Picking a gaming laptop is a difficult task these days: machines can be found in all shapes and sizes, from pricey thin-and-lights to oversized behemoths. That wide selection is a good thing, allowing buyers to pick and choose the best machine from dozens of manufacturers, possibly even finding a deal on a lower-cost ODM system. Still, there needs to be some sort of benchmark buyers can look to, and for many, Alienware serves that purpose. The brand, now owned by Dell, is known for offering powerful, high-quality machines at the market's going rate; that is, not too cheap, not too expensive, but reasonably priced with just a hint of prestige. Considering Alienware's 2013 hardware refresh, it seemed about time we took a closer look at Dell's updated family of gaming portables. We picked out two: the Alienware 14 ($1,199+) and the larger Alienware 17 ($1,499+). Let's see how they stack up.
Look and feel
If you unbox as many machines as we do, you start to develop a weird fascination with product packaging. Typically, a box is just a box, but once in a while, a product's container actually adds something to the experience. Dell's Alienware laptops come wrapped in heavy foam eggshell padding cut to the machine's form. It's not as visually appealing as the premium cardboard that ships with Razer's Blade laptops, but it makes for a secure briefcase. It's reusable too: Alienware's packing material could make for a nice carrier the next time you take your rig to a LAN party.
Unpacking the laptops, we find a brand-new generation of Alienware notebooks, built from the ground up with better materials and a fresh design. Both the 14 and 17 feel incredibly solid, thanks no doubt to a sturdy magnesium alloy chassis. The metal overhaul extends to the keyboard support brackets, screen hinges and LCD assembly too, although it isn't readily apparent under the soft rubber coating that stretches across the machine's face. This matte surface dulls the laptop's angled edges, which are decorated by a plethora of LED lights. In a nod to past Alienware designs, the laptop features 10 distinct lighting zones that can each be customized with one of 19 colors (Dell claims a full 20, but we don't count "black" if it means "turned off").
Those diodes are everywhere, by the way -- multiple places on the lid, underneath the keyboard and along the edges, with a thin, glowing line ringing the front and sides of the chassis. The light stretches across the entire surface of the trackpad too, a bold departure from last year's model, which only had lights around the perimeter of the touchpad. Overall, it's a subtler design than we saw last time, but it certainly isn't boring or modest. It's also surprisingly uniform, not just in aesthetics, but also in port selection. With the exception of an additional USB port on the 17-inch model and some slight changes in location, the 14- and 17-inch Alienware laptops offer identical connectivity. The left side of both machines houses two USB 3.0 SuperSpeed ports (not colored blue this time), HDMI and a Mini DisplayPort. There are also audio jacks for line-out (with headset support) and line-in for microphones. On the right edge lies a slot-loading optical drive, a multi-format memory card reader, an Ethernet jack and one or two more USB ports, depending on the model.
Save for that extra USB port and the obvious difference in size, the only discrepancy between the two models is the speaker bar. The 14-inch version features a perforated strip of metal that serves as an obvious audio grille, but this area is completely solid on the larger Alienware 17. The 17-inch model's speakers seem a bit quieter too, though we can't say if that's a component issue or a matter of acoustics. Regardless, Alienware's new design suits both sizes quite well. It's tasteful and attractive, but still retains enough visual (and user-customizable) flair to satisfy most Alienware customers. Both machines feel incredibly solid and well built too, though some of the thickness that makes them feel so robust might be off-putting to gamers who've grown accustomed to slimmer models.
Keyboard and trackpad
Much like the rest of the design, the keyboard and trackpad on these models feel very uniform. With the exception of a number pad on the 17-inch model and slightly different mouse key shapes, the inputs on our two review units were basically identical. And that's a good thing: the keyboard is a welcome departure from the chiclet trend sweeping most modern laptops. It's a significant change for Dell too: the layout here looks more like an older ThinkPad than any past Alienware model. All told, the keys feel great, featuring the same soft-touch coating that covers the rest of the machine and just enough travel for our tastes. The 17-inch model also has four extra keys positioned above the numpad: A, B, C and D toggles that work with the machine's AlienTactX Macro tool; by default they're assigned to F1-F4. On the ghosting front, we found Alienware's keyboards capable of handling between three and eight simultaneous depressions, depending on the key combination. This means the keyboard isn't exceptional, per se, but we can hardly knock it for following the "rule" set by most laptops on the market.
