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

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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.

6.9 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 8

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.

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.