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Alienware Steam Machine (2015) review: A new gaming console with the heart of a PC

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While we've been playing with Alienware's Steam Machine hardware with Valve's Steam OS operating system and Steam Controller for some time now, the final product has only just been deemed ready for sale to the public, after numerous updates to the system software and firmware.

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6.9

Alienware Steam Machine (2015)

The Good

The Alienware Steam Machine brings Valve's Steam OS concept to life at an affordable price. It has a larger launch library than any living room console and it includes the unique new Steam Controller.

The Bad

Steam OS is locked out of a vast majority of the Steam game library, including nearly every hot new PC game. The controller has a deep learning curve, and will never be the best choice for some games. The more capable Windows version of this hardware costs the same or less.

The Bottom Line

There are many ways to put PC games on a living room TV, and the Alienware Steam Machine is one of the most ambitious. Like all new console launches, there are rocky patches, but the biggest hurdle may be proving why Steam OS is a better choice than Windows.

The premise, as first pitched nearly two years ago, is promising: What if you could buy a new type of gaming console that had the guts of a PC, a pre-established library of 1,000 games, a tried-and-true interface already beloved by hard-core gamers and an innovative new controller, and have it all cost less than $500?

If anyone could pull an idea like that off, it would certainly be Valve, the PC gaming company behind the popular Steam online game store for Windows and Mac, as well as hit game series such as Portal, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life.

The Steam Machine concept has been gestating for some time, going all the way back to late 2013. The first piece of prototype hardware we saw was an Alienware set-top box, coupled with a previous design of its innovative included gamepad, the Steam Controller.

After delays, redesigns and other roadblocks, the Steam Machine concept is finally a living, breathing product. It's fitting that the first major hardware release is...that very same Alienware Steam Machine we originally saw nearly two years ago.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Steam Machine platform starts with Steam OS, Valve's Linux-based game storefront and operating system. The company then invited numerous PC makers to build hardware that would run Steam OS and play Steam games, and the prototypes we've seen run from small console-like devices to full-blown gaming desktops that could cost thousands of dollars.

But this particular configuration, the Alienware Steam Machine, built by Dell's gaming division, feels like it closely hits the original Steam Machine concept: to build a living-room device that costs about as much as a game console but acts much more like a gaming PC. It's available now starting at $449 or £449. (There are no Australian prices yet, but the UK price works out to about AU$965.)

It's a laudable concept, but one that raises some tough questions -- not all of which have been satisfactorily answered by this final retail version of the hardware and the still-evolving operating system software. For such a PC-like experience, the game selection is quite limited, supporting about 1,000 games, versus the 4,500-plus available to Windows gamers on Steam. To be fair, though, that's about 975 more launch titles than you'd find on other recent gaming system launches.

The system can also "stream" other PC games if you have a gaming laptop or desktop elsewhere on your home network -- but if you already have a killer gaming rig, then you might not be in the market for a Steam Machine in the first place. The Steam Link functionality works well if you have both ends (the separate gaming PC and the device connected to your TV) directly wired via ethernet cable. Go wireless on either end, and the experience suffers. Valve is also selling a standalone Steam Link interface for $50 if you're only interested in porting your existing gaming PC's signal to your TV. Nvidia also offers similar functionality through its Shield products.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Finally, the elephant in the room is another version of this system with nearly the exact same hardware, which Alienware released in 2014. It looks and feels the same, offers tight Steam integration but runs Windows, and is called the Alienware Alpha . Despite its limitations, it's actually one of my favorite PC gaming options, especially after a recent update to its custom living-room-friendly interface. It also sells for $449 directly from Dell, but Amazon has been selling the entry level Alpha for as little as $399 lately, making it even more attractive.

Both versions of this Alienware product offer essentially identical hardware. The base model for each starts with an Intel Core i3 processor, 500GB of storage and a custom Nvidia graphics chip that closely matches the performance of the mainstream GeForce 860M card. (The Alpha originally shipped with a slower 5,400rpm hard drive, but as of October 13, Alienware said that it will use the same 7,200rpm hard drive in both versions.) The biggest difference, besides the operating system, is that the Windows version includes a standard Xbox 360 controller rather than the Steam Machine's fancy new gamepad.

A series of upgraded Steam Machine configurations are also available. For $549 or £499, you'll double the RAM to 8GB and the hard drive to 1TB. For $649 or £579 and up, you can step up to an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. All Steam Machine configurations include one Steam Controller.

As a gaming experience built around Valve's deep library of PC games, a new style of game controller and a console-like interface, there are parts of the Steam Machine experience that feel very familiar, while other parts have a learning curve that may be too steep for casual gamers.

There's also not much you can do with the Steam OS version of this hardware that you can't do with the Windows version. Even the Steam Controller, which replaces the traditional dual-analog sticks with two large touchpads, can be purchased separately and used in games on a Windows PC (although with varying degrees of success). Frequent, sometimes daily, software updates mean the Steam Machine will continue to evolve and add features and polish, but t's also a reminder that right now it feels like a product in perpetual beta mode.

