rAge 2013: Talking To Alienware About Laptops, PCs, and Local Gaming
Last week Friday, at rAge 2013, I was kindly introduced to Gavin Slevin, Dell’s Regional sales Manager. Upon introduction I was asked by him how long I had been into gaming. Surprised I immediately went into a short tirade of annotated gaming history. Immediately after my last autobiographical confession I was asked if I was familiar with Alienware products. I was. Gaming. Alienware. Well played, Gavin.
The truth is if you have been into the gaming scene at all you have most likely heard of Alienware, and know that they produce some potent gaming laptops as well as pre-built gaming desktops, of which many were actually being used to power the Battlefield 4 and Intel gaming stand at rAge this year. I won’t relay the extensive 25+ minute interview I had with Gavin, but I will dilute and paraphrase it down into the bits that I found most interesting and relevant.
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Taking the Tour
I let Gavin tell me about the newly released line of Alienware gaming laptops featuring the recently released Haswell CPU and the new Nvidia 7XXM series graphics cards. They are the Alienware 14, 14-inch, the 17.3-inch 17, and the 18.4-inch 18. He basically gave me the rundown of “what’s new” in this iteration of the Alienware laptop series, talking generally about the Haswell CPU and its impact of power efficiency, the updated Nvidia cards, the redesigned “Lamborghini” inspired chassis with improved lighting system, and new devices like the WiGig or Killer Wireless card.
A great surprise was that Gavin had a working demo model of the Alienware 14, 14-inch laptop on hand, and proceeded to give me a tour of the unit. He pointed out that the screen is 14-inches, which comes as a default full 1080p screen–the pixel density on such a small amount of real estate was instantly noticeable and impressive to look at.
Gavin spoke about the building materials used in the construction of the laptops, saying that 70% of this unit is made of magnesium alloy and steel. My first thought was “great, but so what?” He must have read my reaction because he proceeded to pound on the keyboard, pressing the keys harder than anybody should do on a laptop. He then told me to pound away as well. I was genuinely impressed. I have seen more flex on some high end desktop keyboards than on this unit’s keyboard. If you have ever typed on a laptop keyboard, you will know that there is usually some flex to the keyboard area, especially if you type hard or press down on the keyboard area; the flex on this unit was little to non-existent.
Why we designed it like that? Gamers tend to be hard on their machine, you know. So you can really smack this keyboard and have the peace of mind that it’s not going to break.
As a further testament to its build quality and steel backing plate, Gavin offered the laptop to me so that I could try to, literally, bend it. I can safely report that I could not bend that laptop in any way that could make me worry about its sturdiness. After picking it up it did feel a tad heavy, especially for its relatively diminutive size, but the sturdy build is the result of the weight, something I can appreciate.
Gavin then proceeded to talk about the user friendliness of the laptop series, outlining that upgradeability and customisability is a big focus for this new line of laptops. Gavin remarked that Alienware realise that gamers prefer to upgrade and customise their desktop systems, so they have built this into the design of their laptop range.
The biggest push back from gamers, in the past, has been from buying a low cost (laptop) system and wanting to focus on desktops, as most gamers want to be able to upgrade their systems.
Gavin informed me that you can customise or upgrade the RAM, CPU,SSD/HDD, the msata cache drive and even the graphics card, which at the moment seems to be from the Nvidia 7XXM stable, with no mobile AMD graphics supported.
We briefly spoke about the sound technology and the partnership with Klipsch Audio. Unfortunately we could not demo the sound due to the high amount of ambient noise in the press room, and from the expo crowd. Gavin also schooled me on a new wireless technology present in all the laptops, called WiGig. It is an improved form of Wireless Display, or WiDi, in which you can wirelessly stream to other supported devices. In this case WiGig has a theoretical throughput of 6Gbps over 10m. At around this point the 14 laptop actually turned off as it had run out of juice due to being lugged around all morning, probably to other interviews, so I was unable to fiddle with the Alienware Command Center 3.0. Besides the irony of the moment, Gavin assured me that turning off lighting, lowering the screen brightness, switching to Intel graphics and changing other settings while using the laptop for basic tasks can net you 7-8 hours on one charge. This is a bold claim indeed, one that I will want to test if given the chance. Gavin noted that it’s primarily due to the Haswell’s power efficiency and 8 cell battery size that helps with extended operating time. However later on, upon re-listening to the interview, the battery size and wattage level he provided to me differed by a fair margin to those on the actual spec sheet of the unit.
