For the longest time, if you wanted to play a PC game at a decent quality level, you would need to have exactly that – a better than average PC. To play a PC game on a laptop was almost unheard of, and any attempts to do so would result in horrible textures or disappointing framerates. But as laptops have improved over the years, some of them are capable of running PC games at a fairly decent resolution. One manufacturer in particular that’s noticed this trend of laptop gaming is the well-known gaming brand Alienware. While the company produces traditional gaming PCs, it also has a lineup of more than capable gaming laptops, and recently refreshed its lineup with new hardware and a sleek new design. I managed to get my hands on the Alienware 14, the follow-up to the Alienware M14x, to see just how good gaming on the go really could be.
Build quality & design
It’s worth mentioning that I own an Alienware M11x R1, which for the time being can run most recent games at entry-level quality. The Alienware 14 on the other hand has much better specs and almost dwarfs my M11x. In June Alienware revealed a new look for their laptops, sporting a cleaner design with more subtle lighting. The Alienware 14 is still a hefty thing – measuring nearly 1.7” thick it’s certainly not something you can throw into a backpack and carry around with you for very long. But Alienware’s mantra is that if you want a thinner, sleeker gaming laptop, then you’d better look elsewhere – their laptops are designed for pure muscle, and it shows.
New to the series is the gorgeous soft surface that seems to envelop the entire device. The laptop lid has a new and sturdier hinge, and sits flush with the base when it’s closed. The inside surface continues the lovely textured feel, so overall it’s a far cry from the hard plastic case we saw in the M14x.
Lighting has always been an important factor for Alienware’s laptops, and true to form the Alienware 14 features various lighting zones that can be tweaked to different kinds of colors. But rather than having lights come out of every nook and cranny like in the M14x, the Alienware 14 opts for a more subtle lighting strip near the bottom of the unit. The keyboard and trackpad are of course also backlit, though the keys opt for more traditional backlighting rather than having the entire key illuminated like in previous versions.
Benchmarks & Performance
Specifications are good, but benchmarks are better. To put the Alienware 14 through its paces I ran our traditional benchmarks of PCMark and 3DMark to see just what this little alien could really do. Results were overall quite promising, with the only hiccups being during the ‘Fire Strike’ test, which is designed for extreme gaming PCs capable of handling complex models and shadows. Oddly enough, PCMark 8 refused to continue with the test, stopping at just a 2% completion.
For my gaming benchmarks, I decided to run a variety of games at different settings to see just what I could get away with. I first fired up my current obsession, Neverwinter, running it at the laptop’s full resolution of 1920 x 1080. With settings at medium, the game ran flawlessly – cranking shadows and texture details to high and ultra caused a frame rate of about 27fps, which can be playable, but is not ideal. Next I launched Hawken, a mech-driven multiplayer game that’s all about exploding robots and debris. Here again, with medium settings on the game ran into no problems at all, but turning physics on or moving the quality up to high resulted in a framerate drop to about 17fps. This was essentially the case for any game I fired up – running anything in medium resolution is fine, but cranking the details up to High or Ultra will result in an almost unplayable experience. To be honest, that’s to be expected – a machine as ‘small’ as the Alienware 14 can’t compete with a dedicated gaming rig equipped with more advanced hardware and cooling mechanisms.
One thing that’s worth noting is that I ran these games and benchmarks when the laptop was plugged into a wall outlet. Out of curiosity, I decided to run Tomb Raider with the device unplugged, and found that frame rates can drop quite a bit – as much as 7-8 fps in some games. This might not seem like much, but if you’re thinking of firing up your laptop for some gaming on your next long-haul flight, you’d better find a power socket.
Bloatware is thankfully kept to a minimum, with Alienware only including a copy of Steam and a few essential utilities such as one to change the lighting scheme and another to create restore discs.
Alienware have done a really smart thing and opted for a matte display on the Alienware 14, which is a welcome change from the glossy displays they used before. The screen is sharp from a comfortable number of angles, and it’s now viewable more easily in bright lights or even outdoors.
The Alienware 14 features the nVidia GeForce GTX 765M, which should be more than adequate for most gaming needs. It also features a ‘hot-swappable’ graphics mode, which lets you choose of the laptop should use discrete or dedicated graphics. Under discrete mode, the Alienware 14 will automatically switch to the nVidia chip if required, but this might not work for all games. Choosing either mode will require a system reboot, which is hardly convenient, so make your choice and stick to it.
The keyboard has a much smoother feel to it this time around, and like I mentioned before has much more subtle lighting that its previous model. Typing on the Alienware 14 was fairly comfortable, although I would have liked the arrow keys to be in line with the bottom row of keys on the keyboard. The trackpad is also responsive, although I recommend turning off the backlight if you don’t need it as it can be quite a distraction. You’ll also need to turn on the scroll and gesture features, as surprisingly these are turned off by default.
Given the amount of hardware that’s crammed into such a small space, battery life on the Alienware 14 isn’t the greatest. If you’re using discrete graphics, you’ll probably squeeze just under two and a half hours of battery life – if you’re using the ‘switchable’ graphics mode, you can clock in about four hours. For a laptop that’s quite paltry battery life, but for a gaming laptop that’s about average.
Heat and Noise levels
This is the one section where the Alienware 14 loses its sheen. My M11x is known to get unbearably hot under heavy gaming conditions, and it seems like the Alienware 14 inherited that trait. After a rather lengthy gaming session in Neverwinter, the CPU clocked in at 89C, while the nVidia GPU was registering a staggering 97C. The laptop itself wasn’t too hot to touch, but it’s certainly not something that you want on your lap for very long.
Noise is also another disappointment with the Alienware 14. Because it’s trying to churn out so much power in such a little body, the fans on the Alienware 14 go into overdrive almost always. When idling the Alienware 14 gives out just a gentle hum, but fire up any video game and it begins to sound like a leafblower. Seriously, I would hate to have this thing in a library or even on an airplane – it’s just way too noisy.
Alienware certainly wants to make laptop gaming a mainstream thing, and with the Alienware 14 it looks like they’ve got a pretty good formula. The laptop is more than capable of running games at respectable framerates, just as long as battery life isn’t a priority for you. If only Alienware could sort out a quieter cooling solution, then they’d have the perfect solution for gaming on the go.