Alienware was the first PC maker out the door with an officially supported Steam Machine last fall. The Alienware Steam Machine also did double duty as the Alpha, a compact, powerful living-room PC that could run both Windows and Steam's Big Picture mode.
The second iteration of the Alpha and Alienware Steam Machine are out this month. The Alpha R2 delivers more power, the ability to run a graphics amp, a new user interface and some extra ports.
But is it the sort of machine you would want to use playing games on your big screen from the couch?
The Alpha R2 runs from $600 to $950, with only the high-end model supporting the use of a graphics amp. We tested the top model running a quad-core 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7-6700T processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 and 8GB of RAM. We also got to test out Alienware's graphics amplifier. Even without the graphics amp, this year's top-of-the-line version of the Alpha can outperform last year's model by about 60 percent.
The Alpha R2 uses the same petite design — just about 8 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches — as the original. It has two USB ports located on the front, and around back there are two more USB ports, a LAN jack, an optical audio out, a graphics amplifier port and two HDMI ports designed to allow you to pass a signal through your system. That slick panel on the underside of the machine still hides an extra USB port, though this one is free to use since it's not housing the Steam controller dongle.
You'll also still find Alienware's trademark, light-up alien head logo on the front of the system, and a corner panel that can light up as well.
While this system was noticeably more powerful than the original Steam Machine and Alpha, it was also noticeably louder, especially when I started playing graphics-intensive games.
The Alpha R2 is still held together by four screws. Once you've removed them, though, you'll find a system that is mostly easy to upgrade. Changing your memory requires removing the top plate, which just pops off once you've removed the screws, and then removing one of the two relatively massive fans in the system (each one is held in with easy-to-use clips). You can get to the hard drive by removing the backplate of the computer. Once inside, you remove a single screw and slide out the hard drive and the plate it is attached to. Then you have to remove the four screws holding the hard drive in place. It's worth noting that you'll want to research the replacement parts before you get started, because there is no wiggle room.
If you're inclined to use this chiefly as a Steam Machine, Alienware sells a Steam Machine Alpha R2, which boots up on SteamOS, making it easier to navigate the storefront and your gaming library using a Steam Controller or standard gamepad.
If you'd rather keep your system booting up on Windows 10 and manually dropping into the Steam Big Screen mode, you can do that too.
Alienware is also working on updating its Hivemind user interface, a system that is designed to be navigated with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard, and make getting to the most common apps you'd use on a big screen a lot easier.
Alienware sent me a beta of the latest version of Hivemind to check out on the R2.
On boot-up, the Hivemind is impressive, dropping a user directly into a nearly empty screen with a single row of large icons running across its center.
Using a controller, the user can quickly slide between icons for games, music, pictures, settings and apps. Once an icon is selected, a deeper menu pops up showing what's available. The first layer inside the games selection, for instance, shows a number of services like GOG, Steam and Battle.net. There's also an option for auto-searching for installed games and going into a games menu that lists all the titles discovered on your system.
The concept is smart, making the Alpha R2 as easy to navigate as a cable box while letting you quickly dig into your form of entertainment and find what you're looking for.
Unfortunately, in practice, the Hivemind still has a lot of bugs.
I couldn't, for instance, get the UI to install Battle.net, and it wouldn't recognize that I already had the service on the system. I was able to manually locate it and quickly create an icon, but the preinstalled Battle.net icon remained as well.
I also occasionally ran into issues of the controller losing its connection as the system switched between its own user interface, the desktop and the game's interface.
While finding music and pictures stored on the system itself was very easy, it was just as complicated as you might expect to add networked drives. I'm not averse to setting up network drives, but the sudden ramp-up of difficulty compared to the near automation of everything else was jarring. I also suspect that there will be a lot of people not willing or able to go through the effort of dealing with networked drives.
What I'd love to see is a user interface for the Alpha R2 that makes finding networked images, games and music as easy as Steam makes sharing games or Amazon's Echo makes sharing music.
The ability to move between Alienware's Hivemind big-screen mode and a standard desktop was nice, and delivered the amount of control I'm used to while aiming to make it as simple as using Steam's Big Picture mode.
Current plans have the final release of the Hivemind hitting late next month or in early September.
I've always loved the idea of a graphics amp. Being able to upgrade the graphics card of a system typically designed to use only onboard graphics chips is a wonderful boon.
Originally designed, or hacked together, for laptops, graphics amplifiers have become even more useful amid the rise of micro PCs and some fragboxes.
There are several on the market now, but the top two seem to be from Alienware and Razer.
Alienware's $200 graphics amp weighs just under 8 pounds and is 7 inches by 16 inches by about 7 inches. That isn't huge by desktop standards, but sitting next to the tiny R2, it looks enormous.
The sloped and vented rectangular box pops open the like the hood of a car once you release a latch on the back. Inside the box is a 460-watt power supply that powers a USB hub with four USB 3.0 ports on the back of the amp, as well as a cooling fan and lighting; it supports a graphics card requiring up to 375 watts. The amp supports PCI-Express x16 cards.
Installation of a card is a breeze. You just pop open the system, remove one or two low-profile screws, slap in the card and screw it in place. The box has two 6+2 pin power cables, both neatly tucked away and plugged into dummy ports in the bottom of the case when not in use.
It's worth noting that I had to wrestle a bit with the amp to get it to fully open the first time, but after that initial use it became a bit easier to pop open.
