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Meet Alienware's Alpha console, a Steam Machine without SteamOS (for now)

What will happen to the big push to bring PC gaming into the living room now that Valve's delayed the Steam Controller that's oh-so-crucial for the Steam Machine vision? That was the question on everyone's lips leading up to E3, and Alienware—whose Steam Machine has been called "a console that encapsulates the full potential of what a Steam Machine should be" by Valve boss Gabe Newell—answered the question by fully unveiling the $550 Alienware Alpha, a sleek-looking Steam Machine that will still launch in 2014—but without SteamOS.

That's not to say the Alienware Alpha will launch without Steam, however. While the first-generation Alienware Alpha will ship with Windows 8.1 preinstalled, it'll also feature a customized, living room-ready "console mode" interface built to let you open Steam Big Picture, media, and other programs using a gamepad alone. Valve helped Alienware tweak the Alpha's Steam Big Picture installation to include graphical elements that tie into the console's glowing lights and overall design aesthetic, according to Alienware general manager Frank Azor.

"Steam Big Picture mode is a great solution already," says Azor. "It's been shipping for over a year, so it's a mature solution."

You can install any PC program on the Alpha, though third-party programs may require a mouse or keyboard to function properly, or even boot to the traditional Windows 8.1 interface if you'd prefer. When Valve does finally make SteamOS available, early buyers will be able to switch to that operating system without fear of voiding their warranty, though it won't be required.

Under the hood

Unlike some of the fire-breathing Steam Machines announced to date, the Alienware Alpha largely mimics traditional consoles, from its $550 price point to its small footprint to its bundled gamepad. The latter is an Xbox 360 controller in lieu of the delayed Steam Controller, though Azor says the Alpha also supports the PlayStation 3 controller, and others that Alienware's peripheral partners will announce in due time. Alienware's also considering releasing an Alpha variant that ships without a gamepad, to bring the console's cost down even more.

Here's what you'll find under the hood of the base $550 Alienware Alpha console:

  • Intel Core i3 Haswell processor
  • Custom Nvidia “Maxwell”-based GPU with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory
  • 500GB SATA 3 HDD
  • 4GB of 1600MHz memory
  • Dual-band Wireless-AC 1x1 with Bluetooth 4.0
  • HDMI-out, HDMI-in (with pass-through), Gigabit Ethernet, optical audio out, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports

That's pretty competitive for $550, especially considering the console's unique design and included gamepad. It's no wonder Azor recently said that this will be Alienware's least profitable computer ever. You'll also be able to configure the Alpha with options including Core i5 and i7 processors, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB or 2TB hard drives.

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A rendering of the Alienware Alpha's rear port selection. The front sports two additional USB ports.

After a brouhaha erupted earlier this year about the Alpha's alleged lack of upgradability, I asked Azor whether or not the system will be upgradeable.

"Alpha is fully upgradeable, other than the graphics chip," he replied. "You can change the hard drive, the memory, the CPU, even the wireless card if you wanted to. All of those things are fully upgradeable, but if you really want a product that was design for easy upgrades, you'd get the X51 or the Aurora that we offer.… When we designed the Alpha, we were going after a really small and tight form factor that met the sound requirements of a console in the living room, that met the thermals and the type of environment the Alpha's intended to go into. So while it is upgradeable, and it isn't necessarily going to be hard [to upgrade], it won't be as simple as our other machines are."

The custom graphics processor, however, is soldered to the board and cannot be replaced. Designed around Nvidia's supremely energy-efficient Maxwell architecture, the chip allows the Alienware Alpha to offer performance comparable to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, according to Azor, but in a smaller box that consumes less power than either of the big consoles. Alas, he refused to match the chip's capabilities to any of Nvidia's current retail graphics cards offerings, calling it too unique a beast for a clean comparison.

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Why the living room?

But the question has to be asked: What role does PC gaming have in the living room, and why SteamOS? Azor first provides a very high level answer.

"SteamOS is obviously been designed around one single use, whereas Windows is a multi-use operating system that can be custom tailored around any one particular use—as we're doing [with Alienware Alpha's console mode]," he says. "But Valve has a lot more control developing SteamOS, ensuring it's singularly focused with one use model. That's why it's a very important initiative for us, and one we're still fully supporting as soon as it's ready. It's a more sustainable way of delivering a reliable living room experience. We can build our custom [console UI] interface over Windows, but we don't know what Windows 9's going to be. Are we going to have to redo all that work in Windows 9?

"That's why we feel that over the long term, SteamOS and the Steam gamepad are going to be the best solution."

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But beyond that strategic view, Alienware views Steam Machines as a way to bring the vast PC gaming ecosystem to a new audience—and more specifically, the slew of indie PC games that offer full gamepad support, but have no presence on traditional consoles.

"We're not trying to build just another box that plays Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty," Azor says. "Even though this box'll do that, you have plenty of solutions out there already that are very capable and very successful at playing those games today, whether you want to play them on your PC or in your living room. We're specifically designing this box and going after this initiative for the indie guys. For the games that people have yet to discover, that aren't available on consoles, or that are available but the pricing has been prohibitive, or there hasn't been an easy enough way to experience the games. Either there isn't a demo of it, or [players] aren't aware of how many of their friends are playing the game.

"Steam is phenomenal at fostering all that," he continues, "At giving you demos, and giving you sales and things that get you pretty motivated to experiment, and try out new games. The indie infrastructure is phenomenal, and the catalog base is exceptional."

Bold words, and words designed to stir emotions of solidarity among PC enthusiasts. Will the reality match the Alienware Alpha's deep ambition? We'll know soon enough, as the Alienware Alpha is slated to launch in time for the holidays. Several Alpha consoles will be set up in the Alienware booth for hands-on demos during E3; we'll spend some time with the SteamOS-less Steam Machine and let you know what we think.

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