The Alienware Alpha sounds awesome. It's smaller and more powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One. It doubles as an actual Windows PC! But be warned: it's not as easy to use as a game console, not as foolproof. It's not nearly the slam dunk I was hoping it would be.
What Is It?
Probably the smallest gaming PC you've ever seen. A black box just under 2.5 inches tall, 8 inches wide, and 8 inches deep. A box designed to act like a game console: it comes with an Xbox 360 wireless controller, a custom interface, and Steam's TV-friendly Big Picture Mode so you don't need a mouse and keyboard to find or play your games from 10+ feet away.
For £449, a box that crams in a dual-core 2.9GHz Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, a custom GeForce GTX 860M GPU, a 500GB hard drive, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. That's some serious value for money. There are also pricier configurations, but you probably shouldn't bother.
Why Does It Matter?
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One might be hot shit right now, but PCs have more games, cheaper games, and can usually make those games look way prettier. Still, PCs can be a pain in the ass to use, particularly plugged into a TV. You can't just pop in a disc, pick up a controller and start playing. The Alienware Alpha wants to be the best of both worlds: a PC game console. Sounds like a great idea, no?
Originally, the Alpha was going to be the flagship for Valve's Steam Machines initative, and come with both the innovative Steam Controller and the Linux-based SteamOS. When Valve dropped off the map, Alienware decided to ship it with Windows and an Xbox 360 controller instead. Needless to say, there are upsides and downsides to that decision.
The first thing that struck me about the Alpha is how small it is. Smaller than my Xbox 360, smaller than my PlayStation 4. It's closer to the size of a Nintendo Wii, just a little stouter and more squared-off. It's fairly plain and boxy, save for one lopped-off corner and the alien head power button on the front. Both glow in the colours of your choice when the system is on.
The second thing that struck me is how freaking long it takes to get the Alpha set up.
It's not the plugs: physically, I only needed to plug in the laptop-grade power brick, an HDMI cable, and the included Xbox 360 wireless adapter to get it hooked up to my plasma TV. The problem was navigating through Windows setup screens, signing in with my Microsoft account, registering an Alienware email, setting up an Alienware password, signing license agreements, downloading and install multiple sets of updates and enduring several lengthy reboots before I could do a damn thing with the system. It took me literally an entire hour to get up and running. And you can't just walk away to make a sandwich and expect things to be ready when you get back: if you want things to proceed, you've gotta press buttons.
To Alienware's credit, you can get through the entire setup process with only the Xbox 360 controller, which pretends to be a mouse. Though it's not particularly easy or fun to tap out usernames and passwords with the left analogue stick, at least you can do it from the comfort of your couch.
But even once you're fully set up in Steam Big Picture Mode, you'll still need to buy and/or install games — which, unlike PS4 and Xbox One, only download one at a time and can't be played until they're fully downloaded and installed on your machine. (So much for PC superiority.) You also can't start playing the first game while you download others in the background, at least not by default: You have to specifically enable that setting in Steam Big Picture Mode.
So at this point, you should probably do what I did: tell Steam to install a whole bunch of games overnight, and call it an evening.
When I woke up the next day, over a dozen games ready to go, my frustration subsided a bit. But I soon encountered a whole bunch of other unexpected issues. Like the painfully slow 5400rpm hard drive that Alienware never should have shipped with this system. Booting the system is slow. Launching Steam is slow. The user interface is slow. Games launch so slowly that Steam often seems to think they've failed to launch at all. And while I play games that rely on the hard drive—particularly games with big open-world areas like
Batman: Arkham City—they suffer from stuttering framerates and visual ugliness as they fail to load parts of the world quickly enough.
It's a shame, because otherwise the Alpha's hardware is pretty damn robust. All my go-to, graphically intensive benchmark games run beautifully. The Witcher 2 looks playable at 1080p and medium settings. BioShock Infinite runs at 1080p and the Very High preset. Ditto Tomb Raider at 1080p and High. Crysis 3 and Titanfall are solid at 1080p and medium settings. I didn't expect that for £449.
