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. That's a shame, because this is an otherwise excellent semiportable 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 midsize 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.
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 same-screen-size Alienware laptops, 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 customization, the total price is well in line with the competition. Our $1,799 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 $1,799 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.
The base-price model, at $1,199 is still decent, with a slower Core i7, a GeForce 750M GPU, 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.
|Alienware 14||Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/Retina Display (June 2012)||Toshiba Qosmio X75-A9278||Razor Blade 14|
|Display size/resolution||14-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen||15.4 -inch, 2,880 x 1,800 screen||17.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen||14-inch, 1,600 x 900 screen|
|PC CPU||2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ||2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM||2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ||2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ|
|PC Memory||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M||1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M||3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770||2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M|
|Storage||256GB SSD + 750GB||256GB SSD||256GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Optical drive||BD-ROM||None||Blu-ray\DVD writer||None|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)||OS X Lion 10.7.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Dell's Alienware team has made much of the new look of its laptop lineup, 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 anodized 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.
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 colors 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 colors, 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.
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 14.0-inch screen has a full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution (the least expensive configuration has a 1,366x768-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 colors and black levels, but the overall experience is much better.
Audio is excellent for a midsize laptop, thanks no doubt to the thickness of the system, allowing for bigger speakers to move more air, as well as a subwoofer.
|Video||HDMI and mini-DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers plus subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks, plus combo audio in/out jack|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD recorder/Blu-ray player|
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.