For now, the Alienware Steam Machine and Valve's Steam OS do deliver on their promise of a new way to play games, offering a PC-like experience in a console-like package. But it's also hard to not suggest the current $399 Alienware Alpha version, at least until the Steam OS game library gets much larger. (It's comparably more expensive in the UK at £499, and AU$799 in Australia.)

Meet the Steam Controller

It's that Steam Controller that really makes the Steam Machine platform feel different from standard PC gaming. Getting the controller right was one of the major reasons the Steam Machine platform is more than a year behind its original release date. Just as the idea of Steam OS is to provide a console-like feel to PC gaming, the Steam Controller hopes to add PC-like precision to a console experience. That is to say, one you're enjoying on your sofa in front of a big-screen TV, rather than leaning into a PC monitor inches from your face.

Hands-on, the new controller takes some getting used to, and there's a clear reason the Xbox-style gamepad is such a universal choice, even for PC gaming. The usual sticks are replaced with touchpads that give you the thumb control of a gamepad with a level of precise control it's hard to get outside of using a mouse. But there's a definite learning curve, and some games will simply always be better with a gamepad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's a deep series of settings menus that allow you to change the behavior of the various buttons and pads on the controller, and the gaming community will no doubt come up with a consensus on what's best for specific games. A section of the controller menu allows you to download custom configurations created by other players, and you can even see how many people are using each one. Once the Steam OS audience is larger, this may be a very valuable resource for controller configurations, especially as very few game designers and publishers seem to have updated their games for Steam Controller use.

My best tip for the Steam Controller is, when in doubt, use the preset called "Gamepad with High Precision Camera/Aim." Of course, for those who crave the familiar, you can always just swap in a standard Xbox controller instead.

Using the Steam Controller reminds me of switching to a full-time touchpad from a computer mouse. It's not for everybody. It takes some getting used to and a willingness to tackle a learning curve. Some people may never warm to it, just because it's so different, or because they try it once or twice and then decide they don't like it and give up.

An early Steam Controller prototype from late 2013. Sarah Tew/CNET

While it's not a clear winner over an Xbox-style gamepad, there's enough potential there that I'd encourage giving the Steam Controller a legitimate shot, not just trying it once or twice and giving up. Frequent OS and controller firmware updates have already made it even better.

Somewhat surprisingly, it feels like it has the most potential on first-person point-of-view games, where a controlled, light touch on the right thumb pad gives you nearly mouse-like precision. That's much different than the Xbox gamepad, where the right analog stick is a clumsy tool for aiming, unless the game in question has a generous level of auto-aiming assist built in. Serious Sam 3 is a great example of a fast-paced shooter that works on Steam OS and responds well to the Steam Controller. It was also impressive for aiming in Metro: Last Light, a very serious-minded first-person shooter.

Gaming on the Steam Machine

The best way to judge the combination of Steam OS, Alienware hardware and new controller is to test-drive a variety of games from the Steam platform. The first issue is, of course, figuring out which games from the vast Steam library will work on a Steam Machine.

The short answer is somewhere around 1,000 of the 4,500-plus games Valve currently sells through its Steam platform. Most of the games sold by Steam run on Windows PCs, and these include all the big PC game hits, from Call of Duty to Dragon Age to Fallout 4. A smaller number run on Apple's Mac OS X or Linux. Some games run on two or even all three. (BioShock Infinite is a good example of a multi-platform game available on Steam.)

As the Steam OS builds on Linux, the easy shorthand for figuring out what you can play is this: If the game supports Linux, you should be able to buy and play it on a Steam Machine. On the Steam storefront, Valve now indicates these games with a small Steam OS logo.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To say that the Steam OS library is limited is an understatement. Of the first 20 games listed on Steam's website as "top sellers" the week of the system's official release, only six offer native Steam OS support. Big-name hits, from Grand Theft Auto V to the Call of Duty series, are unavailable, as is just-launched Fallout 4. To be fair, the OS X game selection is about as thin.

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Non-Steam OS games, such as Fallout 4, can stream to the Steam Machine from a Windows gaming PC on the same network.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There is a way to play all these games on your TV via a Steam Machine, but that involves having the game run on a separate gaming-ready computer on your home network and routing the output over Ethernet or Wi-Fi to the Steam Machine, or using a separate device Valve sells for that specific purpose, called the Steam Link. Using this methodology, I was able to play the Steam version of Fallout 4, with good, but not perfect, results. Connecting to a variety of powerful gaming PCs in the CNET Labs, the experience was choppy when both the gaming PC and the Steam Link device (in this case, the Alienware Steam Machine) were on Wi-Fi, and nearly as bad when the gaming PC was plugged in via Ethernet, but the Steam Machine was still on Wi-Fi.

