Alienware Steam Machine review
14th Jun 2014 | 05:06
Another gorgeous gaming console with the same problem
Alienware Alpha Steam Machine at E3 2014
The small 7x7x2-inch console's price will start at $549 (about £327, AU$588). Base specs include an Intel Core i3 Haswell based processor, 4GB DDR3 1600MHz memory, custom-built NVIDIA Maxwell based GPU, with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 high-speed memory, dual-band Wireless-AC 1x1 with Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI In and HDMI Out for uncompressed 8 channel audio & support for 4k content, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, 500GB SATA 3 HDD and Windows 8.1 64-bit.
The Alienware Alpha can also be configured with an Intel Core i5 or an i7 Haswell based processor, 8GB DDR3 1600MHz dual-channel memory, dual-band Wireless-AC 2x2 with Bluetooth 4.0 and 1TB and 2TB SATA 3 HDD. Pricing on higher specced machines will be announced at a later date.
UI still incomplete
During E3 2014, Alienware had working Alphas on hand and I stopped by to finally play on the machine.
That doesn't mean Alpha is ready just yet though. I was shown an early version of the Windows 8.1 based UI where the console uses Steam Big Picture to pull up your library of games. Since it's still being worked on, I wasn't allowed to photograph any images of the UI.
You won't see Windows when you boot up, unless you really want to in which case the Metro interface is accessible from the settings. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can also install the current version of the Linux-based SteamOS.
The Alienware UI I saw was simple, straightforward and branded with the company's familiar logo. The rep said it was set up to be "console-like" and "easy to navigate" which it definitely was.
It also reminded me of a semi-dynamic Blu-Ray movie menu where you can scroll left or right to pick an option. The background changed with each choice - which Alienware reps said could be changed to whatever image you want much like a desktop background.
Currently the only menu choices are Settings, Steam - which takes you to Steam Big Picture - and Launcher.
The Launcher option is still being tested out and doesn't have a specific feature yet. So far, the Alienware team is throwing around ideas like turning it into a Uplay launcher, or even opening apps like Netflix. Neither of these concepts are finalized but that's the general form we can expect Launcher to take later.
So how's it play?
Two of the games being demoed were Gauntlet and Broforce where the reps chose the latter to play with me. Though extremely fun, the 2D side-scroller is not the most graphically demanding game out there.
However, the reps were determined to show off another side of the Steam Machine: "the experience, versatility and affordability of PC gaming in the living room." In this case, the ability to hook up multiple controllers via HDMI in and out to then hook up to another console, a set-top box or PC allowing the "versatility" mentioned.
Though shipping with a 360 controller, Alienware previously told us that the machine will be compatible with a variety of gamepads. You'll even be able to connect different ones for simultaneous gameplay.
For what it's worth, the game did play smoothly for the three of us. I was told that the Alpha can indeed play at 1080p, 60 fps but didn't have demos on hand to show me. The rep mentioned that during testing, BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider were played at the highest settings.
The final product is still being future-proofed for upcoming titles and Alienware plans on a direct launch of Alpha with no beta launch.
I'm disappointed I didn't get to really see the 1080p, 60 fps in action but I expect Alienware will have the Alpha out again, a bit more ready for PAX Prime considering the reps told me we'll hear more about an improved UI post-Comic-Con.
The pricing is still a bit steep but Alienware seems confident that its target demographic won't be the high-end PC gaming enthusiast. Rather, it'll be the console gamer who wants the larger PC gaming library and next-next gen graphics … I'm not sure how far this optimism will take sales though, considering the Alpha Steam Machine is already in the same pricing family as the PS4 and Xbox One - therefore, making it pretty unappealing to gamers in all camps.
Alienware's possible draw for the PC gaming crowd is the allowance of customization that Valve previously touted. With the exception of the "specially made" Nvidia Maxwell GPU, the RAM, SSD and CPU can be replaced and upgraded without restrictions - if it all fits within the box, of course.
But then again, you could just always upgrade your PC.
In spite of my doubts, I'm still anxious to see how well the Alienware Alpha really plays, and how Steam Machines in general will fit into the PC/console gaming paradigm. Is the Steam Box the ultimate white flag bridging the two sides? Or will it simply flop miserably at everything?
