Alienware 14 gaming notebook (4th gen Core)
Get your game on with this beautiful 14in Alienware lappy
- Sturdy construction
- Excellent performance
- Lovely lighting system
- Its optical drive made some startling noises
- Graphics switching is a little cumbersome
The Alienware 14 supplies plenty of speed in a relatively small frame. It's mainly aimed at gamers, but even professionals who want a fast laptop should consider it.
The Alienware 14 may be designed for serious gaming, but the truth of the matter is, it's a magnificent laptop to consider if you're just after something that's portable and powerful. It's a striking machine, so it's perhaps not ideal if you're planning on taking it to traditional business meetings, but if you're a developer, programmer or designer who wants a versatile laptop with a thrilling design and lots under the hood, it's a great choice.
Alienware has made improvements to the look of the chassis compared to its previous 14in gaming machine, the M14x, giving the Alienware 14 a thicker, 'floating' design that's adorned with a comprehensive lighting system. It's a lighting system that really makes the Alienware 14 an experience, perhaps equivalent to driving a flashy car; you don't feel like you're using just another run-of-the-mill computer when you're on it. The lights add an atmosphere to the overall computing experience that's exciting, and if you do choose to leave the lights on when you're at events or anywhere where there are people around, you'll definitely get some attention.
The lights run around the edge of the chassis, making it look a little like it's floating (depending on how you look at it); and there are also lights on the lid, for the Alienware branding at the front, and for the power button. The touchpad can also be lit up, which we think is not so much a useful addition, but an attractive one instead. Furthermore, the keyboard backlight can be illuminated differently according to zones, which is definitely useful (this is along the same lines as the Origin and Venom gaming notebooks that we've seen).
All of these lights are highly customisable from the Alien FX Command Centre interface, where you can select the colour for each element, as well as decide if you want it to flash or perform some sort of transition (you can even change the colour of the status lights). As we hinted at earlier, you can also run this laptop with its lights off in a 'stealth' mode, simply by hitting a keyboard shortcut. It's the best of both worlds really: leave the lights on to get the maximum experience, or switch them off when you don't want to make a scene.
More than looking good though, the Alienware 14 is a pleasure to use because of the way it physically feels. It's only a small-ish laptop when you consider all the power that resides inside, but it's still very comfortable to use and its anodised aluminium shell has a finish that's soft and 'grippy' — it just makes you want to keep touching it. The body within is magnesium alloy, which helps to keep the weight down while maintaining strength, and the laptop we tested weighed in at 2.95kg.
A metal plate is used to keep the keyboard sturdy and, most importantly, the keyboard itself is very good, with keys that are large and easy to hit, and with plenty of travel and slight resistance. It's a great keyboard if you want to type for long periods of time, especially at night with the backlight enabled, and it should also perform very well for most types of games.
The Synaptics touchpad was responsive during our tests and performed all the actions we wanted it to. It felt smooth under our fingers and really didn't miss a beat. We love the backlight that has been included under the touchpad. We used red most of the time because it was so striking, but most colours lit it up in an interesting way. The light stays on only for a short time after you've stopped using it, so it will only be active while you're finger is tracking all over it. It got in the way a couple of times while typing, but there is a keyboard shortcut to disable it quickly, and the palm rejection area can also be modified.
We also like the screen on this laptop. It's a Full HD, IPS (in-plane switching) panel with excellent contrast and brightness and it looks good when displaying movies, photos and, importantly, games. It has a matte finish so reflections won't cause problems, and it's not a touchscreen. At this point, it's worth noting that the Alienware 14 we tested was a pre-production model that came with Windows 7 installed. At the time of writing, Dell's Web site indicated that only Windows 8 would be offered.
Around the edges, the thick chassis is home to plenty of features. The right side has a Gigabit Ethernet port, a USB 3.0 port, an SD card slot and a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, while the left side has two more USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, DisplayPort, and three audio ports (a headset port, and separate headphone and microphone ports). We particularly like the way the slot-loading optical drive has been put into the machine in such a subtle way — it can be easy to miss at first and it works because the chassis is so thick and supports the stacking of the drive over other components. You can eject disks by using a function-key shortcut.
