Alienware Alpha: Managing Expectations

We very much like the Alienware Alpha as a powerful yet petite PC gaming system, but how does it hold up now that it's been around for almost two weeks? We recount our experience from a different perspective.

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The Alienware Alpha is a big step toward bringing PC gaming to the living room through a small console-like system. Our review of the Alienware Alpha is quite positive, and I couldn't help picking one up for myself to game during the holidays. How could I resist? The Alpha is super portable, sports high-end hardware, and goes for a very attractive price (about $550 for the base model). I got the high end model, which features an Intel i7 2.0 Ghz CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB hard drive, but it has the same video card as the one reviewed.

In many respects, the Alpha is an excellent machine. I brought it over to a friend's house over the holiday and we played Gauntlet all afternoon. When we were done, I packed everything up in a backpack and left. A fantastic experience overall, and this is where the Alpha's design shines best.

If you're sensing a "but..." coming on, then you're right. Unfortunately, the Alienware Alpha doesn't achieve a "no fuss" high-end experience, and there are aspects of its design that works against itself. Under the hood are notebook components packed into a small case, backed by a custom designed Nvidia graphics card. Although Alienware once stated that there is no direct match-up between what's in the Alpha and Nvidia's other products, the closest you can say is that it's a suped up GTX 860M with 2GB GDDR5 memory.

This is combined with Alienware's advertising statement about how the Alpha is truly a "Next-gen" console:

"The Next Generation of Graphics: Based on NVIDIA’s newest ‘Maxwell’ architecture, with 2GB of GDDR5 memory at its disposal, the Alienware Alpha’s custom-built GPU ensures you get plenty of performance to crank up your settings on your big screen TV."

To me, in order for the Alpha to properly compete with gaming consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, it has to - at a minimum - run games at their best settings using 1080p (1980x1080) resolution and at 60 frames per second. Not only does the Alpha fail to meet this standard across the majority of games I tested, but a number of other problems arose almost as soon as I got it out of its box and plugged in.

Nobody Expected the Inquisition

The first game I wanted to try out, as soon as I unpacked my Alpha, was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The system booted into its minimalistic Alien UI shell, which is designed specifically to transition into Steam's Big Picture Mode. However, Inquisition is an Origin game, and requires me to switch to the desktop by logging out and back in to Windows 8.1. Although Alienware wants people to regard the Alpha as a console system, managed almost completely using the included Xbox 360 wireless controller, there is no escaping the fact that it's a Windows 8.1 PC in a very compact case. So, unless you're content to stick only to controller based games offered through Steam, you're going to want to pick up a keyboard and mouse for it. Fortunately, I anticipated as much, and had a wireless keyboard and mouse set ready.

Bigger problems soon arose. Inquisition requires the latest Nvidia drivers to run, and the Alpha used the previous version. This isn't a problem on a normal PC, but the Alpha is a different beast due to its custom video card. Neither the Nvidia website nor the GeForce software recognize the card, so you can't update the drivers directly. I had to spend an hour getting passed around tech support before I was provided a solution, and before that, the representative tried to blame the game for my problems. It seems all driver updates have to be approved and distributed directly through Alienware. In any case, they were kind enough to provide me with working video drivers through a cloud drive, so I give them credit for that, but the experience doesn't bode well for the future.

Incidentally, the fact that Nvidia doesn't recognize the Alpha's video card lays the foundation for a number of other issues, the least of which being that the Alpha couldn't take advantage of GeForce Experience features like Game Optimization, GameStream for streaming games to Nvidia Shield devices, and ShadowPlay for easy game capture. The update got both GameStream and ShadowPlay to work, but not Game Optimization, which you need to make the most of GameStream.

Back to Dragon Age: Inquisition. I was happy to finally get the game running, but severely disappointed when I set the graphics to Ultra and its benchmark showed it running at a sad average of 20.8 FPS, sometimes dropping into the mid-teens. This was not the kind of performance I was expecting from a "true next-gen console" experience. I at least hoped it would reach 30 FPS, which I consider to be the bare minimum for any gaming experience. Toning things down a notch to High settings produced a modest average of 30.8 FPS. For comparison, I loaded up the game on my desktop computer, which has an Nvidia GTX 770 graphics card, and got an average of 37.4 FPS at Ultra settings.

