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|
|PC CPU||2.9GHz Intel Core i3 4130T|
|PC Memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GPU|
|Storage||500GB 5,400rpm HDD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||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
|Audio||optical audio out|
|Data||2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance and battery
The front USB ports are of the older USB 2.0 type, and better for a mouse and keyboard than for hooking up external storage. The pair of USB ports on the back are fast 3.0 ones, and could be used to augment the skimpy 500GB of storage in the base model. Interestingly, the system includes both HDMI-in and -out ports, much like the Xbox One, but it lacks the Xbox One's custom TV tuner interface to control a cable box.
If the base model, with a Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive, sounds skimpy to you, it did to me as well. The system actually performed well when games were set to medium/low detail settings, but improving each of those specs would no doubt make for a more versatile, zippier system. Unfortunately, upgrades feel expensive and doled out in an unintuitive way.
In US dollars, adding $150 gets you double the RAM and hard-drive space, but an additional $100 on top of that is needed to trade up to a standard Core i5 CPU. From there, another $100 gets you a 2TB HDD and a Core i7, but at that point you have a lot of gaming PC options for around $900. That top configuration is AU$1,299 in Australia and £699 in the UK. Each configuration includes the same Nvidia GPU, and there are no upgrades available for that component.
Testing the nongaming application performance of the base model, with its Core i3 CPU, it fell well behind other recent gaming PCs, from midrange to expensive. Of course, all those systems have Core i7 CPUs, and at least double the RAM, so that's to be expected. On the positive side, we were able to navigate to the Windows 8 desktop and install and run Photoshop, iTunes and our other benchmark apps without a problem, so the Alpha can be used as an everyday PC in a pinch, even if the performance is weak.
The custom Nvidia GPU inside the Alpha is purportedly based on the GeForce GTX 860M, a popular mainstream laptop GPU found in the Lenovo Y50 , Razer Blade 14, HP Omen and others. It's already a generation behind, as Nvidia is up to the 900-series in both desktop and mobile parts.
Still, the Alpha and its low-end Core i3 and midrange, last-gen GPU somehow manages to play most of the games we tested at higher-than-expected frame rates. BioShock: Infinite ran at 54.9 frames per second at 1,920x1,080 resolution and high detail settings, which is comparable to the 49.7 fps from Lenovo's Y50 mainstream gaming laptop. The very challenging Metro: Last Light test ran at 1080p/high at 18.6 frames per second, the same as the Y50. Our highest-end gaming laptop, the Asus G751, with the new Nvidia 980M, ran BioShock at 115 fps and Metro at 45.6 fps.
We unofficially tested many other games, both new and old. Far Cry 4 looked great at medium settings, as did another very challenging recent game, Lords of the Fallen. Shadow of Mordor, another popular game available on both PCs and consoles, ran at 49.2 frames per second at medium detail settings, and a still-decent 39.5 fps at high settings.
Some games, including Call of Duty: Ghosts, warned us about having only 4GB of RAM (the officially supported minimum is 8GB), but that game also ran fairly well at normal/medium settings.
More fun was playing PC-only games, such as The Stanley Parable, the Talos Principle or Broken Age. None of these will tax the hardware, but it's great to be able to easily play them on the big screen with a wireless controller.
Unlike recent gaming PCs such as the Asus G751 or the Origin PC Millennium (or anything else with a current-gen Nvidia 900-series GPU), you won't be outputting games at 4K resolution to your UHD TV or monitor. This is a machine that's designed to output at 1080p, and tweaked to play games smoothly at that resolution.
If you go to the Windows 8 desktop and install Nvidia's GeForce Experience software, used to tweak game settings and update GPU drivers, the app can't recognize or update the graphics card in the Alpha. I've asked Alienware about procedures for keeping drivers up to date, but have not received an answer yet. I'd hate to think we were going back to the bad old days of mobile graphics, where gamers had to wait for PC makers to release approved GPU drivers, rather than being able to get them directly from Nvidia or AMD.
This really does feel like an alpha-level product in a lot of ways. The custom interface is limited and clunky, load times are slow and nongame performance is underwhelming. The specs for the base model are pushing the limits of what will play current-gen PC games. There's an essential bit of price/spec balancing that feels off.
But, if the stars are properly aligned and everything installs, boots and works correctly, the Alienware Alpha largely delivers on its promise of PC gaming in a console-like package. A big part of the fun is being able to browse the near-endless stock of inexpensive games on Steam, and to have access to better graphics and advanced setup and detail level options that console players miss out on.
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB (dedicated) Nvidia GeForce GPU; 500GB 5,400rpm HDD
Lenovo Y50 Touch
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 860; 1TB + 8GB SSHD
Lenovo Erazer X510
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-4770K; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 760; 8GB+1TB SSHD
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ; 24GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M; 256GB SSD, 1TB 7,200rpm HDD
Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014)
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz, 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 870; 256GB SSD