Alienware's new trackpad is large enough to use comfortably, but not so large that it gets in the way. Its surface also features a different texture than the rest of the machine, which makes it easy to find without looking down. Moreover, its left and right buttons each offer a nice amount of resistance, without being too stiff. It's also an excellent multi-touch surface, though you wouldn't know it without jumping into Synaptics' device settings: for whatever reason, scrolling options and all gestures are disabled by default. It's a shame too, since this particular trackpad ranks among one of the best we've seen.
As we said, both the keyboard and touchpad are tricked out in LED lights, with an array of color options. Dell's AlienFX program controls the light show (more on that later), but it's not always intuitive to use; disabling the trackpad light required deselecting "keep status zones on during go dark" and disabling the FX mode entirely. For whatever reason, the program wouldn't let us simply choose "black" as the default color for the mouser, leaving us in an all-or-nothing sort of bind. Basically, then, if you don't want a glowing mouse, but love the backlit keyboard, you're out of luck. Dell told us that a future firmware patch might enable more precise control over the trackpad's lighting behavior, as that function is tied to the BIOS.
Display and audio
The Alienware 14 and 17 trade off superior screen and audio quality, respectively -- with either unit besting the other just slightly. The differences are subtle, but noticeable when the two machines are used side by side. Both ultimately have strong displays and decent audio, of course, but they aren't quite equal -- the 14's 1080p display, for instance, offers darker blacks and more accurate colors, making the 17-inch's 1,920 x 1,080 panel appear slightly washed-out by comparison. We can't speak for the other available display configurations (there's a 1,366 x 768 option for the Alienware 14, and a 1,600 x 900 one for the 17), but upgrading either to full HD is definitely a worthwhile investment. Each panel is gorgeous, with vibrant and crisp colors, wide viewing angles and a matte finish; as we said, the 14 just "pops" a bit more.
Alienware's smaller unit may have an advantage in the display department, but its speakers fall short of its bigger brother. Despite the fact that both units proudly proclaim to be "powered by Klipsch Audio," the 17-inch model clearly offers the richer sound experience. Part of this, at least, has to do with acoustics: the Alienware 17's wide base places its speakers farther apart, gifting it with a level of stereo separation that the 14-inch model simply can't compete with. To its credit, the 14 can still easily fill a room, but its speakers sound a little tinnier.
Performance and battery life
ATTO (top disk speeds)
Alienware 14 (2.4GHz Core i7-4700MQ, NVIDIA GTX 765M 2GB)
E6,529 / P4,211
507 MB/s (reads); 418 MB/s (writes)
Alienware 17 (2.7GHz Core i7-4800MQ, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB)
E10,638 / P7,246
509 MB/s (reads); 420 MB/s (writes)
Digital Storm Veloce (2.7GHz Core i7-4800MQ, GeForce GTX 765M 2GB)
E6,696 / P4,353
506 MB/s (reads); 196 MB/s (writes)
Razer Blade 14-inch (2.2GHz Core i7-4702HQ, GeForce GTX 765M)
E6,364 / P4,161
546 MB/s (reads); 253 MB/s (writes)
MSI GT70 Dragon Edition (2013) (2.4GHz Core i7-4700MQ, GeForce GTX 780M)
E10,519 / P7,416
1.19 GB/s (reads); 806 MB/s (writes)
Razer Edge Pro (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, NVIDIA GT 640M LE 2GB)
E2,507 / P1,576
409 MB/s (reads); 496 MB/s (writes)
Samsung Series 7 Gamer (2.30GHz Core i7-3610QM, GeForce GTX 675M)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a PC gamer who marks battery life as a chief concern -- historically, gaming portables haven't shined in this area, and Alienware's latest machines aren't notable exceptions. With NVIDIA Optimus graphics switching activated, both the Alienware 14 and 17 survived three and a half hours in our standard battery test, which involves looping a video at fixed brightness (with WiFi on) until exhaustion. Running exclusively off of the machines' discrete GPUs (Alienware allows users to disable Optimus switching by rebooting with Fn+F5, disabling Intel's onboard graphics processor) knocks another 30 minutes or so off the total runtime. This isn't uncommon for a high-performance gaming rig, but pitted against the Razer Blade 14 (which lasted over six hours) and the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition 2 (with a four-and-a-half-hour runtime), it feels, well, last-gen. It isn't a nail in the coffin, but it does serve as further evidence that the Haswell architecture alone isn't a silver bullet for laptop longevity.
