"There's a thousand thin notebooks out there. If you want one, there's plenty of options," says Alienware's Frank Azor. Here at E3, the company's announcing the first new industrial design for its laptops in four years... and yet where most firms are focusing their efforts on ever-thinner machines (see: the Razer Blade), all of Alienware's latest products are actually thicker than their predecessors.
They're slabs. They're tanks.
Take the new Alienware 14, for example. At 1.6 inches thick, you can stack two MacBook Airs on top of each other and only come up to the base. Also, the laptop weighs a full six pounds. "We want our users to be physically fit," Azor japes.
But what's inside that 14-inch package is a gamer's dream.
A new identity
I can't quite describe just how refreshing it is to write about a laptop that looks absolutely nothing like an Apple MacBook. Alienware's design language has always been a world apart from practically anything else on the market, as the company strove to build machines that evoked living alien creatures, with gaudy lighting seeping out of their frames.
Today's Alienware 14 design shares much with its predecessors, but it's more angular, more reserved, more precise. When you open the finely textured aluminum lid with its glowing slits and watch the keyboard, trackpad, and underbody light up in anticipation of your commands, it almost feels like you've stumbled upon an alien artifact.
At 6 pounds and 1.6 inches thick, it's not the most comfortable artifact to carry around or stuff into certain kinds of bags, but the reinforced magnesium alloy frame is as stiff and strong as I've ever seen on a consumer-grade laptop. There's no flex, no creak, not even when you grab the base at opposite corners and twist with a good deal of force. If not for the spinning hard drive and LCD screen, I'd probably have no qualms about occasionally dropping it on the ground.
The machine might not be a seamless unibody hunk of machined metal, but it feels crafted in a way that makes sense for gamers. The black soft-touch surfaces give the laptop a dark, silky, grippy, premium feel, and insulate the hands from heat. Meanwhile, there's enough metal to make the machine strong and to catch the eye without appearing as garish as previous generations.
The Alienware 14 doesn't have every port you could possibly want (Thunderbolt? HDMI input? VGA?) but all the majors are here and about as plentiful as you'd expect: three USB 3.0 ports, three 3.5mm audio jacks, an HDMI out, an SD card slot, a Gigabit Ethernet socket, and a lock slot. The USB ports are nicely spaced, with one on the right and two slightly apart on the left, and a slot-loading DVD (or optional Blu-ray drive) is still around for movies and disc-based installation.
Don't skimp on the screen
The single best change, though, is that Alienware has all but done away with distractingly glossy screens. Even the base $1,199 Alienware 14 has a matte panel, although it's a low-res 1366 x 768 deal. What you'll want, mark my words, is the gorgeous 300-nit 1080p IPS panel that Alienware offers as a $150 upgrade. While you can certainly make out some jagged edges if you look close — it's not quite up there with the panels in the Chromebook Pixel or MacBook Pro with Retina Display — it's crisp and clear at typing distance from the screen, viewing angles are excellent, and the colors just spring to life. Blacks are deep and dark enough to play games and movies that try to depict night. And honestly, it's the right choice for gamers — 1080p is the right resolution for the amount of gaming performance in this machine, and this is the best 14-inch 1080p panel I've seen.
It's also a good enough screen that you might want to seriously consider Dell's Blu-ray drive option. The Dark Knight looked great. It's a good enough screen that I kind of wish the Alienware 14 had an HDMI input so I could plug in my Xbox and PlayStation.
Audio quality isn't quite as stellar, but it's still surprisingly good for a laptop. Klipsch-tuned drivers with Dolby Home Theatre v4 processing make for reasonably crisp, reasonably loud performance that works particularly well for all the tiny little sounds that accompany action sequences in games and movies.
This 1080p screen is worth the extra $150
Soft, sleek, sharp
Practically every surface of the Alienware 14 is coated in silky smooth soft-touch rubber, and that includes the keys: a full, comfortable traditional keyboard (no chiclets here) with customizable RGB backlighting. The beveled keys don't have quite as much travel as you might expect from a gaming keyboard, but they're fairly deep, comfortable, and responsive, and they make a muted clack that offers just enough aural feedback without waking nearby sleepers. I actually vastly preferred the typing experience here to that on my MacBook Air, and ended up typing the entire review on the Alienware 14 itself. My biggest peeve so far is the same as on many Apple laptops: when typing at length, the rakish front edge of the machine digs into my wrists.
Alienware's Synaptics-sourced touchpad also ranks among my favorites on a Windows machine. For one thing, the whole surface (not just the edge) lights up in any color you'd like, but for another it's quite smooth and responsive. While the touchpad's surface is still a ways behind the finely etched glass of the Chromebook Pixel and MacBook Pro, it's fairly slick, and there's no question that the tactile, soft-touch coated mouse buttons beneath that trackpad are the best I've used in years. Oddly, two-finger scrolling and most other gestures are turned off by default, but they seem to work okay.
Screaming fast, with caveats
For $1,199, the Alienware 14 comes with a quad-core 2.4GHz Core i7-4700MQ processor fresh from Intel's latest Haswell batch, Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics, 8GB of memory, 750GB of storage on a traditional spinning drive, and the standard 1366 x 768 resolution screen. That's not the configuration I tested, though: I got the same processor, but chose the GeForce GTX 765M GPU (an additional $150) and 16GB of RAM to help drive games on that lovely 1080p display.
