Talk of getting a gaming PC has lingering in our house for years. It usually resurfaces in the fall when many of last year’s electronic goodies hit the sale tables, and the discussion has usually taken the same turns. We look at all the pre-made gaming PCs for sale, talk about exactly what games to run on them, determine that we can’t afford the really awesome PCs, and then determine what we can afford just isn’t good enough, and then decide we should just build our own. And that’s where the conversation usually ends, because although we are somewhat mechanically-inclined, what kills the mood is the thought of sifting through website after website to find not only the all the proper pieces, but all the proper pieces at the right prices. Not only that, we have a host of gaming consoles to keep us busy, and frankly, we each have PCs that will run games just fine. (I’ve been using my laptop for Steam games for a couple years now, and I have no complaints.)
Playing Ahab to our white whale of a gaming PC, we searched and yearned, but did nothing more…until late last year. In a moment of half whim, half curiosity (after watching/reading ever review we could possibly find), we picked up the 4GB base model of Dell’s Alienware Alpha.
Billed as a “Steam machine” of sorts, the Alpha…well, what is it? In a nutshell and sleek, black casing with nice LEDs, it’s Steam’s gaming platform built on top of Windows 8.1. (No Steam OS, sad face.) Even though we knew this going in, we were still taken aback by the fact that you had to set it up like a regular PC using the icky Windows interface (And as a lifelong PC-user, I use “icky” in the most loving sense.) With the Alpha came only an Xbox 360 controller, no keyboard. The designers made something of an ingenious if, in the end nefarious controller-mouse scheme whereby you used button clicks on the controller to move the mouse. Yeah, sure. With two USB ports out front, we readily hooked up a mouse and keyboard and spared ourselves from the agony of that.
Once we had the Alpha backend set up and the thing hooked up to the Internet, we booted up Steam. Although we did had to sit through some nightmarishly long load times, logging in was fairly straightforward, and we were cheerily greeted by Steam’s…Big Picture mode?? Ugh, but oh well. Having avoided Big Picture mode on my laptop, it took me a little time to get used to navigating it. All that really mattered was making sure we could access our games, which turned out to be easy enough. The game library with its large tiles and organized look was really quite accessible.
Of course, it’s all well and good to be able to look at our library of games on the Alpha, but how do they run? Very well, thank you. We’ve tested it with a wide range of games, from Goat Simulator to Saints Row IV, from The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom to Dragon Siege, from LIMBO to Stacking, and everything has, so far, run smoothly. No hiccups, no glitches, no lag. Our one and only complaint concerning the Alpha is that it came with a noisy controller. The analog sticks tend to squeak and creak when moved; hence we have named the controller “Squeaky.”
So this would be the point in my quasi-“review” where I give some sort of recommendation about the Alpha. Maybe score it against its competitors. Maybe offer up some pros and cons. But the sad, horrible fact of the matter is that I haven’t used the Alpha often enough to be able to say anything other than “so far it works fine.” It’s a solid device that does what it claims to do – I’ve simply haven’t been playing Steam games lately.
Way back in November and December 2014, the Alpha was all up in the news. People were talking about it on sites bit and small, and most reviews boiled down to “good but not great.” The Alpha in any of its forms – from our lowly 4GB model with an i3 processor and 500GB hard drive to the 8GB model with an i7 processor and a 2TB hard drive – is not a gaming PC. And it’s certainly not a console killer. And we know full well that the money we spent on the Alpha could have gone towards the makings of a serviceable and upgradable gaming PC. So why take a chance on the Alpha? For us it currently serves a couple purposes. First, it’s a stopgap between not having a gaming PC and having one. And second, it’s allowed us to easily access Steam in the open comfort of our living room. In an ideal future, I think we pictured ourselves playing Steam games together or with others, which is hard to do when you’re stuck at a desk. Needless to say, this vision has not materialized.
The hype surrounding the Alienware Alpha died down considerably at the turn of the new year, and I can kind of see why. The Alienware Alpha, while novel, isn’t a vital addition to one’s gaming setup. People who regularly access Steam probably already have a gaming PC set up which pleases them. People who regularly game probably already have a console or three with vast libraries of games at their disposal. If the Alpha was a true “Steam Machine” with a dedicated OS, it’d be more of a game changer. As it is, I like having the Alpha at my disposal – it has been great for making quick purchases and checking out the sales – but if we were looking to purchase it today, I think it’d be a much harder sell.
If you have an Alienware Alpha, tell us about your experience with it. If you’re a Steam user without one, could you see a place for this device in your house? Or is the Alienware Alpha destined for the bargain bin?