Alienware 13 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

By Sean Hollister on at

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 truly unheard-of speeds.

What is It?

A 13-inch gaming laptop with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove. It's the successor to the fantastic Alienware 14, now shaved down to a reasonable 26-millimetre thickness, and tipping the scales at two kilos. The screen is average with 1366 x 768 resolution (but can graduate to a gorgeous 2560 x 1440 touchscreen display) and the hard drive is 1 TB but has expansion capabilities for multiple solid-state drives. The starting price is £949.

If you go up the price-option scale, it's a laptop that can come with Alienware's proprietary Graphics Amplifier, which is 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? 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 much-more expensive 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 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 upgrade to 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 stick Nvidia's latest GeForce GTX 980 graphics card inside the GFX Amp, and hook up a 4K monitor while I was at it. 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 games 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 hundred of pounds' worth of additional hardware, not counting the price of a 4K monitor if you want to go that direction, but it's 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 become 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 four hours with a quad-core standard voltage processor, a higher-res screen AND a way thinner chassis. What gives, Alienware?

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 an SSD, 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 Review: The First Futureproof Gaming Laptop

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 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 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.