Dell's Alienware 13 laptop lets gamers use powerful desktop graphics cards

The Alienware 13 will be priced starting at $999 and works with the newest external graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia

Dell's Alienware 13

Dell's Alienware 13

Dell's Alienware 13 laptop attaches to powerful external desktop graphics cards, achieving what many laptop makers have been chasing for years.

Starting at US$999, the Dell laptop has a proprietary connector at the rear to which the newest off-the-shelf Nvidia and AMD graphics cards can be plugged. Dell is among the first laptop makers to introduce such a capability, which could supercharge gaming and possibly save users from buying a full-fledged gaming desktop.

Graphics integrated in laptops can't handle intense games due to power and performance constraints, and external desktop graphics cards are too power hungry and big to put in laptops.

But Dell has made a special adapter -- which looks more like a mini-desktop -- that can hold an external graphics card, integrated power supply and fan. The adapter, which attaches to Alienware 13 through the proprietary cable, will be sold separately for $299.

While Alienware 13 is unique, it remains to be seen whether gamers -- who love the latest and greatest hardware -- will actually ditch the desktop, which can provide more memory and storage capacity.

The laptop is for those who want a no-compromise desktop gaming experience, but also more mobility, said Frank Azor, general manager for XPS and Alienware products at Dell.

"That will house any full-sized desktop graphics card at 375 watts of power or less," Azor said.Moreover, enthusiasts can now upgrade external graphics cards at regular intervals without actually buying a new laptop or desktop, Azor said.

"The customer can get any off-the-shelf graphics card, they don't have to buy it from us," Azor said.

To be sure, there have been attempts to attach external graphics cards to PCs. Sony's Vaio Z-Series VPCZ21V9E laptop, which was released in 2011, had an optional expansion dock to which the company's proprietary external graphics cards could be attached. The graphics card could operate within a low power budget but couldn't handle high-end graphics. Sony's now out of the PC business.

Hardware makers have also shown or released external graphics cards for the Thunderbolt interface, but the products are proprietary. Dell wants standard off-the-shelf graphics cards from Nvidia and AMD to work with Alienware 13. Specifically, the adapter supports the graphics cards newer than Nvidia GeForce GTX 600 series and AMD Radeon HD 5000 series. But the adapter isn't big enough to support larger graphics cards that have dual graphics-processing units.Dell has worked on this technology for five years. The proprietary connector for the external graphics cards is primarily based on the external PCI-Express data transfer protocol. The PC maker has also adapted USB 3.0 technology for the product.The company wrote drivers and software for the new type of hardware to work with Windows. But it isn't yet plug-and-play compatible, so the laptop has to be restarted every time the adapter is plugged in.Based on response, the company may add support for this technology to other Alienware laptops, Azor said.A base $999 Alienware 13 has an Intel Core i5 4210U processor, an integrated Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M graphics processor, 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The display shows images at a 1366 x 768-pixel resolution, but that can be upgraded to the "quad-HD" resolution of 2560 x 1440-pixels for an additional price.

The laptop's shipping date was not immediately available.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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