Alienware Alpha review: why you should wait for the real Steam Machine | PCGamesN

Alienware Alpha review: why you should wait for the real Steam Machine

alienware alpha review dell steam big picture windows 8.1 microsoft steam machine steam box

For the past fortnight I’ve been living with one of Alienware’s Alphas to see what it’s like having a primordial Steam Machine hooked up to my television. I wanted to know how well it played games, whether I could control the whole thing without a mouse and keyboard, and just how well Steam worked as a console interface. Essentially, is it worth getting a Steam Machine now or wait until their official launch in November?

It’s been a frustrating two weeks.

Alienware designed the Alpha to be in the first wave of Steam Machines, Valve’s living room computers that could take the place of the console under your television. On paper they’ll give you access to your full Steam library from the comfort of your sofa. However, delays to the release of the Steam controller and Linux-based SteamOS, pushed Alienware to release the first iteration of the Alpha running Windows 8.1 and supporting the Xbox 360 controller.

The Alpha feels like a halfway step.

Alienware sent us their basic version of the Alienware Alpha. £450 in the shops, it comes with an Intel i3 processor, 4GBs of DDR3 RAM, and a bespoke 2GB version of the GTX860M graphics chip.

The M series was originally designed to power laptop gaming, architecturally it’s identical to the Geforce GTX 750 Ti, one of the first generation Maxwell graphics chips. It’s a powerful graphics chip and one that draws very little power - using only a 130W. That’s a little more than the Xbox One’s 120W and a little less than the PS4’s 140W but significantly less than a gaming desktop.

If you want to spend more you can improve almost every element of the machine, switching out its 500GB hard drive for a 2TB alternative or doubling its RAM to 8GB. The most effective upgrade would be replacing the i3 with either an i5 or an i7. Although, these upgrades are costly. The top range Alpha will set you back £700. The 860M is the only component of the Alpha you can’t upgrade.

alienware alpha review dell steam big picture windows 8.1 microsoft steam machine steam box

Alongside the consoles, on paper, the Alpha looks like a serious competitor. It’s smaller than both machines, only 20cm x 20cm x 5cm in size (about the size of a router), and can play Metro: Last Light at a higher resolution than the Xbox One. It also has a much larger catalogue of games, letting you play everything available in the Steam Store. It’s a looker, too, Alienware’s continued their tradition of making their machines look like the child of a stealth fighter and Nolan’s batmobile, so it’s all hard, angular lines and black plastic.

The Alpha boots up silently when you press in the iconic alien face boot button, and the startup process is accompanied by a set of neon lights - you can change the colour of them, too, so right now I’ve a bright pink glow under my TV.

The hardware isn’t the problem. It’s the software: namely Windows, and it’s requirements for a mouse and keyboard, that dents Alienware’s ambitions.

alienware alpha review dell steam big picture windows 8.1 microsoft steam machine steam box

When you first turn on the Alpha, you enter a menu in which you can choose to boot to the desktop, or launch Steam’s Big Picture mode. Using just the Xbox 360 controller provided, you’re able to navigate through the settings menu and connect to your Wifi. It’s just a simple button press to boot Big Picture mode.

Valve’s television client gives you access to all the same sections of the desktop client you'd want - the store, community hubs, and your library are all there. It was easy to find and install Metro: Last Light.

It was a little bizarre to see Steam go through the same installation procedure as on desktop, running through the first time setup of DirectX. The Windows-style system box popped up, a reminder I was using a PC not a console to play Metro.

Metro ran surprisingly well. I had the graphical settings on low or turned off but I was able to play it at 1080p at a steady 30fps+, a higher resolution than the Xbox One. Even on low  settings, Last Light’s an excellent looking game. It ran well right up to the moment the game crashed to the desktop. And I mean to the desktop. I was dumped unceremoniously onto the Windows 8.1 desktop. I couldn’t use the 360 controller to navigate the screen to reboot Steam, instead I had to plug in a mouse to continue.

This is the real issue with what Alienware have built. My problems with the Alpha aren’t necessarily technical. They’re entirely functional. PC gaming requires a mouse and keyboard and it’s entirely unrealistic to expect users to live without one.

For example: to play Assassin’s Creed I had to sign into Uplay using a mouse and keyboard.

For example: despite Steam claiming it was entirely playable with a controller, I couldn’t change my character name in One Way Heroics without a keyboard.

For example: to run Netflix in the Steam Browser I had to first boot to Windows from the Alienware interface and install the Netflix App through the Windows Store.