And how: with that configuration, the Alienware 14 simply blazed. I ran the demanding Battlefield 3 butter-smooth at 1080p and medium settings, with 1080p high playable in a pinch. I practically maxed out Max Payne 3 at 1080p with no issue, save tesselation and fancier forms of antialiasing. Borderlands 2 ran nearly maxed, even with PhysX set to medium, allowing us to savor the ability to create a miniature black hole and watch all the game's loose debris, blood, and fabric get sucked in during a firefight, and even The Witcher 2 — which seems to hate laptop computers — reached the threshold of playability at 1080p and medium detail.
|Alienware 14||Asus G75VW (2012)||Samsung Series 7 Gamer (2012)|
|Max Payne 3||1080p, very high||1080p, very high||1080p, very high|
|Borderlands 2||1080p, high + PhysX||1080p, high||1080p, high + PhysX|
|Battlefield 3||1080p, medium to high||1080p, medium||1080p, high|
|The Witcher 2||1080p, medum||1080p, low||1080p, medium|
But does it play Crysis? Yes, it does: even Crysis 3 ran playably at 1080p and low settings, providing a pretty reliable 30 frames per second in some extremely challenging video game environments. Compare this to the gaming behemoths we reviewed just a few months ago, and we're practically getting the power of a 17-inch machine in a 14-inch form factor.
There are a couple of caveats, though: our review unit had some issues maintaining those framerates in all of the laptop's different power modes. For one thing, the moment you unplug the machine, there's an instant framerate dip. In many games, I measured a drop of nearly 20 percent, enough to turn a borderline playable experience into a completely unplayable one if you're trying to play on very high settings.
For another, the Alienware 14 mysteriously has two different graphics modes: the "switchable" mode where both Intel and Nvidia graphics are active, and the "discrete" mode with only Nvidia. You need to actually restart the machine and hit Fn + F5 to swap between them. Why are there two modes when most laptops can automatically switch between the two graphics cards? Alienware says that Microsoft requires it for Windows 8, but it's also worth noting that the "switchable" mode doesn't reliably switch on my review unit.
I ended up having to run all my games in discrete mode, because no matter what I did, certain games wouldn't detect the Nvidia GPU and framerates plummeted as a result. I saw 15 frames per second in Battlefield 3 in switchable mode. And yet you won't want to run in discrete mode all the time, because that GPU drains the battery much faster even when you're not gaming. In discrete mode, the Alienware 14 only managed two hours, 33 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, but it lasted three hours and 57 minutes in "switchable" mode. That's not bad for a gaming machine, lasting nearly four hours if you're willing to restart the computer before you begin browsing the web and performing other tasks. As you'd expect, battery life is fairly weak when gaming. In addition to the framerate dip, I got less than an hour of Borderlands 2 on a charge.
So basically, right now, you have to choose between gaming performance and battery life at any given time, but perhaps not for long. Alienware's hoping a new Nvidia driver might fix the handoff between switchable and discrete power modes.
While you're playing those games, you won't necessarily be singeing your fingers and lap. I fully expected the Alienware 14 to blast out heat under load, and it does, but most of that heat gets exhausted out the rear vent. The soft-touch covered palm rests don't get more than comfortably warm to the touch, and provided you're wearing pants, it's more of a lap warmer than a burning sensation running full blast. The machine does need its space to vent hot air, though: when I covered either the intake or the exhaust slightly, I noticed the framerate dip.
If it isn't yet clear that Alienware marches to the beat of its own drummer, the company's choice of operating system should seal the deal: it's Windows 7, rather than Windows 8, and about as bone-stock a Windows 7 image as you can get. (You can pick Windows 8 from the company's configurator, but gamers can be a conservative bunch when it comes to such things. The option is appreciated.) Alienware includes Steam and its own Alien apps for customization and tuning (AlienFX actually dynamically changes the laptop's lighting to match the action as you play a number of games.), but that's about it.
Alienware knows its audience well... but is this possible in a thinner shell?
At $1,499 kitted out with the 1080p screen and Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M graphics that you'll definitely want, the Alienware isn't an inexpensive or a particularly stylish laptop. We've seen thinner machines that can vaguely play PC games for under $800. It's not particularly portable either, with bulk and battery life that might make you think twice about taking it to your local cafe. But if you're the kind of person who would take it there — onlookers be damned — then you'll be getting a finely crafted gaming experience. The Alienware 14 is as solid and comfortable a gaming laptop (wristrests aside) as I've ever tried, and fits more power than a next-gen game console and as much as many beefier gaming laptops into its frame.
"These are specialty products, and they are no-compromise products. That's why they're the size and the weight they are," Frank Azor told us at Alienware's unveiling. The company knows its audience well. This isn't the elusive miniature laptop with gaming power and battery life to spare in a thin, svelte frame — we're hoping Razer can pull that off with the new 14-inch Blade, or maybe even Alienware itself should it reintroduce an 11-inch gaming machine. When I ask whether the M11x will see a successor, Frank Azor suggests it's a possibility. "The 11-inch was very disruptive," he says. "We want to be disruptive again."
Still, as of today, the right buyer will get their money's worth with this Alienware 14.
More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.
- Design 8
- Keyboard 9
- Touchpad 8
- Display 9
- Performance 10
- Heat / noise 8
- Battery life 5
- Software 8