Alienware 13 R3 Review

Never in my wildest dream that I will buy an Alienware laptop. I knew about the brand dating back as far as 2 decades ago, before they are being bought by Dell. I never liked its design because it looked too geeky. It is so geeky that it was Sheldon Cooper’s laptop in “The Big Bang Theory”. I prefer the Macbook Pro type of industrial design with minimalist look.

My previous laptop – the Dell Inspiron 15 7559 was a great budget gaming laptop, but it struggle quite a lot when comes to playing AAA games. I thought I was going to play Starcraft2 and BF4 a lot with it, I ended up playing a lot of The Division.

 

Smaller Size

Another problem is that how big the Dell 7559 is. It’s so wide that I have to get a new camera backpack to fit it. The AW13 fits into my old Lowepro Event Messenger 250. The Inspiron 15 fit tightly into my work luggage while the AW13 fits nicely with rooms to spare. The AW13 is same as thick though.

Although I don’t use laptop a lot in flight, but my Inspiron 15 will need to be on my lap for me to use it half comfortably. With the AW13, I can place it on the tray table and use it comfortably without the laptop warming up my lap. I’ve tried inside the economy class of Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737, so you can expect it to be a bit more cramp inside LCC airplanes.

13″ IPS Screen

Prior to getting my AW13, I have yet to read any reviews having a unit with IPS screen. Most of the US based reviewer got their OLED units back in the end of 2016 with Skylake CPU and all of the review are positive of the 1440p OLED screen.

I already have a 1440p desktop screen at home, and even a 980Ti is barely powerful enough to keep at stable 60fps on Ultra Settings in some AAA games,. The main purpose for me getting the AW13 is simply just playing games and a bit of photo editing, so the cheaper 1080p IPS screen is enough for me. I do lose the OLED tech raved by other reviewers.

With my subjective view, I think the IPS screen by BOE on this is pretty ok, much better than the 15″ LG that came with the Inspiron 15, on par with the replaced AOU 15″. It gets bright enough and dark enough for what I need. I do not have any light meter or color meter for proper testing of the screen.

Best of all, the screen has got matte coating, unlike the OLED screen. I mentioned before that the 1080p resolution density is just nice for a 15″ screen without any scaling. 1080p on 13″ is a little small without scaling, but isn’t that bad because the screen is now closer to me compared to the Inspiron 15. Arguably the 1440p will be the best with 150% scaling.

The screen doesn’t support Gsync, with that it does supports Optimus graphic switching which IMO, far out weight Gsync. No matter how power efficient the 1060 is, it still cannot compete with Intel’s iGPU when not running anything 3D, giving this gaming laptop an insane amount of battery life.

 

Speaker & Audio Quality

I can’t believe I say this, but I really like the speakers and surround simulation on the AW13. The combination is better than the implementation in Inspiron 15. The virtual surrounds successfully tricked me into thinking the sound came from behind! I find it better than the Asus Xonar U7 with 2.1 setup on my desktop.

Plugging in my Sony MDR-1000X, with just virtual surround enabled and the rest disabled, the effect is also quite pleasing when playing games. Again, arguably it sounds better compared to Dolby HT on Xonar U7. The Killer wireless module doesn’t supports AptX audio thru Bluetooth, so that’s something I missed from the Inspiron 15 7559.

Sound quality for music listening is okay with all Alienware Enhancement turned off. I think using the enhancements is worst off. By plugging in my little Asus Xonar U3 and comparing to the on board audio, the sound from U3 sounds fuller, crisper and with better sound stage.

 

Built

Like the other reviews has mentioned, the laptop felt solid and dense with very little flex, very much different from the Inspiron 15, closer to the high quality of Macbook. It is actually very hard for me to believe it until I got my hands on it because my past experience with Dell laptop (mostly Inspiron and Vostro line) suggest otherwise.

The screen can be open with a single hand, something I’m so used on my Macbook Air and missed it when using the Inspiron 15. This is thanks to the sturdy and very well-tuned hinge. The screen is also held shut by magnet, so it won’t open ajar when the laptop is place inside the bag standing on its back.

The soft touch material on the palm rest is identical to the one on Inspiron, same goes to the keys on the keyboard, which is a good thing.

The outer shell consist of plastic and aluminum panel which in combination made the laptop feels much sturdier than the budget Inspiron 15 even though it may not have the touch and feel of unibody Macbook or Razer Blade.

As for the lightings, I’ve disabled all of them except for keyboard and power button. I don’t find lighting up the touchpad being cool. Although all the keys are lit, they’re aren’t as evenly lit like on my Macbook Air. The keyboards lightings isn’t per key RGB, heck I can’t even choose the colour White. Instead, I have to edit the hex numbers in the config files for that colour.