For example: to dismiss error messages in Alan Wake I needed to plug in a mouse.

For example: a technical issue meant I had to go to the SteamApps/Common folder in Windows and boot Hotline Miami 2 with administrator privileges using a mouse and keyboard.

The simple explanation: a PC is a PC. It’s not a console. The thing we love about PCs; their flexibility and openness gets in the way of a living room experience. I wanted to treat the Alpha like a console, but I’d repeatedly be forced to plug in a mouse and keyboard.

alienware alpha review dell steam big picture windows 8.1 microsoft steam machine steam box

At times the Alpha worked flawlessly, I spent a Saturday morning running through Towerfall without a single issue, but whenever I installed a new game I’d no idea if it would work out of the box or if I’d have to plug in the peripherals and start tweaking files in Windows to get it working.

Then, there’s a question over the machine’s raw capability. Here’s a depressing fact: it can’t run Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The Xbox One I have sat next to it can run the game comfortably. That console is £150 cheaper, has slower RAM (though more of it), a weaker GPU and CPU, and yet runs Advanced Warfare at a steady 30fps.

I tried to sidestep the hardware limitations using Steam In-home Streaming. That came with its own host of problems. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter wouldn’t let me control the game through the Alpha, essentially just showing me what was going on on my desktop monitor; Alan Wake’s audio was drowned out by the sound of microphone feedback (which, I’ll admit, was appropriately spooky); Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 played the audio through my desktop speakers instead of the television’s; Crypt of the Necromancer worked perfectly except it sounded like the television’s bass emitters had been cracked, making them buzz distractingly on every low note. Eventually I got a few games to work exactly as they should but their success was random. I can’t trust that they’ll work fine in future.

Other times I couldn’t use the machine because of bugs. The Alpha wouldn’t detect my controller on boot, forcing me to restart the machine until it could discover it. When I tried to buy a game through the Steam Store Valve’s typing interface became stuck, blocking my view of the screen, forcing me to reboot. Uplay kept rebooting the Alpha when I tried to start Assassin’s Creed.

alienware alpha review dell steam big picture windows 8.1 microsoft steam machine steam box

These problems aren’t all the Alpha’s fault, many are issues with Steam and Windows, but they prevent the Alpha from being a useful living room machine.

If you compare the Alpha to current generation consoles it just can’t compete. They’re cheaper, more robust, and more versatile. Despite the Alpha being a PC and able to do everything a PC can, the interfaces available are rubbish at enabling that. Steam’s good for games but can’t stream video from Netflix, play music from Spotify, or let you Skype people. Windows 8.1 lets you do all that but you have to plug a mouse and keyboard into the machine and treat it like a desktop PC.

The good news is that a lot of those features are likely to be on their way with the full release of the SteamOS this November. The Steam Controller, too, should make navigating any desktops a cinch, thanks to its laptop-style touchpads. But they’re not here yet and until they are it would be a mistake to buy an Alpha as a console replacement.

If Valve want their Steam Machine’s to work when they launch this November, they have to iron out these problems. It’s not the hardware that will define the success of their initiatives: it’s the software, stupid.

GOTW
Sign in to Commentlogin to comment
Fattox avataricheyne avatarBelimawr avatarNihlusGreen avatarFraser Brown avatar[PWNY] Fluttersnipe avatar+9
JR Avatar
3
3 Years ago

I have run an Alpha for the last two weeks and is my first time back in the PC games market for over 10 years.

The machine runs fine, the UI is good and if i need to go into windows I have a wireless trackball KB (EG non steam games)

Titanfall runs better than on the XBOX One at a higher resolution.

Injustice Runs better than on a PS4.

I really don't get the moans, it is a good in-between step for people who don't want a full large gaming PC but still want to retain the console experience.

It's is very easy to use?

For those saying it overpriced, how many can build the same spec with a 4130, legal OS and a 750ti, Xbox controller and receiver for less? I make that lot just over £310.

That leaves £140 for a Decent MB, Case, PSU, Memory and HDD!

You would still have a PC of the same speed using more electricity in a considerably larger case!

The review also ignores Alienware are going to fully support and help with installing steam OS on this unit when it is released.

2
nathan1313us Avatar
2
3 Years ago

I've had the alpha for over a month now and I can't disagree more with this article. I question his ability to crash to the Windows Desktop. I haven't seen this behavior and the actual desktop is abstracted away with the AlphaUI Windows user. I really doubt the writers intent and would love to hear Alienware's take on his claim.

