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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.

And it's dead quiet. It's hard to hear anything on the E3 show floor over the noise of a million explosions and grunting soldiers, but even with my head up close to Alpha I could barely discern a whisper. We'll test more when we get a review unit, but this thing is way quieter than any fan-controlled PC, and it's probably quieter than your next-gen consoles. (The fact that Alienware tapped Nvidia for a custom chip based on the super-efficient Maxwell architecture no doubt helped keep the size and sound down.)

Heat is pumped out the back, as you might expect. The case got a bit warm on the back-right side, especially toward the top, but it wasn't scorching-hot. You wouldn't have to worry about throwing this in your entertainment center and leaving it.

And if you're dead-set on a SteamOS-enabled Alienware machine, but don't want to wait? You can always install SteamOS on the device later. "The system is SteamOS-ready, so if you go out and download the beta today and install it, it's already validated and will play just fine," said Watkins. "If you want to switch over you're more than welcome to."

Not all perfect

There are still problems with the whole concept, of course. Alienware has come out and said the Alpha is more upgradeable than people think — you can swap the CPU, or add more RAM. The GPU, though? Not so lucky. Due to Nvidia's proprietary design (which probably resembles something along the lines of the chip in the ridiculously svelte Razer Blade gaming laptop), your machine is tied to the graphics capabilities that ship with the system — which, Alienware claims, are on a par with or slightly better than the visuals of the Xbox One or PS4.

The Alpha costs as much as a console and is pitched as a console, but it can't act like a console. Consoles are great because you buy them (hopefully) once, and they last the entirety of the system's six-to-eight year lifespan, with no upgrades needed. The Alpha can't make that promise.

PC gaming evolves too quickly. It's a unique but unavoidable problem. The Alpha is already a mid-to high-tier system. In two or three years it will be a mid-to-low-end system. Sure, it's shaping up to be a stellar option for someone looking to get into PC gaming on the cheap — especially for a living room machine — but when you look at the constant upgrade cycle the "cheap" up-front cost starts to look remarkably less so.

But that's the same problem the machine faced when it expected to launch with SteamOS. Running Windows on Alpha doesn't make the machine any more practical to upgrade from a long-term view.

 

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