Most of the Steam Controller's components feel exactly as you would expect: It has a top-flight analog stick, responsive face buttons and good triggers -- but the flagship feature is definitely those weird touchpads. These slightly concave surfaces allow the controller to work as a surprisingly precise mouse. It's not just a 1:1 mouse control, either: The Steam Controller cleverly emulates the momentum of a track ball. If you drag a thumb over the surface slowly, the cursor will move with deliberate, precise motion. Flick that same thumb and it will accelerate and gradually slow down. Haptic engines under the touchpads lend a tactile feeling to the entire experience. It feels good. Great, even.
This kind of control opens doors for mouse-only PC titles. Games that rely on cursor control like Shadowrun Returns and Papers Please are suddenly playable without a mouse and keyboard. I found myself playing Civilization: Beyond Earth in my living room. In first-person shooters and action games, the Steam Controller offers me a more sensitive mouselook-style input than I've experienced with a traditional gamepad.
It's exactly what I want in a hand-held PC game controller, but I won't lie: The learning curve can be brutal. Those touchpads are incredibly sensitive, and using them in first-person gaming feels wildly different than pushing against the consistent pressure of an analog stick. Appropriately, it's more like using a mouse and keyboard -- flicking quickly in one direction or another to look around and picking up and repeatedly moving the "mouse" (or in this case, your thumb) to achieve certain movements. It takes time and patience, and won't come easy to everyone.
The Steam Controller also relies heavily on Valve's software. Every game now has a "configure controller" submenu that allows the user to customize the gamepad to their liking. Want to adjust the sensitivity of the trackpad? Looking to disable the requirement to "click" the left pad down to register a directional pad input? Need to remap a button with an obscure keyboard toggle to get the control to feel right? You can do all that here -- there are dozens of options to tweak.
You can also select from three default templates -- a gamepad-emulation mode, keyboard (WASD) with mouse and a hybrid mode that blends gamepad controls with the higher-precision camera allowed by mouse control. These three profiles were enough to make most of my Steam library playable, but they aren't perfect: The gamepad mode does a pretty poor job of emulating the right thumbstick, resulting in a control scheme that feels unnatural and slow. The hybrid mode fixes this for most titles, but some simply don't play nice with simultaneous gamepad and mouse inputs -- those will need to be configured using the WASD mode. This usually works, but it means any on-screen prompts you see in the game will be for a mouse and keyboard. Like I said, it's not perfect.
Many games come with a default or recommended profile, but watch out: Some of them are wrong. If a game requires dual-analog controls and recommends using the gamepad-emulation mode, it's usually an awful experience. You can adjust the sensitivity curves of the emulated stick, but more often than not there's a "community" profile made by another user that has already solved the problem. Oh, did I not mention? Any controller profile you make can be shared with the community -- and these crowdsourced profiles are usually the best available.
Also, I think it's a little telling that almost every game I played that recommended "gamepad" mode from the publisher also had a community profile titled "Alienware PAX" that swapped out the right-stick emulation for high-precision mouse control.
When it works, though, it's phenomenal. Valve has baked native Steam Controller support into some of its own games, and they're excellent. Portal 2, for instance, has controller profiles that automatically remap certain gamepad buttons to fit your situation. If you're in a level, the Steam Controller adopts one setting; if you're in a menu or the game's puzzle editor mode, it'll adopt another.
These native profiles are a game changer -- replaying Portal 2 with the Steam Controller has been an absolute joy. The sensitivity curves are just right, while the jump and use functions of the rear-facing paddle buttons feel natural. Valve even included an optional motion-control profile that lets you tilt the gamepad to control the camera, similar to the aiming mechanic Nintendo uses for Splatoon. It feels great, like Portal 2 was made for the Steam Controller.
If true native Steam Controller support becomes a PC gaming standard, I'll never touch my Xbox 360 gamepad ever again... but in the meantime, I'm not getting rid of it. I was perfectly happy to use the Steam Controller for most of the titles in my library, but every now and then one wouldn't play nice with hybrid gamepad mode and also didn't feel right in WASD-keyboard-and-mouse mode. In these rare cases, reverting back to the Xbox gamepad worked best. Luckily, the Alienware Steam Machine natively recognized my wireless Xbox controller dongle.
