Alienware 13 review: A premium yet portable beast of a gaming laptop

Alienware 13 review: A premium yet portable beast of a gaming laptop

Gaming culture borrows heavily from sci-fi- and fantasy themes. So why not own a laptop that looks like it dropped out of the future? We review the Alienware 13 gaming laptop. Also see: Best gaming laptops 2015.

Gaming culture borrows heavily from science-fiction and fantasy themes. So why not own a laptop that looks like it dropped out of the future? Alienware set the trend for gaming notebooks that look like sci-fi film props, and in the Alienware 13 has built a high-performance gaming laptop that successfully juggles user comfort with a talent for playing the fastest action titles.

This little notebook can also take on the desktop PC. Beyond its more than capable onboard discrete graphics, the Alienware 13 can if you prefer be supercharged by a unique external amplifier.

Alienware 13 review: Build and design

At 27mm thick the Alienware 13 is now far removed from the slimmest slivers in gaming notebooks, but its 328 x 235mm footprint makes it the smallest on test, home to a 13.3in full-HD PLS screen.

The casework bears the trademark Alienware stealth-bomber look, with angled edges and lopped-off corners, fashioned almost entirely from gunmetal-painted plastic, but incredibly tough feeling nonetheless.

The lid back features the classic alien grey emblem, ready to glow from almond eyes that reflect the colour set on the multi-colour keyboard light. Also here is a tri-wing detail which similarly lights from within along two vertices.

The underside is quite minimalist, with huge air intakes filled by perforated metal grilles that cover two internal cooling fans and a large heatpipe construction. Under test we found the Alienware 13 to run effectively silently in normal use, the fans revving up to clear audibility only after the Nvidia graphics engine is engaged for gaming. Annoyingly though, those fans would continue to whoosh long after gameplay had stopped.

We found an issue with the keyboard action, also found on other brands’ laptops recently that may be using the same OEM, where some keys would not reliably type – the single-quote key the worst offender. Often it would not print on a single pressing, and then when tried again would print two ’ ’ each time.

Dodgy key problems aside, the keyboard design is a crowning glory for the Alienware 13, beautifully backlit in cobalt blue by default, like a lethal underwater trove bathed in Cherenkov radiation. The lights are divided into four quadrants and can be customised in colour and mixed to taste, from a pallete of 20 colours.

A sign that Alienware understands attention to detail is the way that the company name, the grey emblem and lid lighting will also follow the chosen colour scheme. Or can be customised with varying colours. It’s a neat touch that helps transform the user experience beyond the me-too gaming clones. See all laptop reviews.

Keyboard backlight and ‘Alienware’ on the screen bezel can also change colour depending on application task. For example, blue turns to green upon the launch of the bundled Stagelight music recorder application, whose interface is predominantly green.

It’s not all hardware/software-integration perfection though. Annoying gimmick programs include FastAccess Anywhere Face Recognition, which wants to use your face for biometric access and ccannot be easily switched off – we ended up just deleting the program.

Alienware 13 review: Ports and all

Three USB 3.0 ports – two right, one left – take care of high-speed peripherals, and the inclusion of built-in gigabit ethernet on the smaller chassis will be a boon for those that prefer the best possible network connections.

Internally is fitted a two-stream 11ac wireless adaptor, aggressively named Killer by maker Qualcomm, which provides an impressive software stack that lets you sift through the fine details of your network connectivity, both wired and wireless. To live up to the slayer name though, we would prefer to see a decent three-stream solution. Unusually for the modern notebook, Alienware omits the standard SD memory-card slot.

Alienware 13 review: Inside

Alienware parent Dell offers a choice of configurations for the Alienware 13, although confusingly none of those offered for sale at time of test actually match the model we were loaned for review.

There’s currently a choice of two processors, both dual-core – either last year’s Core i5-4210U (Haswell 22 nm, 1.7 GHz clock speed) or this year’s Core i7-5500U (Broadwell 14 nm, 2.4 GHz). And for GPU you can choose between an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M from last year’s line up, or a brand new GTX 960M; both options supplied with 2 GB GDDR5 video memory.

Our sample had a mix of both, with the latest Intel Broadwell CPU and last-gen GTX 860M graphics, a combination we couldn’t put a price to; but the top-spec model on Dell’s website with Broadwell and ’960M graphics is priced at £1232.

Two 4 GB memory modules provide 8 GB total and can be accessed through a bottom hatch for upgrade, along with the storage drive. A 2.5in size cavity is available here although our sample had a tiddly M.2 card from LiteOn, using a SATA Revision 3.0 bus. There does not seem to be an option for the three-times faster PCIe attachment that is finally being offered for Windows laptops.

Alienware 13 review: Performance

The Alienware 13 is the only gaming laptop in this group to not use a quad-core processor. While serious gamers have traditionally sought the fastest components of all description to shore up their machine’s performance, it is more debatable how important it is to have the quickest quad-core on the case. Also see: Best laptops 2015.

Raw processor and memory performance fell behind the quad-core crowd, with single-core performance just short of the latter group while multi-core tests returned point scores around half that of the four-cores.

In Geekbench 3, for instance, we saw scores of 3072 points and 6366 points – both strong results even if the multi-core results fell short of the circa-13,000 points scores from Intel quad-core chips.

