The Alienware Alpha is the most console-like gaming PC we've ever seen, but can it find its footing without SteamOS?
The Alpha was announced at this year’s CES show in January as one of the first partner devices for Valve’s Steam Machine program. As originally shown, Alienware planned to ship the Alpha with Valve’s custom build of the Linux operating system, known as SteamOS, along with support for the now hundreds of games updated to run on the open source platform.
But in May, Valve announced that its custom Steam controller, along with the 1.0 release of SteamOS, would be delayed, releasing to manufacturers and customers some time in early 2015. This left Alienware with a product outside of the potential excitement and hype of Valve’s would-be onslaught on both Windows gaming and next-generation consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Set back but not willing to wait, Alienware is trying an admittedly placeholder strategy. It’s still relying on Steam’s platform for the games, but Alienware is making moves to bridge the gap between Valve’s storefront and launch pad and the Windows software Valve seems so eager to escape.
Alienware is most interested in talking about the Alpha’s hardware at E3 this year. The reasons for this are two-fold.
First, the Alpha is a clever feat of OEM engineering. It rests in a custom Alienware case, with the smallest form factor I’ve ever seen in a dedicated gaming desktop. It has an external 130 watt power supply — if you’ve seen a hefty gaming laptop in the last several years, you’ll get the idea, or, if you prefer, think of the Xbox One’s power brick as a point of comparison — but the chassis itself is around half the depth of a Wii U and just slightly wider and taller. It comes to a very, very slight offset pyramid top, so slight in fact that you could still probably stack something on top of it.
The case seemed silent while operating, though it’s hard to say this with any real conviction given how close Alienware’s area at E3 was to publisher Ubisoft’s Just Dance performance space. Regardless, Alienware General Manager Frank Azor stressed that the Alpha should run nearly silently, and I believe him. From the outside, the Alpha appears to be well ventilated, and Alienware has demonstrated a knack for building quiet PCs when they’re so inclined.
The Alienware representatives I spoke with at this year’s show emphasized that the heart of the system rests with a custom Nvidia chipset based on its Maxwell architecture. Maxwell may be familiar to PC enthusiasts, as the line has been touted by Nvidia as its successor to Kepler GPUs like the GTX Titan.
According to Alienware, there’s no current direct comparison to be made between the Alpha’s GPU and existing hardware. But Nvidia has already released lower-end Maxwell GPUs, including the GTX 750 Ti which, like the Alpha, has 2GB of video memory. The 750 Ti also demonstrates the Maxwell architecture’s power efficiency, which would serve the Alpha’s limited power supply well.
This GPU is powering Alienware’s promises of 1080p, “next-gen” gaming in a small form-factor PC, but it has its work cut out for it, at least at the Alpha’s entry-level, $549 USD configuration. With an Intel Core i3 processor and just 4GB of 1600 Mhz DDR3 RAM, the Alpha seems spec’ed below the recommended requirements for recent titles. Luckily, there are i5 and i7 options as well, and users can upgrade everything but the GPU on their own.
It’s not all bad news, either. The Alpha features 802.11AC WiFi in addition to its gigabit Ethernet connection. More interestingly, Valve’s delay of the Steam controller has forced Alienware toward a different, more established standard: the Xbox 360 wireless controller. Every Alpha will ship with both a wireless controller and a Microsoft wireless dongle.
The move to Microsoft’s established standard puts Alienware in a more console oriented space than Valve’s yet-to-be-released input device. As multiple Alienware reps reminded me, there are hundreds of games on Steam that natively support the Xbox 360 controller, and it functions well with Big Picture mode. And, as Azor pointed out, there are more and more local co-op games on PC, making the inclusion of the wireless dongle a savvy bet.
Even if Alienware has the hardware they need to make a new space for itself in living rooms, the question remains whether it will be able to provide the user experience to make it viable. Valve’s delay of SteamOS hasn’t stopped the OEM from planning a Holiday 2014 release for the Alpha, but it has put it in a difficult spot, which brings us to the second reason Alienware is so focused on talking about the Alpha’s hardware at E3: the software isn’t ready yet.
Alienware’s post-SteamOS delay plan is a custom-configured Windows 8.1 installation that ignores the desktop as much as possible. Starting the Alpha up will lead directly into an app front-end to launch Steam Big Picture or change the PC’s settings. The company is working in conjunction with an external software developer to build the Alpha’s UI, but it’s still early days — it’s not ready to be shown externally, and the working Alpha demo units I saw were using a very rough, placeholder set of graphics and interface to load into Big Picture.
Despite some hiccups to be expected from software that’s just five weeks or so old, the idea could work. Sitting in chairs around a table, holding wireless controllers and playing Warner Bros’ upcoming PC-exclusive Gauntlet reboot did feel like a console experience. Teamwork in person is easier than teamwork via Skype or other VOIP/team chat options, and the natural sense of camaraderie that emerges in physical space is unique.
Challenges remain. Alienware’s fortunes with the Alpha are tied to Valve’s software, something it has little control over. Big Picture Mode has improved in the last year but still falls short of the reliability users find in living room-native platforms. The installation and setup process for PC games still frequently requires traditional input devices to navigate, about as couch unfriendly a process as exists. And until SteamOS is a reality, it’s up to Alienware to establish that it has the user experience to make the Alpha at home next to a television.
We’ll find out more later this year with the Alienware Alpha’s hardware beta. The Alpha is set to launch this Holiday.