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Behind the scenes with the Alienware Alpha: the first Steambox

Metro: Last Light will run comfortably on 'high' on the Alienware Alpha.

You might have heard of the Alienware Alpha. When it was announced last year, a cynic might have called it a stopgap machine – something for Dell to produce while they wait for the delayed SteamOS and Steam Controller to come and kickstart the living room PC industry. But as it turns out, it’s far more compelling than that.

What Alienware have made is a Windows machine that never asks you to navigate Windows. Instead, the Alpha represents the marriage of Steam Big Picture Mode to Alienware’s own controller-friendly interface. It’s a living room PC that doesn’t require you to keep a mouse and keyboard under the telly; that takes full advantage of Windows’ swollen Steam catalogue, and ubiquitous developer support for the Xbox 360 controller.

It’s been out since Christmas and costs $549 or 499 euro.

“It’s unique,” says Alienware’s Frank Azor. “Very few companies will be able to provide something like this due to the amount of engineering, development and thoughtfulness we’ve had to put in.”

Rather than twiddle their thumbs and wait for the Steam Controller with the rest of us, Alienware have recognised that the PC has already had its gamepad revolution.

The Xbox 360 pad and third-party receiver have long been a staple of our desks. And so it’s the Xbox 360 pad that’ll ship with the Alpha.

“The reason we chose the 360 pad is due to its huge popularity and its existing PC support,” explained Azor. “This is definitely good enough, but the Steam gamepad gives us some hope for something better in the future.”

With SteamOS still in beta, the Alpha will be built on Windows – but that, too, brings its own populist advantages.

“That’s what gives us access to 3100 Steam games and the entire library of Valve and everything,” says Frank. “The Linux version I do think you’re going to sacrifice a little bit of content.”

Where only five to ten percent of PC games were controller-enabled a decade ago, Steam now hosts over 500 gamepad-compatible games on Windows – 200 of which offer local multiplayer support. Figures the console manufacturers would kill to be able to quote at a hardware launch.

But, Alienware protest, the Alpha wasn’t necessarily intended to play the same games you would on console – though it can certainly do that. It was built to provide a living room home to the “hundreds of Steam games that have full controller support that aren’t available on any other platform.”

Alienware’s journey to the Alpha began three years ago with the X51 – the higher-end PC that could be reasonably comfortably laid sideways under your TV. The Alpha is much smaller in size, and has a “more fixed configuration”.

But it’s still a proper PC – plug in a mouse and keyboard, and the machine will give you the option to boot into a fairly ordinary version of Windows 8.1. That’s your slightly faffy option if you want to play Origin games on the Alpha, for instance.

“It is [faffy], but the big difference is at least the customer has the option to do it,” says Frank. “It’s an open console. It’s finally a device that allows you to do everything you wanna do, and you make the choices, not some big company.”

Leave mouse and keyboard in the study, and you can navigate between Steam games using Alienware’s custom controller interface.

You’ll be able to fiddle with wi-fi, screen-scaling and audio sources through the controller menus, and downloads will be handled automatically at start-up – much as they are on the consoles.

Alienware have plans for more functionality later on, including music and movies. But they’re working with Valve to ensure they don’t double up with Steam and Big Picture Mode. In fact, Alienware hope to the gaps in Valve’s app catalogue.

“If Valve is working with somebody else and you want Netflix and they don’t have a deal, but we’ve got a deal in place: then bam,” says Frank.

As you’d expect given the Alpha’s price, it’s mid-range hardware – but comfortably so. At GamesCom, Alienware had the Alpha running Metro: Last Light at 1080p on ‘high’ settings.

“We do have a quad-core in here and we have a very powerful graphics chip, but it’s mid to high-end as defined by today,” says Frank. All versions of the Alpha run a variant of the 860M.

“We recommend to customers to play at medium settings; basically it’s not a $2000 desktop that can play everything to the max – it has its limitations.”

But Alienware plan to release new versions of the hardware much more regularly than the consoles – every two years, rather than every six or seven.

And when SteamOS arrives with gamepad support, you’ll be able to pick a version: the Alpha on Windows, or the (slightly cheaper) Alpha on SteamOS. Alienware are also looking into letting customers upgrade (“or side-grade”) from Windows to SteamOS at a later date.

“It’s sort of natural,” says Frank. “The content has evolved, the controllers have evolved but the consoles – like the Playstation and Xbox – are making such small evolutionary leaps, they’re still so restricted and limited in what they can do.

“Even though they have more functionality than the Alienware Alpha does today with the media streaming and all that, it’s still limited by what the parent company allows you to do. They haven’t evolved fast enough and I think the Alpha is a really unique device that’s hopefully going to revolutionise that aspect of devices and ecosystems.”