Dell’s Alienware Laptop GPU Upgrades Are a Conceptually Great Idea

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Dell is now shipping GPU upgrades for the Alienware Area-51m that it launched earlier this year, making good its promise to provide upgrades for the laptop. The general inability to upgrade a laptop’s GPU is one of the most significant intrinsic weaknesses of laptops compared with desktops, at least where gaming is concerned.

While laptops are less suited to gaming than desktops for a number of reasons, most of these can be compensated for, particularly in 2019. Want a large display? Hook up a desktop monitor via DP or HDMI. Want a large built-in display and more room for cooling the CPU? Desktop replacements are your friend. But GPU upgrades, even for DTRs, have been vanishingly few and far between.

The Dell upgrade modules are built in the company’s proprietary DGFF form factor. In this case, a proprietary form factor isn’t really a problem. Laptop GPUs have never conformed to a single board design the way that desktop GPUs have, which is one of the reasons why there’s never been an upgrade market for these parts. There’s no guarantee that two Dell laptop GPUs built for two different laptopsSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce will fit in the others’ chassis, even if the edge connectors use the same electrical standard. The price of the service includes professional installation; Dell isn’t willing to leave this process to chance.

The RTX 2070 and 2080 GPUs that the company is offering are intended as upgrades for the RTX 2060 and RTX 2070 models that have previously been sold. Here’s where things go a little off the rails. The RTX 2070 GPU is currently priced at $839, on sale from $1,039, while the RTX 2080 is priced at $1,139, down from $1,639.

That’s rather a lot of money, to put it mildly. The pricing isn’t as nuts as it first looks, however — not if you consider the price of buying a new Alienware Area-51m in the first place. The least expensive Area-51m starts at $1,999 and the $1,100 price for that upgrade RTX installation service is actually equivalent to the price of upgrading to an RTX 2080 when you buy the laptop today. In other words, if you’re an Area-51m owner who bought a 1660 Ti earlier this year and wants to step up to the RTX 2080 flavor now, Dell won’t charge you more to perform the upgrade than they would’ve charged you to install it at the factory — at least, not while this introductory pricing lasts.

No matter how crazy you think the price of the GPU is — and compared with the price of the RTX 2070S (RTX 2080-equivalent) it’s pretty crazy — it’s still significantly less than the top-end price of the laptop itself. The Alienware Area-51m’s baseline configurations range from $2,000 to $4,000, with a top-end price of around $4,600. It could theoretically be much less expensive to upgrade that laptop at, say, the three-year mark and keep using it another few years after that as opposed to buying an all-new system. Given that this is a capability being marketed to people buying high-end laptops, we have to evaluate it in those terms.

This is Dell’s own image for the “Unprecedented Upgradability” section of its web page. I’m amused because the GPU is the one component not depicted accurately (obviously the chip needs a board mount of some sort). Image by Dell.

The fact that Alienware systems support the Alienware Graphics Amplifier also takes some of the sting out of this type of positioning. It’s possible to hook an external graphics chassis to an Alienware system to tap the power of a desktop GPU, and the adapter is significantly less expensive, at $177. In other words, there are much more affordable ways to add graphics capability for owners who don’t mind moving the horsepower to a location outside the system.

The flip side to all of this is that it’s rather nuts to pay $1,140 for an RTX 2080 if you already own an RTX 2060 or 2070. Frankly, it’d be pretty nuts to pay that much money to upgrade from an RTX 1660 Ti to an RTX 2080. But the first run of GPU upgrades for this hardware family was always going to be the weakest upgrade tier. What matters far more is whether Dell continues to put effort into the program in the first place.

I’m not sure whether that will happen. OEMs aren’t particularly known for investing in their product families long-term, particularly when it comes to creating a market for an entirely new type of product. It could take a few years for a program like this to show benefits — and Dell might not want the program to work particularly well. It’s a vastly better deal for the end customer to buy a new GPU for $1,700 as opposed to a new top-end laptop for $5,000. Is it a better deal for Dell? That’s a different question.

In an ideal world, this would be the first step in rolling out upgrade options for all Alienware laptops, creating a major market differentiation for Dell gaming that other boutiques don’t offer and a meaningful value-add for Alienware boutique gamers. Whether it plays out that way, we’ll have to wait and see.

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