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    Alienware Alpha review: almost the Steam Machine you're looking for

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    It's hard to describe the Alienware Alpha. On the surface, it's a small-form gaming PC, custom-built from laptop components to fit in your entertainment center. But it was supposed to be a frontrunner in a new category of gaming devices. It isn't. Valve's Steam Machine initiative was delayed past its original launch window, leaving manufacturers like Dell to fend for themselves in a market that doesn't exist yet. It's a weird, awkward place to be in, but here we are, testing the Alienware Alpha: a Steam Machine before its time. The question is: Can one of the biggest names in PC gaming succeed where others have failed?

    Gallery: Alienware Alpha review | 16 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Alpha UI creates a solid console illusion
    • Custom gamepad drivers solve most mouse and keyboard problems
    • Makes it easy to play PC games on a TV
    Cons
    • Painfully long load times
    • Overprotective console mode blocks some games from running
    • Driver issues can cause trouble with some titles

    Summary

    If you absolutely have to have a Steam Machineright now, you're not going to do better than the Alienware Alpha. Still, it's a mere stepping stone towards bigger, better and more complete PC game consoles.

    Hardware

    The Alienware Alpha is simple, small and almost boring to look at -- a subdued black box that won't draw an iota of attention to your entrainment center. There's a little flair, of course: The machine's power button is formed in the shape of the signature Alienware logo and one of the machine's front corners is bisected at a sharp angle. An LED glows around the perimeter of the cut. It won't stand out in a bright room, but it's enough to let you know the device is turned on. It's nice.

    There are only two USB ports lingering on the device's front, but folks hurting for connections can find two more on the machine's back edge and, oddly, an extra USB input hidden behind a panel on the Alpha's undercarriage. The compartment is large enough to conceal most wireless mouse and keyboard dongles (as well as any thumb drive), but sadly, it's far too small to contain the Alpha's included wireless Xbox 360 Controller adapter.

    The usual assortment of ports fills out the back: HDMI, Ethernet, power and even an optical audio output, though I was surprised to find a second HDMI socket there as well. It's not uncommon for desktop PCs or laptops to have multiple monitor outputs, but what purpose could a dual-monitor setup serve in my entertainment center? None, as it turns out: That's actually an HDMI passthrough input that can be activated through the Alpha's menu system. Basically, it lets you pipe another device in your entertainment center through Alienware's unit to save space on TV inputs. It's not necessary, but it's a nice touch nonetheless.

    As a game console

    My heart sank just moments after I first booted up the Alienware Alpha: I wasn't greeted with Steam Big Picture mode or even Alienware's own Alpha interface, but with the Windows 8 profile setup screen. It was shocking; the Alpha may not be an official Steam Machine (at least not yet), but it was meant to be used in the living room as a game console. Did Dell really ship a so-called game console that requires a mouse and keyboard to set up? Thankfully, no: After syncing the included Xbox 360 controller, I found the rig was equipped with basic joystick-to-mouse emulation. Phew. (Dell tells me that retail systems come with a setup manual that explains this from the get-go, but my review unit was bereft of retail packaging.)

    Stumbling through the Window 8 setup screens with a gamepad-emulated mouse is an imperfect experience, but it's enough to get the job done. Overall, it's actually a clever mouse driver: The A and B buttons reacted as I expected them to, and mimicked the "select" and "cancel" actions I've learned from the console world. Cursor movement is a bit stiffer, largely flowing in strict horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. It feels a little unnatural, but it's good enough to get the job done.

    After setting up Windows, the Alpha will reboot to run the user through its own UI's setup, a process that asked me to set up another password, select my TV's resolution, scale the screen to fit that TV (wonderfully sidestepping my cheap set's overscan issues) and choose between HDMI or optical audio output. After that, things get extremely simple. The Alpha UI primarily exists to act as a buffer between Windows and the average user, limiting the machine's functionality to things that can be managed with the gamepad alone. This makes for a very basic interface; the Alpha UI can launch Steam, dive into a settings menu (used primarily to adjust the settings we just went over or activate the HDMI passthrough), look at a help prompt, restart the Alpha or drop to the Windows desktop. That's about it.

