Hands-on with Alienware's Alpha: PC gaming in the living room just got serious

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Hands-on with the Alienware Alpha console

I played around a bit with both the bundled Xbox 360 controller and a Roccat prototype that melded a fully mechanical keyboard and mouse into a single, wireless lapboard device. Both seemed like great living room control methods, and I had no trouble with latency even playing Gauntlet (a twitchy, fast-paced action title) on the E3 show floor—not exactly ideal conditions for the device.

One thing I was surprised by was just how small the Alienware Alpha is. It's one thing to hear that Alienware developed a PC for the living room and read the Alpha's spec list. It's another to see it. Watkins was kind enough to serve as a hand model and give you a bit of scale in the picture below, but even that might not be enough. Alpha is about half the size of an Xbox 360, if that—far smaller than I ever imagined from product photos.

alienware scale Hayden Dingman

The Alienware Alpha is tiny.

And it's dead quiet. It's hard to hear anything on the E3 show floor over the noise of a million explosions and grunting soldiers, but even with my head up close to Alpha I could barely discern a whisper. We'll test more when we get a review unit, but this thing is way quieter than any fan-controlled PC, and it's probably quieter than your next-gen consoles. (The fact that Alienware tapped Nvidia for a custom chip based on the super-efficient Maxwell architecture no doubt helped keep the size and sound down.)

Heat is pumped out the back, as you might expect. The case got a bit warm on the back-right side, especially toward the top, but it wasn't scorching-hot. You wouldn't have to worry about throwing this in your entertainment center and leaving it.

roccat steam machine prototype

The Roccat living room gaming prototype—ostensibly designed for Steam Machines—I used with the Alienware Alpha.

And if you're dead-set on a SteamOS-enabled Alienware machine, but don't want to wait? You can always install SteamOS on the device later. "The system is SteamOS-ready, so if you go out and download the beta today and install it, it's already validated and will play just fine," said Watkins. "If you want to switch over you're more than welcome to."

Not all perfect

There are still problems with the whole concept, of course. Alienware has come out and said the Alpha is more upgradeable than people think—you can swap the CPU, or add more RAM. The GPU, though? Not so lucky. Due to Nvidia's proprietary design (which probably resembles something along the lines of the chip in the ridiculously svelte Razer Blade gaming laptop), your machine is tied to the graphics capabilities that ship with the system—which, Alienware claims, are on a par with or slightly better than the visuals of the Xbox One or PS4.

The Alpha costs as much as a console and is pitched as a console, but it can't act like a console. Consoles are great because you buy them (hopefully) once, and they last the entirety of the system's six-to-eight year lifespan, with no upgrades needed. The Alpha can't make that promise.

PC gaming evolves too quickly. It's a unique but unavoidable problem. The Alpha is already a mid-to high-tier system. In two or three years it will be a mid-to-low-end system. Sure, it's shaping up to be a stellar option for someone looking to get into PC gaming on the cheap—especially for a living room machine—but when you look at the constant upgrade cycle the "cheap" up-front cost starts to look remarkably less so.

Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan Black

A device as tightly integrated as the Alienware Alpha can't be upgraded with new graphics cards as years roll by—though on the other hand, high-end graphics cards like this Nvidia Titan Black are roughly as big as the entire Alpha console.

But that's the same problem the machine faced when it expected to launch with SteamOS. Running Windows on Alpha doesn't make the machine any more practical to upgrade from a long-term view.

But hey, you'll save so much on Steam sales that maybe the extra cost washes out in the end. PC games can be purchased for far, far, far less than the $40 to $60 console games go for, and they're as backward-compatible as backward-compatible gets—something neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 can claim.

All in all, this is a damn fine machine to lead PCs into the living rooms of people who've never even considered putting a PC in their living rooms. It's quiet. It's fast. It's powerful. It's small. It's unintrusive. It's attractive. I don't think a single machine has hit all those points before now.

Me? I'll stick to my tower. But that's because Alienware Alpha wasn't built for me. It was built for the person who always told me PC gaming was too expensive and complicated. This is PC gaming for the masses. Now we just have to see whether other PC manufacturers get on board.

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