Alienware Alpha – The PC-based Games Console

If you read my gush about PC gaming you’ll know I find it an exciting landscape with so much more to offer than the locked-down and tightly controlled world of console games.

So why, you might ask, would I give a monkeys about a PC trying to masquerade as a games console?

Easy. I counter. I’m not a bedroom PC gamer anymore, I no longer sink days and days into Starcraft, Guildwars or World of Warcraft, and I don’t have anywhere to put a colossal desktop gaming PC even if I wanted to.

The idea of a PC games console appeals to me as a best-of-both worlds approach. Bringing comfortable, sofa-bound, big-screen social ( dare I say, casual? ) gaming to a platform that’s commonly associated with reclusive MMORPG-devouring hermits.

Enter the Alienware Alpha

Aptly named, I think. The Alpha is very much an Alpha test of a concept that people like me have long dreamed to see to fruition. It’s a toe in the water, but a damned good one.

Alienware came close to this dream with the X52, which I bought the first revision of. The X52 is a different beast, though. While they shaved the pounds off the typically unwieldy gaming PC they never tried to bill it as a games console. My X52 ended up getting used far more often for work than for games, but that’s okay.

The Alpha is different. It’s very definitively a “games console” in both stature and build, and demands to be placed under a TV and never disgraced with boring worky crud like Photoshop, Eagle or Xilinx Webpack ISE ( don’t even look that up! ).

The Hardware

That’s not to say it *couldn’t* do those things. The hardware itself is absolutely superb, squeezing the same customised laptop GPU across the range in with a Core i3 to i7 CPU, 4 to 8GB RAM and up to 2TB of disk space into a form-factor that’s so sleek you can carry it around like it were a laptop.

I reviewed the entry-level model, which sports a Core i3 CPU, 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard disk. It chewed through every Steam game I threw at it seemingly effortlessly. Throughout my testing I could find absolutely no reason to go with a more expensive model, and would much sooner recommend replacing the hard-disk with a blistering fast SSD and/or supplementing it with an external drive when needs arise ( if you have a large media collection, or a bunch of old games you’ve downloaded and don’t play as much ).

In the box you’ll also find a Wireless Xbox 360 controller, and a wireless receiver. It’s a bit of a shame the latter isn’t built into the Alpha, but you can tuck it behind the unit- out of sight, out of mind.

You get swanky Alienware lighting, too, which you can customise in software to add your own personal twist to the Alpha.

Controls

The choice of Xbox 360 controller and receiver means you can use any existing Xbox 360 controllers you might have lying around with the Alpha. I’ve been using PS3 controllers and a single wired Xbox 360 controller with my Alienware X52. You can imagine my glee when I effortlessly got a whole set of 4 wireless Xbox 360 controllers up and running with the Alpha.

The conspicuous lack of keyboard and mouse in the Alpha box really slams the “sofa gaming” concept home, and being able to quickly and easily set up a 4-player round of Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, or Toybox Turbos was immensely satisfying.

But you’re not limited to Xbox 360 controllers. The Alpha is a PC, so you can use a Wii Mote, PS3 Controller, Mouse, Keyboard, Kinect and basically anything the game you’re playing works best with.

Out of the box…

The lack of a keyboard and mouse may alarm you at first, but Alienware have ensured the Alpha set-up process can be entirely controller-driven. Upon first start you’re given a UI that configures the basic settings of Windows and your user account, and once set up the system boots into a controller-compatible menu from which you can change settings or launch Steam Big Picture.

The menu is, unfortunately, somewhat clunky and may possibly be written in a Python GUI framework, but there’s every possibility it could be improved or replaced in time. That’s if Steam OS doesn’t outright replace it- since the Alpha is billed as “Steam OS Ready.”

Once you’re in Steam Big Picture mode, you’ll be able to navigate easily with the controller and launch/play games that are controller-enabled. If you run into something that’s keyboard and mouse only, you probably will, then you’ll be warned and will have to break out your wireless keyboard and mouse combo to continue.

This leads on to one of the key failings with the concept of the Alpha, and also of Steam OS. The beauty of PC gaming is not a lock-in platform like Steam, but in an open and flexible ecosystem where choice is key. In Steam Big Picture you’re confined to launching only games that you buy through Steam- it would be nice if they expanded it to launch third party games but I don’t see that happening soon.

To launch any other games, you’re going to need a mouse and keyboard, and you’re going to need to boot into a regular Windows desktop. This shatters the fluid console illusion, and neither the Alienware Alpha UI, Steam Big Picture or Steam OS have the solution to this problem. And I don’t think anyone is sufficiently motivated to create a solution, either, despite the fact that an alternative, controller-driven and open UI for Windows 8 is certainly far from being outside the realms of possibility.

Of course, no sooner do I write these words down than I Google for and a solution. If you’re picking up an Alpha you’ll also be interested in:

And therein lies the beauty of a PC- if you don’t like it, you can change it.

Games

This generation of games consoles saw a concerted effort to move to download-only, but the market is staunchly against losing the value of second-hand games so only baby-steps have been made in this direction. PC games have been a second-had citizen in gaming stores for as long as I can remember, though, and many have long succumb to DRM that makes them difficult or impossible to resell even if you do buy them on disc. This is both a good and bad thing, but we’ll focus on the good.

