Things have been pretty slow in the world of Steam Machines. Valve announced the initiative and the impending push on its Linux-based Steam OS, but then things went quiet. Alienware decided to take matters into its own hands with the release of the Alienware Alpha. It’s small PC designed to be used with a TV, but it comes with its own Alpha UI and Windows 8.1 installed. That’s right, no Linux-based Steam OS here to limit your PC adventures.
Is the Alienware Alpha a worthwhile gaming PC? How does it compare to owning an Xbox One or PlayStation 4? All of these questions and more shall be answered today.
Best of all, we have an Alienware Alpha to give away to one lucky reader! Keep reading all the way through the review to find out how to enter for your chance to win!
Introducing The Alienware Alpha ASM100-1580
The Alienware Alpha is a gaming PC aimed more at competing with video game consoles than other PCs. In fact, Alienware themselves call it the Alienware Alpha Console in their sales description. Being a PC, it ends up being quite a little more expensive than an Xbox One (our review), PlayStation 4 (our review), or Wii U (our review).
For review purposes, we went with the cheapest model of the Alpha, as that sits at the closest price point to the other consoles. With a $549 list price (though it’s generally $499 on Amazon), the base model Alpha sits $150 higher than either of the traditional gaming consoles. While comparisons can be made, buyers will definitely find that the financial commitment is higher, but there is the flexibility that PC offers.
Simply calling a PC a console, doesn’t make it a console. Consoles exist in a closed ecosystem where only specific software is permitted, which brings a level of simplicity and reliability that a PC can’t offer. Trying to position a PC in the same space as console strikes me as odd, and it’s one of the reasons people seem hesitant to jump into the Steam Machine market in the first place.
Still, hooking a PC to a TV has some serious conveniences, whether you try to call it a console or not. It’s not just gaming, but there’s a wealth of entertainment options you can get on the PC that aren’t possible on the console. Not having Steam OS, but rather a full Windows 8.1 install opens these options up, and the Alpha definitely has that.
Does the Alpha’s PC-ness put it ahead of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, or does the simplicity and lower price of those consoles make them a more appealing option? Keep reading this review to find out!
Alienware is aiming for this computer to compete with home gaming consoles, and as such, it comes with a design that looks like a tiny video game console. It’s a quite a bit smaller than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, at 7.8 inches squared and just 2.2 inches thick, so it should fit neatly into any entertainment center.
The Alienware Alpha is certainly a looker. The bottom corner features a small accent light; while the illuminated Alienware logo sits on the front panel and also functions as a power switch. The rest of the computer is glossy black, with the only other thing on the front being the two USB ports. It looks quite at home placed next to my Xbox One and PS4.
From a functionality standpoint, there’s two USB 3.0 ports on the front of the PC, and two more on the back. There’s also HDMI in and HDMI out, optical audio out, ethernet, and a power port on the back of the device. Heating vents are also along the back, allowing the PC to stay cool without having ugly vents along the parts of the device that you’ll actually see. Only having vents on the back could be worrisome for performance, but we didn’t have any problems with heat in our testing, even while playing games for extended periods.
All in all, Alienware did a fantastic job of designing this PC. It looks great, takes up almost no space on the TV stand, and features accent lighting that doesn’t overpower. That brings us to the next question: does it perform as nicely as it looks?
Any time you are looking at a PC for gaming, you need to take a look at the actual numbers. After all, the graphics card, CPU, and RAM are going to define what kinds of games you can actually play on your new toy, and how future-proof it may be.
For our purposes, we went with the cheapest Alienware Alpha model available. As mentioned before, that puts it as close to the consoles in terms of price, which is the market that Alienware is targeting. So with that in mind, let’s get into the nitty gritty and take a look at the specifications.
- 2.9 GHz Intel Core i3-4130T dual core processor
- Custom Nvidia Maxwell GTX CPU 2GB
- 4GB DDR3 RAM
- 500 GB 5400 RPM hard drive
As you can see, the specs are somewhat modest. The PS4 (which costs $400), features 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, and the Xbox One (currently $350), features 8GB of GDDR3 RAM. The GPU on the Xbox One and PS4 aren’t a traditional off the shelf model, but rather they feature custom models. Still, they are more powerful, with a 1.23 TFLOPS and 1.84 TFLOPS peak throughput respectively. In terms of processors, the Xbox One has an eight core AMD custom chip, and the PS4 has two quad-core low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar” modules.
