Introduction and design
With or without Valve, the Steam Machines are coming. And with the Alienware Alpha, Dell is one of the first – and arguably the strongest – of the hopeful PC-based game consoles to grace us with its glow … literally.
The final Alienware Alpha, which first debuted during CES 2014, turned out to differ somewhat from the Alienware’s vision. Rather than run with SteamOS, Valve’s forever-in-beta operating system, Dell packed the Alpha with Windows 8.1. And in lieu of Valve’s long-awaited Steam Controller, every Alpha box comes packing an Xbox 360 controller for Windows with a wireless receiver.
Finally, because Alienware beat Valve to the living room, the company had no choice but to develop an intermediary user interface (UI), so that users could play with the Alpha directly out of the box. The result is a product just short of Alienware’s grand vision, but nevertheless a stylish, strong and bold device that perhaps is onto something.
But should the Alienware Alpha’s $549 (£449, AU$699) price tag scare away the company’s target console gamer, PC gamer hopeful audience? A limited-time, US-only $499 starting price (as of this writing) aside, the Alpha has set the bar for Steam Machines to come. However, the "Alpha" moniker will start to seem a tad ironic once we dig deeper into how this machine works.
Since it’s big debut at last year’s CES, not much has changed about the Alienware Alpha’s design language. The diminutive box still sports the same iconic, glowing alien head logo on its face, not to mention the 180-degree slice through its left corner, revealing a triangular LED. This time, however, the illuminated Valve logo is now replaced with a void wrapped in a triangle of light.
Of course, these lights can shine in a variety of colors, chosen through Alienware’s custom UI – but more on that later. Just like before, the front of the box allows room for two USB 2.0 ports, with the rest of the inputs and outputs found in the back.
Wrapped in glossy black plastic on its sides and a matte plastic on its top, the Alpha screams style, but also smarts. Three of four of the box’s sides feature ventilation for air to either enter or exit, so the machine doesn’t get distractingly loud while playing games, nor does it get too hot at all.
I’ll be frank: the Alpha is the not only the sharpest-looking Steam Machine yet, it’s on par with the Xbox One and PS4 in terms of design. Hell, only a PC could match (or surpass) the leading consoles in power and manage to be a fraction of their size.
Plus, the entire top lid is removable, revealing a host of upgradeable parts. And Alienware encourages you to dive in and upgrade components as you see fit – just don’t touch the graphics chip. That’s an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M that’s been modified by the Green Team and Alienware to run Nvidia’s latest Maxwell chip architecture and at a higher, undisclosed clock speed (higher frequency speed means faster graphics processing), and it is the only component you cannot replace in this machine.
Sure, that’s technically an ‘interface’
The custom UI that Alienware cooked up in lieu of an official SteamOS release sure gets the job done … but that’s about it. Upon booting up the Alpha, you’re met with a red screen with a few static, extraterrestrial-like scrawlings on it. Short after, four upright, opaque red rectangles appear with some basic options: Launch Steam, Settings, Help and Power.
Accessible using the controller’s direction pad, the option presents the obvious app, in Valve’s Big Picture Mode, that started this whole new set of shenanigans. The Settings option offers a number of parameters to tweak from video output settings to available networks and the system’s HDMI passthrough capability.
Meanwhile, Help simply shows off all of the controller button combinations to quickly access various nooks and crannies of the UI, and Power lists all of the obvious options in addition to restarting the console in desktop mode (i.e. Windows) – but not without a mouse and keyboard, first.
Functionally speaking, Alienware’s UI checks all of the boxes – it provides access to all of the settings that would be relevant to your out-of-the-box gaming experience. However, with static, boring imagery and zero animation or music (only a goofy clicking sound plays as you move about the menus), this UI does nothing to invite the player.
It’s clear that this interface was not the intended end result, but an interim solution to keep players out of the desktop once Alienware knew that Valve was not going public with SteamOS in 2014. Regardless, the UI could do more to get players excited to, well, play.
But perhaps most importantly, the Alienware UI does a fine job of keeping out any app or service other than Steam. Want to play Titanfall? Then you’ll have to hook up that mouse and keyboard, restart the console in desktop mode, and boot up the game like you would on any old PC. The sooner that Alienware brings EA’s Origin and Ubisoft’s UPlay game services into its custom UI, the better.
Now, how about what Alienware managed to cram inside this thing?
