D eciding on whether to spend your money on a high-end gaming laptop or a good desktop has always been something that requires serious pondering. Having the funds for both is out of the reach of many people, so effort needs to be made weighing up all the different considerations.
Alienware has set out to make that decision much easier with the Alienware 13 Laptop and Graphics Extender.
Take a beautiful 13 inch core i5 gaming laptop, add a peripheral that is smaller than a mini-ATX case, install a nice high-end graphics card of your choice and you have a device that gives a gaming desktop a run for its money.
The Alienware 13 Laptop has all the features you would expect from a gaming rig. Capable on-board graphics in the form of Intel GTX 860M with 2GB GDDR5 provides a pretty good mobile visual experience. An Intel core i5 4210U 2.7GHz with 3MB cache at the base level, which can be upgraded to an i7-5500U for an extra $300, gives enough CPU grunt to handle almost any game. RAM is 8GB 1600MHz Dual Channel DDR3L and the base price point allows for a 500GB Hybrid SATA disk drive, however there are plenty of SSD options, up to a 512GB M.2 for only $300 more.
Since one of the reasons for opting for a laptop is easy portability, Alienware have realised that weight is a serious concern and the 13 slips in at only a tiny bit over 2kgs (4.537lbs) making it an easy task to sling into a bag and over your shoulder. They have also managed to keep the dimensions small (27.9mm x 235mm x 328mm), while giving an excellent amount of space to both the touch-panel and the keyboard which has a lovely soft touch and just the tiniest amount of “clickiness”.
As always with Alienware devices, you can customize all the pretty lights to an array of colors and morphic/flickering styles. You can even make different sections of the keyboard a different colour, for easy differentiation in a gloomy LAN hall. The display is 1366x768 native at the base with a beautiful clarity and colour range. A 13-inch display might seem to be too small to really become immersed; however on testing we found that gaming on the smaller screen is far more enjoyable than we had guessed it would be. It’s possible to add up to two additional monitors to the on-board graphics when the laptop is desktop bound.
The Graphics Amplifier
But it is this change from a laptop to a desktop that the power of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier comes into play.
The box itself is 173.5mm x 409.55mm x 185.5mm which is enough room for a single full-length, dual-wide, PCI-Express x16 graphics card; a 460 Watt Power Supply and generous airflow to cool the card under load. The PSU and airflow are included in the box; the graphics card is not.
The Amplifier will support both Nvidia GeForce (GTX 600 series and newer) and AMD (Radeon HD 5000 series and newer) with up to 375W of power draw. It plugs into the laptop using a proprietary connection (some sort of PCIe/USB combo) which seems to allow transfer speeds equivalent to about four to six lanes of PCIe. Installation of the card is a complete no-brainer. Pop open the top, drop the card into the slot, plug in the power cables and close.
The laptop will need to be rebooted if it is already running, as the amplifier shuts off the internal GTX860M GPU (leaving the integrated graphics on the CPU running) and then the magic begins. The Amplifier has four USB slots in addition to whatever ports the graphics card has for monitor connections, so adding your keyboard and mouse here means that the Amplifier becomes a docking station as well.
A 3DMark run both with and without the Amplifier plugged in shows some impressive results on the test machine (base model with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 installed in the Amplifier). Before booting with the cable in, the result was a quite respectable FireStrike score of 3244. Once the cable was in and the laptop fired up with the Amplifier sparking however, this jumped to a whopping 5676 with similar scale improvements across all tests.
Given the quality of the Alienware 13 laptop (15 and 17-inch models have also just been announced), being the only device that can use the Graphics Amplifier is a minor niggle and it can be expected that other Alienware laptops will support the connection. At less than $2000 for the whole kit (laptop, high-end graphics card and graphics amplifier), a rig that can be both a gaming laptop and an upgradable gaming desktop is a great price and well worth the investment.