    As soon as I launched Steam's Big Picture mode, the Alpha UI disappeared behind a flourish of animated menus -- but its work wasn't done. Alienware's software stays active in the background, killing Windows processes, blocking pop-up windows and generally trying to keep the experience congruent with what one expects from a "game console." It does a decent job, too. For the most part, I failed to break the Alpha's console illusion. And when I did? It had a solution for me: the aforementioned mouse emulation.

    Without hesitation, I can say that the Alpha's built-in mouse emulation is the killer feature here. It's more than a simple thumbstick-to-cursor mapping; it's a small collection of gamepad shortcuts designed specifically to sidestep the problems Windows 8 presents in the living room. Let's say you run into a game launcher that requires cursor control. Simply hold down the gamepad's triggers and shoulder buttons, and depress the left thumbstick -- you're ready to go. Point and click. Did a game launch in a window instead of full screen? Use those same four buttons and press up on the d-pad. Done. Pressing left and right (with the same combo, of course) alt-tabs among active apps and pressing the Xbox Guide button calls up an all-purpose kill menu. It's a simple solution, and it let me fix almost every issue I encountered from the comfort of my couch. In fact, I only needed a keyboard twice: to enter a name in a game's character creation screen and to log into UPlay for Far Cry 4.

    As impressed as I was by the Alpha's measures to make the PC gaming experience more palatable in the living room, its efforts sometimes backfired. I spent some time in the machine's desktop mode downloading and installing EA's Origin, but when I tried to add the games as non-Steam titles in console mode, I found that they wouldn't launch. This isn't a glitch, Dell tells me; it's intentional. Origin's Windows interface isn't well-suited to life on a television screen, and it's been blocked in console mode to provide a more consistent experience. That sounds logical, but I found the restriction baffling. To even enable the potential "issue," I had to consciously drop to the desktop, install Origin and configure multiple shortcuts. It's not a trivial task, and I have a hard time believing any casual user would accidentally encounter Origin's clunky interface without knowing what they were getting into.

    This "Origin issue" represents an attitude that both serves and harms the Alpha. On the one hand, it shows that the Alpha recognizes that it's a machine straddling two disparate worlds: PC and console gaming. On the other, it fails to integrate those worlds, leaving gamers who live in both frustrated by limitations tailored to only one side of the machine's identity. This "nanny-console" dichotomy rears its head elsewhere, too: The machine won't allow the user to activate desktop mode unless they plug in a physical mouse. Again, this seems reasonable, but it's also odd; between the gamepad's mouse emulation and Windows 8's onscreen keyboard, the desktop is completely navigable without traditional peripherals.

    To be fair to Dell, it has pledged to push out Alpha UI updates every month -- and adding support for Origin in console mode is supposed to be included in one of the first releases. The Alienware team practically admits the product's name is a half-pun: Its software actually is in alpha. It needs expansions and patches, but at least they're on the way.

    Finally, it's worth noting that the Alpha can't do one thing that traditional game consoles can: handle your media. Alienware's latest box comes with no optical drive and no built-in apps for streaming from any of your favorite services. In console mode, the most you have is Steam's built-in web browser, and that's not good enough.

    Gameplay

    If you're okay with the Alpha's PC/console identity crisis, you could probably slide the machine into your entertainment center and have a blast running games at their default settings. It's what I did at first, and I had very little to complain about: Most games ran at a playable clip and looked pretty darn good, too. It was the "console" experience and it was fine -- but the Alienware Alpha is (not so) secretly a PC. It can do better, and I had to know how much better.

