Alienware 13 R3 (OLED) review: With OLED and VR support, this is a 13-inch gaming laptop with almost everything
Every time I test a new gaming laptop, it reminds me of my long-standing hypothetical wish list for that category. The actual list changes over time as new technologies are introduced, but to date, no one has managed to put together what I'd think of as the ultimate gaming laptop.
If I had to boil that wish list down into an actual collection of bullet points, it might look something like this:
- I want a small, reasonably portable 13-inch body.
- But it has to have decent-or-better graphics for gaming.
- And, of course, VR . Plenty of big 17-inch laptops have VR support for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but that was previously impossible to get in a 13-inch laptop.
- If I was really reaching, I'd say give me an OLED display, the super-clear, super-bright new screens found on only a handful of high-end televisions and laptops.
- And while you're at it, make it a high-res touch screen.
The new redesigned version of Dell's Alienware 13 hits all those marks, making it a big leap from previous versions of this laptop. But, while it hits a lot of high points, it also exposes a couple of flaws I hadn't thought to specify on my list.
This is a subtle reworking of the Alienware 13 the company has sold for a few years, with a slimmer body that moves the screen hinge forward a couple of inches, to make room for fan exhaust vents in the rear. It's a clever way to move the cooling apparatus around while being able to shave a few millimeters from the system's height.
The other big change is a new treatment for the Alienware logo, its biggest change in the brand's 20-year history. The Alienware name is now written in a lighter font for a more modern look, and even the iconic alien head is just a bit more streamlined.
Even with a slimmer body, this 5-pound system isn't exactly tiny, especially compared to the latest round of super-slim 13-inch laptops that come in under 3 pounds and around 10mm thick. But it's still small enough to tote from room to room at home easily, and even go in your laptop bag for occasional trips.
The real highlight here is Nvidia's new GeForce 1060 graphics card. It's part of a new generation that can fit in a very wide range of laptops and works with VR. I hooked up my Oculus Rift and every game I tried worked, although the limited port selection gave me some other VR headaches. More on that in a bit.
The GPU jump is enough of a reason to favor this model over the previous Alienware 13 I reviewed earlier this year. Both that system and this one had the same optional high-end OLED display, which is simply stunning to look at. The OLED screens in the Alienware 13, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga and a handful of other systems are the single most exciting PC hardware development of the year, and once you start using an OLED laptop, it's hard to go back to anything else. (The Touch Bar on Apple's new MacBook Pro is also an OLED display.)
Despite my overall enthusiasm, the new Alienware 13 has two notable flaws, neither of them fatal, but worth being aware of. One, this high-end OLED configuration is a pricey $2,099 in the US, which includes 16GB of RAM, the 2,560x1,440-pixel OLED display and a 512GB SSD (this revamped Alienware 13 isn't available in the UK or Australia yet, but that price works out to £1,703 or AU$2,736). You could get a much more powerful gaming desktop or laptop for that price, but nothing nearly as portable.
The least expensive configuration is $1,199 in the US, which amazingly includes the Nvidia 1060 card, making this a very inexpensive VR laptop. But, that version has a low-res 1,366x768 display, so I'd advise you to stay away. There are a couple of in-the-middle configurations worth checking out, but it's tough to say no to OLED, which starts at $1,799.
|Price as reviewed||$2,099|
|Display size/resolution||13-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 OLED touchscreen|
|PC CPU||2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ|
|PC memory||16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Micorsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
But, besides the high price, my biggest problem came from the system having only two regular USB ports and two USB-C ports.
That means when I hooked up the Oculus Rift, I needed one port for the headset, one for the camera, and one for the Game controller (in this case the wireless adapter for my Xbox One controller). That's one more traditional USB-A port than the system has, so I needed to get creative.
I tried a couple of different USB-C dongles and experimented using them on different ports and with different devices until I found a combination that worked. The Xbox controller wireless adapter, for example, didn't play nice when attached via a USB-C dongle, so I eventually used that for the Rift sensor, and finally got everything working. Once I did that, VR was no problem, but I was left with an awful tangle of wires and adapters cluttering the workspace.
Nvidia's new 10-series GPUs are a big step forward, as they merge the previously separate desktop and laptop versions, getting rid of the lower-performing "M" series of laptop graphics chips. The 1060 is the new entry-level card, works with VR headsets, and is also a strong performer in everyday 2D gaming (although not on the same level as the new 1070 and 1080 GPUs).
I loaded up the brand-new Battlefield 1 from EA, and it played very smoothly at the native 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution and medium detail settings. It also looked great on the OLED display, which helped with its deep blacks and bright colors.
As we said of the OLED Alienware 13 from a few months ago, compared to the best OLED big-screen TVs, the colors on the Alienware display look oversaturated. The greens are too green, the blues too blue. The glossy screen also picks up a good amount of room glare. You're getting a great-looking, punchy image, but at the expense of color accuracy.
Brightness, however, is excellent. Blacks are very close to true black and the contrast is phenomenal.
This new Alienware 13 also gets a big application performance boost over the previous model, largely because it jumps from a low-voltage Core i5-6500U processor to a more powerful Core i5-6700HQ. Battery life, however, take a step back, possibly for the same reason. The newest Alienware 13 ran for 3 hours and 46 minutes on our streaming video playback test, while the older U-series model ran for more than double that time. If you're gaming while unplugged, good luck getting more than an hour or so of playtime.
Hard to resist
With its fantastic OLED display, very good (for a 13-inch laptop) graphics performance and support for VR headsets, this redesigned Alienware 13 is a great all-around gaming laptop if you want something less bulky than a big 17-inch model. But it's not perfect. My handful of issues, from short battery life to fewer full-size USB ports than needed, may sound like nitpicking, but they're important, especially in a laptop that costs more than $2,000.
However, Alienware deserves credit for hitting the major points on my imaginary gaming laptop wish list, and once I figured out how to juggle my dongle-and-port problem, it quickly became my favorite current system for PC games.
Note that in the performance charts below, this new version is referred to as the Alienware 13 R3, while the model we reviewed earlier this year is the R2 version.
|Alienware 13 R3 (OLED)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060; 512GB SSD|
|Alienware 13 R2 (OLED)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U; 12GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M; 256GB SSD|
|Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M; 256GB SSD|
|HP Omen||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD|
|Origin PC Eon-17X||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); (oc) 4.5GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD|