Alienware built the Alpha as a Steam Machine - a PC game console running Valve's Steam OS.
This Linux-based operating system is an alternative to Windows 8, with a console-like interface optimised for TV. Unfortunately, its release was delayed. So, Alienware repurposed the Alpha as a Windows gaming machine.
To ensure users enjoy a console-like experience from boot-up, Alienware created a custom console interface. A wireless Microsoft Xbox 360 controller is bundled with the Alpha.
The first time you switch it on, you have to configure the wireless connection and display resolution. The console interface is enabled upon restart. It has four options: Settings, Help, Power and Launch Steam. The last option will run Steam's TV-optimised Big Picture mode.
Alienware has done a decent job of ensuring you can start playing Steam games without having to ever see the Windows desktop.
You can even use the controller to execute some common Windows short cuts. For instance, to close an app using Window's ALT + F4, press the controller's four shoulder buttons together with the Down button on the directional pad.
However, the Alpha is still a Windows PC, so you can connect a keyboard and mouse, and use it like a computer with the Windows desktop environment.
To sweeten the deal, Alienware added several controller-optimised games, including Payday 2 and Metro: Last Light, when you log in to Steam on the Alpha for the first time.
As a console, the experience is good, but not perfect. There is no optical drive - Steam games are downloaded - but you can attach an external DVD drive. Some games require a keyboard and mouse during installation, even though you can play them with a controller.
Booting up takes quite long, possibly because of its slow 5,400rpm hard drive.
The Alpha itself has a smaller footprint than any console on the market. It weighs about 1.6kg, while the external power brick is 640g.
The Alpha has an HDMI input port, which helps to conserve an HDMI port on your TV, as you can connect another device to the TV via the HDMI input port.
Except for the custom Nvidia graphics chip (based on the GeForce GTX 860M chip found in mid-range gaming laptops), all the Alpha's hardware - including its processor and memory - can be upgraded.
At 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, the Alpha can play most games at Medium to High settings. In an older game, such as Bioshock Infinite, it managed 53.47 frames per second at Ultra setting.
The Alpha's closest rival is the Asus ROG GR8, which costs the same. Unlike Alienware, Asus does not try to create its own console interface. However, the GR8 has slightly better hardware and a more attractive design.
Both cost more than any game console, although you pay less for Steam games than for console games. It is cheaper to build your own DIY PC.
A decent attempt at producing a gaming PC with a custom console interface.
Processor: Intel Core i7-4765T (2GHz)
Graphics: Custom Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M 2GB GDDR5
Storage: 2TB 5,400rpm HDD
Connectivity: 4 x USB 3.0, HDMI input, HDMI output, Ethernet port, audio jacks
Value for money: 3/5
This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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