Alienware 14 review: PC gaming in a semiportable package

No complaints about the performance, but the design changes don't go nearly far enough.

Dan Ackerman

Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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9 min read

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.


Alienware 14

The Good

Dell's new <b>Alienware 14</b> offers great performance, competitive prices, and quirky features such as a backlit touch pad.

The Bad

The new design still feels dated, and it's as thick as a few slim laptops stacked together. The fan is insanely loud.

The Bottom Line

Dell has revamped its gaming line, including the new Alienware 14. The design changes don't go nearly far enough, but no complaints about the performance.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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
Price $1,799 $2,199 $1,748 $1,799
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
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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Alienware 14
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.

Our reasonably high-end configuration performed excellently in our benchmark tests, falling a little behind the full-size 17-inch Qosmio X75 -- a hulking desktop replacement gaming/multimedia laptop, and pulling ahead of the Razer Blade, which manages to be thinner, but at the cost of a lower-power CPU. Of course, at this level it hardly matters in practical real-world terms, and even the entry level Alienware 14 includes the same Core i7 4700MQ processor (more expensive configurations can trade up to a Core i7 4800 or beyond). It's hard to imagine any nongaming task you're going to be involved in that this configuration will find itself underpowered for.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, for gaming laptops, the GPU is the real prize. Here, we're topping out at the Nvidia GeForce 765M, about halfway up the latest Nvidia 700M series of mobile GPUs (the entry level Alienware 14 comes with a GeForce 750M, which is more of a casual gaming part). Unlike some smaller gaming laptops that get away with a lower-end GPU by pairing it with a lower-res screen, the GeForce 765M here has to push a full 1,920x1,080 display (or more, if you output it to an even higher-resolution display).

In our gaming tests, the Alienware 14 ran BioShock Infinite at 35.7 frames per second at high settings and 1,920x1,080 resolution, while the very challenging Metro: Last Light ran at 11.3 frames per second (same as the Razer Blade). These are excellent scores for a laptop, especially a 14-inch one, but a full-on no-compromise gaming desktop with a GeForce 780 can quadruple that performance. Anecdotally, we turned down some of the detail setting in Skyrim to get a very smooth frame rate in the expansive outdoor environments, so some compromise is needed, but playing on the smaller screen also makes games look crisp and detailed, even if you turn some of the eye candy off.

While gaming, however, the internal fans in our review unit cranked all the way up and were distractingly loud. Be prepared to turn up the volume to mask it, or wear headphones.

Battery life, never a strong suit for gaming laptops of any size, ran for 3 hours, and 53 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's better than a 17-inch system such as the Toshiba Qosmio X75, but about half what the Razer Blade did on the same test. For moving from room to room, or even some casual couch gaming, it's adequate.

Smaller gaming laptops that don't require your entire desk are rare, but are experiencing a bit of a surge right now. The Razer Blade 14 has by far the best industrial design of the models we've seen, but falls short as an actual mobile gaming product. The Alienware 14 picks up the performance and component slack, but the new design is not going to mesh with your presumably sophisticated aesthetic sense. Plus, the extremely thick chassis has a throwback feel to it.

Despite that, the system performs as advertised, and doesn't cost a fortune, although I wish higher-end GPU options were offered.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
iTunes and HandBrake

Bioshock Infinite (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Metro: Last Light (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

System configurations
Alienware 14
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; HDD No. 1: 256MB Lite-On SSD HDD No. 2: 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Razer Blade 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; 128GB Samsung SSD

Dell XPS 27
Windows 8 (64-bit) 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 4770S; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT750M graphics card; 2TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Razor Blade 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ; 8192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB (Dedicated) Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M; 256GB SSD

Toshiba Qosimio X75-A7298
Windows 8 (64-bit); Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 770; 256GB SSD+ 1TB 7200 HD

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/Retina Display (June 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M + 512MB Intel HD 4000; 256GB Apple SSD

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.


Alienware 14

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8Battery 7
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