I must admit that the Alienware 13 is a brilliant little mobile gaming platform. But for every bit of brilliant, it’s equally expensive. The version I had on test, with the 2.4GHz i7, the GeForce 960M, a meagre 8gigs of DDR3 1600 memory, and nothing but a 250GB SSD for storage tipped the scales at $1900CAD, albeit with a 1440p touch LCD included. With the added external Graphics Amplifier and the PNY GTX 980 in it, that price soars up to a stratospheric $2700CAD. That’s before taxes, for a 13 inch laptop. That part is certainly in keeping with Alienware tradition, then; so what about the rest?
Well, it certainly looks excellent, like a more grown-up version of the Alienwares of the past. The lineage is still very much evident, but it’s refined enough to not look out of place at your local coffee shop. The customizable lighting will certainly turn heads if you want it to, and this is especially true if you use Alienware’s software to set up the four different colour zones on the keyboard with differing mixes of strobing and non-strobing colours. Not too grown up, then.
So, what about the performance? Well, here’s where I’m conflicted. First, I have to say that that 1440p display is stunning. It’s brilliantly crisp. And the built-in 960M is definitely no slouch. With that out the way, I need to be critical of a few things. The first is regarding that display, and seeing no immediate reason for it to not offer nVidia’s G-SYNC. For the eye-watering price Alienware asks for this package, frame-tearing was something I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with. After some thought, though, I remembered that the external Graphics Amplifier supports PCI-E video cards from both nVidia and AMD, so it seems like a good excuse to save some money, even though the dedicated graphics in all the laptops in their line are nVidia at the moment. Therein, I feel, rests the problem.
I understand that the Graphics Enhancer is offered as a means of potential upgrade for your Alienware laptop as it ages, but after giving it a bit more thought, it has a few issues. Relatively short lifespan for laptops has long been the bane of the mobile consumer, let alone the mobile gamer, so it seems like a reasonable enough idea to offer a means to connect a high-end PCI-E video card to boost performance as things start lacking, no? My issue with this is that the 960M in the laptop already handles what I could throw at it in 1440p just fine. And to be honest, I could even afford to dial back some settings and not really notice it thanks to the incredible pixel density on such a small display. This means that your bottleneck probably won’t be GPU, but rather CPU, as it often tends to be for mobile gamers.
In GPU intensive games like War Thunder, the PNY GTX 980 in the Graphics Amplifier allowed me to crank the visual settings to max cinematic at 1440p without issue, but on even moderately CPU intensive titles like Diablo3, I was already noticing some CPU related stuttering. It’s all fine and well that I can upgrade the graphics card in a couple of years, but that’s not going to do me much good if the top CPU on-offer is already reaching its limits of performance.
Look, I love the Alienware 13. At just a hair over 4.5lbs (2.05 kilos), it’s very manageable for a mobile gaming platform. It’s sexy as hell, it performs very well for a portable indulgence, and the sound it produces is staggeringly good for a laptop. The problem isn’t the 13, nor is it so much the price. I don’t even care that much that in two years it’s going to be woefully obsolete. The issue I take is with the package as a whole when combined with the Graphics Amplifier. Hell, just the case for that thing, without a graphics card in it is $350CAD. That’s painfully expensive for what’s basically a USB hub with its own power supply.
I adore the notion of having a moderately powerful gaming laptop with a box on my desk that can boost its performance when I’m not mobile, but Alienware seems to have missed the point. They’ve paired a monstrously powerful external GPU with a laptop that doesn’t have any issues with graphical processing power. I think they’re dreaming in the right direction, but if I’m brutally honest, at the moment, it feels like something to market at the money > brains demographic.
I’m hopeful for the technology; hopeful that someone will run with the idea and put an absurdly powerful APU into something similar that would allow me to boost not just the graphical, but also the processing power of my favourite laptop to breathe another couple years of life into it at a reasonable cost, but we’re just not there yet. Hell, Alienware has a proprietary data transfer cable for the unit, why not offer a couple of HDD bays inside the Amplifier? There’s no shortage of empty space in the case.
Any computer is only as powerful as its weakest link, and while Alienware claims their Graphics Amplifier “futureproofs” their laptops, in order for it to do any such thing, the rest of the internal hardware in the laptop has to be up to the task. Sadly, the only laptop in their line with a processor built to last long enough to warrant a graphics upgrade is their top-spec Alienware 17 which starts at $3300CAD. But with the GTX 980M in that, you won’t be needing a graphical upgrade any time soon, so we’re back to square one.
Like all Alienware products, the 13 is pricey and a bit of a novelty, but it also performs incredibly well for a mid to high-end 13 inch gaming machine, and is easily one of my favourite mobile options to date. If the package is to your liking, and you can stomach the price, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t count on that silly Graphics Amplifier to be of much use when it comes time to upgrade.