Specifications and value
Being such a small device tailored for living room PC gaming, the Alienware Alpha doesn’t have many direct competitors at the moment, save for the Maingear Spark (and other boutique PC builders’ takes on that design). And by "small", I mean tiny – smaller than both the Xbox One and PS4.
The Alpha measures about 7.9 x 7.9 x 2.2 inches (W x D x H) and weighs approximately 4.4 pounds. By comparison, the Maingear Spark occupies way less space at 5 x 4.5 x 2.25 inches, and hits the scale at just one pound.
But as you know, size isn’t everything in electronics. The Alpha might be beat by some competitors in terms of dimensions, but how Alienware made use of its chosen figures is what sets this device apart. Judging from the specs below, Alienware managed to cram quite a bit of hardware in this tiny package.
Here’s the configured Alpha unit that Alienware sent to TechRadar for review:
- Processor: 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T (dual-core, 3MB cache)
- Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (custom, 2GB GDDR5)
- Memory: 4GB DDR3 (1600Mhz)
- Storage: 500GB SATA (6Gb/s)
- Connectivity: Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 1×1; Bluetooth 4.0
- Operating system: Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64‐bit)
- Ports: 2x USB 2.0 (front), 2x USB 3.0 (back), RJ45, HDMI-Out 1.4a, HDMI-In, optical audio out (Toslink)
- Warranty: 1-year Alienware Limited Hardware; 10-14 day mail-in repair after remote diagnosis
This might not seem like much, but when you consider the included wireless Xbox 360 controller (for Windows) on top of what’s inside for $549 to start, this starts to look like an OK deal. What you see here is the absolute minimum configuration, with the highest-end model coming in at a dense $849 (£699, AU$1,299).
That configuration nets you an Intel Core i7 chip, double the RAM, a 2TB spinning drive and 2×2 dual band Wi-Fi. In case you haven’t already noticed, Alienware’s customized GTX 860M is the only graphics option available across all Alpha models. In the nascent world of Steam Machines, only one GPU option isn’t news, but nevertheless makes opting for a beefier version much less appealing.
All said, opening up the Alpha does not void your warranty – Alienware practically encourages it – so you could easily pick up the base model and upgrade as you see fit. (Just don’t touch the GPU – that stays.)
In comparison, the Spark’s starting configuration comes in much, much higher at $749 (about £495, AU$972) to start. (Though, you can nab one for $599 to start for a limited time, as of this writing.) That nets you a quad-core AMD A8-5557M APU with embedded Radeon graphics, a matching Radeon R9 M275X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory (also the only available option), plus the same amount of RAM and storage.
However, the Spark chassis does offer room for both an HDD and a solid-state drive. But here’s the kicker: Maingear does not include an operating system in the base price. Want Windows 8.1? That’ll be 120 bucks, please.
So, the Alienware wins major points in the value department. Let’s see how it did doing what it does best: playing games.
The Alienware Alpha is squarely aimed right at the leading game consoles, Xbox One and PS4, checking off boxes like "native 1080p support," "4K video support" and upgradability. But since the three are entirely different platforms, direct performance comparisons are impossible.
Comparing the Alpha against competing gaming PCs is also difficult, given its customized mobile GPU and the lack of directly similar systems. At any rate, here’s how Alienware’s first crack at the living room fared in our suite of tests:
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 85,121; Cloud Gate: 9,678; Fire Strike: 3,524
- Cinebench CPU: 263 points; Graphics: 74 fps
- PCMark 8 Home: 2,935 points
- Bioshock Infinite (1080p, Ultra): 44 fps; (1080p, Low): 99 fps
- Metro: Last Light (1080p, Ultra): 16 fps; (1080p, Low): 48 fps
Right off the bat, we’re looking at numbers vastly better than what the Maingear Spark managed to produce. The most notable of which is 3DMark’s Fire Strike, which the Spark reported a score of 2,301 points – not exactly competitive.
That said, gaming laptops, like the Asus GL551 with an 860M packing 2GB of video memory, scored results within 100 points of the Alpha on most of our tests. While I’m not comparing these machines directly, the similarity in scores – despite Alienware’s modifications on that same GPU – is striking.
At any rate, the Alienware Alpha is prepared to play most PC games at 1080p and decent graphical settings (save for Metro: Last Light, of course). Using Fraps, I managed to play Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor at 1080p and high settings to excellent effect, with a silky frame rate of 43 frames per second and plenty of detail.
