“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.