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Meet Alienware's Alpha console, a Steam Machine without SteamOS (for now)

Brad Chacos | June 10, 2014
What will happen to the big push to bring PC gaming into the living room now that Valve's delayed the Steam Controller that's oh-so-crucial for the Steam Machine vision? That was the question on everyone's lips leading up to E3, and Alienware--whose Steam Machine has been called "a console that encapsulates the full potential of what a Steam Machine should be" by Valve boss Gabe Newell--answered the question by fully unveiling the $550 Alienware Alpha, a sleek-looking Steam Machine that will still launch in 2014--but without SteamOS.

After a brouhaha erupted earlier this year about the Alpha's alleged lack of upgradability, I asked Azor whether or not the system will be upgradeable.

"Alpha is fully upgradeable, other than the graphics chip," he replied. "You can change the hard drive, the memory, the CPU, even the wireless card if you wanted to. All of those things are fully upgradeable, but if you really want a product that was design for easy upgrades, you'd get the X51 or the Aurora that we offer.... When we designed the Alpha, we were going after a really small and tight form factor that met the sound requirements of a console in the living room, that met the thermals and the type of environment the Alpha's intended to go into. So while it is upgradeable, and it isn't necessarily going to be hard [to upgrade], it won't be as simple as our other machines are."

The custom graphics processor, however, is soldered to the board and cannot be replaced. Designed around Nvidia's supremely energy-efficient Maxwell architecture, the chip allows the Alienware Alpha to offer performance comparable to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, according to Azor, but in a smaller box that consumes less power than either of the big consoles. Alas, he refused to match the chip's capabilities to any of Nvidia's current retail graphics cards offerings, calling it too unique a beast for a clean comparison.

Why the living room?

But the question has to be asked: What role does PC gaming have in the living room, and why SteamOS? Azor first provides a very high level answer.

"SteamOS is obviously been designed around one single use, whereas Windows is a multi-use operating system that can be custom tailored around any one particular use — as we're doing [with Alienware Alpha's console mode]," he says. "But Valve has a lot more control developing SteamOS, ensuring it's singularly focused with one use model. That's why it's a very important initiative for us, and one we're still fully supporting as soon as it's ready. It's a more sustainable way of delivering a reliable living room experience. We can build our custom [console UI] interface over Windows, but we don't know what Windows 9's going to be. Are we going to have to redo all that work in Windows 9?

"That's why we feel that over the long term, SteamOS and the Steam gamepad are going to be the best solution."

But beyond that strategic view, Alienware views Steam Machines as a way to bring the vast PC gaming ecosystem to a new audience — and more specifically, the slew of indie PC games that offer full gamepad support, but have no presence on traditional consoles.

 

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