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Hands-on review: Alienware Alpha

13 Jan 2015

Alienware Alpha is an interesting device because it’s a PC that is trying its best to become a user-friendly game console. The console does a little bit of everything, although sometimes it fails to deliver and may become more of a hassle than it is truly worth. First of all, the design of the Alienware Alpha console is sleek and compact. It’s much smaller than a PS4 and of course way more concise than the Xbox One. It’s roughly around the same size as the original Wii console. It’s light to carry and perfect to lug around if you’re going to visit a friend’s house or something like that.

Now let’s talk about what the Alienware Alpha features and what is included right out of the box. As it is a games console, included for free is a standard Xbox 360 controller. The controller works fine with the Alienware Alpha and works with most games, and is used to navigate the console’s UI. As an owner of an Xbox 360 already, this is handy as you don’t need to buy an extra controller if the original one breaks for some reason. There is a wireless dongle that is included so you can sync the controller to the console. Much like the PS4 and Xbox One, included for free is your standard HDMI cable. The Alien Alpha console can only connect to HDTVs with HDMI, so this means you won’t be able to use the console on older TVs. This is understandable since HDTVs have become the norm nowadays. What’s not included however is a computer mouse. A mouse is required to navigate through Windows 8.1, plus play other games that may not be compatible with the Xbox 360 controller. All I needed to do was plug my mouse via the front USB port, and it was ready to go instantly. Inside the Alienware Alpha console is a 500GB hard drive, an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and graphics powered by a custom-built NVIDIA GeForce GPU 2GB GDDR5. Other more expensive models of the Alienware Alpha come with 8GB of RAM plus much larger hard drive space such as 1TB and 2TB. It’s also worth mentioning that the Alienware Alpha comes with absolutely no disc drive whatsoever. It is solely a digital only machine so you will have to download every game you want to play on it. This also means you cannot watch DVDs or Blu-ray movies on it too. If you are a consumer that still loves physical media, you shouldn’t consider getting the Alienware Alpha console. Turning on the Alienware Alpha is easy as the logo in the front acts as the power button. You need to be patient while the machine turns on as it takes a long time for the UI to load up. It’s much longer to load up than the Xbox One console or even a desktop computer at times. This could be because it’s loading up both the unique Steam UI and Windows 8.1 too. To use Windows 8.1, you need to plug in a mouse as aforementioned. There’s nothing more I can say about it, as it’s the same Windows OS you will get on any modern laptop or computer system. Windows 8.1 is helpful though because you can use it to play games not compatible with Steam such as EA video games, since they’re only available on Origin. The unique Steam UI is where you will spend the most time with. All you need is to create your own Steam account and then you can start playing all the games you want. The great thing is that the Alienware Alpha comes pre-loaded with eight games that include:  Anomaly Warzone Earth, Awesomenauts, Magicka, Magicka: Wizard Wars, Metro: Last Light, PAYDAY 2, Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 and Strike Suit Zero.

The games I tested out run pretty well, and look great too. Strike Suit Zero ran smoothly and looks just as good as the Xbox One version I played before. Metro: Last Light is the graphically best looking game out of the pre-loaded bunch. Best of all, no configuration or installation is needed to make them playable with the Xbox 360 controller. Once the controller is set to the Alienware Alpha console, it’s set to go with a number of Steam titles. The unique Steam UI is helpful because the store itself categorizes games into genres that make it easy to navigate. It also shows you which games are playable using the controller, and ones that require a traditional mouse and keyboard. I was surprised by the large selection of games that make use of the controller. Even something as recent as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is playable simply by using the Xbox 360 controller. I had a little playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and it looks awesome running on the Alienware Alpha. I’ve previously played the game on both PS3 and PS4. The Alienware Alpha made Ground Zeroes look just as pretty as the PS4 version. It had no trouble running the game at a full 1080p and 60 frames per second. As fun as the Alienware Alpha console is, it isn’t perfect to say the least. Being that it’s a digital only console, it can be very boring waiting for all of your games to download. It doesn’t have the ability to allow you to play the game while the rest of the data downloads in the background. You have to download the full game before it becomes playable for you. I also had some problems running some games to make them work properly. Sometimes games cannot run unless you have downloaded the latest patch, or some other weird technical issues pops out of nowhere. It was a nightmare trying to get PayDay 2 to work on the console for some reason. I had to delete the game and reinstall it to make it work. I still have no idea why it failed to run the first time. Even though the Steam UI is friendly from a design standpoint, it’s not a very reliable service I have to say. Sometimes when I want to launch a game, everything pauses for a few seconds before the game officially starts. The UI also freezes often whenever I exit from playing a game too. I had to restart the console many times as it froze quite a few times. The latest updates to the Steam UI improved these issues, but they are still present at the time I reviewed the product. Steam itself was unreliable as sometimes it failed to load parts of the store such as the “Genres” section. There are also times it failed to even let me download certain games. I was never able to try out the Rugby League Live 3 demo because Steam on this particular console always failed to load up that product page... Probably a turnoff for some people is the price of the Alienware Alpha console. The console I tested costs $799 and this is the cheapest model available. The two more premium model cost $1099 and $1399. This is far more expensive than the PS4, Xbox One or Wii U. All in all; the Alienware Alpha is a powerful piece of hardware and is a great games console if you are a hardcore PC gamer. The games look great and run smoothly when they work. However, the Steam UI and technical issues I encountered are a bit of a letdown, as is having no disc drive and the high price tag. It’s only worth getting if you have the money and want to play all your PC games in the lounge on a big TV. Verdict: 7.0/10