Digital Storm Veloce
Razer Blade 14-inch
MSI GT70 Dragon Edition
Razer Edge Pro
Samsung Series 7 Gamer
Razer Blade 2.0
2011 Sony VAIO F Series
Alienware's newest machines may stumble when it comes to battery life, but they each make up for it in performance. Comparing frame rates tit for tat, the Alienware 14 is basically on par with the Razer Blade 14 -- at least until you remember that Dell's kit is pushing its visuals to a higher resolution 1,920 x 1,080 display (the Blade maxes out at 1,600 x 900). Kitted out with 16GB of DDR3 RAM, an Intel Core-i7-4700MQ CPU clocked at 2.4GHz and a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 765M GPU, Dell's portable gamer clocked a steady 35 frames per second in BioShock: Infinite autotuned to ultra high quality. Likewise, we saw 57 fps in a visually maxed-out session of PayDay 2 and between 40 and 70 fps (indoor and outdoor environments) in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Saints Row IV could bear Ultra settings as well, but we had to dial down MSAA and anisotropic filtering a bit to achieve a strong 45 fps average.
The Alienware 17 (outfitted with a beefier 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 CPU and 4GB NVIDIA GTX 780M graphics) performed even better, netting 67, 119, 100 and 55 frames per second in those same games, each pushed to the maximum fidelity available through default presets. The 17-inch unit even negotiated Far Cry 3 at a steady 51 fps, but both systems had to dial back settings to achieve playable frame rates in the third Crysis title: 33 fps on low, for the Alienware 14 and a solid 46 fps on medium for 17-inch.
The screaming performance does come with a caveat, however -- consistent performance demands proper use. We're talking about that GPU-switching mode, which allows users to manually disable NVIDIA Optimus (this requires a system reboot) and exclusively use the discrete graphics processor. With the feature activated, both laptops managed to squeeze an additional 30 minutes out of our standard battery test, but we found that some games would randomly switch between the two graphics options mid-game, which briefly caused drastic drops in frame rates. It didn't happen often, but the few times it did were enough to make us shy away from the switchable-graphics mode altogether.
Playing on any high-performance gaming rig is a blast, but Alienware's AlienFX lighting makes using the 14 and 17 a somewhat unique experience. In addition to offering a bevy of colored diodes, the system also interacts directly with select games -- changing colors based on the player's status or game environment. Battlefield 3, for instance, causes the laptop to metaphorically bleed with the player, changing a white backlight to a deepening red as your character takes damage. The implementation is far from uniform, however: it takes a few minutes to suss out what the blinking lights mean for any given title. It's not a new trick (Alienware has been putting on these interactive light shows for several generations now), but it's still a fun touch. We'd almost hate to state the obvious, but both machines do get decently warm in a heavy game session, with the rear and bottom vents getting particularly hot. It was hardly unbearable -- actually, it's par for the course -- but I still preferred to keep these machines off my lap unless I was wearing particularly thick trousers.
Love or hate Metro and the new Start Menu, Windows 8 has been a point of contention for many gamers. In particular, some games (ironically, ones that rely on the now-defunct Games for Windows Live) butt heads with the operating system, which gives reluctant upgraders a good reason to stay put. That camp will be pleased to see that Windows 7 is the default operating system for Alienware's latest line of gaming portables, though the configuration tool on the company website does mark Windows 8 as "Dell recommended."
