Alienware 13 R3 Review – Holy OLED!

As I opened the atypical lid on this laptop and tapped the little alien face that it has instead of a power button, I was blown away. The OLED screen on the Alienware 13 R3 is simply sublime. It can be incredibly bright, made all the brighter by the seemingly infinite contrast between light and dark, which merge seamlessly into the glossy black bezel around it, and then there’s the vibrancy of the colours. It even puts a high end HDR 4K TV to shame.

Of course, you have to stump up the cash to afford this laptop. The Alienware 13 R3 series might start at £1249, but that’s the entry level model, whereas the OLED display is reserved for the top end £1849 model. The entire line is labelled as VR ready, meeting and exceeding the minimum specs for Oculus Rift thanks to the latest Kaby Lake Intel quad core CPUs and Nvidia’s 10 series GPUs.

In this particular case – and forgive me for the technical jargon here – it’s a 7th Gen Intel Core i7-7700HQ Quad Core at 2.8Ghz with a 3.8Ghz boost clock, backed by 16GB of DDR4 RAM, a seriously fast 256GB PCIe SSD and, of course, an Nvidia GTX 1060 with 6GB GDDR5. There’s some serious power crammed into this 13 inch laptop.

That power on all fronts has led Alienware to create a rather unusual design for the cooling. This is their thinnest 13″ gaming laptop yet, and it’s largely thanks to extending the chassis beyond the screen’s hinge. It’s like there’s an extra block attached to the rear of the laptop, and large sections of it are there to vent air out through a large heat-sink. It means that this won’t fit into most 13″ laptop bags, and even some 15″ bags might be stretched, but most importantly, it doesn’t feel as big once you open the lid, because the screen is effectively the same distance away from you due to the hinge forward design.

There’s a surprising heft and weight to this at 2.6kg, because of a very sturdy construction. The aluminium case exterior makes way for a soft touch coated magnesium interior that avoids the harsh metallic feel that Apple and those following in Apple’s wake have adopted, and the unique cooling system helps to keep it from getting too hot to touch. The same can be said of the Alienware TactX keyboard, which takes me back to the days of scissor keys and long key travel, compared to the clickiness of a modern Macbook. As a day to day Apple user, it takes some getting used to, but as I type this review on it, I’m typing quickly and without making mistakes.

The same can’t be said of the trackpad and its similarly designed buttons. Where a long travel is good on the keyboard, it’s not so welcome below a trackpad where you want the precision of clickiness as opposed to a mushier feeling. It doesn’t help that, where the RGB LED array behind the keys is nice, letting you pick all manner of colours, the trackpad is a block of distracting bright lights by default, though the AlienFX software lets you tweak all of this to your heart’s content. It’s not the end of the world, as chances are you’ll be plugging in a mouse for gaming, and the screen that’s so good you’ll want to touch it is actually a touch screen.

In fact, when you want to game, you’ll likely be connecting the laptop to a sprawl of cables. At the very least there’s the power supply, a beefy black block capable of 180W of power, a mouse, potentially a monitor or TV screen, and considering the size of games these days, probably an external HDD as well. The 13 R3 make good use of the rear lip for most of its ports – power, HDMI, Thunderbolt 3, DisplayPort, ethernet and a connector for Alienware’s external GPU boxes – while a trio of USB ports, one of which is the new USB-C form – live on the sides.

Putting it to the test in game – it is a gaming laptop, after all! – we compared it to two rather different generations of AMD desktop GPU with the R9 280X (also known as the Radeon 7970) and RX 480, the direct competitor to the GTX 1060 in this laptop, and will add results for a GTX 1050ti based Dell Gaming 7000 in due course. It’s not an apples to apples test because of this disparity, but demonstrates how well the Alienware 13 R3 stacks up against a mid-range PC. Of course, none of them have a realistic hope of 4K gaming without making serious sacrifices to the graphics, but that didn’t stop me trying!

As you can see, the GTX 1060 is quite a bit more comfortable at 1080p than at 1440p, which while not the native resolution of the 13″ display still looks fantastic and allows where it to hit ultra settings almost across the board with 60fps. Outside of benchmarking, that holds true of Battlefield 1 when heading online for a 64 player Operation, and it took Overwatch in its stride, easily managing 60fps with High settings at 1440p.

Backing up its VR credentials, the SteamVR app gave this laptop a 7 (high) rating, besting the RX 480 by a small margin. It’s more than capable of running this first generation of VR, in other words.

Playing games on battery knocks performance somewhat as power throttling comes into play, as the GPU can still hit the same high frequencies, but wouldn’t sustain them for as long. Having turned off Nvidia’s battery booster which limits frame rates, I could get Battlefield 1 to run at 1080p and 30fps with lowered settings, while the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark also came in around 30fps. Overwatch, on the other hand, was not as phased as the others, capable of a frame rate in the upper 50’s at 1080p with high settings.

In everyday use the laptop lasted around 4 hours on battery power. This was with the screen fairly dimmed as I typing up this review, browsed reddit, Buzzfeed and watching the occasional video. That’s not particularly great, but can be massaged by forcing a switch to integrated graphics and fiddling with other settings.

One thing that could help battery life is the Tobii Aware cameras above the screen. They can be used to dim the screen and eventually put the laptop to sleep when you’re away, before waking it up as soon as it spots your lovely face again, but I soon found myself turning Tobii support off. When it’s searching for a person a disconcerting red light blinks at the top of the screen, and I found it tended to interfere a little too much before tweaking the timings in the app. Additionally, it’s not a full Tobii Eye Tracking set up, and so it can’t be used in games like Rise of the Tomb Raider or Ghost Recon Wildlands, where you can aim and interact with the game simply by looking at things. It’s a halfway house, in other words.

That’s true of the inclusion of a 1440p screen in this laptop, which highlights for me the woeful nature of high DPI support in Windows 10 and its variety of apps, with Steam coming out blurry, Origin rendering its menus far too small, and so on. Personally, the 175% scaling option worked best.

Sticking with the screen, at 13″ the size of this laptop means that it’s surrounded by a huge black bezel, all of which is behind a single glossy pane of glass. The strength of the OLED screen is that a black background can merge seamlessly into this bezel, but as soon as you fill it with a web browser or a colourful game, it can feel small. There’s enough space here for a 14″ screen. Additionally, it is very reflective, which could be distracting in direct light.

What’s Good:

  • Gorgeous OLED screen
  • Very powerful given the size
  • Max settings 1080p60 gaming
  • More than capable for VR
  • Clever cooling design

What’s Bad:

  • Inconvenient 13″ laptop shape
  • Screen is prone to glare
  • On the edge for 1440p gaming
  • Expensive compared to 15″ laptops
  • Tobii Aware is superfluous

The top end Alienware 13 R3 is all about its screen. This 1440p OLED display is simply gorgeous and worth the leap in the price tag over lower models. It’s backed up by an impressive amount of graphical power given the laptop’s size, enabled by the unusual cooling system. However, it is expensive, and as desirable as the screen is, you can get better value lower in the Alienware 13 R3 range or the Alienware 15 laptops that aren’t actually that much bigger and can boast even faster GPUs.

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