"As important as PC gaming was to our history, virtual reality is to our future. Virtual reality is a factor for every system that we’re designing moving forward and it has been for awhile."
Formed 20 years ago by a pair of friends who loved games and were big fans of The X-Files, Alienware remains a powerful player in the world of PC gaming. Ten years ago, the company was purchased by Dell, but general manager Frank Azor says all that did was allow the company to reach a broader audience and empower its innovation and ability to take chances.
Today, those chief among those experiments are laptops and desktops designed with virtual reality in mind.
The company came to E3 this week to show off four new computers, each of which were designed to not just support today’s virtual reality, but scale to whatever the future has in store for the technology.
"All of our notebooks have a path to VR," Azor said. "Moving forward, VR is as essential to us as gaming is."
Partnered with both Vive HTC and Oculus Rift, Alienware will be putting both VR systems in all of its stores in China.
"This is purely my opinion, but I think the primary focus for the entire industry should be to get VR up and going," Azor said. "There is so much opportunity because it is such fertile ground.
"Everyone is going to be better off if we focus more people on VR, on recruiting customers and advocates."
Alienware brought four pieces of new hardware to E3 this year: a new OLED laptop, a new version of the Alpha microcomputer which it’s also selling as a Steam Machine and two massive desktops.
Azor is quick to say that the company’s first Steam Machine hasn’t done as well as Alienware hoped. He blames that on the slow rollout and the level of support for games that can run on the system without streaming, as well as games that are configured to work with the Steam controller.
"The Steam Machine has done well, but it didn’t meet the expectations that we all thought it had," he said. "We lost a lot of momentum at launch. A lot of the big titles didn’t come over. The gamepad didn’t have as many games optimized for it as we would have liked when it came out. It’s been a very slow ramp up."
The slow rollout meant that those gamers frustrated with Windows 8 and looking for an alternative had Windows 10 — which fixed many of the problems of the previous operating system — to choose from by the time the Steam Machine was easily available.
"The demand dropped for a new operating system," Azor said. "But we still sell it and we’re still investing in it."
Alienware’s first steam machine was also sold as a standard PC, the Alpha.
The chief difference between the two is that the Steam Machine launches into Valve’s online store and environment, while the Alpha uses Windows 10.
This summer, Alienware will begin rolling out a new version of the Alpha, the Alpha R2, as well as a new steam machine, the steam machine R2.
The new system took a lot of the feedback the company received from the first version and incorporated a host of changes.
The Alpha and Steam Machine R2 both use Intel’s new Skylake processor microarchitecture as well as a graphics chip that lines up with existing cards, making it easier to determine what they will run and how good those games will look. Both systems also support Alienware’s graphics amp, a secondary device that allows a user to upgrade the systems with a standard graphics card, including Nvidia’s new 10 line.
"When we originally launched the Alpha we worked with Nvidia on a GPU," Azor said. "This time around we’re explicitly coming out with branding people are familiar with."
Graphic options for the Alpha R2 are either Nvidia’s GTX 960 with 4GB DDR5 memory or AMD’s R9 M470x with 2 GB DDR5 memory.
The result is a computer with more than 60 percent higher GPU performance than the original. The system also upgrades up to an i7 6700T CPU running up to 3.6 GHz. The new architecture also brings with it DDR4 memory, up to 16 GB.
All of that stuffed into the same, tiny, sleek design of the original box, but now, with the help of a $199 Alienware graphics amp, the system could be upgraded to support both 4K gaming and virtual reality in the living room. The system starts at $599 and you can pick up the Nvidia GTX 960 model for $749. Azor says that you couldn’t build the same system yourself for less.
Alienware is also launching its first gaming notebook with an OLED display this summer.
"There’s no ghosting, no latency," Azor said. "It’s leaps and bounds faster."
The 13-inch laptop’s display has a response time of one to two milliseconds and, like most of Alienware’s small or portable devices, it supports the graphics amp.
Options include a 3.16GHz i7-6500U CPU, up to 16GB of DDR3L memory and a Nvidia GTX 965M with 4GB GDDR5 memory. The laptop starts at $1,299.
Azor also brought along two impressive new desktop computers.
The Aurora R5 is a clever redesign of the company’s classic Aurora, meant to take the place of both the Aurora R4 and the X51, as a middle of the road desktop that starts at $799.
The top of the case hides the radiator, heat exchanger and fan for a liquid cooling system. The body of the case manages to pack in a lot of tech while keeping things cool by mounting the power supply on its side next to the motherboard and above the graphics cards.
To access anything in the computer, you just unlatch the power supply (no screws here) and swing it out on an arm that holds it in place away from your motherboard. Swinging out the power supply also unlatches your graphics cards. The system supports two.
"The reason you buy a tower like this is because you plan to upgrade it regularly," Azor said. "It’s completely toolless and you can overclock the hell out of this thing."
The system includes a staggering 10 USB ports, something Azor says is necessary if someone plans to move to VR, which can take up four ports on its own. He said the engineers at Alienware also played around with the idea of either mounting the graphics card in a way that would bring the ports to the front, or cabling a port to the front of the system to make it easier to plug and unplug a VR headset.
"There are a lot of challenges with that," he said. "We don’t know if HDMI is going to stay the interface for everything in the future and if that changed it would make that port useless. That isn’t good.
"There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of risks. We don’t think it’s worth the complexity and the risk of that port becoming unusable."
Finally, Azor showed the latest Area-51, a massive, triangular desktop that now features a liquid cooled Intel i7 Broadwell-e CPU, DDR4 memory and either Nvidia SLI or AMD Crossfire technology.
Both sides can be popped off with the push of a button. One side features the motherboard and graphics card and the other grants access to the hard drive mounts.
"We are massively invested in VR," Azor said as we wrapped the interview. But, he added, that doesn’t mean that the game is downsizing its support of gaming. "A true virtual reality experience is basically a PC game. We don’t have to in any way divest in gaming."
A good example of that is a bit of experimental tech that Alienware is working with a company called Zero Latency on.
Alienware helped design special versions of the Alpha that could function on battery power and operating inside a backpack, allowing a user to strap on a VR headset, slip on a backpack and be, essentially, wire free.
There’s still no plans to start releasing the kit to consumers, but showing it off at E3 gives Alienware and Zero Latency a chance to continue to judge gamer reaction and potential demand, he said.
"We don’t want to be in too early in this space," Azor said. "We want to make sure the content is there first."