We'll find out when the Alpha launches later this year, though in the meantime we're bound to have a few more hands ons in between.
Alienware Steam Machine at CES 2014
Alienware went through eight revisions over two years in collaboration with Valve before the gaming PC vendor came to its final Steam Machine. That's how serious Alienware claims to be about Valve's hardware initiative, and it shows in the design.
This Steam box is more subdued than most of Alienware rigs, with the only lighting on the all-black box being on its glossy face. Naturally, the Alienware logo glows, but so does Valve's logo, which appears in a triangular cut into the bottom-left corner of the device. At the moment, the Alienware logo is a hard button that changes the lighting from blue to green to red and so on.
Up front, the unit houses two standard USB ports. Around back, Alienware kept the I/O simple, with just two USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet and HDMI-out below two large vent outputs. (Intake lines the bottom edges of the unit.) Up top, the unit is coated in a soft touch finish.
Honestly, after eight revisions, I would expect something more radical, but Alienware's Steam Machine is right up there with the PS4 in terms of size and style. The company doesn't dance around that it borrowed heavily from its X51 mini gaming PC design in crafting its version. Smart move.
How will it play?
While the company brought just a mockup to CES 2014, I'm told that the design is final. If the show were a month later, Alienware would have a working model to show, a Dell (Alienware's parent company) representative told me. Instead, Alienware had an X51 running Steam OS to give an idea of how the final Steam Machine would operate.
I played a few incredibly clumsy minutes of Metro: Last Light in 1080p with the latest version of Valve's Steam Controller, and the machine had no frame rate or screen tearing issues whatsoever. According to a Dell rep, the entry-level Steam Machine will play Metro: Last Light in 1080p locked at 30 frames per second. I just wouldn't expect very high settings.
If anything, this instills confidence that the Linux-based Steam OS doesn't harm the performance of Windows games ported over. For one, Linux is an inherently lightweight kernel. And two: There is a minimal amount of background processes running on Steam OS, giving the CPU, GPU and RAM more to offer your games.
Sparking another console war
Alienware claims that its Steam Machines will house even more powerful hardware than the latest X51 models; all three configurations (good, better and best) will house Intel processors and Nvidia GPUs. More importantly, the company claims that its entry-level model will be "competitively priced" against the Xbox One and PS4.
Considering many of the console-priced Steam Machines are running Intel's integrated Iris Pro graphics on Haswell chips, that could be a boon for Alienware's offering. And if the final living room units will be even more powerful than the latest X51 models, I expect an even better showing by the final units.
But it's only companies like Alienware that seem concerned with Microsoft and Sony regarding their Steam boxes. Valve doesn't have as much of a stake in whether the Steam Machines succeed as its partners. If the Steam Machines initiative falls flat, then tough luck for Alienware and its competitors.
Valve has more users on Steam (65 million as of October 2013) than there are Xbox One and PS4 players combined, and it will be that way for some time. Companies like Alienware can't say the same, but they're banking on Valve's vision as a means to compete.
Alienware's Steam Machine is a gorgeous piece of hardware – something that would fit right in with your other game consoles or cable box in the entertainment center. While the company was only prepared to show a mockup unit, it's somewhat comforting to be told that the entry level model should be able to play one of the most demanding PC games around locked at 30 fps and 1080p.
Like all Steam Machines, the hardware is the easy part. There's nothing stopping them from beating the consoles at their own game in terms of raw performance. (Perhaps even at competitive prices.) However, Valve – not to mention the vendors – have plenty of work to do elsewhere.
It's up to Valve to convince more game developers that Steam OS truly is the future of living room gaming, and that the audience will be there. At the same time, the hardware manufacturers face an uphill battle of showing the entrenched console gaming audience why their alternatives are more ideal. One cannot happen without the other.
Being primarily a console gamer these days that sees the value of Steam and hardware upgrades, I might want to see an Alienware Steam Machine under my TV. But how many more are out there like me? Alienware and its competitors' success seems to depend on hypotheticals like this. For most, it will be tough to make a $499 (at least) purchase based on what ifs.
There were thirteen Steam Machines on show at CES 2014. See them all in our video roundup below: