E3 2014: Alienware Demos Quasi-Steam Machine “Alpha”

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

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System and Controller in Hand | Alienware Alpha [E3 2014]

In a Twitch presentation this morning at E3 2014, gaming PC manufacturer Alienware showed off the Alpha, a gaming PC designed for living room use. Slightly larger than a Wii, the Alpha will feature an Intel Core i3 Haswell CPU, 4 GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, a customized Nvidia Maxwell GPU with 2 GB of GDDR5 RAM, a 500 GB SATA 6.0 Gbps hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet, and 1×1 (single-antenna) 802.11ac Wi-Fi. (Alienware didn’t specify the clock speed or how many cores the i3 CPU will have. Tom’s Guide reports it’ll be dual-core.) Check out the full specs below.

Specifications | Alienware Alpha - Steam Machine [E3 2014]

CPU Intel Core i3 Haswell dual-core (model number, clock speed unknown)
RAM 4 GB DDR3-1600
GPU Customized Nvidia Maxwell w/2 GB GDDR5 RAM
Storage 500 GB SATA 6.0 Gbps hard drive
Gigabit Ethernet
1×1 dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 2 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
1 x HDMI in w/direct passthrough
1 x HDMI out (supports uncompressed 8-channel audio, 4k video)
Operating System Windows 8.1 64-bit w/Alienware Alpha console-mode UI
Steam Machine-ready
Peripherals Xbox 360 wireless controller (black)
Steam Controller-ready

There also appears to be a TOSLINK optical audio port on the back, between one of the HDMI ports and the Ethernet port. Whether it’s for input or output is unclear.

Rear | Alienware Alpha - Steam Machine [E3 2014]

You probably noticed the operating system listed is not SteamOS, but Windows 8.1 64-bit. That’s why the title describes the Alpha as a quasi-Steam Machine. With SteamOS pushed back to 2015, it seems Alienware has decided to substitute Valve’s Linux-based OS with the more conventional Windows 8.1. But since the Alpha is a PC and is “Steam Machine-ready,” installing SteamOS later (or even another OS) won’t be a problem. (Just remember to back up your saves, screenshots, and other data.) The Steam Controller will also be supported once released.

But in the meantime, will you have to contend with a keyboard and a mouse when running the Alpha in your living room? No. In fact, the Alpha will include neither. Instead, it’ll include an Xbox 360 wireless controller (which will be upgradeable to an Xbox One controller when ordering and may imply the Alpha will have a built-in Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver).

The Alpha (which Alienware refers to as a console instead of a PC) will include a custom UI designed for controller operation of the system. As Marc Diana of Alienware Business Development puts it, “a user will basically be able to log in and do everything that they need with just the controller.” Software Product Planner Justin Gray expands on this, saying:

What we are designing is an interface that is able to enable the user to do general Windows maintenance, to be able to modify things like network settings and Bluetooth settings, update the box, particularly with Nvidia drivers and Microsoft Windows updates, be able to take care of all of that, sort of a behind-the-scenes nature, and really drive them towards . . . in Steam, in Big Picture mode, because that’s where your games are, that’s where you’re gonna interact with your games. Drive ’em to that as soon as possible, and let everything else on that box just take care of itself.

The controller UI isn’t available to try right now, but it will be at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con.

Diana demoed the Alpha for Twitch, launching Steam in Big Picture mode and playing Dark Souls II. Running at 1600 x 900 resolution, the game ran at what appeared to be good, smooth frame rates, and it stayed that way even after bumping up the graphics settings from low to high (albeit with motion blur turned off, since Diana disliked the effect, and leaving the resolution at 1600 x 900). Since screenshots won’t convey the demonstration well, see it for yourself starting at the 00:20:38 mark. (The overall presentation begins at 00:14:22.)

Watch live video from Twitch on TwitchTV

During the demo, Diana talked about the post-purchase upgradeability of the Alpha. The system can take up to a Core i7 Haswell CPU, 8 GB of RAM (dual-channel), 2×2 (dual-antenna) 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a 2 TB hard drive. SSDs weren’t mentioned, but since they use the same SATA 6.0 Gbps interface, installing one shouldn’t be a problem unless it exceeds the maximum height of the Alpha’s drive bay.

Aesthetically, the Alpha will feature two adjustable light-up areas: the Alienware alien head and a notched triangular corner, both on the front. Users will be able to choose from twenty colors and adjust the brightness.

Front and Light-Up Areas | Alienware Alpha - Steam Machine [E3 2014]

The Alienware Alpha may technically not be a Steam Machine, but with its controller-focused living room design, it should be a Steam Machine in spirit until SteamOS is ready. The Alpha will sell for a suggested retail price of $549 USD. Alienware is aiming for a holiday 2014 release. For more information, keep checking Alienware’s website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page.

What are your first impressions of the Alpha? If you bought one, would you stick with Windows 8.1 or switch to SteamOS the first chance you get?

About Oscar Tong

Oscar joined oprainfall late September 2012 in response to a recruitment drive. He quickly discovered his job was much harder than he had anticipated. Despite the constant challenge, he has come to enjoy his responsibilities.

When he is not scrambling to meet a deadline, Oscar enjoys story-driven games with a strong narrative. He is especially fond of computer adventure games, role-playing games, and visual novels. He hopes the world will one day awaken to the power of video games as a storytelling medium.