In early 2015 I bought an Alienware 13 laptop…and it was a terrible decision.
It was one of the earliest models of the “modern” Alienware 13 chassis. That chassis would receive several light component refreshes over the course of its first year on the market, due to performance concerns I’ll get to in a bit.
Eventually Alienware scrapped the whole thing in favor of a new design with a beefy cooling area on the back behind the hinge that’s now shared in the design language of all of Dell’s current gaming laptops.
The chassis was the least of my Alienware 13’s problems.
I wanted to have it all.
I was tired of needing a room full of space heaters just to play video games.
I had run an i7–965 desktop with a GTX 470 for years, which might as well have been a wall of hair dryers. Eventually I replaced that machine with a simpler computer that had an i5–4460 and a GTX 750ti. The 750 wasn’t the beefiest card in the world, not by a longshot…but it used basically zero power.
I wanted to live the dream though.
The dream was to have a truly portable machine that could run Diablo III and other more modern games at high resolutions and framerates, and perhaps even be a true desktop replacement.
No more big cases. No more heat spilling out everywhere. No more loud fans.
So I made a terrible mistake and bought a specced-out Alienware 13, doing almost no research and instead following my instincts and misguided ambition.
Here’s what it had:
- Core i7–5500U CPU
- 16 Gigs of Ram
- 640 Gigabytes of storage across two M.2 SSDs (512 and 128).
- 3200x1800 IGZO touch display (the only legitimately awesome component)
- GeForce 960M GPU (uh oh)
- An incredibly tiny 50 Watt-hour battery
The cost? A mere EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS.
What could possibly go wrong?
All of it. All of it could go wrong.
WHAT I GOT WRONG
I’m a fairly computer literate guy…most of the time. I usually do tons of comparative research to make sure the components I’m getting are going to do the job I need them to do.
But for whatever reason, when configuring this Alienware…I threw all common sense out of the window and did almost none of the normal research.
I guess I was so obsessed with its small form factor, and its few bells and whistles…that I accidentally became stupid?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Intel’s fifth generation of processors.
But do you see that little “U” in the name? That means that it’s a low-power, Ultrabook part…with only two processing cores.
These days, most of Intel’s laptop processors have at least 4 cores and amazing power efficiency. But back then, many of them had just two. You had to make sure you had the right letters at the end to know if you were getting a “Better” chip.
Alienware only sold the higher power chips in their 15 and 17 inch models at the time. But I didn’t know that.
That dual core, low power processor was the bane of my existence. It dragged every other part of the machine down. The hard drives were lightning quick, but I’d be chugging if I did too many tasks at once.
For simpler things it did alright, and most games at that time weren’t well-optimized for more than two cores. So I could have limped along okay for a while…if my GPU hadn’t been total garbage.
I saw the numbers “960M” and thought ah, this will clearly be a decent mainstream option from Nvidia’s latest lineup of graphics cards. That’s usually what the “60” model is, right?
But back then things didn’t work how they do today.
Today, Nvidia uses the same basic hardware across their desktop and laptop lineups. So if you’re buying a 1060, it’s more or less going to have the same performance profile whether it’s a laptop or a desktop card.
That wasn’t true a few years ago. Things were much more…complicated.
You might even call them deceptive.
Much like Intel used a “U”, Nvidia used an “M” to designate lower-power laptop chips. However, unlike Intel, where the numbers preceding the U still lined up with their desktop parts, Nvidia’s numbers meant almost nothing.
The 960M was not a lower-power version of the 960.
It was more like a lower-power 750. I could barely match the performance of my old desktop if I had the machine plugged in and slightly overclocked the GPU.
What a total disaster.
At least I didn’t have the audacity to pair it with a monitor that was so high resolution that this low power GPU couldn’t hope to push enough pixels fast enough to…oh.
Don’t get me wrong…the 1800p touch display on the Alienware 13 is probably the prettiest-looking monitor I’ve ever owned.
Cramming that many pixels into that small of a space puts Apple’s retina displays to shame. It had a little over 400 nits of brightness and obscene color accuracy.
It would have been a video and photo editors dream if it had any processing power at all.
The CPU and GPU were so hilariously under-powered for the monitor that the touch tracking wouldn’t work right half of the time. And forget about running anything but the oldest games at the native resolution.
Most of the time, I was lucky to crack 900p at reasonable framerates.
And then there was the fact that the display drained the battery in 3 seconds.
My first battery was defective. It only contained, at most, 80 percent of its charge at any one time.
After jumping through many hoops and getting a new one, the capacity problem was solved, but it didn’t fair much better.
During light use, thanks to that crazy-good screen, the laptop would drain in about 2 hours.
And in a game? I was lucky to get 55 minutes,
At the time I didn’t have high expectations for battery life. It’s only really in the last year or so that gaming laptops have finally attained respectable battery performance. But I expected a little bit better than what I was getting.
Dell now puts 75 watt-hour batteries in the Alienware 13 by default.
WHY DID I DO THIS
My laptop dream was an under-powered nightmare machine with too nice of a screen.
I should have gone with the 1080p monitor option. I should never have been allowed to pair such a low-end GPU with such a high-end screen.
Or better yet, since I was already spending $1800 dollars, I should have just gone for a 15 or 17 inch model with a bigger battery and beefier CPU/GPU combo. I wouldn’t have even had to pay more.
You pay big for portability.
I gave up on the Alienware 13 as my main laptop after about a year, swapping it out for a MacBook(Speaking of paying big for portability).
Then another year after that, it was no longer my “desktop replacement” at home. I replaced it with a proper desktop, running an i7–6700 and a GTX 1070.
I wasn’t about to make another hardware mistake.
The Alienware 13 now lives inside a bag in my dad’s closet. He sometimes pulls it out and uses it for a thing…but he always has to plug it in.
Laptops are so much better now.
You can get a modestly-budgeted computer that performs very well, and with a little bit more budget you can get true desktop grade performance and still-decent battery life.
I’m typing this article on a Dell G5, my new laptop, that I’m also in the process of reviewing. It’s so much better than my 3 year old Alienware that it’s comically stupid. I can’t believe I made such a big mistake. And I can’t believe how much better these things have become.
Here’s how to not make the same mistake past-Alex did:
- Watch lots of reviews on YouTube. This wasn’t as much of an option in 2015, but now YouTube is chock full of people that do nothing but review laptops. After you watch a few, you should get a good sense of what you need.
- Use a database like cpubenchmark.net to compare processors to each other. I like Passmark’s database because it’s easy to compare several processors at a glance, but there are a few other resources out there too. Make sure that your new processor is faster than your old one, and check out their “value for the money” indexes too.
- Don’t buy any of Nvidia’s older mobile processors. If you want to even think about gaming on a laptop, go for one of Nvidia’s 10 series chips. I know that people have been tempted lately by their budget MX series…but go for the 10 series if you want to play even basic games. You’ll thank me later.