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Alienware Alpha Review: A shockingly good tiny PC and console complement

Gordon Mah Ung | Nov. 25, 2014
Hardware has a shelf life like a gallon of milk. If it sits on the store shelf too long, it ends up getting poured down the drain.

Hardware has a shelf life like a gallon of milk. If it sits on the store shelf too long, it ends up getting poured down the drain.

That's ultimately the ugly story behind Alienware's Alpha game console. The Alpha was always intended to run Valve's much hyped Steam OS, but when the alternative OS didn't show up this summer, Alienware decided it had to ship its Steam Machine sans Steam OS before the hardware turned sour.

That's a long way of saying the Alpha is, for the most part, a Hail-Mary move that has (at first glance,)a lot going against it. It's not as upgradeable as most gaming PCs, nor is it as powerful. It's not even cheaper than its console competition, and without the Steam OS, who cares?

That's where you'd be wrong. After putting the Alpha through its paces last week, I have to say that despite the resistance it faces, this micro PC has a hell of a lot going for it as both a general-use PC and as a console complement.

The 10-foot interface

Alienware is pushing the Alpha hard as a console killer, but that's overreaching. That's not to say Alienware doesn't deserve a lot of credit. It spent months creating its own custom 10-foot interface that will actually let you unbox your Alpha, hook it to your HDTV, and get all the way through the OS setup and Steam login using just the included wireless Xbox 360 controller.

For a Windows box that's pretty good, but just enough UI issues remain to fall short of a "true console experience." There's an odd mix of ways to enter text in the Alpha, for example. The Windows startup uses the joystick to navigate on a virtual keyboard, which is horrible. Once you're into the Alienware UI, it switches to a more traditional D-pad keyboard. And then once in Steam, you'll be using Valve's command-rose-style input.

This isn't Alienware's fault — it can't override Windows 8.1 functionality, nor Valve's. The good news is you'll really only have to do this dance the first time you set up the Alpha with the controller. After that, more likely than not you'll just boot into the Alienware UI and click "Launch Steam."

Another minus to console jockeys is the limited utility of the Alienware UI. It's essentially a very polished launcher for Steam's Big Picture mode and is simply not as complete as the console experience. There's no video or music, or the snap-in Netflix or Youtube apps of, say, the Xbox One.

You can do those chores on the Alpha — and more than any console could dream of — but you'll be in desktop mode, and you'll likely need a keyboard and mouse for that. I'm not opposed to a keyboard and mouse in a living room PC and honestly don't know why console gamers can't adapt, but let's face it, most won't. Let me just say that a great combo for the Alpha would be a Logitech K400, which lists for $40 but should be easy to find for cheaper.


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