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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.

These are ultimately not big hurdles to overcome, but a lot of console jockeys I know will accept nothing less than a rubber-walled, seamless experience where you'll never, ever have to put down the controller to do anything. The Alpha just isn't there yet.

Then there's specsmanship

Gamers all like to bitch that "it's not about specs," before they gleefully wade into forum flame wars over the hardware inside today's consoles. So let's get on with it: The review unit I had ran a dual-core Intel Core i3 4130T, 4GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, a 500GB 2.5-inch hard drive, 802.11a/c Wi-Fi, and a custom overclocked GeForce GTX 860M graphics card with 2GB of GDDR5.

The CPU, Alienware likes to point out, can be upgraded, as it's a standard LGA1150-socketed CPU. I suspect you can't run higher wattage Haswell chips in the unit, as all three versions ship with "T" series power-optimized CPUs.

You can upgrade RAM, but you'll have to toss the old memory as the unit only has two SO-DIMM slots. The laptop hard drive can also be easily replaced, but the most important part — the graphics board — is unfortunately soldered to the motherboard, so there ain't no upgrade there.

One thing is certain, it's extremely easy to get into the Alpha. Remove four Philips-head screws from the bottom, and the top and bottom pop off. Believe or not but it's actually easier to access and service than most full-sized desktops I've wrenched on. That says something about the engineering Alienware put into the Alpha's design.

Better performance and better graphics too

I tested the Alpha by running Tomb Raider at 1920x1080 set on high. The built-in benchmark put the machine's average frame rate at 58 fps. Not bad. I also spooled up BioShock Infinite at 1920x1080 on the built-in benchmark's medium setting and saw an average frame rate of 77.6 fps. Compared to several of the micro PC's we've reviewed this year, that's pretty damned good.

Because gamers seem to care only about how a game looks, I did an image-quality comparison by firing up Ubisoft's new Far Cry 4 on both the Alpha and an Xbox One plugged into the same Sony Bravia HDTV. I flipped between the two different HDMI ports as the games ran through the same in-game cut scenes.

Neither bursted at the seams in frame rate. In play through, I saw as low as 30 fps to the mid 40's on the Alpha, which is borderline in playability to me. I suspect the slightly undersized amount of RAM is an issue too, as I'd get a system hiccup or pause on occasion when coming out of standby. The Xbox One was overall very smooth in frame rate, but the reason why became pretty clear to me: lower image quality.


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