The HDMI-in port operates as a passthrough, allowing you to “inject” the Alpha to an existing HDMI input if they’ve all been used – so you can plug your cable box into the Alpha for instance, and when the Alpha is off you’ll see the regular output from the cable box. There is no picture-in-picture functionality like the Xbox One, just a simpel passthrough.
All in all, the specs of the Alpha fall short of the PS4 and Xbox One, at least on the model that’s closest in price with them. As you climb to the higher end models, you’ll find specs that rival and surpass the console, but you’ll also find prices that more than double them. Still, it’s not just about the specs, as you get the flexibility that a PC offers. This means access to DRM-free games, and plenty of uses outside of gaming. So does that make the Alpha a worthwhile pickup, or are you better off getting a console?
Gaming On The Alpha
This is a gaming PC first and foremost – or at least it’s marketed as such – so if it can’t deliver a solid gameplay experience, then there’s no reason to even consider it. Out of the gate, Alienware was smart to provide a wireless Xbox 360 controller and its PC adapter in the box, so you can jump right in and start playing.
Alienware has also included its own basic UI that makes it easy to get to Steam Big Picture Mode, without ever having to hook up a mouse and keyboard. The interface isn’t fancy – it’s really just some big squares that lead you to what you want – and you can’t access all of your Windows programs from it.
In reality, I never found myself using the Alpha UI outside of testing for the review. It’s not that the interface is bad per se, it’s just that this a PC, and locking oneself into this UI takes away many of the benefits of using a PC in the first place.
As far as actual gaming goes, the experience is exactly what you would expect from a lower-mid level PC. It runs most games at medium settings, with some older games at high. I was able to run everything from Saints Row IV to Fez at full a full 1080p resolution, so it looked great on my 55 inch TV. Don’t expect graphics to rival a PS4 or Xbox One, but do expect most games to look pretty good.
So if the games don’t look as good as the Xbox One and PS4, why would you want this at all? The answer is flexibility. You have access to the crazy deals you tend to find on PC games, as well as the ability to run various emulators to play retro games (legalities aside). For certain gamers, the PC just offers an experience that a console can’t rival, and this offers all of that, with the benefit of sitting back and playing on a TV. It takes the best of console, and best of PC and combines it.
Of course, outside of the Alpha UI, the benefits offered here aren’t limited to just the Alienware Alpha, but rather are available on any PC. If you can find a similarly powered PC for cheaper, you’ll get everything offered here for less, though probably in a larger form factor.
All in all, the Alpha delivers a fine gameplay experience – but be prepared for the fact that you aren’t going to be looking at the most cutting edge graphics, and you can actually get better graphics performance from a cheaper PS4 or Xbox One. It just comes down to whether the other things a PC can offer outweigh that for you.
While it might be slightly behind the console in terms of graphical prowess, the uses outside of gaming is where it really pulls ahead of them. While consoles are increasingly gaining access to a wide range of media portals and apps, the PC remains king with access to anything.
It comes with Windows 8.1 installed, and as such, can do anything your normal PC can do. Want to download VLC to watch videos? Sure. Torrents? Yup, that’s an option. Flash videos? If you want to do it, you certainly can.
Even with the low end Alienware Alpha, the specs are sufficient to run anything short of the most intense video editing software, where the Core i3 begins to struggle. Otherwise, you’ll find that there isn’t any non-gaming software that will give you problems.
If you want a device that you can hook up to your TV and you find that a traditional gaming console limits your non-gaming options, hooking a PC up is the way to go. After living with the Alpha for a while, it makes me wonder how I lived without a PC hooked up to my TV all of this time. You can definitely build one yourself for a little cheaper than the Alpha, though the difference isn’t is large as you’d initially think.
All in all, the Alienware Alpha is a solid living room PC, though the base model is a little on the weak side as far as specs are concerned. It handled the games we threw at it, and while it doesn’t compare graphically to the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, it does offer the flexibility of a PC.
Buy it if you want an easy way to get a PC (and the flexibility that comes with) hooked up to your TV. Get an Xbox One or PS4 if you want the best graphics for your money.
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