If you're primarily a console gamer, what does "1080p and medium" really mean? Generally speaking, it means giving those game consoles a run for their money. On Xbox One, for instance, Titanfall only runs at 792p. It's noticeably less crisp, and it's harder to snipe enemies at a distance. Still, it's worth noting that console games can look better if they've been carefully optimized: Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition had way more eye candy on my PS4 than the Alpha, and a smoother framerate too.
But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. Even though every single one of my five benchmark games natively supports the Xbox 360 controller, you can't actually
launch all of them without a keyboard and mouse. The Alpha doesn't yet support EA's Origin game service, so you have to go to the Windows desktop to install and run EA games like Crysis 3 and Titanfall. And as for The Witcher 2, it's one of many games that requires a few mouse clicks to start the game and enable the gamepad before you can actually use it.
("Gamepad Detected. Would you like to use your connected gamepad to play?" asks
Dead Space 2. The only way to click "OK" is with a mouse.)
And even games you can launch with the controller won't always look right at first. Many games I tried launched in a small 720p window instead of filling the entire screen. Unlike with a PlayStation or Xbox where a game can always assume you have specific hardware, PC games often assume the worst.
Thankfully, Alienware has a few neat tricks up the Alpha's sleeves to deal with some of these issues. If you hold down both triggers and both bumpers on the Xbox 360 gamepad and press Up on the D-Pad, you can toggle fullscreen mode to fix those games that launch in a window. If you press in the left thumbstick with the same two-bumper-two-trigger shortcut, the gamepad can pretend to be a mouse for those games that require a click or two before they'll actually launch. Try the same shortcut with left or right on the D-Pad, and you can switch between apps—great for when your entire screen goes black because a game is misbehaving. (Ugh.)
Still, none of those help you play The Witcher 2 or other games that actually require a keyboard. And if you want surround sound in your games, or a USB headset to voice chat with your Steam friends, you'll need a mouse and keyboard for those too. You can only set those up on the Windows desktop, and Alienware won't let you go there without the right peripherals—even if the controller's mouse emulator is technically decent enough to click through to the Windows 8.1 audio settings menu.
This might also be a good time to mention that there's no good way to turn on the system from your couch, either. Alienware recommends using sleep mode, since you can wake it up that way by just pressing a button on the controller, but I had all sorts of issues. Often, the system would wake up all by itself after I put it to sleep. Other times I'd run into nasty issues when waking up again, like completely muted audio. Which means another trip to the Windows desktop, because there's not a damn way to fix that inside the Alpha UI or Steam Big Picture Mode.
The Xbox One and PS4 have Blu-ray drives. The Alpha has no optical drive, and currently plays no movies of any sort in console mode.
The Xbox One and PS4 have plenty of media apps. The Alpha can play whatever you want... in Windows as long as you install it. In Steam Big Picture, it has a web browser but no Flash or Silverlight, so no Netflix and Hulu out of the box.
The Xbox One and PS4 can livestream your games. The Alpha can take screencaps with Steam Big Picture, but that's all. Again, Twitch and the like should work in the Windows desktop, but then we're talking mouse and keyboard which probably means you're not sitting on your sofa.
But You Said This Was Awesome?
It can be! By now, I think I've established that the Alpha is at least a few software updates shy of being a no-brainer game console. But that doesn't mean there's no payoff if you're willing to deal with a little pain. After I spent some quality time on the Windows desktop setting up my surround sound, installing my Origin games, and messing around with graphical settings so my games run at the proper fullscreen resolution, I tried
just playing games for a bit. It was great.
I stopped playing the new Devil May Cry months ago. Thanks to Steam, I just picked up exactly where I left off—only now with a comfy couch, surround sound, and a gorgeous plasma screen. I beat Hotline Miami when it first came out, and couldn't bring myself to replay. Now I'm kicking in doors and heads to the tune of Daft Punk on my quality living-room speakers.
And I found so many more controller-friendly games I wanted to play that way.
