Alienware Alpha Review: A shockingly good tiny PC and console complement

Alienware's long-awaited Alpha finally arrives, but is it really the console killer or just warmed-over hardware?

The Alienware Alpha is surprisingly small as you can see with its included wireless Xbox 360 controller on top.

The Alienware Alpha is surprisingly small as you can see with its included wireless Xbox 360 controller on top.

Hardware has a shelf life like a gallon of milk. If it sits on the store shelf too long, it ends up getting poured down the drain.

That's ultimately the ugly story behind Alienware's Alpha game console. The Alpha was always intended to run Valve's much hyped Steam OS, but when the alternative OS didn't show up this summer, Alienware decided it had to ship its Steam Machine sans Steam OS before the hardware turned sour.

That's a long way of saying the Alpha is, for the most part, a Hail-Mary move that has (at first glance,)a lot going against it. It's not as upgradeable as most gaming PCs, nor is it as powerful. It's not even cheaper than its console competition, and without the Steam OS, who cares?

That's where you'd be wrong. After putting the Alpha through its paces last week, I have to say that despite the resistance it faces, this micro PC has a hell of a lot going for it as both a general-use PC and as a console complement.

The 10-foot interface

Alienware is pushing the Alpha hard as a console killer, but that's overreaching. That's not to say Alienware doesn't deserve a lot of credit. It spent months creating its own custom 10-foot interface that will actually let you unbox your Alpha, hook it to your HDTV, and get all the way through the OS setup and Steam login using just the included wireless Xbox 360 controller.

For a Windows box that's pretty good, but just enough UI issues remain to fall short of a "true console experience." There's an odd mix of ways to enter text in the Alpha, for example. The Windows startup uses the joystick to navigate on a virtual keyboard, which is horrible. Once you're into the Alienware UI, it switches to a more traditional D-pad keyboard. And then once in Steam, you'll be using Valve's command-rose-style input.

This isn't Alienware's fault--it can't override Windows 8.1 functionality, nor Valve's. The good news is you'll really only have to do this dance the first time you set up the Alpha with the controller. After that, more likely than not you'll just boot into the Alienware UI and click "Launch Steam."

Another minus to console jockeys is the limited utility of the Alienware UI. It's essentially a very polished launcher for Steam's Big Picture mode and is simply not as complete as the console experience. There's no video or music, or the snap-in Netflix or Youtube apps of, say, the Xbox One.

You can do those chores on the Alpha--and more than any console could dream of--but you'll be in desktop mode, and you'll likely need a keyboard and mouse for that. I'm not opposed to a keyboard and mouse in a living room PC and honestly don't know why console gamers can't adapt, but let's face it, most won't. Let me just say that a great combo for the Alpha would be a Logitech K400, which lists for $40 but should be easy to find for cheaper.

These are ultimately not big hurdles to overcome, but a lot of console jockeys I know will accept nothing less than a rubber-walled, seamless experience where you'll never, ever have to put down the controller to do anything. The Alpha just isn't there yet.

Then there's specsmanship

Gamers all like to bitch that "it's not about specs," before they gleefully wade into forum flame wars over the hardware inside today's consoles. So let's get on with it: The review unit I had ran a dual-core Intel Core i3 4130T, 4GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, a 500GB 2.5-inch hard drive, 802.11a/c Wi-Fi, and a custom overclocked GeForce GTX 860M graphics card with 2GB of GDDR5.

The CPU, Alienware likes to point out, can be upgraded, as it's a standard LGA1150-socketed CPU. I suspect you can't run higher wattage Haswell chips in the unit, as all three versions ship with "T" series power-optimized CPUs.

You can upgrade RAM, but you'll have to toss the old memory as the unit only has two SO-DIMM slots. The laptop hard drive can also be easily replaced, but the most important part--the graphics board--is unfortunately soldered to the motherboard, so there ain't no upgrade there.

One thing is certain, it's extremely easy to get into the Alpha. Remove four Philips-head screws from the bottom, and the top and bottom pop off. Believe or not but it's actually easier to access and service than most full-sized desktops I've wrenched on. That says something about the engineering Alienware put into the Alpha's design.

Better performance and better graphics too

I tested the Alpha by running Tomb Raider at 1920x1080 set on high. The built-in benchmark put the machine's average frame rate at 58 fps. Not bad. I also spooled up BioShock Infinite at 1920x1080 on the built-in benchmark's medium setting and saw an average frame rate of 77.6 fps. Compared to several of the micro PC's we've reviewed this year, that's pretty damned good.

Because gamers seem to care only about how a game looks, I did an image-quality comparison by firing up Ubisoft's new Far Cry 4 on both the Alpha and an Xbox One plugged into the same Sony Bravia HDTV. I flipped between the two different HDMI ports as the games ran through the same in-game cut scenes.

