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Evidence has mounted during the last two years that there surely is market for the PC-as-console experience, although size of this market continues to be hard to measure. While Steam Machines were poised to get started on hitting the marketplace in earnest in 2014, Valve’s delayed SteamOS and controller means hardware partners seeking to enter this new market have already been forced to hold back. Alienware hasn’t waited. Instead, it’s opted release a something operating on Windows 8.1. It’s ostensibly the same, just without SteamOS. Get black Friday Sales and deals for your fav products.

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The Alienware Alpha is a strange proposition: it arrives before SteamOS, but it’s still quite definitely a Steam Big Picture affair. As the Alpha boots right into a bespoke Alienware UI, it’s basically a launcher for Big Picture mode. You can boot into Windows 8.1 on the Alienware Alpha but, considering that the machine isn’t shipped with either keyboard or mouse, you’re not necessarily likely to. Instead, you’re encouraged to navigate using the bundled Xbox 360 wireless controller. Predicated on what will come in the box alone, this is much a gaming console.

Which is okay, except through the rare times when the Alpha crashes. This only happened once when I was using it, and it had been a Steam software problem instead of the Alpha’s, nonetheless it does indicate that as a console experience, it’s nearly idiot proof. With that said, modern consoles are also susceptible to the casual (and sometimes a lot more than occasional) crash.

Metro: Last Light ran at a pinch above 60fps at 1080p on Medium settings.

Tech specs
The Alpha comes at four price points, with the model we tested being the best available. While Alienware is forthcoming about almost all of the specs, it’s been coy on the GPU, that is a custom-made Nvidia GTX 860M. The high-end Alpha packs an Intel Core i7-4765T processor with 8GB of DDR3 memory and-sadly however, not unexpectedly as of this price point-a 2TB mechanical hard disk drive. It’s possible to swap within an SSD, but in doing this you’d be sacrificing among the Alpha’s strongest selling points: its price. As the drive’s speed is unlikely to bother the device’s target market-those used to Xbox 360 or Xbox One loading times-it’s more likely to rub those used to SSD speeds the wrong manner.

For that GPU, well, according to your benchmarks it’s like the GTX 860M with 2GB GDDR5. We tested it against the recent Acer Aspire V 15 Nitro gaming laptop-which also packs a GTX 860M-and saw comparable performance, with the Alpha edging slightly ahead in games like Metro: Last Light, GRID 2 and BioShock Infinite. Those gaming framerates are fairly impressive, especially considering that the Alpha is drastically cheaper compared to the aforementioned Acer. Metro: Last Light, for instance, ran at a pinch above 60fps at 1080p on Medium settings, though jack the settings any higher and you’ll immediately face performance drops. Basically, it runs aswell and looks somewhat much better than the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the overall game.

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And that’s finished .: the Alpha is actually a notebook computer gaming PC in a discreet, 20 x 20cm box. It doesn’t get as hot as a laptop, with the GPU temperature sitting around 79 degrees celsius, neither is it any louder than an Xbox 360, although fan did kick into gear during heated occasions in Metro: Last Light. Its main pieces (CPU, memory and hard disk drive) are replaceable, aside from that custom GPU hardwired to the motherboard. Significant memory upgrades is a hassle, since there are just two slots here, but if you’re a serial upgrader you’ll probably want to pun intended, the Alpha anyway, regardless of the unit’s innards being truly a simple four screw affair.

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The screen you see after booting up the Alpha.

The Alpha’s bespoke UI offers a minor yet functional group of customisation options.

The alpha includes a group of hotkeys triggered by controller button press configurations.

This is how usage of the Alpha UI looks mid-game.
User experience
Navigating Steam Big Picture mode with an Xbox 360 controller is really as enjoyable since it is on a desktop computer, with controller compatible games evidently indicated. There’s a good category for controller games, if you wish in order to avoid anything requiring a keyboard and mouse. I spent a few hours playing Eldritch on the couch and it felt just like the game was designed for console, though it did boot automatically right into a windowed screen. Thankfully that was easily fixed in the game’s settings menu.

The apparent good thing about the Alpha over the brand new consoles is Steam’s gargantuan games library, though only a fraction of the titles are appropriate for a controller out from the box. That’s no problem, though the a very important factor the Alpha sorely lacks over its console brethren is not hard media playback. While it’s possible to exit to Windows because of this, it’s a remarkably clumsy solution for a unit which wants you to just forget about Windows.

Both Alpha’s barebones UI and Big Picture mode lack easy video playback, though Steam Music is intact. It’s possible to make a Favourite tab in Big Picture mode linking to desktop versions of YouTube, Twitch or Plex, but it’s not fun to use. Even plugging a USB drive containing an AVI will demand exiting to Windows. With media playback an enormous feature on consoles in 2014 it’s a weird oversight, though there’s no reason Alienware can’t patch an iphone app in some amount of time in the near future. I strongly advise they do.

For the Alpha UI itself, it’s a straightforward affair which is often accessed anytime with a controller shortcut. Aside from acting as a gate to Big Picture, it features simple display settings (resolution, screen scaling), the opportunity to customise the Alpha overlay theme with different colours, in addition to network customisation.

Of course, it’s possible to forego both Alpha UI and Big Picture mode totally in order to utilize the Alpha as a Windows machine, and as of this price point it could possibly be a good solution for a few, especially given its size.

It’s tricky to place a value on the Alienware Alpha, because so many folk scanning this will already own a desktop computer because they prefer it over a console experience. Even though it can’t compare to a desktop for sheer power, for anybody buying a discrete little PC that may quietly sit in the living room, that is an excellent unit for the price tag. As long as you’re ready to sacrifice a number of the overall flexibility of a desktop-or are in least ready to forego the Alpha UI so that you can access Windows 8.1 proper.

If you’ve got money pouring from your own every orifice then your Alpha would make an ideal second PC because of its portability. Alternatively, if you value gaming on a PC but dislike all of the fiddling connected with it, you will make the Alpha most of your device, but it’s much less upgradeable or powerful as a genuine desktop PC.

If you’re ready to wait, it could be worth holding out for Steam OS to properly launch, and the ensuing deluge of Alpha opponents to arrive in the marketplace. For the time being the Alpha can be an impressive unit because of its size and price, but it’s unlikely to make an impression on anyone searching for a new console, significantly less the dedicated gaming PC owner. There is, contrary to popular belief, a grey area, we just don’t understand how big it really is yet.

Alienware Alpha review

Its no alternative to a desktop computer, but if youre looking for an open ended new-gen console replacement, the Alpha ticks most boxes.

Shaun is PC Gamer’s Australian editor and news writer. He mostly plays platformers and RPGs, and keeps a close eye on anything of particular interest to antipode

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