, you have to plug it in when the laptop is switched off; you are prompted to restart if you plug it in while the laptop is running. Likewise, you must shut down when you want to disconnect it and take the laptop away with you.
As well as allowing your laptop to tap in to more graphics processing power, the Amplifier also provides four more USB 3.0 ports, in addition to the video ports supplied by whichever graphics card you choose to install.
The laptop itself
On its own, the Alienware 13 is a solid little 13.3in laptop that is noticeably thicker (28mm) and heavier than an Ultrabook (though at 1.98kg, it's still not too heavy). The chassis needs a bit more space than an Ultrabook in order to accommodate the graphics adapter, which is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M with 2GB of RAM, as well the extra cooling that it requires, via heat pipes and fans (there are two fans installed).
When the fans kick in at full speed, they are reasonably loud. There were occasions during our tests when they revved up and down during general usage, which was a little annoying. Vents for drawing in cool air are at the bottom, and the fans push this air through the fins of the heat sinks and out of the chassis via two exhausts on the spine.
In between the exhausts are the ports for the Graphics Amplifier and the HDMI and DisplayPort connectors. The right side has the interface for the Killer Gigabit Ethernet adapter, and two USB 3.0 ports. The left side has the power port, separate microphone and headphone ports, and another USB 3.0 port.
To keep the system as cool as possible within the confines of the chassis, an ultra-low voltage Intel CPU is the only offering, either a Core i5 or a Core i7.
Our test model came with a fourth-generation Core i5-4210U CPU, though fifth-generation CPUs are what you will find on the Dell site. Even with this CPU, the performance of the laptop was mostly smooth, and in concert with the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M graphics adapter and 16GB of RAM (the maximum via two slots), it provided a largely enjoyable experience for gaming.
We could play Battlefield 3 at Full HD while experiencing an average of 57 frames per second (and a low of 44fps). Similarly, Metro 2033 Redux achieved a low of 44fps when it was time to kill things, and it was visually engaging in high detail mode. That said, we did notice slight stuttering in the image as we turned to examine the environments around us, which was made better once we enabled v-sync.
Older games such as Tomb Raider were a breeze for this laptop to run. Using 3DMark, the 860M graphics adapter recorded 8181 in Cloud Gate, 8792 in Sky Diver, and 3305 in Fire Strike, all of which are solid numbers.
When ordering the Alienware 13, you have to select the model with the CPU that you want, and you can also select the the type of storage. There are hard drive options of 500GB (a hybrid drive) and 1TB, which are great for installing lots of games on the laptop itself. For a speedy system, you'll want an SSD. The lower capacity of an SSD (unless you go for 512GB) means you might have to juggle which games you take with you on the road, rather than just installing everything you own.
Our test unit had a 256GB M.2-based Samsung SSD installed. In CrystalDiskMark, this achieved a sequential read speed of 525.3 megabytes per second (MBps), and a write of 236.8MBps. Considering that we've seen business Ultrabooks with faster writing drives (such as the Toshiba Portege Z20t), we think there is room for improvement in this area.
A 52 Watt-hour battery is installed in the chassis. During our standard test, in which we disable power management (that is, use high performance), maximise the screen brightness, enable Wi-Fi (it's 802.11ac via a Killer 1525 2x2 module) and loop a Full HD, MP4 video, the laptop lasted 4hr 48min. The laptop used the CPU's integrated graphics for this test. You won't want to play games under battery power, unless you don't mind a short session before having to plug in to the wall.
The user experience
Build quality is solid throughout, with the chassis, palm rest, and lid all exhibiting plenty of rigidity, and the texture of the unit feels soft against the skin. A removable panel at the bottom allows you to make your own changes to the RAM (via two SO-DIMM slots), and the storage area is also accessible; our review unit had two M.2 SSD slots. Alienware offers a model that includes one 128GB SSD, as well as a secondary 256GB SSD.
The aesthetics aren't as out-there as they usually are for this type of laptop. Alienware has taken a somewhat conservative route and applied accent lights only to the lid, rather than also illuminating the exhausts and any other bits of the chassis. But the keyboard is still flamboyant, and its backlight (as well as the lights on the lid, power button and Alienware logo) can be customised using the AlienFX control panel.
We found the keyboard to be a good one overall. Its keys are large, soft, and responsive, and they don't make much noise. Through AlienFX, you can tailor the keyboard so that it's lit in either one solid colour, or in different zones and patterns. You can even choose from many presets if you don't want to fiddle with the colour wheel. Furthermore, you can set lighting environments according to the game you're playing.
If you plan on doing a bit of typing, it's a keyboard that will serve you well. However, the location of the Page Up and Page down keys is right next to the arrow keys. Through miss-hits that landed on the Page keys, we often found ourselves flying through documents rather than moving the cursor to our intended position. For gaming, the keyboard should suffice, though you are free to plug in your own keyboard via the system's three USB 3.0 ports if you want more room and the ability to use macros.
A large touchpad (108x68mm) is centred on the chassis, and like most Dell touchpads that we have experienced, it's almost close to awful. The pointer often jolted around during our tests (especially upon our finger lifting up off the pad to make a tap), causing us to sometimes tap on things adjacent to our target. We couldn't find any settings in the Control Panel for setting our own preferences for the scrolling direction and gestures.
On the desktop, it won't be an issue as you can just use a mouse. We didn't have any problems with the touchpad getting in the way while typing, but it can be easily disabled via the Fn-F11 key combination should the need arise.
The screen options for the Alienware 13 include a TN-based, 1366x768-pixel panel; a 2560x1440-pixel, IPS-based touch panel; and a Full HD, IPS panel. Our test model had the Full HD, IPS panel. It's a panel with a non-reflective screen that exhibits a bright and rich output. We are particularly impressed by its black level, which was good during movie-watching and game-playing sessions alike. At night time, the brightness can be reduced to a low enough level that is easy on the eyes.
Speakers located along the sides put out a reasonably loud volume and they can be useful during times when you don't want to wear headphones or plug in to external devices. However, we noticed that the audio stuttered regularly, and this became annoying.
What's the verdict?
Buy this laptop if you're looking for a portable, neatly designed model that can be used effectively for gaming. At the same time, you can consider it as a main overall gaming system due to its ability to take advantage of desktop-class graphics processing via the optional Graphics Amplifier. As far as usability is concerned, we're down on the touchpad when using the laptop for tasks other than gaming, but as with most things, you can get used to its limitations.
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