Peripherals, Gaming in South Africa and Sponsorships
At this point I moved the conversation towards their Alienware TactX gaming peripherals, hoping that he would be able to share possible future peripherals or refreshes of their current line-up. Unfortunately he offered a vague “18 months” time-frame on refreshes of current peripherals and no mention of new peripherals being added to their line-up.
Touching on another area, I inquired about Alienware’s commitment to local gaming and their investment into the local e-sport community, with their sponsorship of prizes for the Telkom Do Gaming League, the rAge 2013 Cosplay event and the sponsorship of local Multi-Gaming Organisation Bravado.
It’s important to give back and stay involved with the community, as users tend to be more online all the time. They read the blogs online, so we just try to improve the way that we engage with the customers, which is also the reason why we are involved with Telkom Do-Gaming. This is our third year now with them at rAge.
Within this area I also questioned Gavin about the newly released PriceWaterhouseCoopers article that predicts computer-based gaming revenue to drop in South Africa in the coming years, and how he hopes to address this trend.
What’s interesting is the last three years, every year Alienware has consistently sold more and more systems to South Africans. So as a brand we are growing and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re trying to get more and more involved within the community, with the likes of getting involved with Bravado, that’s just helped to get us more exposure. We certainly haven’t seen that impact, but keep in mind that we only move 1,000 to 1,200 Alienware systems a year. There was 475 000 PCs sold last quarter so it’s relatively insignificant, but the category for us is still growing.
Pre-Built Gaming PCs
I can understand the price on the Alienware series gaming laptops. With these systems you are paying for desktop-grade gaming in an extremely mobile form factor. It was with this in mind that I was eager to ask Gavin about their pre-built gaming X51 and Aurora desktop PCs. To me, the whole notion of a pre-built gaming desktop is an ironic entity. I asked Gavin why hardcore PC gamers would pay a premium price to buy an Alienware pre-built desktop PC, as those are generally the same people who would be comfortable building their own powerful gaming computers.
Thats a good question. First thing is when you buy an Alienware system there’s a lot of customisation done to the drivers. We customise the drivers to ensure 100% compatibility. A lot of the drivers are rewritten and customised for the components inside the box, and its that little tweaking that ensures compatibility of the components and, most importantly, to get the best possible performance out of those components.
The second thing, aesthetically, the product looks amazing. There are some very nice, good looking products out there, but these products are truly unique in the way they look.
The third thing is these products come with anything between a one- and three-year on-site warranty. Most guys that buy and build custom rigs are getting a manufacturer’s warranty on component, which can be anything between 90 days and a year; whereas we give you an on-site warranty. So if something goes wrong with the unit, or if something breaks, phone us and we’ll come out to wherever to fix it for you. And also, importantly, on the new systems, because they have been designed to be a lot more user upgradeable, if you do open the unit and upgrade it, that won’t void the warranty on the product. Obviously we are not going to support the components that you’ve put into it, but it won’t detract from the existing warranty.
That last piece of information about warranty support is particularly interesting, as you are not limited by what you buy, because if the system allows it, you can upgrade it without voiding the warranty. However, Gavin’s claim that “other” components in do-it-yourself built rigs only come with either a 90 day or one year warranty from manufacturers is not accurate, as some quite prominent manufacturers offer three years or even more. On-site warranty and support is still something of a feather in their cap, as I’m not aware of any other computer manufacturer willing to physically come to you to handle a warranty claim.
In any case, it’s no doubt an enticing value proposition; but still, how much extra is on-site warranty support and customised drivers really worth? That’s a decision gamers have to make, but I think the upgradeability coupled with warranty support might possibly make it a, somewhat, easier choice.
To end off, it was great to meet Gavin to talk about Alienware’s gaming laptops, the rationale behind the company’s gaming desktop range, and their presence in South African gaming. The pricing on these pre-built desktop systems and laptops are, for lack of a better neutral word, premium, but after holding the 14 and seeing the Alienware Desktop PCs punished by avid gamers the whole weekend, the price might be high, however the quality seems to follow through. I’d also like to thank Gavin for sitting down with me and talking tech.