On the inside, our pre-production model came with a fourth-generation Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, 16GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a 256GB solid state drive (SSD), dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 765M graphics adapter. It's a beast of a configuration for a small laptop, and you can see why its weight pushes close to 3kg. It's still a very portable computer though, mainly because the 14in size is easily manageable with either a dedicated laptop bag or a typical backpack. We think it's a high-powered computer that's feasible to transport on a regular basis if you don't mind the weight.
The configuration performed well for us in our evaluation. In Blender 3D, it took 19sec to complete our render, while in iTunes it completed our MP3 encoding in 39sec — anything under 40sec in this test is a very fast result. Likewise, it had no problems converting a DVD file into an MP4 using Handbrake, taking only 8min 51sec to complete this task. We've seen one other machine with the Core i7-4700MQ CPU, HP's Envy 17, and the Alienware completed the iTunes and Handbrake tests one second quicker.
The graphics performance was very fast. Games such as Battlefield 3 ran smoothly in ultra mode at the native Full HD resolution of the screen, and Need For Speed: The Run looked and felt beautiful to play. That said, more demanding games might require a drop in resolution or detail to run as smoothly. In 3DMark06, a result of 21689 was achieved, which is massive. In the latest 3DMark, it also got a high mark of 96837 in Ice Storm, 12815 in Cloud Gate and 2330 in Fire Strike (by far the highest results we've seen from a laptop to date in this benchmark). Basically, this is an excellent gaming machine — and especially if portability is your main concern.
Intel HD 4600 graphics are used when the laptop is set to battery mode and isn't running any 3D applications (the NVIDIA adapter will still be used in battery mode, but the performance will be a little muted). The way the Alienware has been set up to deal with the dual graphics is a little annoying. The system gives you a pop-up every time you unplug the power supply or plug it back in, telling you that the power situation has changed and then letting you know which battery mode you are in ('switchable graphics' is the battery mode). You have to enable switchable graphics (and restart the system) in order to take advantage of it. A more elegant way of switching between the two modes would be nice.
In our battery tests, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the Alienware 14, with its lights on and using the NVIDIA graphics adapter, recorded only 2hr 10min. It's a short time that was expected. When we entered switchable graphics mode and switched off all the lights, we got 2hr 42min out of it. It's still a short time, but with some power management tweaks, you could take it over 3hr. That said, it's not a machine that's designed to be used away from an outlet — it's designed to give you lots of loads of performance, rather than battery life.
For storage, you get a 256GB SSD, which sits in an mSATA slot, but there is also a 7200rpm, 750GB SATA hard drive for data storage. The SSD performed quickly in CrystalDiskMark, recording a read rate of 512 megabytes per second (MBps) and a write rate of 387MBps. It's a system that definitely felt zippy during everyday usage, with quick-loading apps and file transfers. The 750GB hard drive meant that there was some extra noise made by the laptop; we also noticed some regular noises from the optical drive, which were sometimes startling, and we couldn't ascertain why it made those noises during our brief test period.
When the system is under a heavy processing load, it will be loud, but the sound is not annoying; instead, it's reassuring because you know that your components are getting the cooling they need under pressure. There is a large vent on the rear, which helps extract warm air, and half of the bottom panel is a vent, too, allowing for plenty of clean air to reach the inside of the chassis (as long as you're using it on a flat surface). Incidentally, the bottom has something we like a lot: a badge that gives the deployment date of the laptop and its key features. It's a nice touch that adds to the prestige of the unit.
You can get the Alienware 14 in a variety of different configurations that start from $1499. The one that we looked at specifically (with the Core i7-4700MQ CPU and GeForce GTX 765M graphics) wasn't listed on Alienware's site at the time of writing, but a version with the Core i7-4800MQ could be found for $2699 — that version also gives you built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Considering the great performance it offers, the stunning looks and the overall feel of the unit, we think it's a fairly competitive price. Basically, if you're a gamer or professional who wants a portable powerhouse of a machine that also looks great, the Alienware 14 is a top choice.
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