The PC gaming landscape proved to be a lot more receptive to online distribution, and this has seen the birth of services like GOG, Steam and Origin. Even if a game isn’t distributed by one of these channels, it’s likely the website has a client download link if it’s a multiplayer-online game, or that you can buy a digital download and a CD key.

Couple the readily available plethora of games for the PC, with typically giant hard drives, plus the great sales the likes of Steam and GOG offer on a regular basis and you’ve got both excellent portability and a back catalog stretching right back to text-based adventure games like Colossal Cave Adventure.

Performance

I couldn’t find a game I wasn’t satisfied with on the Alpha, pretty much everything I threw at it ran maxed out at 720p on my TV, and 1080p on a monitor.

I didn’t perform any objective methods of benchmarking because, frankly, I don’t care! And neither should you. It’s how it feels that counts, and believe me when I say we spent so many hours playing Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing that we had to stop due to motion sickness and stress.

Price and Value

There’s absolutely no reason to buy the more expensive models, and the £450 entry price is a pretty good deal- more so if you can snag a Dell discount, or use an online cash back service to get some money off.

Because the Alpha is just a PC, and a pretty capable one at that, it’s got oodles of options for obsolescence. If you ever buy a replacement then it’ll capably take up a role as the best-darn-media-center-you’ve-ever-owned should you decide to install Kodi. It’s great for watching Netflix and other streaming services when it’s not being used for gaming, and will just as capably run Skype, or even a full Windows 8 desktop environment with all the applications a normal desktop or laptop would run.

It’d make a great student PC, I’m sure, providing access to PC gaming, media and acting as a workhorse in a tiny, tiny package.

Total Cost of Ownership

Right now, an Xbox One will set you back about £330, and a Playstation 4 around £340. Both of these prices tend to include a couple of games you may or may not want, but we’ll take the figures at face value for now. The Alienware Alpha starts at £449 and purports to include a free copy of Payday 2. The price is £110-£120 more than its games-console counter parts. But can that price be clawed back from cheaper games?

Now, Steam is a mysterious beast. Right now I can pick up Far Cry 4 for a staggering, price gouging £44.99. This is a game I want to play, but I’ve chosen to sit on the sidelines and wait for the right sale price. By comparison Computer Exchange has the pre-owned console version for £28, and Game the new console version for £39.99 ( Xbox One ) and £41.99 ( PS4 ). These prices are all over the place, but I’ve got an email in my inbox from the 12th Feb telling me Far Cry 4 was on sale for a not too unreasonable £30.14, and I’m pretty sure it went on sale at £26 more recently but I can’t find any proof of that!

Okay, it’s not looking so great for the PC… but let’s throw in the wild-card; CD Key resellers. There’s a practise in the PC world, and even for games consoles in fact, where games bought overseas, typically in Eastern Europe, are unboxed, the CD keys photographed, and then subsequently sold online. The process of selling them has become fluid, fully automated and safe- so right now you can pick up a Far Cry 4 UPlay CD Key for £24.99. The PC is really great at giving you options- you can buy in the high street, get a digital download, buy a CD key, or wait for a very reasonable sale.

So what happens if you wait a bit longer? Waiting is okay, right, you don’t *need* that game at launch?

Right now in the 2K Games sale on Steam you can pick up BioShock Infinite for £4.99. That’s the glorious, shiny PC version too. This game isn’t even available on Xbox One or PS4 but you can expect to find the PS3/Xbox 360 versions for about £8 or £6 pre-owned.

The market really celebrates staying behind the curve, and I fully expected to find hard evidence that buying PC games is, overall, cheaper than those for bleeding-edge games consoles. This isn’t really true. New games will price-gouge you on all platforms.

The benefit of the PC market is more the easy availability of a whole great big long legacy of games from 2015 right back to pre 1995 and beyond. You can’t tell me that Rollercoaster Tycoon isn’t still as awesome and worthy a game today as it was when it was released!

The PC landscape also has a certain culture around celebrating, modding and keeping alive brilliant classic games that everyone loves.

Game Modding And Longevity

Although it’s slowly creeping into the world of console gaming with the likes of Little Big Planet, and Halo, the ability to mod computer games is still very much the domain of the PC. Some of the most enduring and most heavily modded PC games basically have zero mod support in their console counterparts. Skyrim is probably the best and most current example.

Skyrim’s top PC mods have downloads numbering in the millions, are free, and are updated even today- 3 years and change after its launch. Skyrim on the Xbox? It’s neglected bargain fodder and you can pick it up for £3.

In Conclusion

If you’ve made it through this semi-structured rambling mess I’m trying to pass off as a review, then well done… you’re bonkers. Welcome to the conclusion where I’ll say simply this; if you’re thinking about getting an Alpha, do it. I really want one, but since the X52 already capably fills that role ( ha ha, like I have any time left to play games anyway ) I’m not in a hurry to pick one up.

The Alpha is a great incarnation of an idea I’ve always wanted to see hit the PC landscape, and if Alienware/Dell are fully committed to making the experience fluid and seamless, assuming Steam OS doesn’t jump in and fix all the problems beforehand, then it’ll shape up to be the first in a range of truly fantastic PC consoles.

The downside of Steam OS, and Steam in general is that it’s a walled garden in which only your Steam games can play, but an increased interest in console-style gaming on the PC will no doubt inspire efforts to create a more open, flexible and all-encompassing solution to launching and playing games/apps with a controller. And when that happens, the Alpha will still be a fantastic piece of hardware to use it on.

Only time will tell!