It's a pleasantly clean installation too, with only an Alienware-branded recovery tool for backups, restorations and creating physical restore media and the Alienware Command Center. That last program is responsible for controlling AlienFX lighting, quick settings, power profiles, touchpad options and specialized program shortcuts. The user interface is fairly intuitive, and provides fast access to common features that Windows typically buries under convoluted menus. The "AlienAdrenaline" section of the suite allows you to create custom launch profiles for games, which can call up peripheral voice chat or hotkey programs that you might see one typically use while playing that game. The 17-inch model also has an extra feature: AlienTactX, which uses the aforementioned A, B, C and D keys as macro quick keys. It's a nice suite to have, but it also doesn't weigh the system down if you choose to ignore it.
Being a part of Dell gives Alienware an edge against smaller firms -- all of its machines are highly customizable and are made to order. The latest Alienware laptops can be had in 14-, 17- and 18-inch sizes, each offered with a wide choice of components. The options can be a little overwhelming, but having them gives gamers the option to create a system to meet a tighter budget, or build to break the bank on an eye-melting powerhouse. Our review units flirted with the latter choice.
The Alienware 14 we tested housed a 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor, a 2GB NVIDIA GTX 765M GPU, 16GB of DDR3L RAM, a 256GB mSATA SDD boot drive with a spare 750GB HDD for storage and a Blu-ray optical drive -- which, excluding promotional discounts, rings in at $2,049. That's no price to shake a stick at, but it's hardly the model's most expensive configuration: users can upgrade to either a Core i7-4800MQ or 4900MQ chip, kicking the price as high as $2,300 for a fully decked-out unit. Naturally, the price can go in the other direction as well, if you cut the SSD storage and RAM, and settle for a less robust optical drive. Penny-pinching gamers can also get the price as low as $1,200 by opting for a GT 750M GPU and cropping the resolution down to 1,366 x 768.
The configurator made similar work of our Alienware 17 review unit, pricing it at $2,799 with an Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU and a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M GPU, plus the same RAM, optical drive and storage setup as on the 14-inch model. The Alienware 17 can be tricked out with almost all the same options as the smaller laptop (including its own lower-resolution panel -- a 1,600 x 900 display), but can also push the edge a little further, offering up to 32GB of RAM, a 1.5TB RAID 0 HDD configuration (two 7,200RPM 750GB drives) and NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 770M and 780M GPUs. Gamers going for broke can even upgrade the display to a 120Hz panel with a 3D bundle. The Alienware 17 can be had for anywhere between $1,499 and $3,449, depending on the build. It's a staggering buffet of choices, and it isn't even Dell's full menu; an 18-inch model raises the stakes further with options for a Intel Core i7-4930MX CPU and a 512GB SSD boot drive with a 750GB storage disc, priced at a lofty $4,949 for the whole shebang.
Between its wide array of configuration options and Alienware's superb build quality, Dell has done a decent job of covering its bases; there isn't much for the competition to trump it with. Putting aside brand loyalties or better deals, the best question to ask is what Alienware doesn't offer. For this generation, that's a thin profile and long battery life -- both traits that are rare in gaming machines to start with, but present if one knows where to look. Gamers attached to the larger 17-inch form factor should look at the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition 2 -- it's every bit as beastly as the Alienware 17. Plus it lasts at least an extra hour unplugged. MSI's GS70 is a compelling option too, offering an even thinner alternative to the Razer Blade while retaining a full HD display and killer internals. Heck, you might want still want to give the Blade a look: it can't compete with Alienware in performance potential, but the company does make one of the finest 14-inch gaming laptops we've ever seen.
Surprise: Dell's legacy as an OEM and Alienware's gaming cred still make for an awesome combination -- both the Alienware 14 and 17 rank among the best gaming laptops we've reviewed this year. Excellent build quality, killer components and excellent performance have left us with little to complain about. Those looking for faults can find them in the pair's comparatively short battery life and overall thickness, but in the scope of the greater presentation, neither feels like a deal-breaking blemish. It can be shockingly expensive if configured to the nines, however. In the end, we can say the new Alienware lineup is a strong follow-up to the last generation, with plenty of power for those who want it, and a fresh, modern design. That glowing trackpad is still a little weird, though.