With any luck, I won't need a backup Xbox 360 gamepad for very long -- Valve is constantly sending the controller firmware updates and adding features to mitigate common problems. Remember how I said the controller was lousy at emulating a traditional gamepad's right thumbstick? A few weeks after the controller shipped, Valve added a new "mouse-like-thumbstick," which lets users apply sensitive cursor control to games that don't play nice with the Steam Controller's hybrid mode. There's also a new "touch menu" mode that uses the Steam overlay to add extra on-screen hotkey buttons to any game that needs more inputs than the physical controller offers. It's nice to think that the controller will just get better and better with time.
The Steam Controller is pretty handy for text entry and web browsing, too. No, really -- pull up a text-entry field in SteamOS' Store search or web browser, and the system will let you use the dual touchpads to touch-type text. Simply drag your finger across the pad, use the on-screen cursors (one for each pad) to select a button and click down to select it. After years of smartphone text messaging, it feels completely natural, and it's my new favorite "game console" mechanic for text entry. The right touchpad also works like a real mouse in the web browser and the left works as a scroll bar. For the first time in my life, I'm comfortably browsing the web on my television. It's nice.
Finally, there's one killer feature the Steam Controller and the Alienware Steam Machine are missing: The ability to power on the console using just the controller itself. This is a standard feature for every other device in my entertainment center, but the Alienware box just can't do it. This isn't a surprise: Most desktop PCs can't be powered on from a device over USB, but some devices can be put into sleep mode and woken up by a remote controller. As far as I can tell, that's not an option here, either. If you want to play Steam, you'll have to get off your couch and turn the machine on yourself. How tedious.
Gameplay and performance
Okay, so the Alienware Steam Machine has the right operating system and the right controller -- but does it have the right components? Can it keep up with today's consumer game consoles and still pass muster as a gaming PC? Most of the time, yes.
My $749 test unit costs a pretty penny more than the highest-priced console on the market, but it has a lot to offer. The flagship Alienware Steam Machine packs in a Core i7-4785T CPU, 8GB DDR3 memory, a 1TB 7,200 rpm hard drive and a customized NVIDIA GTX 860M graphics chip with 2GB of video RAM. That turned out to be enough power to run almost everything in my SteamOS-compatible library on high visual settings at a decent frame rate.
Most games automatically configured themselves to medium visual settings by default, hovering at 45 frames per second or higher, depending on the title, but I found the system could push most of them a little further. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel happily bounced between 35 and 50 fps (depending on how much action was on screen) on maximum visual settings, and both Shadow Warrior and Spec Ops: The Line eclipsed 50 fps with the dials turned to 11. BioShock Infinite dipped just below 30 fps on Ultra, but maintained a solid 40 average when tuned down to "very high" settings. I had similar results with Serious Sam 3, finding Ultra to be just a tad too much, but High ran just fine. It should be no surprise that Valve's own games also ran great on the first official Steam Machine: Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2 had no problem hitting 60 fps on their highest visual settings.
Even The Witcher 2, one of my library's heavier hitters, ran moderately well, managing to stay above 30 fps on high settings and comfortably hitting the 40s on medium. Simpler offerings like Civilization: Beyond Earth had no trouble hitting playable frame rates on maximum settings, and the machine also shrugged off the plethora of indie titles available for SteamOS + Linux.
The games that ran poorly surprised me: Shadow of Mordor struggled to hit playable frame rates at my television's native 1080p resolution until I dialed back its graphics options to their lowest settings. I don't know if the game is simply more resource-intensive than I realized, if it's poorly optimized for PCs or if it's just a bad Linux port.
Installing, running and playing games on the Alienware was usually a seamless experience -- jumping directly from the SteamOS menu into a game. Most of the time, this led to a smooth, console-like gaming experience, although there was the occasional hiccup. The Witcher 2 doesn't launch straight into the game, and requires the user to click "play" in a launcher program before starting in earnest. To navigate this quirk, I had to press the Steam Controller's "home" button to change profiles multiple times.
