The PC master race may have a point about graphics quality and performance that you get from gaming PCs versus purpose-built consoles, but that hasn’t stopped Alienware from looking at ways to chip into the console market. SteamOS promises an easier route into the living room, but Valve’s not quite ready to launch the Linux-based operating system that is based on its digital retail platform.
Enter the Alienware Alpha, a “gaming console” from the Dell-owned PC manufacturer that happens to be an actual gaming console, with a few caveats. The pint-sized machine is due to launch in November 2014, well before Valve’s planned 2015 launch for SteamOS and the Steam Controller. That’s why the Alpha comes with Windows 8.1 pre-installed, though it’s possible that some users will never see the Modern UI.
Enter the Alienware Alpha interface, a Steam Big Picture-like setup process and startup frontend that’s been designed to be operated with a controller and nothing more. The first time you fire up your Alpha, the setup process presents you with a simple choice: Console Mode or Desktop Mode. The latter won’t even be available as an option until you plug a mouse into the machine.
The Alpha’s custom-built interface bears a slight resemblance to the tiled setup of the Windows 8.1 UI, but it’s much more minimal. The large, easily read menu items make it a good fit for the big screen living room HDTVs that we tend to sit 5-10 feet away from. If you set the Alpha up in console mode and never plug in a mouse, the experience is indistinguishable from playing on a console.
That doesn’t mean you won’t want to have a mouse or a keyboard handy. Certain games, in their current form, don’t support controllers from start up to shutdown. Something like Vlambeer’s Early Access game Nuclear Throne allows for controller play, but only after you’ve fired it up with a mouse/keyboard and changed that in the menus. Other games, such as Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, rope in features that aren’t fully compatible yet with the Alpha. Alienware is working with publishers and developers to get as many controller-friendly Steam games updated for the new machine, but it’s an ongoing process.
The Alpha’s Console Mode will support Steam at launch (via Big Picture Mode), and negotiations are ongoing with publishers to bring other PC gaming frontend services like Ubisoft’s Uplay to the machine. Electronic Arts is a notable holdout; Alienware’s Frank Azor tells us that he’d like to have EA’s Origin service supported by the Alpha’s console-style interface, but the publisher is in “wait-and-see” mode with the new hardware.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to play Origin and Uplay titles at launch; you’ll simply need to connect a keyboard and mouse to get to them in Desktop Mode. That’s the big advantage Alienware wants to offer over other consoles; you can flip over to a Windows 8.1 interface at anytime and use your machine like the computer that it is at its core.
So what about the games then? Alienware showcased a range of titles during our sitdown demo session, from retro-styled indies like Rogue Legacy and Broforce to console heavies like Dark Souls II and AC4: Black Flag. The indies run about as smoothly as you’d expect on the base model Alpha, a $550 machine. Dark Souls II and AC4 both ran smoothly as well with “High” graphics settings. Basic exploration and traversal in AC4 ran in the 40 FPS range while Dark Souls II clearly exceeded 60fps.
That’s impressive performance for the admittedly low-powered base model machine, which is equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor (fourth-generation), 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive. All four Alpha configurations are fitted with a custom-designed Nvidia GPU, built on the newer “Maxwell” architecture, with 2GB of GDDR5 memory built in. The $700 machine keeps the same processor while doubling the storage and the memory. The $800 machine steps up the processor to an Intel Core i5 while keeping the doubled storage/memory of the second-tier Alpha. Finally, the $900 configuration packs in an Intel Core i7 CPU and a hefty 2TB hard drive.
All four models use the same small form factor design that’s built to look just like any of the other consoles in your living room’s entertainment center. It’s considerably smaller though, maybe one-third the size of a PlayStation 4. It’s all built with a mind toward easing the set up process for those that might not be PC gamers. There are only a few connection ports on the back of the machine: one HDMI out, one HDMI in, one optical audio out, one ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, and the plug-in for the power supply. On the front of the machine there are two USB 2.0 ports. There’s also a hidden USB 2.0 port located inside a small compartment underneath the Alpha.
For upgrade fiends, the CPU, memory, and hard drive are all easily swapped out for improved parts. Not the GPU though; the small form factor design of the Alpha necessitated a custom graphics card, and removing/replacing that isn’t an option.
Pre-orders for the Alienware Alpha can be placed starting today, August 12, 2014, on Alienware’s website. The machine launches on an unspecified date in November, and Alienware is working out retailer partnerships now to ensure that brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy, GameStop, Target, and Walmart have the Alpha stocked on shelves alongside PS4 and Xbox One consoles.
As an added incentive, Alienware will bundle the Alpha with an assortment of bonus content, some of which hasn’t yet been revealed. In terms of what we know for sure, Alpha buyers can look forward to receiving free downloads of Payday 2, Magicka, Magicka: Dungeons and Daemons DLC, and an in-game item for Arrowhead Studios’ upcoming retooling of the arcade classic, Gauntlet.