Born of the limbo of Steam Machine prototypes, Dell's Alienware Alpha is one of the most intriguing new computer releases of the year. This is despite the fact that we've had a very long time to get used to the idea of a gaming desktop that looks and feels like a living room game console. We first saw an early version of this hardware near the end of 2013, back when it was to be the first major brand name behind Valve's Steam Machine platform.
That PC-alternative platform was going to be the big PC gaming story of the year, with a large lineup of living-room-friendly devices that ran Steam OS, a simplified operating system for running the Steam game store and app, and a unique controller with twin concave touchpads replacing analog sticks.
But the Steam Machine platform has been delayed by Valve, until at least 2015, reportedly because of problems with the controller. Dell decided it wasn't going to wait for the famously slow gaming company to get its act together, and gave its boxy Steam Machine an internal makeover. Rather than Steam OS and the still-experimental Steam controller, the Alpha includes Windows 8 and a wireless Xbox 360 controller, which is still the PC gamepad standard.
When first announced, at around $500, the idea was that you'd have a gaming PC that could live next to (or replace) your living room consoles, with access to a larger library of games and better hardware, for about the same price. Today, the entry-level Alpha is $549 in the US, AU$699 in Australia and £449 in the UK, while even the Xbox One is down to $399 or less in the US, so the price considerations have shifted.
The Alpha certainly looks like a game console. It's a small, square box with a power button on the front, a few USB ports front and back and an HDMI output. Unlike a standard desktop PC, you're not meant to open it up and tinker with the components inside (although you certainly could, with the exception of the GPU).
It's almost better to try the Alpha out before learning what components are inside it. The base model includes an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a custom Nvidia GPU based on the popular GeForce 860M. That's why it's better to play the Alpha first, as combining a Core i3 CPU with a middle-of-the-road graphics card doesn't sound like the best way to build a gaming desktop.
And yet, amazingly, the Alpha in many ways works as advertised. The system has been tweaked and optimized to allow it to play nearly any current game at 1,920x1,080 resolution with smooth frame rates, usually by setting the in-game graphics options to medium levels.
According to Dell, the 10-foot experience -- what we call the view from a living room sofa roughly that far from a big-screen TV -- will be as good as current-gen consoles or better. Considering that many games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 struggle to hit even 1080p resolution, that gives the Alpha a potential edge.
But a PC is not a game console, as anyone who has tried mousing across a TV screen will tell you. To that end, the system boots into its own custom UI, designed to be operated with an Xbox controller, giving you access to handful of settings before pushing you into the Steam software's Big Picture mode, another UI for launching games from living room TVs.
The Alpha interface is clearly first-generation stuff. Its heart is in the right place, but it's also clunky and awkward. For example, only the small directional pad on the game controller can navigate the UI, not the analog sticks, and you need a mouse plugged in to even access the traditional Windows 8 desktop view.
Initially setting up the system was a chore, and sometimes a mouse was needed to navigate around some pop-ups and error messages. We tested two Alpha units on nearly a dozen televisions from different manufacturers also discovered a perplexing issue where the system would not work when connected to Panasonic televisions, which we assume to be some kind of HDCP handshake issue. Dell says it is investigating the issue.
Despite all the headaches, when the Alpha finally was set up and working, the result was impressive. Brand-new games, such as Far Cry 4, ran smoothly and looked better than the console versions, which is not a result one would expect from a small PC running an Intel Core i3 CPU. Challenging games, from Metro: Last Light to Lords of the Fallen, also worked well with the same 1080p/medium settings formula. Additionally, having access to years of classic (and frequently discounted) PC games gave us a huge potential library to work with.
The Alienware Alpha isn't going to replace living room consoles, at least not in this rough-around-the-edges early version. But it's also a lot easier to use than lugging a laptop over to the TV for big-screen PC gaming, and were it price competitive with the latest consoles, any gamer would have to give it some serious consideration.
Alienware Alpha specs
Price as reviewed
$549, AU$699, £449
2.9GHz Intel Core i3 4130T
4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Nvidia GeForce GPU
500GB 5,400rpm HDD
802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Windows 8.1 (64-bit)
Design and features
Next to the hulking body of the Xbox One, and the slim-but-wide PlayStation 4, the Alpha feels positively tiny. It's larger than a Mac Mini, but uses the same general design language. This square, stackable body shape was more popular in previous years when the "home theater PC," or HTPC, was a legitimate category. But over time, technologies from smart TVs to Roku-style devices have made the HTPC largely irrelevant.
Providing you have room next to a cable box, a Roku, a couple of game consoles and whatever else lives in your living room media cabinet, the Alpha should slot in next to these devices and not look out of place. HDMI and optical audio ports are on the back for neat wiring, although the USB dongle for the wireless Xbox 360 controller isn't particularly attractive.
Once you power on the system (using the backlit alien head logo button, naturally), it boots into a custom interface. The initial startup time varies, but feel very long, especially compared to typical Windows 8 startup times.
The default view is called Console Mode, but a more traditional Desktop Mode is also available, as long as you have a mouse plugged into the Alpha. In the Console Mode, the only input you should need is a gamepad, but a few game crashes and in-game pop-ups (such as the in-game overlay from Ubisoft) required a mouse. It's hidden in the help menu, but pressing all four trigger buttons and clicking the left analog stick will give you a temporary mouse pointer that's inelegant, but functional in a pinch.
Even though the Alpha is no longer officially a Valve-endorsed Steam Machine, it's still designed primarily for playing games through Steam and its Big Picture mode. In fact, the only options available in the Console Mode are a power button, a few settings, a help screen and Steam. The company says it's open to other PC game distributors, such as EA's Origin, developing Alpha-friendly hub software, but for now, it's Steam only. However, by adding a mouse and navigating to the Windows 8 desktop, you can install other apps, including gaming platforms, and we were able to install EA's Origin app and play Titanfall with no problem.
Alienware Alpha connections
optical audio out
2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0
Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth