For most of the history of PC gaming, your choices were limited to either an immovable desktop PC or a massive 17-inch-or-larger laptop, at least if you wanted the kind of dedicated graphics and high-end CPU required for decent performance.
Previous portable gaming laptops, including the 14-inch Razer Blade and the 11-inch Alienware M11x, have all required serious compromises in design despite their high prices, from low-resolution screens to underpowered components. More recently, the new Alienware 14 was a strong performer, both in terms of design and components, but it was still too big and bulky to be easily portable.
Origin PC is one of the few boutique PC makers we've come to count on for solid, if expensive, gaming laptops over the past few years, making 15- and 17-inch systems with big, bulky bodies that required a padded backpack to carry around even somewhat comfortably. Now the company has a rare 13-inch gaming laptop, called the EON13-S.
The EON13-S starts at around $1,200, but our review unit clocked in at almost double that, $2,145. For that, however, you get a new fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 765 graphics, 16GB of RAM, dual 120GB mSATA solid-state drives (SSDs), and a separate 750GB hard drive. What you don't get for that price is Windows 8 or a touch screen. Windows 8 is available as a further option, a touch screen is not.
While the $1,200 starting price may seem tempting, it doesn't get you the level of components anyone is really looking for in a gaming PC. I'd say you can get away with spending around $1,600 and get an excellent gamer-ready configuration.
The EON13-S is small enough to slip into a decent-size shoulder bag, but an ultrabook this is not. At first glance, it looks a bit like a throwback to laptops from several years ago, when bodies were thicker and gunmetal gray was the standard. That's because, like nearly every laptop from a small boutique PC maker, this system is built into an off-the-shelf third-party chassis, slightly customized with a new panel on the back of the lid. Only very large PC makers, such as Alienware (which is owned by Dell), can afford to create unique custom laptop bodies, like the Alienware 14's.
Despite its lackluster looks, the EON13-S passed my most important test, in that it was fun to use. But a 13-inch screen may be too small for full-time gaming, depending on your eyesight or tolerance for squinting. I found myself plugging the system into a 27-inch 1080p monitor via HDMI more often than not.
The EON13-S beats the Alienware 14 in terms of portability, but both suffer from extremely loud fan noise -- a universal problem when you're running such high-end parts in a small chassis. It also has serious advantages over the slimmer Razer Blade 14, an ambitious 14-inch gaming laptop undone by a poor-quality, low-res screen.
Price is always important, but in this rarefied air, the differences are not extreme. The closest Alienware 14 configuration runs $2,299, but you could knock the CPU down a few pegs (while still getting a quad-core Core i7), and get down to $1,800. And make sure to note the intangibles. Origin PC has a reputation for excellent hands-on customer service, and you'll want someone reliable on the other end of the phone if you encounter a problem with such a hefty investment.
|Origin PC EON13-S||Alienware 14||Toshiba Qosmio X75-A7298||Razer Blade 14|
|Display size/pixel resolution||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||14-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||17.3-inch 1,920x1,080 screen||14-inch, 1,600x900 screen|
|PC CPU||2.8GHz Intel Core i7-4900MQ||2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ||2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ||2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ|
|PC memory||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M||2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M||3GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 770||2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M|
|Storage||(2) 120GB SSD (Raid 0) + 750GB||256GB SSD + 750GB||256GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Optical drive||None||BD-ROM||Blu-ray/DVD writer||None|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/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)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
With all the sharp-looking 13-inch laptops crossing our Lab bench these days, from the Samsung Ativ Book 9 to the Acer Aspire S7 to the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, the Origin PC EON13-S looks especially drab. It's functional, but also feels like a laptop from several years ago before the shift to thinner, lighter laptops, and doesn't reflect the $2,000 or more you could easily spend on it. It's a trade-off, to be sure: the best parts and expert assembly and service, in exchange for a less-than-sexy outer wrapper.
The thick body tapers toward the front, but leaves the side panels with enough real estate for plenty of ports and connections. The best-looking part is the custom soft-touch matte-black panel on the back of the lid.
The sparse interior offers no extras such as dedicated media controls, just a basic island-style keyboard and two-button touch pad. For PC gaming, the keyboard is especially important, and the keys here, while standard for a 13-inch laptop, don't really have the depth and comfort serious gamers look for -- another issue with the off-the-shelf body. The Alienware 14, in contrast, has thick, soft-touch keys that feel great for WASD gaming. The keyboard here is certainly functional, but was not designed with gamers in mind.
System controls, such as volume and brightness control, are still mapped to the Function key row and require the Fn key to use. Changing the volume while playing a game will sometimes bounce you back to the desktop, which is something that happens in many gaming laptops, and always annoys me.
The touch pad is small, with separate left and right mouse buttons, rather than the larger clickpad style found on so many current laptops. It's fine for casual Web surfing and navigation, but unimpressive. Fortunately, any sort of PC gaming will have you using an external mouse or gamepad, so the amount of time spent with this touch pad should be minimal.
One of the system's highlights is its 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution 13.3-inch IPS display. In the $1,000-plus price range, one should expect at least a full 1080p display, even on a smaller 13-inch laptop, if not one of the new generation of ultrahigh-res screens. Interestingly, Windows 8 with its tile interface is a better match for the small screen-high resolution combo, as text and icons on Windows 7 can be small and harder to use.
The screen itself is bright and crisp, and not too glossy, similar to the matte display on the Alienware 14. Running games at 1080p isn't a problem for the high-end hardware, but you could also easily knock the resolution down to 1,600x900 pixels and get even better frame rates. There's a good chance you'll spend part of your game time using the 13-inch display, but also a significant chunk outputting to an external 1080p monitor, which will hopefully include speakers because the onboard sound here is serviceable, but not particularly stirring.
|Origin PC EON13-S|
|Video||HDMI and VGA|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
Plenty of USB ports for a 13-inch laptop here, but you'll probably need them if you plan on connecting, for example, an external mouse, keyboard, and gamepad. The body is thick enough to support a full-size Ethernet port, which is a plus because most of your multigigabyte PC games will probably be downloaded from a service such as Steam. There's a VGA port as well as an HDMI one, but that's just because of the off-the-shelf body, not because gamers are crying out for VGA.