Alpha better: the PC leading the charge into the living room

Will Alienware’s console-styled device gazump Valve’s Steam machines?

When is a Steam machine not a Steam machine? The Alienware Alpha is the (perhaps unlikely) answer. This small form factor PC was intended to be one of the first wave of Valve’s SteamOS-powered PCs, but when the launch date shifted to 2015, Alienware’s parent company Dell decided to press ahead with its plans to release the Alpha this year instead. The result is a device that will instead run Windows, only with a significantly adjusted interface that basically puts you in the equivalent of Big Picture Mode as soon as you boot it up. It also might just give console owners reason to reconsider their options.

Size and accessibility are key factors in the Alpha’s appeal. It’s a tiny device, much smaller than even a compact desktop PC, and significantly so when compared to eighth-generation console hardware. Its dimensions are not too different from the Wii U, though the Alpha’s more square and angular than Nintendo’s box. What’s more, it’s quiet, too – its fan at the back doesn’t make much noise at all, again comparing favourably to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Small and unassuming, it sits within your TV cabinet causing the minimum of fuss.

Its user interface is Windows-based, though it’s hard to tell, as Alienware has made widespread changes. It’s a UI designed to be navigable by gamepads rather than keyboard and mouse. Immediately, it solves one of the most common problems of getting your PC to work with your TV – that of using a mouse and keyboard to access your game or media libraries when you just want to sit on your sofa and browse easily with a thumbstick. With the Alpha, you can do just that.

Though Alienware insists the UI is still incomplete – it’ll likely continue to tweak and refine the experience between now and the Alpha’s planned late-November launch – it’s already looking slick, responsible and easily digestible. Desktop mode allows you select from a variety of options pertaining to Video, Audio, Backgrounds, Console, Network, Controller and BlueTooth functionality, essentially giving you the ability to tailor it to your needs without requiring a keyboard and mouse. And yes, you’ll be able to add your own custom backgrounds.

“Console Mode can be launched automatically on startup, and will take you straight to your Steam library, allowing you to play your existing games in Big Picture Mode.”

Console Mode, meanwhile, which can be launched automatically on startup, will take you straight to your Steam library, allowing you to play any of your existing games in Big Picture Mode. It might seem like an oxymoron, but it says much for the UI’s ease-of-use, which feels far closer to consoles than rival PCs. If you don’t already have a Steam account, the Alpha will ship with a range of software to get you started, including Payday 2, Magicka, and exclusive content for Warner Bros. upcoming Gauntlet reboot.

Those all-important specifications, then: inside the Alpha, you’ll find an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB DDR3 1600MHz memory, a custom-built NVIDIA Maxwell-based GPU, with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 high-speed memory, a 500GB HDD, and dual-band Wireless-AC 1x1 with Bluetooth 4.0. It supports HDMI In and Out, has two USB 3.0 ports, and two USB 2.0 ports - and, of course, the Windows 8.1 operating system. It’s upgradeable, too. If the processor isn’t meaty enough for your tastes, you can opt to replace the Intel Core i3 with an i5 or an i7 processor, increase your memory to a dual-channel 8GB DDR3 1600MHz dual-channel, and increase the size of your hard drive to 2TB. With the exception of that custom GPU, you’ll be able to upgrade it with other parts – though naturally you’re limited to replacements that are capable of squeezing inside that tiny shell.

The US price tag translates to around £327 – though it’ll probably be more expensive when it lands on UK shores.

More significantly, perhaps, the Alpha will ship with a wireless Xbox 360 pad and a USB controller dongle, which will allow you to connect additional controllers. And while Dell might not have been able to wait for Valve to get its house in order, Alpha will be SteamOS-ready, and compatible with the forthcoming Steam gamepad. “Users will be able to load the OS easily themselves if they wish,” Alienware’s official site claims.

The Alpha’s specs compare well with eighth-generation hardware, and though Alienware has been reluctant to show off exactly what it can do, the company has tested recent games like BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider, confirming that both can be played at the highest settings. At a time when both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are struggling to hit 1080p and 60 frames-per-second with any sort of consistency, that’s bound to be appealing to some players. It’s certainly confident enough to release Alpha directly, with no plans for a beta launch prior to its November debut.

It’s a versatile little machine – you can use its numerous ports to connect several controllers, or link up to another PC or console.

Alpha’s biggest potential issue is an intractable one for any PC. Though it can be upgraded, it will always be limited by its GPU, meaning that in a few years’ time, a device that right now is arguably a little over mid-range, will be on the lower end of the scale. Perhaps that’s why Alienware is positioning it aggressively as a console that’s capable of playing PC games. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will have their firmware updated over time, adding new functionality, but their innards won’t change.

All of which means that the Alpha, whose price starts at a very reasonable $549, has a very real chance of challenging the aforementioned consoles for dominance of the living room. It’s priced well, it’s got an immediate, intuitive AI, it’s smartly designed and it can play every one of the 3000+ games available on Steam. While you’ll need a mouse and keyboard to play some of them, Steam now has over 500 games that are controller compatible, and that’s only going to rise as developers cater to the increasing number of players who are using a pad. And when the Steam gamepad launches, that’s going to shake things up further.

“Alienware has kept things simple: the Alpha is a plug-and-play device with a welcoming interface that gives you instant access to a wide range of games.”

The main reason PCs haven’t yet taken off as an under-the-TV device is their complexity, their user-unfriendliness. With the Alpha, Alienware has sensibly kept things simple: a small plug-and-play device that gives you instant access to a wide range of games, with a welcoming interface and just about everything you need within the box. Moreover, it comes at a price not too dissimilar from Microsoft’s and Sony’s boxes, and once you factor in the lower average cost of PC games – not to mention the regular Steam sales – it begins to look even more of a bargain. Don’t be fooled by those diminutive dimensions: the Alpha could have a huge impact on PC and console gaming alike.