Hands-on with Alienware's Alpha: PC gaming in the living room just got serious
"PC gaming is too expensive." "PC gaming is too complicated." "I don't want a big, bulky PC in my living room." Rest in peace, three overused excuses. You all had a good run, as far as excuses go, but Alienware's new Alpha machine just put the final shovelful of dirt on your collective coffins.
Alienware's Steam Machine was at one point termed "a console that encapsulates the full potential of what a Steam Machine should be" by Valve managing director Gabe Newell. Thus, when Valve recently announced it needed to push back the releases of the crucial Steam Controller and SteamOS operating system from this fall to a nebulous 2015, it seemed reasonable to assume the physical Steam Machine PCs themselves were also delayed.
Instead, Alienware revealed its Alpha console at E3—the same box as the Steam Machine, but running Windows 8.1 instead of the Linux-based SteamOS. According to Alienware, which gave me the opportunity to try the Alpha at the show, this was always the plan. The Valve delay didn't "force" Alienware's hand or require the team to reimagine the box as a Windows device.
"Valve's a partner of ours. They're friends of ours. We don't want them to put something out that they're not proud of. If they say they need to wait to get it right, we're going to wait with them until it's right," said Alienware's Raymond Watkins.
Still, Alienware wanted to give consumers as many options as possible, and a Windows machine was a natural fit. A Windows-based machine lets you play any games you want, rather than hoping there's a Linux port or needing a second machine to stream games from.
"We've always planned on going forward with a Windows project," Watkins continued. "We always want to bring versatility to our customers and give them the ability to make their own choices."
Diving into the Alpha's gamepad-friendly interface
The Alpha console uses a heavily modified version of Windows, of course. It has to. The inelegance of using a mouse and keyboard-based interface on a television ten feet away is one of the main problems with current "move your PC to the living room" solutions—trying to navigate miniscule application icons and illegible text from afar, or messing with the resolution. It's tedious.
Alienware Alpha boots to a custom user interface slapped on top of Windows 8.1—a custom user interface that looks suspiciously like Steam's controller-friendly Big Picture mode, which is the heart of SteamOS. It's almost exactly the same scrolling-sideways interface Valve uses (and, for that matter, favored on traditional consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4), except that the options you scroll through all pertain to common Windows functionality rather than navigating your Steam library. You can even mess with common Windows settings—it's helpful to be able to calibrate your display without having to reach for a keyboard and mouse. The entire UI is built around being navigable using a gamepad alone.
The interface is still early in development—Watkins joked with me that it was "pre-alpha"—so Alienware wasn't allowing pictures. It looked nice enough though, with large, clear text slapped over minimalist Alienware backgrounds. I'd expect those backgrounds to be customizable in the final retail version.
If you're using the system for its intended purpose—to play games—one of the primary menu options opens Steam in Big Picture Mode. Due to the similarities between SteamOS and Big Picture Mode , you're at this point basically running SteamOS, albeit a SteamOS that runs all your Windows games natively. For 90 percent of living room gamers, that's probably all they need (though Netflix wouldn't hurt).
It's intuitive. Here's a machine built for games and nothing else. Despite the presence of Windows, you'd be wrong to think of this as a computer, and that's a good thing. The type of person who wants a full-fledged PC in the living room probably already owns one. Alienware Alpha is a console, first and foremost. It's about taking the PC to the console crowd. It's about putting to bed those old, lame excuses I listed at the article's outset.
It's not that Alienware wants to lock you out from Windows, but Windows is confusing compared to the games-focused interfaces of living room consoles. It's awkward on an enormous television-sized screen. If you do want to muck around in Windows 8.1, you're welcome to—Alienware plans to allow access to the desktop, though it wasn't available during my demo. It's just not a priority.
Alienware also plans to let you add shortcuts to the console interface. Say, for instance, I bought a bunch of games during the GOG.com summer sale. GOG prides itself on DRM-free software, so you're unable to access those games through Steam itself. Alienware's Alpha console lets you add shortcuts to those programs, making them easily accessible through the custom overlay.
Read on for my impressions of the physical machine's noise, size, game-playing chops, and more.