    Before I put the Alpha through its paces, I made sure to consider what it was. Yes, it's a gaming PC, but one that has more in common with a laptop than a tricked-out desktop. At the heart of my $549 review unit was a dual-core 2.9GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of DDR3L RAM, a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive and a custom NVIDIA GeForce GTX GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 video memory. That's the base configuration. Dell also offers a $699 version with twice as much HDD space and RAM; a $799 variant with a Core i5 CPU; and a high-end $899 model with a Core i7-4765T and 2TB of storage.

    What do all those stats add up to in performance? Some pretty decent gameplay, actually. Crysis 3 and The Witcher 2 -- two of the most resource-heavy games in my library -- ran at 31 and 39 fps on high specifications, respectively. Both naturally locked in smoother frame rates with minor concessions. Battlefield 4 netted a tolerable 36 fps on Ultra, and went as high as 41 and 70 on high and medium settings, respectively. The futuristic warzone of Titanfall stuttered a little on maximum settings, but was fully playable on high (34 fps) and medium (42 fps) specs. BioShock Infinite punched in at 64 frames per second at maximum fidelity, too. Looking for something newer? Fine: Far Cry 4 runs at a steady 35 fps on high settings, and sails to 46 fps on medium. Not bad at all.

    In pure benchmarks, the Alpha did better than I expected, but counting frames only tells half the story. While it's true that most games ran great "out of the box" and could often be configured to look a little better, some had problems. Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare both suffered from notable stuttering -- momentary freezes and hangs bad enough to make me give up on playing the latter title altogether. Some games won't run at all: Dragon Age: Inquisition requires the latest NVIDIA drivers to run, but the most recent update isn't yet available for the Alpha's semi-custom GPU. These issues will probably be fixed in a future update, but they're clear growing pains, and they aren't pleasant.

    The Alpha also bears the weight of egregiously long load times: a possible fault of the machine's slogging 5,400RPM HDD. It's hard to quantify exactly how much waiting the machine imposes on the user, but I can say that it's far too much. Pitted side by side, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare loads levels almost twice as fast on my PlayStation 4 than it does on the Alienware Alpha, and the machine itself takes a full two minutes to start from a cold boot. It's a lot of waiting. If you're comfortable disassembling your gadgets, there's a fix: The Alpha's case is held on by just four screws, and the HDD enclosure is the first thing you see when you crack it open. Stick an SSD or a 7,200RPM hard drive in there and you'll be just fine.

    Warts aside, it's important to keep perspective on what, exactly, the Alpha is. Yes, technically speaking, it's a gaming PC, but one that has been designed specifically to compete with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It doesn't have to run PC games at their maximum settings to do that: Medium and high configurations on the PC version of a game can often rival the visuals of its console counterparts. What's more, middling graphics configurations on the Alpha can translate to a good-looking game running at 1080p while pushing 60 frames per second or more. That's something most console games can't do. The Alpha doesn't always best its competition (and almost never beats it in load times), but when it does, it's a notable difference.

    Wrap-up

    The Alpha does a lot of things right. It's a small, compact gaming PC that fits into your entertainment center. It uses a combination of custom launchers and mouse-emulation to give users an experience analogous to that of a traditional game console with the tools to rescue themselves should its illusion fail. It makes playing PC games on your television gloriously easy, and even gives advanced users the ability to drop down to the desktop and use it as a regular computer. It's also weird, paranoid and overprotective of its console facade. Maybe that's exactly what it needs to be to take on traditional game consoles, but it drove me crazy. Still, I enjoyed my time with the Alienware Alpha -- most of the time, it just worked, and that's exactly what I want from a Steam Machine.

    Despite my affection for the Alpha, it's still difficult to recommend. If you absolutely have to have a Steam Machine right now, this is the one you want -- but it's a mere stepping stone toward bigger, better and more complete PC game consoles. It's not quite user-friendly enough for the average console gamer, but it's still too limiting and simple to satisfy most PC gamers. If you're somewhere in between, this is the product for you. Otherwise, wait it out.

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