The Alienware Alpha: Our Review
I’ll admit, when I first heard about Alienware’s plans to release a handful of console-sized PCs with a modified version of Steam’s Big Picture (a prelude to their own SteamOS), I was a bit confused. It seemed almost as though Alienware just wanted to be one of the first to put out a Steam Box, before the competition. And maybe that’s the case, because one could simply install Steam OS when it does come out, on the Alpha and be done with it. It’s clear that Alienware had the tech and hardware ready, but when Steam wasn’t ready to ship its OS, they decided to ship these first Alphas as they are. What I’ve found in my two weeks with the loaner console from Alienware is a beastly little gaming rig in a tiny package. How long it lasts and runs games adequately over the years is probably the only real question mark. Read on for our full review of the Alienware Alpha Console PC.
PS Master Race arguments aside, I think we can all agree that some games play well with a controller, even when on the PC. The Batman Arkham games, Dark Souls, and so forth are a few that come to mind. The Alienware Alpha is designed with that ideal in mind. Packaged with a wireless Xbox 360 controller, an HDMI cable, and all the accoutrements needed to plug the Alpha into a TV and get gaming, it’s clear that the machine is aimed at PC gamers who want to sit on their couch.
But, as our own Dreamo84 pointed out… why wouldn’t a PC gamer just put their PC next to their TV, or transmit the signal wirelessly? These are extremely valid points, but my guess is that the Alpha is squarely aimed at people with large Steam libraries who A.) like gadgets and/or B.) want something aimed at the console-like experience. Getting a wireless HDMI transmitter is cheaper, that’s for sure. But the entire intended experience of the Alpha is just to give you Steam Big Picture and let you game. No mess, no fuss.
Indeed getting the system up and running was pretty easy. You can boot to Windows 8.1 and use the machine just like any PC, or you can boot to the Alpha Console (the previously mentioned Steam Big Picture). In this way, the system goes to sleep and low power settings on its own, can be booted quickly, doesn’t require a mouse or keyboard to navigate… it’s just like booting up my PS4, only all of my PC games are available to me. And with USB ports for a wireless mouse and keyboard, or any Bluetooth device of your choosing, the Alpha retains its ability to be as adjustable as any other PC. After all, minus the Alpha Console UI, that’s precisely what it is.
You could conceivably just run this as any other PC, and I often switched between the Alpha UI and the Windows 8.1 UI when I wanted to play a game that wasn’t on Steam. I happen to have a Bluetooth small keyboard with touchpad mouse that’s absolutely perfect for less action-heavy point and click games (Civ 5, Fallen Enchantress, etc), and the device worked flawlessly with the Alpha once installing the Bluetooth drivers. I can only imagine how nice it will be to use a full KB/Mouse combo when Roccat releases the Sova sometime next year.
The spec I was sent by Alienware isn’t the beefiest of the SKUs, the Intel i3 model with 4GB of onboard RAM, a 500GB HDD, plus a modified Maxwell Nvidia GTX video card (which is effectively as powerful as the 860s in many current desktops). It’s shocking how small, quiet, and cool this thing keeps. My PS4 has less horsepower overall, but comes in at twice the size and noise as the Alpha. I’m sure it helps that there’s no disc drive on the Alpha, but that’s beside the point. Though not as fast at loading games as my SDD-equipped laptop and desktop, the Alpha ran every game I threw at it on High and Ultra settings without issue. From Arkham Origins and BioShock Infinite to ESO, GW2, and Far Cry 4, the Alpha ran everything smoothly. I’m tempted to get the Crew on the PC now too, just because the visuals outperform what you get on the consoles.
Swapping between the Alpha UI and the traditional Windows desktop could be easier for those programs that your Steam account doesn’t have, and you can upgrade the CPU on the console (as long as it’s a 35w LGA1150 part), as well as the RAM (though there are only 2 slots, so you’ll be discarding the old RAM). Far Cry 4 was noticeably down to around 30-40 FPS on highest settings, perhaps because of having less RAM than the 8GB PS4. But the image quality is top notch, and with a bump in RAM I bet the FPS would climb. I’ll be trying that out with some spare DDR3 RAM I have after the holiday.
It’s an extremely easy console to crack open and tinker with too, retaining some of its PC roots for sure. Just a few screws and you can swap out parts. Just pop out the two fans and you’re on your way. Now, the Alpha does lose out to the consoles in price for the base unit. At $549 for the lowest end, that’s still $150 more than the current gen consoles. However, I’d argue that the Steam game library is far more robust and the versatility of a PC is enough to warrant the upcharge if you’re a PC gamer looking for a small living room PC. Throw in the fact that the Alpha is upgradeable, and will far outclass the power of the consoles down the road a few years from now, and I’d say it’s actually a deal.
Is the Alpha a console killer? No way. But for the discerning PC gamer looking for something akin to a console to put in their living room or bedroom, you can’t really beat the Alpha in price or form-factor. It’s simply a quality piece of hardware with a decent chunk of power out of the box. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be getting an Alpha myself one day, just because it’s a heck of a lot easier than plugging in my laptop or dragging out my desktop to the living room. And I’m one of those guys who just prefers having a piece of hardware rather than relying on a wifi connection transmitted across the house for HDMI.
In short: it may not run the SteamOS as planned, but the Alienware Alpha is a nice little gaming rig with a lot of upsides in the long run. Worth a look.