Meet the Graphics Amplifier

The star of the show is Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier, a dedicated box that houses a 460W Dell-made power supply (385W on the 12V rail), a full PCIe x16 slot with two rear slots, a USB 3.0 hub and some basic cooling. The idea is that you slot your own desktop GPU into the box, plug to the Alienware 13, and from that point you get all the desktop GPU's power at your disposal. It’s not the first time a company has toyed with such an idea, but as far as we're concerned it’s the first to make it commercially, and thus the most notable implementation of it yet.

The first thing to note about the Amplifier is that it’s huge. It’s not the same size as a fully-fledged desktop PC, but it’s certainly larger than a simple graphics card. Most of the internal space is occupied by the full ATX power supply, and there’s quite a bit of free space inside the case that’s not used for anything. I’d have liked to see some hard drive ports or something in there, just to use up that wasted space.

Alternatively, using something like Silverstone’s SFX small form factor power supplies would have enabled Dell to slim down the Amplifier, as it wouldn’t need to be as wide as a GPU and a full-sized PSU. Yes, this first generation product is designed to be functional more than anything else, but the wasted internal space feels like a missed opportunity for the extra functionality.

Installing the graphics card and setting up the Graphics Amplifier is relatively straightforward. The top cover can be opened via a switch on the back panel, without the need for unscrewing anything. Inside you simply slot in the GPU (after removing the port covers), attach one or both of the included 6+2-pin PCIe power cables as necessary, then close it up and attach the standard power cable and data cable to the back.

The cable is PCIe 3.0 x4, so there’s a significant bandwidth reduction compared to the full PCIe x16 that graphics cards support. The bandwidth of roughly 30 gigabits per second is still faster than Thunderbolt 2 (20 Gbps), which is why we’re seeing a proprietary cable as opposed to an industry standard.

PCIe 3.0 x16 is overkill for any modern graphics card, but things start to get a little tight when we cut that down to x4. It’s not as bad as you might think, though: according to the analysis over at TechPowerUp, a flagship Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 running on PCIe 3.0 x4 at 1080p will deliver 95% of its maximum performance, with less of a performance drop as the resolution increases.

Considering the monstrous power of the GTX 980, we’ll likely run into bottlenecks in other parts of the system (most notably CPU) before we’re truly limited by PCIe bandwidth. The same can’t be said for a dual-GPU graphics card running in the Amplifier, so we’d recommend you stick to just single-GPU cards for this device.

When using the Amplifier with any external displays, you’ll need to plug those in to the display outputs on the graphics card seated inside the Amplifier. This is because the internal GPU in the laptop is disabled when the Amplifier is attached, with the laptop’s display being directly powered by the external GPU.

Cooling-wise, there are vents on either side of the Amplifier, with the one on the left providing airflow directly to the graphics card. There are also vents on the front and back of the system, with the front vent housing a 92mm intake fan. The cooling setup seems best suited to a blower-style graphics card, which would intake air from the side vent and blow it out the back. A non-reference card that blows hot air out the sides of the cooler may not perform as well as you’d like, and it’s something I’ll explore on the next page.

The style of the Amplifier’s external housing is typical Alienware gamer gaudiness, which sees a glowing alien head in the middle of an over-the-top grille on the front panel. The entire unit is produced from a combination of glossy and matte black plastic with a somewhat cheap feel to it. Luckily the included data cable is long enough that you can sit the Amplifier under your desk, away from your eyes for the most part.

It should also be mentioned that there is no power button on the Amplifier. You need to shut down the Alienware 13 to either attach or detach the Amplifier’s cable, and when it’s plugged in, the Amplifier will automatically power on with the Alienware 13. If you detach the cable without powering down the system, it will crash, so luckily there are clips on the cable to keep it attached if you’re shifting the system around.