Valve Software doesn’t make many games these days, but its Steam platform is the facto way of getting PC games from the web onto your PC. It’s plans to take over your living room with console-style PCs running the Linux-based Steam OS haven’t been quite as successful to date – despite an initial release of the operating system a year and a half ago, off-the-shelf Steam Machines aren’t available yet – but that doesn’t change its ultimate ambition.
Still, Valve has left PC builders and gamers with many options for accessing their games and playing them back on any screen with Steam Big Picture mode, Steam Streaming and so on. And there is a set of official Valve specifications for Steam Machines.
The Steam Machine plan is to make available PCs that run the open source SteamOS as their primary operating systems later this year. This gets around the issue of requiring a pricey Windows license, while turning the humble PC into the equivalent of a dedicated games console.
If money is tight then a cheap PC running SteamOS – a Steam Machine – is ideal for streaming games from a dedicated gaming PC to the TV; if the budget allows then a more capable gaming PC can be used in conjunction with Steam OS or Steam on Windows.
But Valve’s big idea isn’t ready for prime time quite yet, and official Steam Machines aren’t due out until later this year. In the meantime, Dell has jumped the gun a little and released the Alienware Alpha which runs Valve’s regular desktop client, Steam, on top of Windows 8.1. It’s not a Steam Machine because it doesn’t run SteamOS, but it’s close enough to get a feel for what one will be like.
The question on many minds is, is it any good, or has Dell managed to dilute the very concept of an open source alternative to Windows, PlayStation or Xbox by using Windows? Read on to find out.
Meat and potatoes
The Alienware Alpha comes in three models, each defined by their processors. There is one based on an Intel i3-4130T, another based on an i5-4590T and the flagship is based on an i7-4765T. The processor is the only part that is different between the three models. All of them include 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive (although in some markets the i7 version comes with a 2TB hard drive) and a custom version of Nvidia’s GTX 860M mobile graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory. That’s not the beefiest of video cards but it will handle most games at 1 920×1 080. It’s basically a laptop with a beefed up processor and no screen.
Included in the box is a black Xbox 360 controller with a wireless adapter for the PC and an HDMI cable. Both are necessary but could have easily been left out thus forcing you to buy them separately. To make the package a little more useful the Alpha also boasts dual-band 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4.0, on top of the standard gigabit Ethernet port.
At the rear of the Alpha you’ll find two HDMI ports, one in and one out so there is the option for HDMI passthrough, useful if you lack an AV receiver with multiple HDMI inputs. There is a couple of USB ports, an optical audio output and the obligatory power socket. There are also two USB ports on the front of the unit and one USB port hidden under a plastic cover at the bottom of the Alpha. With all those USB ports the Alpha definitely has the potential to fulfil the roles of multimedia content playback and gaming.
Open all the valves
The Alpha’s hardware components are no doubt important, but the real magic lies in the software. Before you even get to Steam you have to go through Alienware’s Alpha UI which is a controller-friendly interface that allows the user to change some system settings and just generally make sure the system is ready for gaming.
Once into Steam the system defaults to Big Picture mode which has been designed with controllers in mind.
To highlight that last point it is important to make special mention of Steam’s Daisywheel on-screen keyboard. For the uninitiated, the Daisywheel keyboard uses a much more intuitive design that makes typing out words so simple and elegant. The only sad point about the Daisywheel is that it’s not available on Xbox or PlayStation.
Once you’ve added your account details to Steam you can start to download your games, but if you have a gaming PC connected to your local network already there is the option of streaming the game from there to the Alpha. But as mentioned previously the Alpha’s GTX860 is capable of handling most games at HD so use of local streaming is not absolutely necessary, more of a nice-to-have.
Valve’s model makes life very difficult for manufacturers like Alienware, because you don’t have to have a BSc in IT to build a PC, install SteamOS and stream games from your gaming rig in your bedroom. Moreover you can build such a system into a small enclosure too – although not this small, without using laptop parts.
Basically, you can achieve the same gaming experience the Alpha offers by spending half of the cost of the baby Alpha, which means you’d have to be seriously brand loyal or just downright flashy to buy one.
But let’s assume you’ve decided to buy an Alpha. After all, once you get over the initial price shock, it’s not terrible value for money compared to a similarly specced laptop. The Alienware 14m – the same thing with a 14inch screen attached – is R23K, although it’s possible to get a Gigabyte laptop with the same spec as a top end Alpha for the same price.
Also, you will need to purchase one more component before you will be living in gaming/couch potato nirvana. The CouchMaster Pro from Nerdytec Engineering is a product I stumbled upon and when I laid eyes upon the Alienware Alpha, the pairing seemed obvious.
Not all games in your Steam library will be compatible with a controller, but who would want to get up off the couch and go sit at a desk just to play a game of Dota 2 or Call of Duty? A keyboard and mouse will be essential for your Alpha but even with wireless mice and keyboards you still need a comfortable surface to play on.
The CouchMaster was designed for just this sort of thing and it’s hard not to believe that the creators designed it with the announcement of Steam OS and Steam Machines.
In a perfect world the Alienware Alpha is perfect. It’s not obscenely expensive, delivers a decent gaming experience and looks drop dead gorgeous to boot. But back in the real world you are paying a premium for what is essentially a high laptop without a screen.
Ideally it will suit those with a gaming PC or laptop which can be used to stream games from if more grunt is required. The fact that a homebuilt PC running Steam OS can be built for next to nothing does hurt the Alpha’s desirability, but for those who want a sexy package with capable hardware it’s hard to deny that the Alpha ticks both those boxes.
So if you are looking to buy a premium Steam machine then the Alienware Alpha should be at the top of your list, but makes sure to get a CouchMaster too, just to enhance your gaming experience.
CPU: Intel Core i7-4765T
GPU: Nvidia GTX 860 M+ 2GB
RAM: 8GB DDR3-1333
Network: Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Display output: HDMI
Audio output: HDMI, optical TOSlink
OS: Windows 8.1 SL