Things aren't much better with Far Cry 4. At Ultra settings, the game jumps between 25-35 FPS, which isn't terrible, but it's nothing to brag about either. Changing it to the "Nvidia" setting, which is Ultra with different the ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing settings, brings the game to a crawl - averaging about 15 FPS, and dropping as low as 6.

Managing Settings

Maybe these games are too new, so I decided to try out a couple older games. Titanfall, using Insane textures, sits at around 30 FPS but suffers frequent stuttering. Turning the anti-aliasing off boosts performance to a respectable 60 FPS, but the stuttering persists. The Batman: Arkham Origins benchmark with all GeForce and DirectX 11 enhancements turned on to max averages 40 FPS, but the PhysX hardware acceleration couldn't be set to High because the game doesn't recognize the video card. Crysis 3 on Very High settings did the worst, averaging 20 FPS, while BioShock Infinite performed the best with a benchmark that averages 64.27 FPS. In summation, out of all the games I tried, only one ran at 1080p, 60 FPS, performance at full settings. Two if you make an exception for Titanfall.

For the sake of comparison, the Batman: Arkham Origins benchmark ran at 52 FPS on my GTX 770 with PhysX on High, and the BioShock Infinite benchmark sped through at a whopping 137.86 FPS. All tests were run at 1920x1080 resolution with V-Sync turned off. I wasn't expecting desktop performance out of the Alpha, but I was hoping it would better match against a 700 series video card.

Then again, an Nvidia GTX 770 card by itself costs about half as much, and measures bigger, than the whole Alienware Alpha console. The fact that the Nvidia GeForce software and games can't recognize the Alpha's video card is a big problem, as is the fact that all updates have to be processed through Alienware first. It would also be helpful to get Nvidia's Game Optimization software working so that players don't have to fiddle with the settings to get good performance. Hopefully, those issues will be resolved soon, along with the much needed additions to the Alien UI.

The Alpha doesn't exactly deliver on its promise to rival video game consoles. But it does bring acceptable performance for many games, at a low price and small form factor. If you're looking for big performance and fewer growing pains, spending a couple hundred dollars extra for X51 system might be more worthwhile. In the meantime, I've learned to appreciate both the Alpha's capabilities and shortcomings.

Managing Editor
From The Chatty
  • reply
    December 4, 2014 8:00 AM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Alienware Alpha: Managing Expectations

    • reply
      December 4, 2014 12:49 PM

      Saying that it can't run X game at its highest settings isn't very valuable criticism. "Highest settings" differs wildly from game to game. Instead, you should judge the graphics it's pushing when you achieve the framerate you want. If it's looking better than consoles (which are $150 - $300 cheaper) at 1080p 60fps then that's a win.

    • reply
      December 4, 2014 1:30 PM

      I believe the comparison is a bit unfair on some of these games. A lot of them are rendered internally at 900p. Also, ultra settings on the PC tend to look a bit better than high end consoles as well. Turn MSAA off, turn settings to High or possibly medium, and that would be a closer comparison.

      I own a water cooled gaming rig, a ps4, wii u, and Xbox one so I am familiar with capabilities of each.

      The Alienware machine probably falls short more in the interface it uses. If everything was through steam then life would be better off. We can blame EA and Ubi for that.

    • reply
      December 4, 2014 1:56 PM

      I'm not at all surprised that a device with low to middling notebook hardware doesn't make a great gaming machine, when compared to the current crop of consoles.

      They needed only sent the spec sheet with an MSRP number at the bottom.

    • reply
      December 4, 2014 2:48 PM

      I think the alpha's strength is the form factor honestly. You can certainly build a more powerful pc at a similar Price point but that would probably be tower size and not such a compact little machine.

      I think only enthusiasts who want a really compact lan box and already have a primary computer will be willing to put up with the problems you mention