Neither bursted at the seams in frame rate. In play through, I saw as low as 30 fps to the mid 40's on the Alpha, which is borderline in playability to me. I suspect the slightly undersized amount of RAM is an issue too, as I'd get a system hiccup or pause on occasion when coming out of standby. The Xbox One was overall very smooth in frame rate, but the reason why became pretty clear to me: lower image quality.

The texture detail on the Xbox One is simply atrocious next to the Alpha's. The resolution may have been 1080p coming out of the HDMI port on the Xbone, but it had been clearly upsampled and stomped on so much that Nino Brown would bust a cap in you if he knew you'd stepped on his product this much.

So score one for the Alpha: Its image quality definitely puts the hurt on at least one of the next-gen consoles. It wasn't just my admitted PC-gaming bias either: I asked another editor and another resident console gamer, and both gave the big thumbs-up to the Alpha in visual quality.

(I would have preferred to do a frame capture on the Xbox One as well, but the unit doesn't let you do so at 1080p. I could have captured video and snapped a cap, but doing so would also induce image quality reductions, and I didn't want to be accused of handicapping the Xbox One. Just believe me, it looks far better on the Alpha.)

One could argue that I should've used a game that's optimized for the Xbox One's architecture and its esoteric ESRAM to help put its best graphics foot forward. Without going too far down the console architecture rabbit hole, more memory bandwidth generally improves graphics performance.

The Xbox One uses pedestrian DDR3 for graphics memory in combination with 32MB of super-fast embedded SRAM to improve bandwidth. But 32MB isn't much, and developers apparently aren't stopping to tune their games for the ESRAM. It's just easier to lower the resolution or texture quality to get frame rates higher.

The hard truth is that for a lot of games, the Alpha is going to look sharper with textures you can bite on, versus the soft-upsampled games. And no, I didn't have a PS4 to compare to the Alpha, so this isn't a conspiracy to put the Alpha only against the lesser of the two consoles.

What it costs

That brings us to cost. The unit I touched came in at $550 including a wireless Xbox 360 controller. Today, you can get the Sony PlayStation 4 for $400 and the Xbox One for $400 without its Kinect. That's a long way from $550. Clearly the consoles have the price advantage.

Alienware argues that you can easily close that gap buying games on Steam. That's not always going to be true--new games on Steam are just as pricey as the new console game releases--but older Steam titles are a different story. You could spend $65 on a Steam sale and play games for the next eight months without getting bored.

I could build my own for $14!

Because there's always going to be the "why not build my own?" crowd that chimes in, I decided to try to build my own Alpha. In theory anyway. In the end, I came close but couldn't beat the Alpha's cost, and that's not counting a wireless controller and dongle too.

You're welcome to try to outdo me by going to PC Part Picker, but I think you'll be surprised (and yes, you have to pay for the OS, bubba). Keep in mind builders, this is a miniature 8-by-8-by-2-inch PC with a GPU capable of playing most of today's games at 1080p at medium settings, and some at high. It doesn't happen at this size for this much money. If a motherboard maker sold a thin-ITX version of this motherboard with an embedded GeForce GTX 860M, I'd be the first one in line for it.

And that's the real shocker: the Alienware Alpha is actually a pretty good deal even if you intend to use it mostly as a PC with some gaming capability.

The Zotac Zbox EN760 Plus that we reviewed in July has a quad-core Haswell chip and the same GeForce GTX860M as the Alpha. but it's sans OS for $640. With a controller and OS, you'd be pushing $800 for it. That quad-core is nice, but for a gaming box, I'd take the savings instead unless I was doing content creation.

The upshot

The Alienware Alpha should be viewed as a great console complement, rather than a replacement. The Alpha isn't smooth enough to be the hardcore console gamer's sole experience, especially if that gamer wants the carefully controlled environment of the consoles. If that console gamer, however, wanted to sail the vast ocean of PC gaming, where fantastic titles can be had for a pittance, the Alpha would be a wonderful addition to a shelf that already holds the Xbox One, PS4, Ouya and Wii.

The real killer application for the Alpha, though, is as a small gaming and general-use computer. A parent looking for a small desktop box capable of playing the little one's games could buy the Alpha, drop it on the kid's desk, and not look back. At $550, it'll outperform any budget laptop. The fact that you can also run Office, Photoshop, and other productivity apps make it far more useful as a first game "console."

It's not just for kids, either. Anyone looking for a nicely built tiny PC with actual gaming capability should seriously consider the Alpha. That, overall, is a win for the Alpha, even if it isn't the console killer some hoped it would be.

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Gordon Mah Ung

PC World (US online)
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