Inversely, games like Titanfall didn’t perform as well, despite its age and keen tuning for a range of GPUs. Notched at high settings and FHD, Fraps reported a 26 fps frame rate. That doesn’t quite make the playable threshold on paper, but knocking things down to medium leveled that out a bit and brought it to 28 fps, which actually felt much better.
The thing is that this is a mobile GPU pushing these games, and the power gap is still there between the 800M series of mobile chips and Nvidia’s desktop counterparts, regardless of Alienware’s modifications. (Now, if Alienware were to update the Alpha with something from the new 900M series, we might not even be having this little aside.)
Not quite like the rest
Even the GTX 750 Ti inside my own gaming PC can register better Titanfall numbers than that – at least 10 more frames per second. That said, Titanfall might not be optimized for the specific drivers issued for this modified GPU.
Nope, you cannot update the Alpha’s GPU drivers through Nvidia’s GeForce experience. However, Alienware works with its partners to deliver updates to the system through its custom UI. (The system was lasted updated on its Nov. 6 launch, so it better not be long before another refresh – kidding … kind of.)
So, the Alpha is definitely in need of some firmware updates, not to mention more work with developers to help optimize their games for Alienware and Nvidia’s modified GPU. In the meantime, there are plenty of games to enjoy, many of which are (semi-)exclusive to PC, like TowerFall Ascension and Rogue Legacy.
Build or buy?
The PC is slowly reacquiring its sphere of influence by targeting the living room directly, and the Alienware Alpha is the vessel. Though Alpha is but a ship among many, to sound over dramatic, and approaches the enemy from a different angle.
Alienware is clearly playing to the sensibilities of the console gamer. It’s true that you could open the Alpha up, never connect a keyboard and mouse to it, and treat it like a game console. Though, I wouldn’t recommend it, since this is a Windows machine and all, and requires updates and security scans, unlike most console or mobile operating systems.
Still, the Alpha represents the sense of simplicity and focus of a game console, while offering those players a tease at what’s possible. Not fast enough? Try swapping in more RAM – easy enough. Still want more power? Then throw in a new CPU (but better break out the manual first). Soon, you’ll have a budding PC builder, thanks to a machine that’s a little more inviting than the rest.
So, buy the Alienware Alpha if you or yours have never purchased a gaming PC before. It will ease you into what’s possible in PC gaming and lure you into getting more involved. I doubt it will be long before Alpha owners start expressing interest in building gaming PCs, or at least upgrading the systems they just picked up.
That said, how is Alpha as a product right now? That’s a tougher question to answer, because by the numbers, you will always easily build a PC for not much more and eke better performance out of it. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as compact, stylish or come with the support and convenience that a company like Alienware provides, all things that the major vendors manage far better than DIY PCs.
As much as I hate to say it, whether you should buy this gorgeous little box depends on the type of gamer you are. Think what you will, but the Alpha serves a very specific demographic extremely well, and was designed for that purpose from the start. Alienware understands what Steam Machines are about, and the Alpha is proof.
From its design to the way in which it creates a console-like experience (without Valve’s help), the Alpha pushes the concept harder than anyone yet. Like I said, a kid could open up the Alpha, connect it to the TV and sync the included Xbox 360 controller. Almost immediately, he or she would be logged into your Steam account without ever setting foot into Windows. It’s pretty brilliant, really.
Sure, it’s software is rough around the edges and not that flashy – it gets you into Big Picture Mode and handles the major factors: Internet, updates and installations. Design is a big deal these days, and it’s tough to look past the shoddiness of the software or its lack of features.
Major UI updates are needed and are hopefully on the horizon. However, there are other problems that are tougher to fix, like the awkward way in which you must access Origin and Uplay, both increasingly unavoidable services. So, let’s hope someone on either end of that problem has picked up the phone.
Not quite a desktop gaming PC and not quite a console, the Alienware Alpha bravely straddles a strange, tense middle ground in the gaming world. And in doing so, the company may well have built something with the potential to subvert some of the console gaming crowd over to the side of gaming righteousness.
Even a few months out, it’s tough to predict not only how well the Alienware Alpha will do – it’s priced OK for a set-it-and-forget-it, Steam-based gaming console. (Especially right now at $499, as of this writing – US only, sorry.) But don’t mistake: building your own gaming PC, especially something aimed directly at edging out the consoles, will always be more cost effective.
If you haven’t bought an Alpha yet, it might be worth waiting out for a hopeful GTX 900M series model – though that certainly won’t go for 500 smackers. But ultimately, the Alienware Alpha is a kick-ass way to ease yourself (or a loved one) into PC gaming.