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Hands-on with Alienware's Alpha: PC gaming in the living room just got serious

Hayden Dingman | June 17, 2014
"PC gaming is too expensive." "PC gaming is too complicated." "I don't want a big, bulky PC in my living room." Rest in peace, three overused excuses. You all had a good run, as far as excuses go, but Alienware's new Alpha machine just put the final shovelful of dirt on your collective coffins.

"PC gaming is too expensive." "PC gaming is too complicated." "I don't want a big, bulky PC in my living room." Rest in peace, three overused excuses. You all had a good run, as far as excuses go, but Alienware's new Alpha machine just put the final shovelful of dirt on your collective coffins.

Alienware's Steam Machine was at one point termed "a console that encapsulates the full potential of what a Steam Machine should be" by Valve managing director Gabe Newell. Thus, when Valve recently announced it needed to push back the releases of the crucial Steam Controller and SteamOS operating system from this fall to a nebulous 2015, it seemed reasonable to assume the physical Steam Machine PCs themselves were also delayed.

Instead, Alienware revealed its Alpha console at E3 — the same box as the Steam Machine, but running Windows 8.1 instead of the Linux-based SteamOS. According to Alienware, which gave me the opportunity to try the Alpha at the show, this was always the plan. The Valve delay didn't "force" Alienware's hand or require the team to reimagine the box as a Windows device.

"Valve's a partner of ours. They're friends of ours. We don't want them to put something out that they're not proud of. If they say they need to wait to get it right, we're going to wait with them until it's right," said Alienware's Raymond Watkins.

Still, Alienware wanted to give consumers as many options as possible, and a Windows machine was a natural fit. A Windows-based machine lets you play any games you want, rather than hoping there's a Linux port or needing a second machine to stream games from.

"We've always planned on going forward with a Windows project," Watkins continued. "We always want to bring versatility to our customers and give them the ability to make their own choices."

Diving into the Alpha's gamepad-friendly interface

The Alpha console uses a heavily modified version of Windows, of course. It has to. The inelegance of using a mouse and keyboard-based interface on a television ten feet away is one of the main problems with current "move your PC to the living room" solutions — trying to navigate miniscule application icons and illegible text from afar, or messing with the resolution. It's tedious.

Alienware Alpha boots to a custom user interface slapped on top of Windows 8.1 — a custom user interface that looks suspiciously like Steam's controller-friendly Big Picture mode, which is the heart of SteamOS. It's almost exactly the same scrolling-sideways interface Valve uses (and, for that matter, favored on traditional consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4), except that the options you scroll through all pertain to common Windows functionality rather than navigating your Steam library. You can even mess with common Windows settings — it's helpful to be able to calibrate your display without having to reach for a keyboard and mouse. The entire UI is built around being navigable using a gamepad alone.

 

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