Alienware 13 gaming laptop adds a graphics amplifier for desktop-like performance (hands-on)

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We've previously seen the upcoming Alienware 13 gaming laptop, a new slim, light, portable system with a 13-inch display. That laptop, still an unusual size for the gaming PC (14-inch and 15-inch models are much more common), is going to be available to order starting October 28, along with a surprising new accessory.

Called the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, you will be able to pair your Alienware 13 with a sold-separately external box that contains a 460-watt power supply and a single PCIe slot, suitable for any current-gen desktop graphics card. The unit will cost $299 by itself (AU$329 in Australia) or can be paired with one of several different GPU options.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Other companies have tried this idea before, notably Asus, but it's never come close to catching on. The new Alienware version seems promising from our brief hands-on time with the system, but it also faces several hurdles.

First, the Graphics Amplifier connects to the laptop via a proprietary cable. For now, the Alienware 13 is the only system that supports this accessory. Future compatibility with other products, for example, the set-top Alienware Alpha, seems likely but has not been announced. Second, for $299/AU$329, you're just getting the box, slot, and power supply. A high-end desktop GPU can easily run $500, making this a significant investment for something that works only with a single not-yet-available product.

That said, we saw the Graphics Amplifier in action, and the Alienware 13 laptop it was connected to did indeed switch over from its internal Nvidia GeForce 860M GPU (a very good mainstream card, but definitely not what a serious PC gaming enthusiast is looking for) to the desktop GeForce GTX 980. A reboot was required to connect and disconnect from the external GPU, but at least Windows 8 reboots very quickly, compared to previous versions of the OS.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Graphics Amplifier will work with any recent Nvidia or AMD graphics card with a full-length PCIe connection, but it's clearly intended for the very new, and very powerful, Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 line, as seen in systems such as the upcoming Alienware Area 51 and the Origin PC Millennium desktop we recently tested.

Three different screen options are available for the 13-inch display in the Alienware 13. The base model includes a basic 1,366x768 screen and can be upgraded to either a full HD 1,920x1,080 version or a 2,560x1,440 touch display. True 4K in a 13-inch laptop isn't here yet, but it is starting to creep into slightly larger 15-inch gaming laptops.

The system takes many of its industrial design hints from other current Alienware systems, including the backlit alien head on the back of the lid, and several custom light-up zones, which you can control from Alienware's onboard software.

The Alienware 13 and the Alienware graphics amplifier will both be available to order from October 28, with the laptop starting at $999 and the graphics amplifier starting at $299. In the UK, Dell sells many of its Alienware products, but the Alienware 13 and graphics amplifier are not yet being offered.

Editors' note: This is an updated version of a story originally posted August 8, 2014.

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