New stuff like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Shadow of Mordor, Alien Isolation and The Evil Within. Slightly older games like Dark Souls 2, Saints Row 4, Devil May Cry, Deus Ex Human Revolution and Grid 2. Remakes like Resident Evil 4 and Fable Anniversary, indies like The Swapper and Shovel Knight, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable and Guacamelee.
And perhaps best of all, crazy couch games like Towerfall, Speedrunners, Broforce, Spelunky, Monaco, Nidhogg and Jamestown, where friends can just bring their Xbox 360 wireless gamepads (you can connect four to the single Microsoft adapter) and all play on the same screen. Oh, and Ultimate Street Fighter IV, for that matter.
Sure, you could do a bunch of that with a laptop, an Xbox 360 wireless adapter, and a HDMI cable, but it probably won't be much of a laptop for £449. It wouldn't play the more graphically intensive games at 1080p. And while you might be able to piece together a desktop computer that could for the money, it'd be nearly impossible to get it down to the size of Alienware's Alpha machine.
It's powerful for the price. Small, too! Easy to drop it in a bag and carry to a friend's house. Fantastic for LAN parties. The customisable lighting is kind of cool. Five USB 3.0 ports (one for USB dongles, hidden under a panel) gives me plenty of connectivity. Nice to be able to plug another game console into the HDMI input and pass it through to my receiver.
Runs cooler and quieter than PS4, and more power-efficient than either next-gen console. I measured just 30-50 watts at idle and 85W under load, compared to 70-80W at idle and 100-150W under load for the PS4 and Xbox One.
Incredibly easy to upgrade most components: just four Philips-head screws to open the case, and you've got easy access to the hard drive, CPU, wireless card, and RAM. Shame you can't upgrade the GPU.
Alienware is promising monthly updates to the Alpha including faster performance, faster boot times, more functionality, easier access to desktop mode with the controller, and a "stupidly easy" installer for Steam OS once Valve gets it in gear. You even tell them what updates you'd like by commenting on this handy-dandy support page.
That blasted 5400rpm hard drive. Not a single one of Alienware's pricier configs has a faster storage option. I asked.
No recovery partition means you can't easily swap out that drive unless you plan to clone it yourself. If you ask, Alienware will send you an installation image on a USB stick, but it doesn't come in the box. Steam Big Picture Mode is currently terrible at showcasing the best controller games. Only a few of the ones I mention reliably show up in the store when I'm looking for games to buy.
I can't believe a device designed to plug into a home cinema setup comes without easy access to surround sound options.
The Alpha doesn't play nice with my Pioneer receiver. Every time I restart the machine, my screen goes purple until I unplug and replug the HDMI cable. Alienware swears it works fine with other receivers they've tested, and it's fine plugged directly into my TV set too.
Optical audio out is important, but no 3.5mm audio jack means it's tough to get audio out of the Alpha if you plug it into an HDMI monitor instead of a TV. It's not common to see speakers with optical input in an office or a dorm room. Headphones make more sense. But if you're using the Alpha as a computer, I guess you can get USB headphones anyway.
Sleep mode feels extremely buggy and I don't trust it at all.
Should You Buy It?
Do you want a game console? Then buy a game console instead. The Alpha proves there are way too many things that need to be fixed—not just by Alienware, but game developers and Valve and Microsoft too—before a Windows box will be anywhere near as easy as an Xbox or PlayStation.
If you want a gaming PC that fits into the living room better than any gaming PC ever made, warts and all, the Alpha might actually be the ticket. If you do, buy the £449 base model and spend a little extra on a SSD or hybrid hard drive to replace the one that comes standard. Upgrade the RAM yourself. Keep a mouse and keyboard around, just in case.
But if you just want to wait and see what happens on the PC-as-console front, it'd be hard to blame you. The Alienware Alpha is pretty half-baked. It might get a lot better. It might not. Today, there's nothing else like the Alpha, and I don't expect that to change overnight. But by the time it gets better, something new might come along.