One reason I could think of for not providing white colour is that the LEDs can’t really do perfect white light, there’s a slight purple tint, very obvious on the touchpads, which isn’t a problem since I’ve disable it. At least the secondary functions keys are lit unlike on the latest Razer Blade.

 

Keyboard & Touchpad

The keyboard looks like from the 1990, unlike the island keys made famous by Apple Macbook. I prefer the island style keys for typing because the gap in between the keys on the AW13 are too small and I keep hitting the wrong key. Maybe I’m used to the smaller Inspiron keys IDK.  I do find the keys very stable, not too close apart and with deep travel distance, making them really great to and game on.

The keyboard on the Inspiron is good for typing when you got use to them, but they aren’t really great for playing games, they are too close to each other. I actually use a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard to game on it. Oh mechanical keyboard, still the best thing for both gaming and typing!

The touchpad is ok. I can say it sucked if I compare it to my old Macbook Air, why they don’t put in a better touchpad is beyond me. Good thing they made it smaller compared to Inspiron so that I don’t touch them during typing and gaming. There are physical buttons for mouse clicks which are nice to have but I have no use for them.

 

Ports

I’m not going into the details of the available ports, it has got one less USB 3.0 port, which I had already gotten a USB-C to USB A converter in case I need more ports. I also wish it has a SD card reader, so now I gotta bring a card reader and its cable when I’m travelling. Maybe I need to find a USB-C SD card reader.

The AW13 has 2 audio jacks for headphones and mic. The headphone jack seems to support those headset with a single jack because a prompt popped asking for the correct configuration when I plug in the headphone jack.

I am still now used to the power input at the back, all the laptops I ever used have power input on the left. With the cable sticking out on the back, I need more space behind it when placing it on a table.  I guess it has desktop in mind, by hiding as much cable behind as possible.

I haven’t find the use of rest of the ports yet. I don’t have a HTC Vive for testing, which would makes the extra ports very useful. I’ll hook up the laptop to my 4k TV if I got the time.

 

Upgrades

Just like the Inspiron 15, the bottom of the AW13 can be easily opened, albeit by releasing a little more screws. By a quick glance of the internal from the bottom, I can tell it is a much higher quality product compared to the Inspiron 15.

The 16GB DDR4 (2×8) can be upgrade to 32GB, which I don’t find a reason to do so. There are two M.2 SSD banks which one has been used by the included 256GB PCI-E SSD. Dell is kind enough to use Samsung SM961 on my unit, which I prefer compared to Toshiba ones.

It supports M.2 SATA SSD too which I’ve used briefly with the 256GB Crucial MX200 I’ve installed in my Inspiron. It has since been replaced by a used 1TB Toshiba PCI-E SSD which I found someone selling online.

Battery Life

Long story short, I can around 6 hours with non-gaming usage. Probably more if all I do is just reading from a PDF or typing some stuff. I’m glad to report that the new Kaby Lake CPU really makes wonders because I would expect this laptop with 1060 wouldn’t last as long as my old Inspiron 15 with 960M. I’m gladly surprised it isn’t the case. I had report that the AW13R3 with OLED and Skylake CPU would last around 4 hours.

I wish it can last 10 hours like the Macbook Pro does, but I can totally live with 6 hours. My Sandy Bridge Macbook Air barely reaches 4 hours which I find that a bit short.

I do not plan to game on battery, ever, so no comment on that.

 

Gaming

The only reason I get the AW13 is to play games, that’s all. If not for that I would just get a XPS 15 which cost roughly the same but sports a much slower GTX 1050 GPU but at a much lighter weight and compact size. Plus that bigger screen!

And oh boy the GTX1060 doesn’t disappoint. It is crazy to think the GPU inside is faster and cooler than my old big ass R9 280X and just a tad slower than the 980 Ti on my current desktop. I’m not going to post benchmark scores here since many have done that already.

I’m so happy that I can play The Division, Battlefield 1 and now Ghost Recon: Wildlands with graphical settings similar to the ones on my desktop, on this little laptop. The fans does spin up quite a lot during load, which is expected.

Initially I got CPU temperature hovering above 80°C during gaming, which is WAAAAY past my comfort on a laptop. Luckily with the help of Intel XTU, with a -0.120V core adjustment, I am able to bring down the temperature by 10°C without any repasting done.

Just like I’ve rant about the screen, I wanted to say again that at 13.3″ the screen is a little small for gaming. I really wish they put in an 15″ Infinity display from the XPS into it. Maybe it is the small screen, but I don’t miss not having Gsync as I don’t see much, if any, tearing.

 

Conclusion

The Alienware 13 R3 is a powerful laptop which doesn’t come in a really big package. It is still rather bulky and heavy in the era of tablet and Ultrabook computing. The 13″ screen is a little small, but the 1080p resolution keeps everything sharp and nice. This is a laptop for people who play games but doesn’t need a laptop to be with them all the time.

