Of all the Steam Machines we’ve had a look at (and we have had a look at all of them), the one that has us most interested is the Alienware Alpha. It’s small, quiet and it looks like a console. It plays like one, too…
It’s Windows, but you wouldn’t know it
While the Alienware Alpha is being produced to the strict corporate timeline of parent company Dell, the operating system it was supposed to be running and the controller it was supposed to use are the work of the more enigmatic Valve, which sets vague release dates and then pushes them back while it makes things perfect - a concept known to impatient gamers as "Valve Time". But Alienware is pressing on undeterred: the Alpha runs Windows, but with a heavily modified UI that boots you straight into Steam’s Big Picture Mode. The interface we saw (and, regrettably, weren’t allowed to take pictures of) was very simple, very controller-friendly and very console-like. It’s a simple case of switch on and start playing.
The Alpha will work with Xbox 360, Xbox One and Steam controllers
While almost every other Steam Machine is just a gaming PC running Steam OS, the Alpha has some custom hardware to set it apart. The processor and memory are pretty conventional (and user-upgradeable, a major advantage over sealed-box consoles), with Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 CPU versions available. The graphics, however, are pushed by a custom-built GPU based on Nvidia’s new Maxwell architecture. A console you can add more power to? Interesting.
Because the Steam Controller is delayed, the Alpha comes with an Xbox 360 controller. We’d have preferred an Xbox One controller, and in fact the Alpha will work with the Xbonepad, but you’ll have to buy one. Or you could wait for the Steam controller, which will also work with the Alpha when it’s released.
The UI is very simple, fast and smooth, with none of the mucking about that normally precedes PC gaming. We played a number of different indie games, which Alienware tells us the Alpha is strongly aimed towards, and on the indies the experience was indistinguishable from another console. More surprising was the preview of Dying Light, which was obviously running at fairly high settings but didn’t seem to be giving the Alpha any trouble at all. If you go for a specced-up Core i7 version, it looks like the Alpha will live up to Alienware’s claims of running new triple-A titles in 1080p at high framerates.
At a busy E3 booth it’s hard to say just how quiet the Alpha is; we couldn’t hear anything, but in your living room the experience may well differ.
It’s worth noting that if you’re already a PC gamer, the Alpha supports Steam’s in-home streaming, so if your monster PC is already running a pair of Titans, you can get the lowest-spec version and still use all the high-res texture packs in your PC-based purview.
Alienware told us the Alpha will be released in ‘the holidays this year’, which means in time for Christmas. It’ll be available in Europe at the same time as America, and it’ll cost from US$549 (about £325 at today’s exchange rate). For PC gamers, indie fans and anyone who’s still saving for a next-gen console, it could be very tempting indeed.