Numerous Steam machines debuted at CES 2014, but Alienware's solution, the Alpha, stood out from the pack. It wasn't an underpowered or rebranded product, and it also wasn't sitting next to a four figure price tag. Alienware's little box looked to be the most viable looking console-sized and console-priced offering of the lot.
Alienware started shipping the Alpha late last year for $549 (the high-end version with a faster CPU, more RAM, and an SSD costs $849), but it recently cut that price down to $499. The Alpha is still more expensive than consoles, but also fairly cheap as far as gaming PCs go. Obviously it's not as powerful as the quintessential PC gaming tower, but it may give Sony and Microsoft's latest consoles a run for their money.
With a slightly overclocked 860M GPU based on Nvidia's GM107 chip (the same one that's found in Nvidia's 750 Ti desktop GPU), 4GB of RAM, and Intel's Core i3, the Alpha has all the makings of a good, entry level gaming PC. The 5400 RPM hard drive is a slight disappointment, and it's likely the source of the Alpha's occasionally long loading times. Otherwise, the rest of the components make for a surprisingly capable gaming PC given the Alpha's relatively low cost.
|CPU||Intel Core i3-4130T @2.9GHz|
|GPU||Modified Nvidia GTX 860M|
|Storage||500GB 5400 RPM 2.5" Hard drive, 6Gb/s|
While the Alpha simply can't fulfill the desires of every PC gamer who dreams of pushing graphics settings to ultra, that doesn't mean that medium or high settings are out of reach. While you can get away with these settings at 1080p in most cases, you may need to kick the Alpha down to 720p if you want to inch closer to 60 frames per second and take advantage of greater lighting and post processing effects. Although Alpha's GPU supports 4K output, it can't realistically play games at such a demanding resolution. Despite its PC roots, the primary appeal of the Alpha is like that of a console, such as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the interest of competition, let's see how the Alpha fares against Sony and Microsoft's latest consoles.
Tomb Raider, 45-70 FPS: high settings, 1080p, FXAA, TressFX off, tessellation off
The Alpha can't handle advanced hair found in the PlayStation 4 version of Tomb Raider, but it still handles the game quite well with high settings at 1080p, staying well above 30 frames per second.
Titanfall, 45-60 FPS, high settings, 1080p, 2x MSAA, bilinear texture filtering
Though the difference is only noticeable on occasion, the Alpha stands above the xbox One so far as Titanfall is concerned, one of the system's flagship games,
Watch Dogs, 35-50 FPS, medium settings, 1080p, texture quality high, antialiasing off, ambient occlusion off
The Alpha struggled a bit with Watch Dogs on high settings, so we had to dial the effects down a bit to hit a reasonable frame rate at 1080p. Still, next to the PlayStation 4 version, it's hard to notice any major differences.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, 35-45 FPS: High setings, 1080p, ambient occlusion on, tesselation on
Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor could have ran closer to 60 FPS on the Alpha with more conservative settings, but Alienware's little box stayed above 30 FPS when we turned on advanced settings like ambient occlusion and tessellation, remaining totally playable while looking good, too.
|Game||Alienware Alpha||Xbox One||PlayStation 4|
|Tomb Raider||1080p, 45-70 FPS||1080p, 30 FPS||1080p, 30-60 FPS|
|Titanfall||1080p, 45-60 FPS||792p, 40-60 FPS||n/a|
|Watch Dogs||1080p, 35-50 FPS||792p, 30 FPS||900p, 30 FPS|
|Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor||1080p, 34-45 FPS||900p, 30 FPS||1080p, 30 FPS|
These tests make it clear that the Alpha is, on average, as capable as PS4 and Xbox One when it comes to sheer in-game performance. Unlike those systems, the Alpha's RAM and CPU are upgradeable. If you spend a little more money, you can push the Alpha further than we have in our tests, but at that point, $850, it may be worth investing in a traditional PC with a stronger GPU.
Is it a PC or a console?
Although some people refer to the Alpha as a console, it's driven by Microsoft Windows, a PC operating system, and with that the Alpha exhibits the same general capabilities and limitations as any other Windows gaming PC. What is unique about the Alpha, and why some consider it to be a console, is Alienware's custom user interface, which boots up on top of Windows and is 100% controller friendly.
Currently, the Alpha has only integrated Valve's Steam service within its UI, because Steam's Big Picture Mode makes it easy to access its marketplace your own library of games with only a controller. Neither EA's Origin nor Ubisoft's Uplay touts a controller friendly interface, and while they are still accessible through the Alpha's windows 8.1 desktop mode, there's no way to properly and seamlessly access games purchased through those services within Alienware's custom UI. In most cases, Ubisoft and EA games purchased directly through Steam will work without any problems. The only caveat: you may need to make use of the Alpha's virtual mouse mode.
Every Alpha comes with a wireless Xbox 360 controller that, with a simple hotkey combo, can function as a mouse using the left analog stick. It's handy when you need it, such as the initial setup when you power on the Alpha for the first time, but the need for such a feature reminds you that you are indeed using a PC and not a system that's completely controller friendly 100% of the time. The virtual mouse suffices, but it's not an elegant system.
Apart from the backlit Alienware logo, the Alpha is rather unassuming and less ostentatious than most of Alienware's other systems. If you don't like the color of the default backlight, or you want to turn off the lights completely, you only need to hop into the Alpha's settings menu and adjust the color to your liking.
The Alpha has the basics covered when it comes to connectivity. There are two USB 2.0 ports on the front of the box and two USB 3.0 ports on the back, right next to the ethernet, optical audio, and HDMI in and HDMI out ports. The HDMI in port is an unusual feature, but similar to the Xbox One, it lets the Alpha handle video passthrough from another device, such as a gaming console or Blu-ray player. Alienware hasn't invested in this feature as much as Microsoft--you won't find guide apps and the like that sync with your cable provider--, but its a handy feature to have just in case you run out of HDMI ports on your TV.
The Alpha doesn't offer an experience that's as composed or seamless as a console, but Alienware has done a decent job of consolizing the PC, outpacing the competition in some meaningful ways. The UI creates the illusion that using a console, and it's a disappearing act that almost works 100% of the time. Though you can't tap into Origin or Uplay within the Alpha's console mode, you can if you boot into the Window's desktop. Though the Alpha isn't quite a console, it offers so much more as a PC than the Xbone One or PlayStation 4 ever could. Taking the Alpha out of the home theater and putting it on a desk with a mouse and keyboard open a wealth of functionality that cannot be overlooked. Apart from being able to upgrade the GPU and motherboard, you can do anything with the Alpha that you could with an equally powerful, traditional desktop computer.
With this in mind, the Alpha is a great value. It may be more expensive than consoles, but the difference of $100 is a small price to pay for a console-like gaming device that doubles as a Windows PC. If you like the convenience of the console experience, are interested in the hundreds of excellent games available on Steam, and could benefit from a new desktop PC, $500 is a very reasonable asking price. It may not blow consoles out of the water when it comes to performance, but it comes close. Manage your expectations accordingly and you won't be disappointed by the Alienware Alpha.