Alienware 13

Alienware 13
Alienware 13 gaming laptop.

This is Alienware's most compact gaming laptop since the short-lived 11-inch model it released in 2011.

While it is not as thin as the Razer and MSI slim gaming laptops, the Alienware 13 is relatively light at 2kg.

Its most interesting feature is the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, an external graphics accessory. Measuring about a third the height of a mid-tower desktop PC, the accessory's small chassis supports a full-length, dual-slot desktop graphics card.

It also has its own power supply - a 460W model which is sufficient to power high-end AMD and Nvidia graphics cards - and four USB 3.0 ports to supplement the ones on the laptop.

A proprietary cable connects it to a custom port on the Alienware 13 laptop.

The idea of this peripheral is to harness the power of a desktop graphics card to run games on the Alienware 13, which has a mid-range GeForce GTX 860M chip. It is not an original concept but similar past efforts by other brands have not been successful.

Unfortunately, the Graphics Amplifier feels like a beta product which should have been tested more thoroughly before it was launched.

In my test, I installed Nvidia's flagship GeForce GTX 980 graphics card in the accessory. Then I connected it to the Alienware 13 while the laptop was powered down.

After switching on the laptop and booting up Windows, I found that the GTX 980 card was not detected by the laptop's existing Nvidia drivers.

The solution, gleaned from an Alienware user forum, was to uninstall the laptop's existing Nvidia drivers completely and then reinstall them.

This worked and I was finally able to tap the Graphics Amplifier to significantly boost the Alienware 13's graphics performance. For instance, I could now run Crysis at the Very High setting, at 48 frames per second (fps).

With just the laptop's GTX 860M chip, I could run the game only at the High setting of 33 fps.

However, once I unplugged the Graphics Amplifier and restarted the laptop, the system was unable to detect the laptop's built-in GTX 860M chip. The workaround was to reinstall the graphics drivers again.

This means that every time you switch between using the graphics card in the Graphics Amplifier and the laptop's graphics chip, you have to restart the system (acceptable) and reinstall the drivers (not good).

This may not be entirely Alienware's fault, but it is annoying that this issue was not resolved before its launch. According to online feedback, AMD's graphics cards appear to fare better.

The Graphics Amplifier (without a graphics card) costs $419 and a high-end card, such as the GTX 980, costs about $900. Furthermore, it currently works only with the Alienware 13, though future Alienware laptops will be compatible with it.

It is a hefty investment for something that does not yet work perfectly.

As for the Alienware 13, the chassis is like that of the company's earlier laptops. The design shows more restraint, but you can still customise the keyboard LED lights.

Key travel is good and the keyboard is really nice to use. But the laptop could do with an SD card slot.

Surprisingly for a gaming laptop, the Alienware 13 has a mediocre ultrabook-class processor. This CPU could create a potential performance bottleneck if paired with a high-end graphics card via the Graphics Amplifier.

My other complaint is the laptop's slow 1TB hard drive. Upgrade to a solid-state drive option, if possible.

For an Alienware laptop, the price is relatively affordable. But its gaming performance (with the GTX 860M) is merely adequate for a gaming machine.

Affordable, but underpowered for a gaming laptop. The optional Graphics Amplifier has potential, but it would be prudent to wait for Alienware to solve its teething issues.

vinchang@sph.com.sg

TECH SPECS

Price: $1,999

Processor: Intel Core i5-4210U (1.7GHz)

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M 2GB GDDR5

RAM: 16GB

Screen: 13 inches, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels

Connectivity: 3 x USB 3.0, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, Alienware Graphics Amplifier port, Ethernet, audio jacks

Battery: 52 watt-hour

RATING

Features 4/5

Design 4/5

Performance 4/5

Value for money 3/5

Battery life 2/5

Overall 4/5


This article was first published on Jan 21, 2015.
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