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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.

The interface is still early in development — Watkins joked with me that it was "pre-alpha" — so Alienware wasn't allowing pictures. It looked nice enough though, with large, clear text slapped over minimalist Alienware backgrounds. I'd expect those backgrounds to be customizable in the final retail version.

If you're using the system for its intended purpose — to play games — one of the primary menu options opens Steam in Big Picture Mode. Due to the similarities between SteamOS and Big Picture Mode , you're at this point basically running SteamOS, albeit a SteamOS that runs all your Windows games natively. For 90 percent of living room gamers, that's probably all they need (though Netflix wouldn't hurt).

It's intuitive. Here's a machine built for games and nothing else. Despite the presence of Windows, you'd be wrong to think of this as a computer, and that's a good thing. The type of person who wants a full-fledged PC in the living room probably already owns one. Alienware Alpha is a console, first and foremost. It's about taking the PC to the console crowd. It's about putting to bed those old, lame excuses I listed at the article's outset.

It's not that Alienware wants to lock you out from Windows, but Windows is confusing compared to the games-focused interfaces of living room consoles. It's awkward on an enormous television-sized screen. If you do want to muck around in Windows 8.1, you're welcome to — Alienware plans to allow access to the desktop, though it wasn't available during my demo. It's just not a priority.

Alienware also plans to let you add shortcuts to the console interface. Say, for instance, I bought a bunch of games during the GOG.com summer sale. GOG prides itself on DRM-free software, so you're unable to access those games through Steam itself. Alienware's Alpha console lets you add shortcuts to those programs, making them easily accessible through the custom overlay.

Read on for my impressions of the physical machine's noise, size, game-playing chops, and more.

Hands-on with the Alienware Alpha console

I played around a bit with both the bundled Xbox 360 controller and a Roccat prototype that melded a fully mechanical keyboard and mouse into a single, wireless lapboard device. Both seemed like great living room control methods, and I had no trouble with latency even playing Gauntlet (a twitchy, fast-paced action title) on the E3 show floor — not exactly ideal conditions for the device.

One thing I was surprised by was just how small the Alienware Alpha is. It's one thing to hear that Alienware developed a PC for the living room and read the Alpha's spec list. It's another to see it. Watkins was kind enough to serve as a hand model and give you a bit of scale in the picture below, but even that might not be enough. Alpha is about half the size of an Xbox 360, if that — far smaller than I ever imagined from product photos.

 

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