Alienware 14

Dell has revamped its gaming line, including the new Alienware 14. The design changes don't go nearly far enough but no complaints about the performance.


8.0
CNET Rating


Some laptops have loud fans that kick in when performing high-end tasks that drive the CPU or GPU. Other laptops, such as the new Alienware 14, have fans so distractingly loud that you practically have to put on headphones (and crank them up) to escape it. It's a shame because this is an otherwise excellent semi-portable gaming laptop and probably the biggest shift in Alienware's design direction in a few years.

Of course, this is Alienware. So even a significant shift — in this case, a new case design and a stripped-down name (the Alienware M14X, for example, becomes simply the Alienware 14), still looks and feels very Alienware-like, which is to say that it pretty much ignores any trends in laptop design over the past several years.

This is a thick, heavy laptop, with automotive-inspired grilles and all sorts of user-programmable hokey lights (although the backlit touch pad is cool). It's literally as thick as two mid-sized laptops stacked on top of each other, and I can't think of a 14-inch laptop this year (or last) that has come close to its size.


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

But the Alienware brand still has some magic left, and this may be the best system we've seen out of that shop since the late, lamented Alienware M11X. That's partly because, despite first impressions, it is actually smaller and lighter than previous Alienware laptops with the same screen size, and the construction quality, with an emphasis on magnesium alloy and aluminum, feels great.

But mostly it's because the Alienware 14 offers the wide variety of components and options that PC gamers want, and even at the higher levels of customisation, the total price is well in line with the competition. Our US$3,099 configuration includes a new fourth-generation Core i7 CPU, Nvidia's also-new GeForce 765M GPU and a combination of a 256GB SSD and 750GB HDD for storage. It's not a bargain, but for US$3,099, I'm very comfortable with that configuration. By default, it ships with Windows 7 Home Premium, with Windows 7 Pro and Windows 8 Pro available as options.


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

The base-price model, at US$1,699 is still decent, with a slower Core i7 and no SSD, but if those are the specs you're looking for, you're probably not in the market for an Alienware in the first place. Razer's 14-inch Blade manages to include roughly similar performance (with lower-voltage parts) into a much slimmer body but also shoots itself in the foot with a sub-par display.

In truth, no one has really nailed the idea of a next-generation gaming laptop yet. The new Alienware 14 is a great, not-quite-portable system that has one foot stuck in the past, but if you can live with the size and weight (and the light show), it's one of the few ways to get gamer-level performance without sacrificing your entire desk.

Design and features

Dell's Alienware team has made much of the new look of its laptop line-up, calling it a "revolutionary new industrial design". It's certainly an evolution over the past few generations of Alienware systems but not so radically different that you're going to change your opinion about the company one way or the other. This is still a thick, heavy, black laptop with running lights and an alien head logo on the back of the lid. We used to call it dorm room chic, but I suspect most dorm rooms have MacBooks these days.

More important are the actual materials, with an anodised aluminium lid, magnesium alloy base and a steel plate under the keyboard for stability, plus copper heat sinks and pipes inside for better cooling. All that allows the new Alienware 14 to be a bit thinner and lighter than older 14-inch models, but you'd have to eyeball them side by side to really appreciate the difference.

Even though I'm being a bit snarky about the aesthetics, the system feels very high end in the hand, with rock-solid construction and a soft-touch finish on the palm rest that won't bother you after spending hours with your hand hovering over the WASD keys.


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

As is expected from Alienware, the chassis lights up in all sorts of interesting ways, with a backlit keyboard, Alienware logo, running lights along the side, a light-up alien head on the back of the lid and a few more zones. All of these can be controlled from the Alien FX control panel: a software app that allows you to choose from preset themes or create your own, with different colours for each backlit zone (and four under the keyboard). The most interesting part is the new backlit touch pad. It can glow in any of a couple of dozen colours and lights up when touched for a few seconds. It's a pretty nifty party trick, and the same Alienware app can also control power settings, touch pad settings and create macros for executing a series of actions: for example, changing VOIP, lighting and power settings when launching a specific game or app.