2
=NoCry= Linux Avatar
6
3 Years ago

Alienware Alpha is not an official Steam machine

The Steam machine will be launched in November with the steamOS and Steam controller

1
JR Avatar
3
3 Years ago

It was until steam OS was delayed and they had designed the machine so were not prepared to let the stock and specs slip for 12 months and just sit on them.

I think other manufacturers have done the same Gigabyte etc.

It will have full steam OS support as it was designed for steam OS.

Here it was pre steam OS date falling back.

http://haverzine.com/2014/01/15/dell-targeting-september-release-for-alienware-steam-machine-console/

1
rcrssmn Avatar
3
3 Years ago

The Alpha is an official steam machine. Only reason that Dell pushed it with Windows is because they weren't going to be considered liars. The steam machines were supposed to be here last year. Dell's Alpha is going to have the option of Windows or SteamOS when Valve comes out with a final version. What's sad is that the Alpha is going to be the second cheapest steam machine, and most of them are going to have a base price double that of their console counterparts and specs worst than their small sized tower counterparts, while being only 4/5 the size

1
Fattox Avatar
465
3 Years ago

Build your own. My old components (motherboard aside) tend to make their way into my Mini-ITX HTPC.

.

He's currently sporting an i7 2600K, 8GB RAM and passive-cooled GTX 630, which is more than enough for HD media. If i upped the card to something more fitting, he'd be a great little gaming rig. Hell, he already manages to play most games on fairly decent settings.

.

I think the only tough part when i made him 2 years ago was finding a good, small form factor case. There wasn't many choices out there. I'm hoping that the Steam machines will sell some of their case models seperately!

1
NihlusGreen Avatar
663
3 Years ago

Yes some of those cases look brilliant, would like to be able to purchase separately also

1
icheyne Avatar
223
3 Years ago

Very disappointing. I was looking forward to buying a Steam Machine, but I'm pessimistic now, a big change from a year ago.

In a recent interview with Gabe Newell and Erik Johnson from Valve about all their innovation, they didn't mention Steam Machines *once*.

https://soundcloud.com/gameslice/valve

1
Belimawr Avatar
1288
3 Years ago

they always were going to be underpowered and overpriced machines with no real target audience than the type of person who goes out and buys a £2000 PC "because it must be the best option for gaming"

.

I get hate everytime I say this, but these have nothing to give anyone if you really look at them. they aren't simplified enough for the console players, the majority of gamers self build so will see how overpriced they are, the low end gamer they will be mostly seen as too expensive when compared to other low end prebuilt systems leaving only the group who buy the most expensive thing going because it has to be best.

1
Fraser Brown Avatar
960
3 Years ago

A lot of people build their own rigs, but the majority? Seems unlikely.

1
KeefBaker Avatar
393
3 Years ago

Yeah, the kind of people who comment on game sites, and in fact regularly read game sites likely are all self-builders but your average joe?

Nah. This stuff is an afterthought. Just buy it and it's done.

I drive a car... I have no idea how to repair it but I'm sure on a car enthusiast website someone would say "most people tinker with their cars" and everyone who goes to that site would agree.

1
Fraser Brown Avatar
960
Fraser Brown replied to KeefBaker
3 Years ago

I make my living writing about PC games and even I don't build my own rigs. I did once, years ago, and found it to be a massive hassle. I think most people here would be comfortable upgrading their GPU and the like, but not necessarily building the whole PC.

2
Belimawr Avatar
1288
3 Years ago

but thats the point the people who don't self build are still unlikely to ever buy one of these as the type of person who buys prebuilts mostly goes off numbers and the numbers don't stack up anywhere near the alternatives.

.

the point still stands they have no real market, but by saying self build it does technically have a double meaning now with the amount of sites that allow you to configure your own PC.

.

but as for building a PC being a hassle, really if you can work lego you can build a PC, they are idiot proof anyway and 90% of components/sockets will only fit in the place they are meant to go and software is getting to the point of automation, where you install windows then stick in a driver disc and everything installs the latest drivers from the net. there is actually pretty much no setup these days unless you want to overclock.

1
Fraser Brown Avatar
960
Fraser Brown replied to Belimawr
3 Years ago

I agree about the potential market, I was just chirping in about your comment in regards to building rigs yourself.

Here's the thing: there's sort of this theme among PC gamers who also build their own rigs. You see it in the comments section of almost every PC site. That building a PC is as easy as just shoving parts in slots and that any muppet could do it.