PCMark 8 Home unit scored the Alienware with 2562 points, a decent enough result, which swelled to 3217 points with the benefit of OpenCL GPU accleration.

Alienware 13 review: Gaming

Gaming performance was in a realm that would have been undreamt of for a modest 13-inch notebook just two years ago. Tomb Raider 2013 hit 110 fps average in our casual gaming test at 720p and High detail, settling at 64 fps at screen native full-HD resolution. We found we could raise quality right up to game max with Ultimate settings and still see an average of 31 fps, albeit with short-term minima at 23 fps.

From Batman: Arkham City the Bat skies were the limit – edged up to highest settings with Extreme detail the Alienware 13 still averaged an easy 46 fps. Also see: Laptop Advisor.

Only when stretched by our top Metro: Last Light benchmark did the little Alienware meets its maker, staying fluid enough at High detail with 48 fps average but turning to silent-film rates of 15 fps at Very High with additonal effects engaged.

In overall gaming terms the Alienware took on and very nearly matched the real-world framerates available from the Core i7 quad-core with GTX 960M graphics of the XMG A505.

If those smooth framerates are not already high enough, or you hanker over connecting larger, higher-resolution displays, there’s the unique option of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

This is an external break-out box for the desktop, the size of a large shoebox, which houses the single PCIe graphics card of your choice. It connects to the ’13 through a proprietary multi-lane PCIe umbilical cable, taking over from the internal Intel or Nvidia graphics cards inside the notebook.

We hope to later update this review with a more extended test of what the Alienware 13 can do when handed the outboard graphics option.

Alienware 13 review: Display

You can find the Alienware 13 with a lower-grade low-res TN panel, but you are strongly advised to seek out the IPS full-HD version, actually using a Samsung PLS panel of superb quality.

Its image quality is recognisable superior to even many other IPS panels, with good deep blacks and exceptionally wide viewing angles. In our lab it had the highest contrast ratio on test at 740:1, and colour gamut to meet the best at 97 percent sRGB and 74 percent Adobe RGB. Average Delta E figures for colour accuracy were also the best we’ve seen at just 0.88 Delta E.

Alienware 13 review: Battery

Alienware fits a usefully sized 52 Wh lithium-polymer battery to the ’13, but not user replaceable as is common among even gaming laptops today. That’s only a few percent larger than the 48 Wh types found in the MSI and Toshiba gaming laptops, yet with the help of the smaller screen and the latest 14 nm dual-core Broadwell processor, the Alienware 13 lasted a staggering 10 h 20 min in our standard looped video over Wi-Fi benchmark test. See all laptops buying advice.

Alienware 13: Specs

  • 13.3in (1920x1080, 166ppi) PLS matt anti-glare screen
  • Windows 8.1
  • 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U (3GHz Turbo)
  • nVidia GeForce GTX 860M, Intel HD Graphics 5500
  • 256GB M.2 SATA SSD
  • 8GB (2x 4GB) DDR3 (1600MHz) RAM
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • 1x Mini DisplayPort 1.2
  • 1x HDMI 1.4
  • 802.11ac dual-band 2x2 (Qualcomm Killer Wireless-AC 1525)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Klipsch stereo speakers
  • 3.5mm headset jack, 3.5mm mic in
  • 3x USB 3.0
  • 2Mp webcam
  • 52Wh lithium, non-removable battery
  • 328x235x26.7mm
  • 1973g
  • battery life: 10 hours 20 minutes
  • PCMark 7 score: 5429
  • PCMark 8 score (conventional/accelerated): 2562/3217
  • PCMark8 Work (con/accel): 2922/4217
  • Batman Arkham City (High/Very High/Extreme): 61,58/46fps
  • Tomb Raider (Normal/High/Ultra): 89/64/47fps
  • Metro: Last (Light High/Very High): 48/15fps
  • 13.3in (1920x1080, 166ppi) PLS matt anti-glare screen
  • Windows 8.1
  • 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U (3GHz Turbo)
  • nVidia GeForce GTX 860M, Intel HD Graphics 5500
  • 256GB M.2 SATA SSD
  • 8GB (2x 4GB) DDR3 (1600MHz) RAM
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • 1x Mini DisplayPort 1.2
  • 1x HDMI 1.4
  • 802.11ac dual-band 2x2 (Qualcomm Killer Wireless-AC 1525)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Klipsch stereo speakers
  • 3.5mm headset jack, 3.5mm mic in
  • 3x USB 3.0
  • 2Mp webcam
  • 52Wh lithium, non-removable battery
  • 328x235x26.7mm
  • 1973g
  • battery life: 10 hours 20 minutes
  • PCMark 7 score: 5429
  • PCMark 8 score (conventional/accelerated): 2562/3217
  • PCMark8 Work (con/accel): 2922/4217
  • Batman Arkham City (High/Very High/Extreme): 61,58/46fps
  • Tomb Raider (Normal/High/Ultra): 89/64/47fps
  • Metro: Last (Light High/Very High): 48/15fps

OUR VERDICT

The Alienware 13 is a compact yet very powerful laptop, suited to playing all modern Windows games. It’s chunky thick but relatively light in weight, and has been well designed and equipped to be a premium yet still portable powerhouse.

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