A few games also suffered from weird stuttering despite running well at high specifications: BioShock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel would all occasionally drop a few frames, causing the game to look like it was "hanging" for a quarter of a second every few minutes. Weird.
Right now, our test unit represents the absolute best Steam Machine that Dell has to offer -- if you want more power, you'll have to upgrade it yourself. Fortunately, that's pretty easy: Four screws on the bottom of the tiny case are all you need to remove to get access to the Steam Machine's RAM, HDD slot and LGA 1150 CPU socket (compatible with Haswell and select Broadwell processors. Sorry Skylake fans).
Getting less power is pretty easy too: Dell sells a $649 model identical to our test unit, save for a downgraded Intel Core i5 CPU. Dropping down to the $549 build will saddle you with a Core i3 CPU and one fewer internal wireless antenna. A bottom-dollar $449 unit is available as well, shipping with the Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a smaller 500GB HDD. Fortunately, all configurations share the same NVIDIA GPU.
Knowing that the Alienware Steam Machine can play modern releases (with a few caveats) is great, but that alone isn't enough to say if it can compete with traditional consoles or other gaming PCs. In an industry where content is king, are there enough Linux games available on Valve's platform for SteamOS to thrive? It depends on your perspective.
In a strictly numerical sense, SteamOS has tons of games -- over 1,500 titles available to download and play right now, today. In a more qualitative sense? Maybe don't bank on a Linux-based Steam Machine as your only game console. Not yet, at least.
That's not to say there aren't lots of great games available for SteamOS and Linux -- every single one of the titles I listed above ran natively on the system -- but there are definitely fewer multiplatform AAA titles on the Linux section of Steam's marketplace than you might find on Windows, Xbox or PlayStation. Worse still, some games that were promised to launch on Linux alongside Windows and consoles missed their mark: The Batman: Arkham Knight Linux port failed to surface when the game re-launched on PC and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is still absent from Steam OS five months after its Windows release.
On the plus side, Valve carries a lot of weight in the gaming industry, and it has a vested interest in convincing developers to port big-name games to Linux. It's extremely probable that we'll see an explosion in Linux-compatible releases over the next several years. In the meantime, SteamOS' Linux library offers one extra advantage: It's unique. There are literally hundreds of distinct, fun, independent and lesser-known titles lurking in the Steam marketplace that simply aren't available on Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Not enough? Okay -- Valve has one more trick up its sleeve, but it requires another computer: Steam In-Home Streaming. This feature has been around for a while, but now it's baked directly into the SteamOS ecosystem. If you have a Windows PC anywhere on your network running Steam, you can pipe its games to the Alienware Steam Machine to fill in the holes in the Linux library. This trick tends to work better over Ethernet, and the whole thing depends on the health of your local network, but it's a good stopgap for folks with another gaming machine. Already have another gaming PC but don't want a Linux game console for your entertainment center? You may want to look at the Steam Link -- it's cheap; it comes with a Steam Controller; and it's designed specifically for users who want to stream their gaming PC to their TV without adding a whole new computer to the network.
I used to laugh when I saw Linux users scramble to build compatibility layers to play "real" PC games. I chuckled when Valve CEO Gabe Newell lambasted Windows 8 as a "catastrophe for everyone," proffering Linux and SteamOS as a viable alternative. It seemed so far-fetched, so silly. Truth be told, I'm still laughing -- but now it's because I'm enjoying myself. The Alienware Steam Machine has some growing pains, but it's fun. Lots of fun.
The first commercial Steam Machine isn't quite an idiot-proof console just yet, but it's close. In fact, it's close enough I'm thinking about recommending it to friends who would otherwise be hesitant to step into the world of PC gaming. It's fun and easy to use. Most of the issues I encountered are minor and simple to troubleshoot. It still needs some major patches and a larger selection of supported games, but Valve seems committed to making these improvements a reality. Even as is, Steam Machines are good. Shockingly good. Soon, they could be great. Either way Valve is on the right track.