Once installed, you simply turn off your laptop or, in this case, the Alpha R2, and use the proprietary cable to connect the amp to your computer via a special port. Currently, only a handful of laptops and the Alpha R2 include the proprietary port.
Upon boot-up, the amp surges to life and your PC is automatically using the installed graphics card.
I tested out the system with a GTX 1060 card, and was happy to see the jump in performance, one relative to what sort of card you drop into the amp. Not only does this make it possible to upgrade the graphics of a system that usually can't get that sort of jump, it also likely impacts the temperatures of the system.
I noticed that with the built-in GPU no longer being used, the R2's fans didn't seem to kick into overdrive as much. The amp's housing, fully ventilated and with its own fans, seemed more than capable of helping to keep the graphic card's temperatures down.
While the system did exactly what it was meant to do, I'm not sure it's the best option for the Alpha R2. The R2 sits inconspicuously on my built-in bookshelves under the television. You hardly notice it's there. But the graphics amp is so large I haven't yet figured out where to put it. Currently, it sits on the floor in front of the bookcases.
Of course, this wouldn't be the case if I were using the amp to boost the performance of a laptop I use in my office. It's much smaller than your typical desktop computer, and the provided cable is long enough to tuck it away neatly under a desk or out of sight.
At $200, not counting the cost of a graphics card, I'd make sure you've thought through placement of the amp before you decide whether to pick one up.
The Razer Turret
While a Steam Machine is meant to run without the need for a keyboard and mouse, the Alienware Alpha R2 will need some keyboard-and-mouse assistance at the minimum. You may also want the duo for some gaming without a gamepad. (A lapboard could come in handy for that — check out our impressions of the Corsair Lapdog and Roccat Sova.)
I decided to check out the Razer Turret while testing the Alpha R2 over the past week or so, to see how it did for traditional mouse and keyboard gaming.
The Turret comes with a diminutive 3500 DPI wireless mouse, a chiclet-keycapped wireless lapboard, a 2.4 GHz adapter dongle and a charging dock with a wall adapter.
It's a neat setup with a lot of tiny touches built in, touches illustrating that Razer put a lot of thought into how someone might use and store their Turret.
The charging dock, for instance, holds both the foldable lapboard and the mouse in an upright position, one neatly in front of the other. The 2.4 GHz dongle fits neatly inside the mouse when you're not using it. My favorite little touch, though, is that the play surface built into the lapboard is slightly magnetized. It's just enough to prevent your mouse from falling off the board if you let go of it for a second while leaned back, but not enough to make it noticeable while playing.
Setup for the Turret is a breeze ... that is, if you don't have issues with using 2.4 GHz.
Initially, I set up the Turret to work using 2.4 GHz, plugging the tiny adapter into the back of the Alpha R2. But I noticed that the mouse's movement was erratic when I tried using it sitting on my couch about 15 feet away. Once I figured out that the issue was the bandwidth — I'm still not sure what is causing the interference — I switched it over to Bluetooth, which is also supported, and the issues went away.
However, you absolutely need to make sure you're using Razer's drivers. Without them, the DPI, which can be adjusted on the fly, was far too ramped up for me to use easily.
With the system set to Bluetooth and the drivers installed, I finally had a chance to check out both systems in games.
As a major mechanical keyboard snob, I would never want to use this sort of keyboard on a regular basis. That said, being able to quickly grab a wireless, fully charged keyboard, then walk to the couch and start using it with a mouse — without having to lean over a coffee table — is a major plus.
The keyboard folds out to include a tiny, almost too tiny, mouse surface so you can play while leaning back in your seat of choice. There's a power button and a switch for Bluetooth or 2.4 GHz selection on one edge.
Once I adjusted to the size of the keyboard and key placement, I didn't really notice any issues with the board. The mouse, though, is so, so tiny. It's so tiny that even my 15-year-old son says it's too small. The mouse features two buttons up front and then two on both the left and right edges of the top of the mouse, used for adjusting your DPI on the fly. The underside features a switch to turn the mouse off or put it in Bluetooth or 2.4 GHz mode. You can pop off the top to get to the lithium-polymer rechargeable batteries or the 2.4 GHz dongle.
As small as the mouse is, the built-in play surface is even tinier. I simply couldn't play a game without a lot of lifting and recentering of the mouse.
I was able to use the setup, but it probably didn't result in my best performance in Overwatch.
There's no way I would find this acceptable on a system I use to play at my desk. But leaning back on a couch, 15 feet or so from a big-screen television, I can live with it. And it's more than capable as a solution for nongaming applications like writing or bumbling around Windows.
The biggest drawback for the board, outside of its almost-too-small size, is the price tag: $160.
That said, if you're willing to adjust to the smaller size in exchange for a wireless setup that is ready whenever you are and fits in nicely with the rest of your entertainment system, it's almost worth the price.
With the ability to upgrade the CPU, the hard drive, the wireless adapter and — if you're willing to buy and put up with a graphics amp — even the graphics card, it feels like Alienware has finally landed on a system that is as easy to use as it is to upgrade. Tie into that a new breed of lapboards, including Razer's uniquely designed wireless Turret, and you've got a powerful new set of couch gaming tools.
Where the original Alienware Steam Machine felt like a system one update away from what I was looking for, this new take on the same hardware seems to finally hit the sweet spot. Once the kinks are worked out on the Hivemind software and it's officially launched, I could see this becoming a major new way for me to play games from the couch without using a gaming console.