Who says that you can’t have a PC gaming console?
The Alienware Alpha is a pint-sized PC that has a special place on the podium along with PS4, and Xbox One. It’s tons smaller than these two console mammoths, and its performance is on par.
What’s the deal with the Alienware Alpha?
Back in 1996, Alienware was founded by two tech enthusiasts Nelson Gonzalez, and Alex Aguila with the purpose of video-gaming in mind. In 2002 Dell expressed its wish of acquiring the company, but the deal didn’t went through until 2006. Now, Alienware is a subsidiary of Dell Inc.
The Alienware Alpha was first announced as a Steam Box, but it ended up being based on a custom-built user friendly XMBC UI.
The Alienware Alpha is controller-friendly, and you can find an Xbox 360 gamepad in the box – for no additional cost.
It matches the PS4, and Xbox One, but it retails at a much bigger price without the possibility of upgrading its GPU, it’s equipped with an entry-level CPU, and RAM, which limits its performance.
I recommend going with the more expensive Alienware Alpha model that sports a faster quad-core Core i7 CPU, and 8 gigs of RAM.
Alienware Alpha Review
It looks beautiful. Glossy plastic covers its sides, and on the front of the Alienware gaming console you can see its power button constructed out of the company’s logo. Near it, two USB 2.0 ports reside. The top of the console is somewhat divided into a trio of lines, and there’s a cut-away corner which shows-off more LEDs.
Design-wise, the Alpha is more than pleasing, I might go as far as calling it eye-candy. When added to a police line-up it can be found guilty of looking gaming-sexy.
Measuring 200mm wide, 56mm tall, and 200mm deep, it’s much smaller than its console counter-parts. The PS4 is shorter, but not by much, and the 3mm difference is unnoticeable, however it’s wider, and more deep. The Xbox One is the biggest of them all.
The Alienware Alpha console weighs much less than any other console. It’s 1.54kg, and it looks petite when compared with the 2.8kg Sony console, or the 3.2kg Microsoft box.
Why is it so weightless? Mainly because it doesn’t have a built-in optical drive, and it uses an external power brick.
It’s a dust-magnet, but you can get passed this mildly annoying issue because when it comes to build materials the Alienware console doesn’t feel like a block of cheap creaking plastic.
Everybody is calling it the Alienware game console but everyone tends to forget that it has PC blood flowing through its veins. Its base panel is easily popped off by removing the four screws found at the bottom of the console. The plastic lid that encompasses its internals and the sides, can be lifted away to showcase the engine under the hood.
Inside the Alpha you’ll notice little plastic shrouds that help hot air navigate from the CPU, and the GPU. They are easily removable with only a couple of plastic clips that keep them tight in place. It’s a gateway towards chipsets, and the rest of its interiors.
It’s designed for upgrades, but unfortunately not all of the components inside can be changed. The most important part, the GPU, can’t be removed as its soldered onto the motherboard.
The basic, naked Alienware Alpha model comes with a memory slot free, a dual-band 802.11ac wireless card, and a 2.5-inch HDD. The CPU is sitting nicely in a LGA 1150 socket.
Connectivity is good, and wireless connection doesn’t flop-out when you most need it, although it also depends on your ISP.
The Alpha Alienw has a Gigabit Ethernet, and a Bluetooth 4.0. On the front of the console there are two USB 2.0 ports. On its rear, you can find two additional USB 3.0 ports, the input, and output HDMI plug, and an optical S/PDIF connector. Just under, behind a flap-thingy, there’s your fifth USB port which has been built for a Valve USB controller, and other similar gadgets.
The Alpha UI has been perfectly designed for the Xbox 360 controller which can be found in the box. Don’t expect a revolutionary OS, it has Windows 8.1 with basic features. The Settings Menu is comprised of basic networking, video and audio options. There’s a specific option which lets the user change the LEDs color.
The Power Menu is where you’ll go to either reboot, or shut down your system, and also an option to open your Windows desktop.
It being a Valve golden-child, Steam’s Big Picture mode divides the screen into three menus:
- Profile Page
Your library of games, and the store can be navigated on a horizontal menu, where you’ll also find links to friends, and a browser.
It’s intuitive, and easy to use. If you’ve meddled with a gaming console before, or Steam, you won’t notice anything game-changing. Newcomers won’t have issues navigating around in the library, or the store.
However, even though it’s highly intuitive, and beginner-friendly, it’s not that perfectly constructed. You’ll observe weird fonts throughout the store, the library, and in-game. This is because there’s a huge divide between Valve, and Alienware who built the UI.
Colors can be changed, but you don’t have this option for fonts, or navigation.
Alienware’s virtual keyboard is present, but it’s totally different from Steam’s on-screen one. Sadly, neither of them are as intuitive as they may see at first – nor the software.
The Alpha software is borderline mediocre when it comes down to how quick it runs, and there are some driver issues as in there’s no proprietary Nvidia Geforce Experience app that you can install so you get the latest updates. The Alpha console-manufacturer hasn’t announced when, and how users will receive them.
The alliance between Alienware, and Valve means that you will only have access to Steam while using the UI. There are thousands of games available on the Steam store, thousands more than on any other console. This is worth noting for those of us who want to use Origin, or Uplay.
