Performance Summary And Conclusion
Performance Summary: The Alienware 13 R2 actually presents us with an opportunity to offer two performance summaries, one reflective of the configuration Dell sent us for evaluation and another based on the optional Alienware Graphics Amplifier outfitted with a PNY GeForce GTX 980 XLR8 graphics card. Starting with the former, the Alienware 13 R2 pairs a dual-core Skylake processor with a mobile GeForce GTX 960M GPU to handle gaming and standard compute tasks. It's occasionally an underwhelming combination under heavy graphics workloads and we see that throughout our benchmarks. On its own, the Alienware 13 R2 often trailed the pack, like posting a score of 1,891 in Futuremark's 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme test and bringing up the rear in gaming benchmarks like Batman: Arkham Origins and Bioshock Infinite. The silver lining is that most games proved playable, even at its native 3200x1800 resolution in rare cases.
When hooking up the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, it's a completely different story. Suddenly this little laptop had much more pep in its step with performance numbers that would rival many desktops and much larger machines. For example, in Bioshock Infinite, the AMP helped the the Alienware 13 average more than 96 frames per second, around triple the 34 FPS it posted when running the GTX 960M.
When shopping for a gaming capable laptop, conventional wisdom says to buy one with the highest end hardware you can afford, especially when factoring in the GPU. In most cases, you're stuck with the core foundation, with future upgrades limited to storage and RAM. Going with the highest end configuration your budget allows means a longer usable lifespan, though battery life will always suffer.
Dell is trying to change the game with its Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which is an optional add-on when configuring the Alienware 13 R2 (among other Alienware systems). Instead of paying a premium for a top-tier mobile GPU, you can reroute those dollars to the AMP and have an upgradeable platform to work with, especially if the bulk of your gaming will be done at home. The feature adds a lot of flexibility actually, to an otherwise relatively light weight gaming machine.
The Graphics Amp is rather ingenious because it solves the problem of static configurations. When the inevitable moment arrives where newer games push your laptop to its limit, a graphics card upgrade can reinvigorate your laptop, preventing a wholesale upgrade -- no more tossing the baby out with the bathwater.
On the flip side, it's an expensive accessory. In addition, NVIDIA is now pushing true mobile versions of its desktop GeForce GTX 980 into some laptops. We didn't have one on hand to compare in this review, but a laptop running a desktop-class GeForce GTX 980 designed for notebooks should perform on par with the Alienware 13 R2 attached to an AMP, but there's no question that machine would carry a larger footprint than just the Alienware 13 R2 on its own, Graphics Amp not withstanding.
Without the AMP, the Alienware 13 R2 as configured runs about $1,700. That's pretty decent for a gaming laptop, though it only gets you a dual-core Skylake processor and a GTX 960M GPU. As is often the case, you're paying a premium for the Alienware design signature, though it would be unfair to peg it as only that. You're also paying for Alienware's craftsmanship -- these are great looking laptops with fancy lighting effects, great keyboards and a gorgeous 3200x1800 resolution display with touch support. OLED displays are coming to this product line as we covered recently as well, which will take display image quality, brightness, saturation and contrast up yet another notch.
We also like the inclusion of a Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) port and Killer-brand Wi-Fi, both of which are premium features that help justify a higher price tag. When you consider those factors, the Alienware 13 R2 is a fine option, you just have to temper your performance expectations, at least as configured.
The bottom line? If you fit the profile -- you mostly play games at home but want a powerful laptop when traveling -- the combination of an Alienware 13 R2 and Alienware Graphics Amplifier may be the solution you've been waiting for. If you're not interested in the AMP, take pause to consider if you can be content with a GeForce GTX 960M, as it's the only option available at this time. With a 13.3 notebook, there's only so much real estate to work with, thermally. Regardless, pound-for-pound the Alienware 13 R2 is still pretty potent.