A funny thing happened on the road between CES 2014 and E3 2014: Alienware went from showcasing a console-esque Steam Machine with unknown internals, to showing a legitimate living room PC with the unadulterated DNA of a game console. Frankly I’m surprised I’m uttering these words, but the Alienware Alpha is the real deal. It’s the system that finally makes PC gaming frustration free for anyone, even PC gaming virgins who don’t have a clue what Steam is.
I don’t make that statement lightly, so consider this: During my time with the Alienware Alpha, I didn’t see a traditional desktop, explorer window, or anything resembling Windows 8.1. So before we talk about what it is, it’s important to rule out what it’s not. It’s not an HTPC (Home Theater PC), nor is it a standard gaming PC stuffed into a compact form factor. It’s a “PC console,” designed from the ground up with the functionality of a system like Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
The Alienware Alpha boots directly to a streamlined user interface which Alienware designed. It’s clean and clutter-free, with large type and controller-based navigation similar to Steam’s Big Picture. In fact, you can launch into Big Picture from this UI and even execute certain Windows maintenance features. Perhaps best of all, it eliminates certain nags like Windows Updates reminders and imminent restart warnings so that you can stay immersed in your game. Unfortunately Alienware wasn’t allowing photos of the interface since it’s very early in development.
“If you think about a Windows box, there’s a lot of stuff to maintain. Our interface is your bread and butter and will host things like network, bluetooth, video,” a representative told me. “Really what’s it’s designed to do is suppress the inherent nature of Windows that says ‘I’m the most important so I need to do my own thing now!’ suppress that down to power cycles and to not have your gaming interrupted.” Don’t worry, power users can still drop into the traditional Windows experience and do what they do best, but for all intents and purposes that traditional experience isn’t necessary to get your game on.
Are Steam Machines Dead?
It’s a valid question. Valve has delayed the Steam Machine initiative to 2015, and hardware news from partners went silent after CES. I’ve seen two systems formally announced as Steam Machines hit the retail channel as simply compact PCs, and other sources claim that SteamOS is nowhere near ready for prime time. But Alienware wants to set the record straight.
“Steam Machines aren’t dead, they are absolutely pursuing SteamOS and the controller 100%,” my Alienware rep explained. “They refuse to release something that is not ready, and we commend them for that. But we want similar things: For the PC gamer to choose what the hell they want and play how they want to play.”
If anything, the Steam Machine delay seems to have ushered in a wave of inspiration for Alienware. I’ve met with numerous companies who serve up the hype-laden spiel, but the hardware team I met with was genuinely excited. Almost giddy. They’re well on their way to making that transition from desk/tabletop PC gaming to couch gaming a piece of cake. (Companies like Roccat, who they’ve officially partnered with, are further aiding said transition).
To illustrate the system’s console DNA, our meeting involved playing the new Gauntlet on a couch with four Xbox 360 controllers synced up via the official Microsoft wireless adapter — both of which are bundled with the Alpha. It felt nothing like playing a PC, and I consider that high praise. While PC gaming is already enormously successful and popular, a device like this looks to remove any barrier to entry.
The Nvidia Partnership
The Alpha’s internals do resemble a standard entry-level gaming PC — Intel CPU, 4GB DDR3 memory, 500GB hard drive, etc. But one element is a mystery: The graphics card. Obviously a discrete desktop GPU won’t fit inside the Alpha, so you’d assume Alienware would utilize one of Nvidia’s 800M laptop GPUs. But the partnership involved Nvidia taking a page from AMD and designing a custom GPU based on their Maxwell architecture, exclusively for Alienware. Neither company are ready to talk specs, and that’s understandable since there’s enough time to upgrade or change the exact specs before going into mass production for a holiday 2014 release.
And once press receive samples to benchmark, comparisons will still be difficult since this is a completely custom GPU. However, Alienware is promising that virtually all existing PC games will run at 1080p/60fps. Not 900p, not 720p. The company is quick to keep expectations in check, though, as they understand this doesn’t mean all games will run at 1080p/60fps with graphics settings cranked to Ultra. Will they look as good as Xbox One/PS4 visuals? I suspect so.
The Price Tag & The Specs
Alienware will ship the baseline configuration of the Alpha for $549, and that’s significant because it will include an Xbox 360 controller, the official Wireless Adapter, and at least one bundled game, though Alienware can’t release specifics yet. The $549 model will host an Intel Core i3 Haswell CPU, 4GB of memory, a 2GB custom-built Nvidia GPU, HDMI in and HDMI out ports, Gigabit Ethernet, Dual-band Wireless-AC with Bluetooth 4.0, 4 USB ports, Optical Audio out, 500GB hard drive, and Windows 8.1.
Two additional configurations will be available, beefing up the specs to an Intel Core i5 or i7, 8GB of memory, and 1TB or 2TB hard drives. No pricing is available for the higher-tiered configs yet.
The Alpha will ship in time for the holiday 2014 season, and I honestly think it’s the first PC to legitimately challenge the traditional console for its natural, rightful place in the living room. I look forward to learning more about Alienware’s custom AI and Nvidia’s custom GPU, but for now I’m enthusiastic about its potential.