Control the Alienware Alpha gaming PC like it's a console

A first look at the Alpha's console-like Windows 8 interface.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
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Dan Ackerman
4 min read

Editor's note, August 12, 2014: This hands-on preview has been updated with new details about the Alpha's custom interface and functionality.

Dell's Alienware Alpha desktop gaming PC is still aiming for the end of 2014, and still running Windows 8 as its operating system, rather than the still-delayed Steam Machine platform from Valve. Newly revealed by Alienware, however, was a peek at the custom user interface the company is developing to sit on top of Windows 8 and be your primary way of interacting with the system.

At a recent hands-on demo session in New York, we got a chance to test drive a few games, and watch Alienware reps click through a series of setup and configuration screens, each designed to operate from an Xbox 360 game pad.

The default is called Console Mode, but a more traditional Desktop Mode is also available, as long as you have a mouse plugged into the Alpha. If you don't, that option appears greyed out. In the Console Mode, the only input you should need is a game pad; we even saw a few game crashes resolve themselves without the need for a keyboard and mouse.

Even though the Alpha is no longer officially a Valve-related 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, settings, and Steam. The company says its open to other PC game distributors, such as EA's Origin, developing Alpha-friendly hub software but for now it's Steam-only.

The entry price for an Alienware Alpha is $549 or AU$699 (which works out to about £327). That is a little more than we originally expected, and more expensive than the current generation of living room game consoles (the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 now both start at $400). The $549 entry prices gets you an Intel Core i3 CPU (somewhat surprising for a gaming rig), 4GB RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and the Nvidia Maxwell GPU. Upgraded versions with more RAM, larger hard drives, and a up to a Core i5 processor will cost $699 to $799.

But, the Intel Core i-series CPU and custom Nvidia GPU (codenamed "Maxwell") will allow you to play PC games at higher detail levels and higher resolutions (both the Xbox One and PS4 struggle to hit 1080p in many games) than the console versions of the same games.

According to Dell, the Alienware Alpha will be available to pre-order starting August 12, through the Dell and Alienware websites, and also through Amazon and Walmart. Announced bundle content includes the games PayDay 2 and Magika. The expected ship date of the system is currently November 21 -- that date includes Australia as well.

Our original hands-on preview of the Alienware Alpha continues below.

Valve's Steam Machine platform has been delayed, at least until 2015, but one headlining Steam Machine maker isn't going to wait for the famously slow gaming company to get its act together. Dell's Alienware division has announced that the small form factor Steam Machine it introduced at CES 2014 is getting a makeover and going on sale later this year as the Alienware Alpha.

The original Steam Machine version of the Alienware Alpha. Sarah Tew/CNET
Rather than Steam OS and the still-experimental Steam controller, the Alpha will include Windows 8 and a wireless Xbox 360 controller, which is still the PC gamepad standard.

Steam Machine, the PC-alternative platform from Valve, was going to be the big PC gaming story of E3, if not of the year. A large lineup of living room-friendly devices were introduced at CES, with promises of more details to come around mid-year. Now, it looks as if the platform has been pushed back, with Valve saying it needs more time to work on the unique controller.

Most of the Steam Machines already announced from PC makers such as Falcon Northwest and Origin PC were dual-boot variations on existing designs, offering Steam OS and Windows, along with a standard collection of high-end PC gaming hardware.

That made the Alienware Steam Machine a standout, as a Steam OS-only small box, targeting a price around the same as current living room game consoles. Back at CES 2014, we liked the compact design, and that the hardware was designed to allow for 1080p gaming in a living room 10-foot environment while keeping the price around $500.

The new Windows 8 version, the Alpha, looks and feels much like the Steam Machine version. The hardware is similarly selected to offer decent gaming at reasonable prices, with Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors, 4GB of RAM, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi paired with a custom Nvidia GPU codenamed Maxwell. Both HDMI input and output jacks are included, as well as optical audio out.

Despite running Windows 8, Dell is including its own custom software interface, designed for 10-foot living room navigation, and one that should seamlessly transition to the "big picture" mode available in Valve's Steam desktop software (which acts as a storefront for game purchases and a content library for PC games). The company says the entire custom interface can be driven from the included wireless controller, without the need for a keyboard or mouse (neither of which is included).

The Alienware Alpha will be on sale before the end of the year, according to Dell, and will start at $550, with upgrades for CPU and storage topping out at a Core i7 and 2TB, while still staying under $1,000.