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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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