The Alienware Alpha: Don't call it a Steam Machine
A great deal of effort has gone into bringing the PC gaming experience to the living room lately, most notably by Valve with the development of the SteamOS, Steam Controller, and related Steam Machines along with features like Big Picture Mode and In-Home Streaming. Little by little, the PC Gaming experience is becoming more living-room friendly, where the large TV and entertainment centers reside. However, the announcement that official Steam Machines would be delayed until 2015 meant that many would have to wait before they saw a genuine PC console hit retail. Except that Alienware decided not to wait and announced the Alienware Alpha, a genuine Windows PC designed to work as though it were a console gaming system.
At first glance, the small Alienware Alpha bears a passing resemblance to the X51, which is similarly sized desktop system that wouldn't be out of place on an entertainment center. The main difference is that the Alpha is a bit more space saving (slightly bigger than a Nintendo Wii), since it doesn't include an optical drive, and it doesn't ship with a keyboard and mouse standard the way the X51 does. It comes with a wireless Xbox 360 controller and receiver instead. The Alpha also has a significantly lower starting price.
The base model costs $549 and includes an Intel Core i3 "Haswell" processor, 4GB DDR3 1600MHz Memory, a custom-built Nvidia "Maxwell" based GPU using 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 high-speed memory, and a 500 GB SATA 3 hard drive. Other features include two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI Out with support for 4K content (but not 4K gaming), an HDMI In pass through, Optical audio out, Gigabit Ethernet, and built-in Dual-band Wireless-AC 1x1 for Wi-Fi along with Bluetooth 4.0.
Alternate configurations will allow buyers to upgrade the processor to an Core i5 or i7, up to 8 GB of memory, up to 2 TB of hard drive space, and improving the Dual Band Wireless-AC with a 2x2 antenna. However, it's clear that the Alpha relies heavily on its customized GPU, which is a part of Nvidia's upcoming 800 series, to play games at their maximum settings.
Although SteamOS can be installed onto the Alpha, this is not Alienware's Steam Machine offering. The Alienware Alpha runs Windows 8.1 64-bit using a modified interface that lets the system boot straight into Steam's Big Picture Mode. From there, players navigate using the controller and are likely to stick to controller-supported games.
While the price only barely rivals that of consoles, it's an exceptional value when you consider the amount of power that's in the system. The Alpha has the benefit of being an open system, so owners won't have to limit themselves Steam purchases, and can play any PC-compatible they want purchased from any service. Owners also have the option to eventually turn it into a Steam Machine or Linux box if they choose. Also, let's not overlook other features like Steam's In-Home Streaming and compatibility with devices like the Nvidia Shield. Lastly, it's small enough to be packed up and easily transported. So, who knows, between the Alpha's price and portability, maybe LAN parties will make a comeback.
With all things considered, the Alienware Alpha could ultimately be a greater gaming value than traditional console systems.