Hands-on with Alienware’s 15.6-inch VR-ready laptop
The Alienware 15 was TrustedReviews’ recommended small gaming laptop in 2015, which is why I had high hopes for the company's 2016 refresh.
Having had an opening go with the new laptop, it looks as though history may repeat itself: the Alienware 15 may be the best 15-inch mobile game station to arrive this year.
Here are three things you need to know about the refreshed Alienware 15.
Watch: Hands-on with the new Alienware 15 and 17
The 2015 Alienware 15 ran using an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M GPU. The card was capable of 1080p gaming, but generally required you to make compromises on graphically intensive titles.
The 2016 version fixes this and runs using Nvidia’s shiny new GTX 1060 card. As TrustedReviews’ computing editor, Michael Passingham, noted in his full Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 review, the card is a significant step up on the 960M. This is largely due to its use of Nvidia’s cutting-edge Pascal architecture.
Pascal is the successor to Nvidia’s Maxwell GPU architecture. The tech originally debuted on Nvidia’s GTX 1080 GPU, but later trickled down to its more affordable 1060.
Pascal uses a smaller manufacturing process than Maxwell, which reduces the chip’s fabrication nodes from 28 nanometres to 16nm. This enables Nvidia to fit more transistors onto a smaller piece of silicon, thus increasing performance while reducing power consumption and heat.
Pascal is the main reason that there’s close to no difference between the 1060 used on the Alienware 15 and full on desktop cards – both have an identical number of CUDA cores and the same 6GB of GDDR5 memory.
The demo unit I tested came loaded with an Intel Core i7-6700HQ processor and 8GB DDR4 memory running up to 2,667MHz. Other configurations will be available at launch, but Alienware couldn’t give me the full list of options at the time of publishing.
I wasn’t able to run the pre-production machine through any of TrustedReviews' standard benchmarks during my hands-on. But the upgraded hardware should make the 2016 version significantly faster than last year’s Alienware 15.
The updated hardware means that the new Alienware 15 is VR-ready and should work with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Gauging VR performance is always tricky – currently, there’s no easy way to count the frame rate or properly benchmark it. But during the demo playing games on the HTC Vive using the Alienware 15, I was impressed. Titles ran smoothly and I didn’t suffer any motion sickness during my 15 minutes of play time.
This is significant, since while there were reports that some of Nvidia’s 2015 top-end 980M GPUs could run VR, I personally never managed to get it working properly. So the fact that the Alienware 15 can actually run Vive games is pretty impressive.
If the laptop manages to maintain the performance I witnessed over prolonged VR sessions, it could become an ideal choice for VR headset owners that don’t want a giant rig in their lounge.
Alienware has had to tweak the laptop’s chassis to fit the new components. The result is a slightly wider, but “almost 25% thinner” case. The new chassis looks far sleeker than the 2015 model and build quality appears to be top-notch; the case is built of the same anodized aluminum, magnesium alloy with steel reinforcements as its predecessor.
I didn’t get an opportunity to remove the rear of the laptop for a sneak-peek inside, but an Alienware spokesman highlighted that the company has redesigned the internal architecture to make it easier to pop more memory sticks and a new M.2 SSD into the laptop. This wasn't particularly difficult to do on the 2015 model, but the move to make things easier is welcome, and one that may help less technical gamers maintain the laptop’s performance.
Alienware also claims to have updated the laptop’s cooling system. This may not sound like the sexiest upgrade, but it’s an important one. The 2015 Alienware 15 consistently ran a little hot for my liking. During prolonged gaming sessions the CPU and GPU temperatures would regularly rise to 90-92oC, resulting in a drop in performance.
Elsewhere, changes are kept to a minimum. The 15.6-inch, FHD, IPS screen of the 2015 model looks just as good here – on paper, the specification is close to identical. Colours looked decent and the above average 120Hz refresh rate should make it an ideal choice for competitive gamers looking for a mobile frag station.
Alienware also made a big deal about the 15’s new TactX keyboard. It has an improved 2.2mm key travel, which should be great for competitive RTS, aRGP and MOBA players. But to be honest, during my hands-on it felt pretty similar to the 2015 model’s keyboard.
I failed to notice a serious improvement in performance while running the two head-to-head – although I only did basic typing tests and didn’t play any competitive multiplayer games during my demo, so I can’t yet definitively say there haven’t been any improvements.
Related: Best Graphics Card 2016
The case looks pretty nice
It makes the laptop much more portable, although it's still a chunky monkey
The keyboard has had an overhaul too
The screen remains at 1080p
The desktop GPU is the biggest change
The Alienware 15 is set for release on 4 October. Pricing hasn’t yet been confirmed, but Nvidia’s estimated starting price for a GTX 1060 laptop is $1,300, which equates to roughly £1,200 including VAT. Considering Alienware has a tendency to put a premium price tag on its products, I’d expect it to be a little higher than Nvidia’s estimate. This would put it on a par with the 2015 model, which cost £1,322 when it first launched.
Related: Best Gaming Laptops 2016
For a mobile gaming laptop, the Alienware 15 ticks all the right boxes. It has a compact, robust chassis and the inclusion of a powerful VR-ready graphics card should ensure that it easily delivers excellent frame rates when playing 1080p games.
Hopefully, it delivers on its opening promise come its release later this year, and I’ll once again be pushing the Alienware 15 as my small-form-factor gaming laptop of choice.