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Desktops

A big boost for the pint-sized Alienware Alpha

This set-top box gaming PC gets new desktop-level graphics, new CPUs and a path to virtual reality.

Now playing: Watch this: Alienware's new Alpha gets a major update
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Alienware's Alpha gaming desktop is getting a series of major upgrades, including new graphics and processor options, making for the biggest hardware changes since the system launched in 2014.

The Alpha has always been an unusual gaming PC. This console-like box started as a Steam Machine, a stripped-down gaming PC intended to run Valve's SteamOS software, offering inexpensive access to games in the Steam online game store, but little else.

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But SteamOS and the Steam Controller that went along with it experienced several long delays, so Alienware's parent company Dell decided to retool this machine slightly and it became a Windows-powered box called the Alienware Alpha. For under $500, it offered good-enough performance in games from The Witcher 3 to Fallout 4, thanks to a custom Nvidia graphics chip that was about as powerful as a mid-level gaming laptop (albeit one from 2014).

Since then, we've had new generations of both Intel processors and Nvidia graphics cards, and the hardware inside the Alpha has started to feel more than a little old. The processor and RAM were upgradable, with some effort, but the graphics were not.

The new Alpha, called the R2, now offers CPUs from Intel's current sixth-gen line, from Core i3 all the way up to a Core i7-6700T. There's only one Nvidia GPU option, but it's a full desktop-level Nvidia GeForce 960 card, which is more than powerful enough for most current games at very high detail levels and frame rates. (The AMD Radeon R9 M470X is also available as an option.) Storage options run from standard platter hard drives to new, faster PCIe solid-state drives.

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Connect the Alpha to the Graphics Amplifier accessory (and a graphics card) to use a VR headset.

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But wait, there's more. If you want to use the Alpha to power the current generation of virtual reality headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, it doesn't have the required hardware to do that, at least on its own. Another of the newly added Alpha features, however, is compatibility with the sold-separately Alienware Graphics Amplifier, a toaster-sized box that can accommodate a full-size desktop graphics card and funnel its power to a handful of compatible Alienware systems.

Of course, this requires you to bring your own graphics card to the mix as well, which can run anywhere from $300 to $700 for a VR-ready card, plus $200 for the Graphics Amplifier box. Put it all together, and you've already spent more than enough for one of our VR-ready desktops. Still, it's a useful option to have available, and one of several external GPU products being pitched as VR-ready this year.

The updated Alienware Alpha R2 should be available this summer, starting at $599 in the US. International price and availability details were not yet available, but that price converts to around £420 or AU$810.

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