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Alienware Alpha Review: A Game Console's Worst Nightmare

Since the dawn of time, Man has been trying to find a way to play their PC games for hours on end in a comfortable environment. Primitive computer desks and chairs didn’t offer much comfort considering they were made out of rock, sticks, and animal entrails, but modern-day setups have offered a bit more support to game for long periods of time. But ultimately, Man dreams of being able to experience PC gaming on his living room couch without having to drag his towers and a million cables into a high-traffic room.

Alienware introduced its Alpha during E3 2014 as a way for PC gamers to crawl out of their bedrooms, home offices, or any other room their PC calls home and back into the living room as their offering takes up very little space by measuring in at under 2.5-inches tall, 8-inches wide, and 8-inches deep. The Alpha comes with a wireless Xbox 360 controller, the Alienware Alpha UI, and Steam running in Big Picture Mode to bring PC gaming to whatever room you want to take it into. But can Alienware make PC gaming a bit more mainstream with their Alpha or should they go back to the drawing board to deliver an improved Beta? Our review.

Follow the KISS Principle

Alienware follows the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle with the Alpha, as it ships with its power adaptor, HDMI cable, and a wireless Xbox 360 controller. No more, no less. The process of setting up the Alpha was painless considering there weren’t many peripherals I needed to set up and everything I input was done using the Xbox 360 controller.

After about 10 or so minutes of configuring the Alpha by inputting my Microsoft account information, downloading updates, and registering my email with Alienware, I was on my way to its custom UI. The AlphaUI provides a more streamlined controller-based method of navigation that doesn’t require a mouse and keyboard to interact with, although you could if you really wanted to by plugging them in via USB. The UI has four large icons: Launch Steam, Settings, Help, and Power. The Launch Steam icon allows you to launch the Big Picture Mode version of Steam, while Settings contains configuration information, such as your video resolution, audio quality, AlienFX customization, and HDMI settings.

If you rather not deal with the Alpha UI, you can always go into desktop mode and treat the console like a desktop computer as it comes with Windows 8.1 installed. In fact, I had to do this a handful of times in order to get my wireless keyboard to function correctly as well as to play some games that weren’t available on Steam, like Hearthstone and a number of EA titles that are only accessible through Origin. From my experience, there doesn’t seem to be a method to automatically boot the Alpha into desktop mode if that’s how you prefer to use it, so I’m hopeful Alienware offers this in a future update as I personally would like to have the Alpha act as a PC when I’m not using it, I’d like to be able to stream videos from it using Plex.

Alienware has equipped its AlphaUI to recognize a number of controller hotkeys that can assist you when Steam is being unresponsive. Initiating a hotkey requires both triggers and bumpers on the Xbox 360 controller to be pushed, along with one of the inputs on the face of the controller. One hotkey I used often was to launch the Alpha’s systems menu, which was a combination of the hot key initiation combo along with a press of the guide button. It takes a little bit of practice to recall the hotkeys, but there are just a few actions that can be initiated, so you can pretty much blindly hit different parts of the controller to see what happens in hopes what you want it to do will be done.

Best of Both Worlds?

The PC community is well aware it’s the best platform when it comes to gaming, but it’s always had trouble getting itself into living rooms or anywhere else game consoles could go. But the Alpha seems to solve this problem by offering some pretty high-end internals fit within a small console enclosure. The review unit I was loaned featured an Intel Core i3-4130T and 4GB of DDR3 @ 1600MHz RAM along with an NVIDIA GTX 860M discrete-class GPU that was customized for the Alpha, all of which should be considered better specs than what modern-day consoles have running in them.

To be honest, I don’t have as extensive a library as most PC gamers. I have around 150+ games in my library, with very few able to push a machine to its limits. In my testing, I played a wide variety of games like Gauntlet, Left 4 Dead 2, Magic 2015, Gone Home, PAC-MAN Championship Edition DX+, BattleBlock Theater, The King of Fighters XIII, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. I played all of these games at their highest graphic level possible, and I didn’t notice any hiccups or lagging while playing them on the Alpha. I found this to be pretty impressive considering I was given an entry-level machine for review. Even more impressive was how cool the Alpha was able to keep itself while I was playing on it. I made sure to see how hot the console became while playing more demanding games, like Gauntlet, Gone Home, The King of Fighters XIII, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and its rear felt warm near its exhausts, but overall, I couldn’t notice an increase in temperature.

Unlike modern-day consoles, opening the Alpha won’t void your warranty in any way, and in fact, Alienware encourages it by making the process of opening the console extremely easy. All you need to do is remove four screws located at the bottom portion of the console then flip it over to gain access to the Alpha’s sweet, sweet innards. Heatsink shrouds for both the CPU and GPU can easily be removed simply by squeezing a particular spot on them, allowing you to replace a number of things, such as the RAM or CPU. While I’m on the subject of specs, the Alpha has two USB 3.0 ports on its back, two USB 2.0 ports in the front, and an additional USB 2.0 port tucked away in a hidden compartment underneath the console. If a device you’re using with the Alpha has a USB dongle, this would be the best place to use it.

Personal Computer Tendencies

As I said earlier in my review, my library isn’t as filled as most PC gamers for the fact that I just started getting back into it over the past year. I tend to purchase most of my games on console due to their ease of use as well as my personal friends often play on consoles instead of PC. With that said, if you’re considering the Alpha, you better be all in when it comes to Steam as not all of your games will offer Gamepad support, especially older games. So out of my 150+ games, Steam informed me about 50 of them offered Gamepad support, making it much easier to play them on the Alpha.

Even though a mouse and keyboard aren’t necessary to use the Alpha, I personally feel you should at least consider a wireless keyboard and mouse or touchpad if you want to play some games that only support that input method. Although in my experience, a number of games in my library that were marked as keyboard and mouse only were usable with the Xbox 360 gamepad, so keep that in mind. But there were some games, like Hatoful Boyfriend or Team Fortress 2, that I really wanted to play, but didn’t want to have to pry myself from my comfy couch and my extremely fluffy blanket, so a keyboard and mouse were needed.

The Alpha and Omega

Alienware has been manufacturing products geared towards PC gaming for a very long time. The Alpha is yet another product that puts PC gaming completely in the forefront of the company’s mind, but also delivering a product for those who may not know a lot about PCs are able to pick up and enjoy, rather than spending a number of sleepless nights wondering if they should go with an NVIDIA or AMD graphics card.

The Alpha would make a great addition to anyone’s living room if they would like to bring their love of PC gaming away from their computer desk and chair. What makes it stand out is how it’s able to offer a high level of performance in such a small form. So not only will it not take up a huge amount of real estate in your home, but it’s also highly transportable allowing its owner to take it from room to room or even trips to their friends’ house or anywhere else. I was already enjoying playing PC games from my desktop computer, but I feel the Alpha has made me an even bigger fan of PC gaming.

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