I know it can seem like that, I really do. But I think you're overestimating what a doddle it is. There are so many things that can go wrong, even if they probably won't. The issue isn't so much putting the PC together, it's sourcing what the problem is when something goes wrong.

I've built a PC, and I'll never do it again. It was tedious at best, and then frustrating when I had to find the source of a couple of issues, one of which ended up being the GPU, and the other was an issue with the heatsink.

These issues can happen with a prebuilt PC, but at least then you can go "Oh, it doesn't work, back to the shop it goes." When you're building it yourself, you have to know what the hell is going wrong first.

1
Smaloki Avatar
1
3 Years ago

The issues mentioned in the article apply to the Alienware Alpha, not to the actual Steam machines. They stem from the fact the Alpha is using Windows instead of SteamOS and a 360 gamepad instead of the Steam controller.

The point of the article is not "Steam Machines are terrible", it's "Wait until the actual Steam Machines are out" (it's even in the title).

1
DaVince Avatar
2
3 Years ago

Notice this line:

"why you should wait for the real Steam Machine"

"The Alpha feels like a halfway step."

Steam running on Windows and without Valve's controller is obviously not going to be as good as the real deal, so don't let this machine influence your final behavior too much. :)

1
=NoCry= Linux Avatar
6
3 Years ago

Alienware Alpha is not an official Steam machine

Does not have the logo of steam And a Steam Machine need to have steamOS and Steam controller

1
rcrssmn Avatar
3
3 Years ago

The Alpha, part for part, costs less than building your own, especially if you want the size factor. The Area 51 is also cheaper than building your own at equivelent specs, considering the base twin Titan Z model costs $4500, and a single Titan Z card costs $3000

1
NihlusGreen Avatar
663
3 Years ago

Can we get some articles, eventually, in regards to building your own Steam Box / HTPC combo?

Maybe another article about dual OS (Steam OS / win 7 or even 10)?

Article on new innovative cases that suit the living room? i.e. something stylish with dimensions similar to a AV Receiver.

Let's face it most of us have a spare component or two.

1
[PWNY] Fluttersnipe Avatar
194
3 Years ago

Lotta nice ones out there! I agree with the above statement.

Only problem with the boxes that go in a cabinet are the power supplies, they're generally pieces of shit, and they're integrated, so you're stuck with the one you get with the box.

1
Fattox Avatar
465
3 Years ago

Yep, very hard to find a case that is flat and slim like that. I'm also not sure you could even fit a regular GPU in such a flat case, unless you had a riser card, or riser cable + mounted it somehow inside - https://regebro.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/riser-cards-mounted.jpg

.

I ended up going with a Fractal Node 304, but this is about half the width and twice the height as something like an AV receiver. It suited me OK though, since i needed space for a few HDDs for file storage/backups. It also fits an ATX PSU, which is nice since i usually have a spare.

2
DaVince Avatar
2
3 Years ago

While a PC is a PC, a lot of these issues:

A) sound like non-issues on actual SteamOS, where you'd never have to run a game as administrator and where the system would crash back into Steam rather than a desktop

B) would be a non-issue as the Steam controller that it comes with is also detected as a HID device (so you can use it as a mouse).

1
zahid.shabir Avatar
1
3 Years ago

i would rather see a windows pc with steam running alongside it because that is what PC's are for running windows with only steam OS it will be like a PS4 or XBOX ONE with mouse and keyboard compatibility which is not what i want

1
peregrin5 Avatar
1
2 Years ago

I looked at the pros and cons for both the Alpha and Alienware's new Steam Machine, and I think only crazy people would go with the Steam Machine. It runs SteamOS. Most games do not run on SteamOS. You would have to wait for all of these developers to port them to SteamOS, meanwhile, why should they? The market of people willing to buy Steam Machines are so small? The price is the same as the Alpha and with the Alpha, you can play ANY game that a PC can play, even browser games, which SteamOS likely won't support or at least, won't support well. SteamOS will die out as there's no real reason to use it, when you can get a comparable PC for the same exact price. The Alpha is a great low price gaming PC.

1
=NoCry= Linux Avatar
6
3 Years ago

Alienware Alpha is not an official Steam machine

Does not have the logo of steam And a Steam Machine need to have steamOS and Steam controller

0
rcrssmn Avatar
3
3 Years ago

It's actually pretty powerful, and even at the same specs, people can't custom build cheaper. The graphics card is also based on the 860m, but a much more powerful variant

1