When both sides of the equation were connected to our network via Ethernet, the experience was much better, and allowed us to play the game at 1,920x1,080 resolution and high/ultra detail settings (which was because the game itself was running on, alternatively, Asus and Alienware gaming laptops with high-end Nvidia graphics cards and powerful Core i7 processors). Still, even in that best-case scenario, we experienced some stuttering and image breakup and pixelization. As a side note, playing Fallout 4 with the Steam Controller is indeed possible, but doesn't feel fully baked yet. For now, the Microsoft gamepad was a better choice.

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Fallout 4 is being played on a gaming laptop across the room, but is streaming to, and being controlled by, the Alienware Steam Machine.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Aside from streaming PC-only games from a separate computer, there are a lot of excellent games in the Steam OS library. Some are popular e-sports standards, such as Counter-Strike or Dota 2. Other highlights include BioShock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, Civilization V and Shadow of Mordor . Not necessarily the newest games, and maybe not the best suited to a TV, but certainly ones worth playing if you haven't already. Valve's own games, such as the aforementioned Portal and Half-Life series, are also available. The latest Batman game, Arkham Knight, was long-promised as a Steam OS entry, but the Windows version has been beset by overwhelming technical problems, and the Mac and Linux/Steam OS versions have been delayed until spring 2016.

Testing several games with the Steam Controller, I found some hits, some misses, and some that just needed a little practice and controller tweaking to work well. There are several default controller templates to choose from, emulating gamepads and mouse/keyboard combos. These can be accessed at any time by pressing the glowing Steam logo button in the center of the controller and going to the "Configure Controller" menu option. For most games, I found the configuration called "Gamepad with High Precision Camera/Aim" was the best bet, allowing you to move your character with the left thumbstick, as with a console gamepad, but using the right control pad as a laptop-style touchpad for moving the camera.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In BioShock Infinite, that control scheme worked well, though I had to go back into the configuration menu and turn up the sensitivity of the right control pad. In this case, the mapping of buttons from an Xbox-style gamepad to the Steam Controller was intuitive and required very little guesswork to decipher. The game defaulted to a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution (1080p) and medium graphics settings, but that seemed to tax the low-power Core i3 processor, and there was a little hitching and stutter during gameplay.

Team Fortress 2, an online multiplayer classic (and another Valve original), offered what felt like the smoothest first-person gameplay with the Steam Controller, so much so that I might actually prefer it for precision aiming, once I got the hang of not over-steering with my right thumb. But the game was clearly confused by the Steam Controller; figuring out which commands mapped to which buttons was a trial-and-error process and navigating the game's menus was nearly impossible.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the few brand new games to support Steam OS on day one is Soma, an indie game about exploring a spooky underwater base. There, the first-person controls mapped well to the Steam Controller, and the slower pace felt perfect for getting the hang of using the controller's pad to move the first-person camera around. If anything, the Steam Controller, when well-supported by a game, feels capable of much more precise movement than a standard gamepad's analog stick.

One thing the usual Xbox-style gamepad can't do well is control games specially designed for the keyboard and mouse. Strategy games are a good example and where the advantages of the Steam Controller really start to shine.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the Steam Controller pad was treated as a mouse or computer touchpad, allowing me to zoom the cursor around the screen with ease, using either the triggers or the face buttons as left and right mouse clicks. Some keyboard shortcuts, which are especially important in strategy games, get lost in the translation, but you could go in and map them yourself or wait for a Steam community member to do so and share his or her personalized configuration.

Conclusion

A year or so ago, the Steam Machine platform seemed revolutionary. But now, so much time has passed that the current living room consoles are much less expensive -- the PlayStation 4 recently dropped its starting price to $350 (or £300), matching the Xbox One's entry-level buy-in price. Traditional gaming PCs, meanwhile, do more and cost less, and other living room competitors, from the Nvidia Shield to the new Apple TV, offer endless ways to play games on your TV.

Valve says the platform, its software and its game library will continue to evolve, and we have indeed seen several updates in the past few weeks. While there have not been major changes, the controller and the Steam interface both feel smoother and less buggy than even a month ago.

The Windows-based Alienware Alpha. Sarah Tew/CNET

But we can say that you should strongly consider Alienware's sister product, the Alpha , which has been available since last year. It uses most of the same components, is built into the exact same chassis and, because it runs Windows, can play nearly every game in the Steam library (as well as non-Steam games). Of course, this also means that the hardware inside both the Alpha and Steam Machine versions of this box is more than a year old, which is middle-aged in computer terms but positively ancient when it comes to PC gaming.

Despite its age and the entry-level Core i3 processor, our Windows-based Alpha runs even graphically challenging games like The Witcher 3 with decent performance, and it can currently be found for as little as $399, $50 less than the Steam OS version (it's £50 more in the UK). Keeping in mind the performance limitations at that price, it's one of our favorite gaming PCs, although if you go in that direction you miss out on the unique experience of the Steam Controller.

After a lot of hype and a long wait, the Steam Machine era is officially here. If you want to jump in, know that the system and hardware work well, and offer a refreshingly different take on the merger of PC and console gaming. But know also that you're making a very deliberate decision to play early adopter, and will have to live with the limitations and caveats that come with that.

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6.9

Alienware Steam Machine (2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 8