For Origin, and Uplay you’ll have to connect to your desktop.
Describing it as an Alienware gaming console is faulty in its essence, and by removing the possibility of using multiple stores it doesn’t really break the console illusion, but still, it would have been nice to have them up for grabs.
The Alienware Alpha can also be used for work, watching Netflix, YouTube, and even web browsing.
The GPU is a generic Nvidia chipset, but don’t let this sink your boat. Under further investigation, it was revealed that its architecture is based on the desktop version of the GTX 750 Ti/GTX 860M chip.
It can be categorized in the mid-performance range with 640 stream processors that are clocked at 1,020MHz. Theoretically speaking, it features 1.4TFLOPS. It’s lower than the PS4 peak of 1.84, and higher, but not by much, when compared to the Xbox One’s 1.31TFLOP.
The dedicated GPU memory is DDR3, and it’s installed in single-channel mode which poses as an obstacle for performance. It looks bad when you compare it to the shared memory of the PS4, and Xbox One.
The Alpha’s GPU is paired with an Intel Haswell CPU that can reach a maximum of 2.9GHz without Turbo Boost.
Tested in Battlefield 4 at Ultra Quality settings, and 1080p, the Alienware Alpha was sitting confidently at 27 frames per second. In Bioshock Infinite the console was outputting 44 fps, and in Crysis 3 it managed to produce whooping 28 frames per second.
Even though it can run AAA games on Ultra Settings, I don’t recommend you sacrifice stability, and game fluidity for pretty colors and sharp textures. At High Settings the Alpha jumped towards the 40 fps mark in Battlefield 4, and an average of 60 in Bioshock. Crysis 3 managed to beat it down a bit, but performance increased up to 33 frames per second.
It’s crucial that you know the minimum framerates. The Alpha didn’t disappoint, and it actually performed rather well. In Battlefield it witnessed a down-spike to 22 fps on occasion, and 30 frames per second in Bioshock.
Its direct competitor, The Syber, is slightly faster, but not by much. The Alienware Alpha runs well in the gaming department, but for a $500 machine we expected much more. It’s on par, performance wise, with the PS4, and Xbox One, but its architecture is not.
The Alpha’s hard disk is definitely not up to modern standards, and the 500GB 5,400 RPM disk runs like a snail. The Alienware Alpha has slow loading times, but not something that should be taken into account as a deal breaker. It took approximately 40 seconds to boot, and apps, once they were launched, never struggled with maintaining their flow.
Still, this is a poor mark to achieve for both PC, and gaming console standards.
Considering how small it is, and how its internals are cramped inside the little Alienware box, we expected it to reach Mount Doom levels. This wasn’t the case, and the Alienware Alpha strays away from the trend. The CPU, and GPU were constantly between 71, and 79 degrees.
The Alienware is also not a noise-hog. It runs quietly, with a little bit of rumbles here and there when the machine is stretched in demanding game scenes. Nothing that’s worth fussing over anyway. It’s comparable with modern consoles.
It requires just about 22W in idle mode, and it can reach a peak of 101W. Power consumption isn’t a problem when comparing with the 110W Xbox One, and the 125W PlayStation 4.
The Alienware Alpha comes in two different configurations.
The base model costs $500, and is the cheapest of the bunch. It has an Intel i3 Haswell processor, and 500GB of storage space. If you want to upgrade it, you’ll have to cough up almost $100, but you’ll get 8 gigs of RAM, and 1TB of storage space.
The next configuration costs $850, and it comes equipped with a Core i7 proc, 8 GB of RAM, and 2 TB of storage space.
Both configs come with Windows 8.1, which can be upgraded for free to Windows 10.
It is possible to replicate this exact config by building your very own desktop PC, but you won’t have the mini-ITX case, the Alpha XMBC-based UI, nor the Xbox 360 wireless gamepad.
The Alienware Alpha comes with a 1 year limited hardware warranty.
Dell currently sells them packed with 6 free games.
The $850 one, although incredibly expensive when compared with the PS4, and Xbox One, is more versatile than its console counterparts. If you don’t plan on using it just for gaming, you can use Windows 8.1, or 10, for work, streaming movies, or listening to music.
I would like to point-out that adding a SSD will make your life much more easier, and your machine faster. The equipped Alienware hard drive of 5,400 RPM is outdated, and the 7,200 RPM one will soon follow in its path.
It’s also worth nothing that even though Dell is the manufacturer, and also retailer, you can find the Alpha at a cheaper price at Amazon, or BestBuy.
Should you buy the Alienware Alpha?
It’s worth considering if you don’t plan on buying a Sony, or Microsoft gaming console, and if you’re more PC oriented. The big downside is that you can’t upgrade the GPU, and your machine will be obsolete in a few years. More so, considering that DirectX 12 is just around the corner.
Because it’s so PC oriented it proves to be versatile, and Windows 8.1 works perfectly well with this Dell gaming console. However, it is unaware at the moment how many compatibility issues are present in Windows 10.
The 5,400 RPM hard disk really holds it back from achieving its true potential, and you’ll have to acquire, separately a 7,200 RPM HDD, or an SSD – although, a worthwhile 500 GB SSD retails at $200, more or less.
Trustworthy Alienware retailers are Dell, Newegg, Amazon, and BestBuy.
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