The keyboard is a vital component for gaming laptops, unless you plan to output to an external monitor and use an external keyboard all the time. In this case, the large keys are tapered slightly at the top to avoid accidental keystrokes (you don't want to accidentally drop a live grenade at your feet, right?). They have a satisfying depth, and the large Shift, Control and other keys often used in PC gaming are well-placed for in-game use.

The backlit touch pad is a good size and keeps separate physical left and right mouse buttons rather than using a newer clickpad-style surface. But for gamers, it's probably a moot point, as you're likely to use an external mouse for all your serious gaming.


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

You can have all the high-end components and flashing lights in the world, but gaming and multimedia laptops sometimes fall down at the last step between your content and your eyeballs: the screen. The previously mentioned Razer Blade did just that with a low-resolution, poor quality screen on an otherwise excellent machine. In this case, the 14-inch screen has a full 1920x1080-pixel resolution (the least expensive configuration has a 1366x768-pixel screen that should be avoided at all costs). Even better, this is a glare-free matte screen, not the overly glossy type of screen found on nearly every other consumer laptop. You lose maybe a tiny bit of pop in the colours and black levels, but the overall experience is much better.

Audio is excellent for a mid-sized laptop, thanks no doubt to the thickness of the system, allowing for bigger speakers to move more air, as well as a subwoofer.

Connections, performance and battery

It's especially important for a laptop such as this to have good ports and connections because you're likely to want to hook it up to an external monitor at least some of the time. A 14-inch display isn't prime for gaming, and these components can easily power a 23-inch or 27-inch experience. In this case, you get both HDMI and mini-DisplayPort, plus multiple audio outputs that can handle 5.1 audio. There are only three USB ports, so a gaming keyboard, mouse and maybe an Xbox 360 game pad will eat those up quickly.

Our reasonably high-end configuration performed excellently in our benchmark tests, falling a little behind the full-sized 17-inch Qosmio X75, a hulking desktop replacement gaming/multimedia laptop, and pulling ahead of the Razer Blade, which manages to be thinner but at the cost of a lower-power CPU. At this level, it hardly matters in practical real-world terms, and even the entry-level Alienware 14 includes the same Core i7 4700MQ processor (more expensive configurations can trade up to a Core i7 4800 or beyond). It's hard to imagine any non-gaming task you're going to be involved in that this configuration will find itself underpowered for.


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

Of course for gaming laptops, the GPU is the real prize. Here, we're topping out at the Nvidia GeForce 765M, about halfway up the latest Nvidia 700M series of mobile GPUs (the entry-level Alienware 14 comes with a GeForce 750M, which is more of a casual gaming part). Unlike some smaller gaming laptops that get away with a lower-end GPU by pairing it with a lower-res screen, the GeForce 765M has to push a full 1920x1080 display (or more, if you output it to an even higher-resolution display).

In our gaming tests, the Alienware 14 ran BioShock Infinite at 35.7 frames per second at high settings and 1920x1080 resolution, while the very challenging Metro: Last Light ran at 11.3 frames per second (same as the Razer Blade). These are excellent scores for a laptop, especially a 14-inch one, but a full-on no-compromise gaming desktop with a GeForce 780 can quadruple that performance. Anecdotally, we turned down some of the detail setting in Skyrim to get a very smooth frame rate in the expansive outdoor environments, so some compromise is needed, but playing on the smaller screen also makes games look crisp and detailed, even if you turn some of the eye candy off.

While gaming, however, the internal fans in our review unit cranked all the way up and were distractingly loud. Be prepared to turn up the volume to mask it or wear headphones. Battery life, never a strong suit for gaming laptops of any size, ran for three hours and 53 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's better than a 17-inch system, such as the Toshiba Qosmio X75, but about half what the Razer Blade did on the same test. For moving from room to room, or even some casual couch gaming, it's adequate.

Conclusion

Smaller gaming laptops that don't require your entire desk are rare but are experiencing a bit of a surge right now. The Razer Blade 14 has by far the best industrial design of the models we've seen but falls short as an actual mobile gaming product. The Alienware 14 picks up the performance and component slack, but the new design is not going to mesh with your presumably sophisticated aesthetic sense. Plus, the extremely thick chassis has a throwback feel to it.

Despite that, the system performs as advertised and doesn't cost a fortune, although I wish higher-end GPU options were offered.

Via CNET.com

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