Alienware 13 R3 Review

Zotac Nvidia 980Ti Reference Review

I can’t believe I just spend so much money on this. Deep in me, I have always wanted to get that very best GPU and play games at the best visuals. However, my logical brain has always been stopping me from getting crazy and just settle on that mid-range GPU. Then while doing that, I’ve changed GPU after 12 to 18 months because that new game just need more horsepower.

I’ve decided enough is enough, time to get the best and stay with it for 36 or 48 months instead. That came down to just 2 options in the market, Nvidia 980Ti and AMD Fury X. The Titan X is arguably faster than 980Ti, but 2% faster asking for 35% price premium, I’ll skip. An OC 980Ti will beat stock Titan X.

I’ve waited for the AMD Fury X to be released before making my final decision, for both GPU and monitor because currently AMD’s FreeSync and Nvidia’s Gsync don’t mix. Two months after the release of 980Ti, the Fury X is finally out, and 980Ti seems too beat it at most of the games at sub 4K resolution. With the headroom to OC (unlike Fury X), the 980Ti is the winner for this session.

I’ve decided to get the reference cooler due to the design of my small casing. The reference Nvidia cooler will exhaust hot air out of the case, unlike non-reference cooler. The later has more fan and larger heatsink, but the heat is exhausted around the card and into the case. So if there’s no good airflow, hot air will be recycled, causing inefficient cooling. On a well ventilated case, the GPU core temperature can be reduced as much as 20ºC.

By the time I am looking for the card, most of the seller around Klang Valley do not have stock for most ref. cooler model, as the non-ref. are being released, they will sell better since they are cooler and run quieter. Initially I wanted the MSI brand 980Ti, but I only manage to find Zotac brand at my budget. Some stores still have stock for Asus 980Ti Ref. but they are way over priced for the same thing, which I understand all Ref. are built the same, only to be rebadged.

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Installing the card and its drivers are pretty straight forward. The last time I used a Nvidia GPU was the integrated Geforce 840M in my Dell Vostro 4000, that was a pretty bad experience. The last time I actually bought a Nvidia graphic card, the Geforce 2 Ti, was back in 2001. That Nvidia control panels hasn’t change much over the years, only more settings could be tweak now. The 980 Ti also fixed the 144Hz problem that my 280X was unable to output.

As for the performance of the card, with the second fastest GPU on the market, it doesn’t disappoint. On 3D Mark’s Fire Strike test, it scored 12k, while my old 280X scored 7k. The 980 Ti did score double of that by 280X in the graphic test.

While playing BF4 on Ultra settings without AA, the frame rates stays around 130fps and rarely dips below 100fps. I would say it performs twice as fast as my 280X in that regard. In fact it’s so good that I’ve started using 120% Resolution Scaling in the game instead of MSAA to do away some jaggies, and  they’re barely any hit in performance.

I tried a few other games, but not really benchmarking them. Crysis 3, being a really demanding game is just barely getting 60fps with everything max out with FXAA, same goes to Assassin Creed Unity. Those are probably bad ports from console and can do lots of tweaking on PC, but this also shows that this really fast GPU might not be that fast.

Gsync makes FPS games like BF4 a joy to play. It completely eliminated screen tearing which was petty annoying when I’m using the 280X. Why no one thought of this 5 years ago, good thing I’ve only purchased ONE LCD display, albeit a costly one, in the past before this one with Gsync. I have yet to try out ULBM function because I am very satisfied with what I see with Gsync.

Similar to the 280X, the 980 Ti is rated 275W so it is a pretty hot card on full load. Since my version doesn’t comes with a fantastic cooler, only a reference cooler, the core temperature quickly shoot up to 80ºC while gaming. With an aggressive fan profile, I am able to bring it down to 75ºC but with the fan running really loud. So loud that girlfriend in the same room thought it has started to rain outside. No kidding.

I did not try overclocking the card since I probably can’t do much and not worth it with the reference cooler. I definitely need water cooling to properly cool it for overclocking in my space limited case. I see at people getting 20% more performance out of it with maximum overclocking over air, and it is more voltage limited but I haven’t really get into it yet.

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The 980Ti (right) look puny compared to the large 280X heatsink.

Now the last question – Is it worth that absurd amount of money? Absolutely No – IF you are gaming on a typical 60Hz 1080p monitor, a RM1.5k Geforce 970 or 290X is more than enough. However, I need something powerful to drive my 1440p at 144Hz and 980 Ti seem like the minimum. If you have a 4k display, you may need two of these to run games at their highest settings, currently 980 SLI (without Ti) seems to do great with 4K.

Zotac Nvidia 980Ti Reference Review