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Alienware Concept UFO shows why portable games are better than streaming (for now)

Commentary: The Switch Lite is cool, but have you ever tried a Switch Thicc?

Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

The Alienware's Concept UFO has me extremely excited. Unveiled exclusively Monday on CNET's live stage at CES, it's essentially a thick, Alienware-branded Switch that plays PC games. Switch Thicc, if you like. The Concept UFO consists of two removable controllers on each side of an 8-inch display. Once removed, those controllers can be attached together to form a gamepad. There's a kickstand on the back that allows the UFO to become a portable monitor, and it can plug into a display for a more conventional console experience.

So yes, Switch Thicc. And it works well. After standing in a long line of curious gamers, I was able to play both Mortal Kombat 11 and F1 2019. The result was something that felt both familiar and promising.

It's just a prototype, and Alienware insists there are no plans for a market release right now. But it's a timely prototype, as there are big questions about what the future of gaming looks like. Both the Xbox Series X and Sony PlayStation 5 will have launched by the end of the year, but above these consoles hangs a question: How will cloud-based game streaming affect the industry?

Video game streaming services, like Google Stadia and Microsoft Project xCloud, are still in nascent, unproven states. The Nintendo Switch, on the other hand, is what works right now. It's sold well over 40 million units in less than three years. More importantly, people love it. Read any site that covers games and you'll encounter articles about how the Switch has made someone fall in love (or back in love) with video games.

In my own case, I bought a Switch last August and can't go back. Once you play a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on a handheld, booting up a PS4 or Xbox One console to play a game feels rigid.

Which is part of the reason why I've struggled to become a PC gamer. I've tried. Games like Overwatch have managed to chain me to a gaming laptop for months at a time, but these end up being flings. I've never been able to become a consistent, dedicated PC guy -- even though I know the catalog and caliber of games can't be matched by any console.

Compare the tested history of handheld gaming with streaming. Obviously, streaming has worked well for music, film and TV. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work wonders for gaming, or at least not in the immediate future.

The idea is certainly tantalizing. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and probably Sony will use their data centres and cloud computing technology to do all the processing normally only possible for an expensive gaming rig. In other words, you'll be able to play games in 4K, at 60 fps, on a TV, laptop or phone without spending money on hardware. But they haven't proven themselves yet.

Google Stadia, Google's take on cloud-based gaming, "launched" in November. But it wasn't a true launch, according to CNET's Scott Stein. "Consider this the start of Stadia's early-access beta period," he wrote in his review in November, adding that Stadia "launches without many of its promised features, and just a handful of games."

Meanwhile, Microsoft has its very own cloud-gaming project, xCloud, in public beta. It's similar to Stadia, though it's currently aimed specifically at high-end console gaming through your phone, rather than a laptop or TV. Amazon is also rumored to have a cloud-gaming service in the works, but we don't yet know what that'll look like. Sony will almost definitely launch its own service to compete.

This futuristic type of gaming has been showered with hype, and it's a concept that will surely click eventually. But it's also been tried on and off for over 10 years. When will it take off? Portable gaming on your phone or tablet will surely be the biggest breakthrough.

Make no mistake, big-rig gaming will be around for a while. You may have a sweet home entertainment system, and revel in gaming on your PS4 Pro/4K TV/Dolby 5.1 sound system combo. Or you may have an uber-expensive PC setup and the zest to play as many games per month as you can cram into your schedule.

But if you're like me, a Switch that plays PC games is a tangible, surefire winner. But the Concept is only a prototype so, if you are like me, you're devastated that UFOs aren't quite real. Yet.