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Alienware Alpha review

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Alienware Alpha
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  • Alienware Alpha UI
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Summary

Our Score:

8

Pros

  • Smaller, lighter and as smart as the consoles
  • Matches the consoles for gaming power
  • Xbox 360 controller included
  • Dedicated Alienware UI

Cons

  • Can’t upgrade GPU
  • More expensive than consoles
  • Entry-level CPU and RAM limits performance

Key Features

  • 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T processor
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 Ti graphics
  • 4GB RAM
  • 500GB hard disk
  • Windows 8.1 64-bit
  • 1yr RTB warranty
  • Manufacturer: Alienware
  • Review Price: £449.00

What is the Alienware Alpha?

Valve created headlines when it previewed a wave of Steam-powered PCs to take on consoles, but the scheme was postponed, with hardware manufacturers left in the lurch. That hasn’t stopped Alienware launching its latest desktop. The Alpha was announced as a Steam Box, but it now runs a custom, controller-friendly UI built around XBMC.

This pint-sized PC is aimed squarely at the living room – it's smaller than the PS4 but matches it and the Xbox One for performance. Alienware even includes a wireless Xbox 360 controller as part of the package. It's an effective, good value package, though we'd recommend opting for the faster quad-core Core i5 and 8GB RAM version if you can afford it.

Related: DirectX 12 vs DirectX 11

Alienware Alpha: Design, Build Quality and Connectivity

The Alpha looks the part. Its sides are coated with glossy plastic, and the front has a glowing Alienware power button alongside two USB 2.0 ports. The top has a matte finish and is divided with a trio of centred lines, and one corner is cut-away to show off more LEDs.

Alienware’s latest looks good enough to sit alongside the PS4 and Xbox One, and it’s smaller than its living room rivals. The Alpha is 200mm wide, 200mm deep and 56mm tall; the PS4 is 3mm shorter but is 305mm wide and 275mm deep. The Xbox One, meanwhile, is much larger at 333mm long and 79mm tall.

The Alpha’s 1.54kg weight makes it look svelte alongside Sony’s 2.8kg box and the 3.2kg box from Microsoft. They’re impressive figures, but bear in mind that there isn’t an optical drive – and that the Alpha uses an external power brick.

Related: Windows 10 vs Windows 7: Should you upgrade?

The Alpha compares well to PC rivals, too. Its design is more mature than the Syber Vapor I, and the Syber is bigger and heavier – 358mm wide and a whopping 5.5kg.

The Alpha undercuts rivals for size and weight, and still manages to match the competition for build quality, with a generally sturdy feel and no creaking joints. It’s a bit of a dust-magnet, but we’ll forgive that.

It may look like a console, but the Alpha has got PC DNA. Its internals are accessible: remove four screws and the base panel pops off, then the plastic lid and sides lift away. The interior is dominated by plastic shrouds that exhaust the hot air from the CPU and GPU. They’re easy to remove – a couple of plastic clips allow them to pop off – providing access to the chips below as well as the rest of the internals.

Related: Best Gaming Laptop Round-up

The sensible design means most components can be changed. Our sample has a memory slot free, the hard disk is a 2.5-inch model, the dual-band 802.11ac wireless card connects to a mini-PCI-Express plug and the processor sits inside a standard LGA 1150 socket. The only component that can’t be changed, sadly, is the most important – the graphics core is soldered to the motherboard.

That wireless connection is a good start, and connectivity is reasonable elsewhere. The Alpha has Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth 4.0, and the front has two USB 2.0 connections. The rear has two USB 3.0 ports, input and output HDMI plugs, and an optical S/PDIF connector. Underneath, behind a flap, is a fifth USB socket designed for Valve’s USB controller receiver and other similar hardware.

Related: Best Laptops Round-up

Alienware Alpha: Software

Alienware’s Alpha UI is designed to work with the bundled Xbox 360 controller. It’s basic compared to Windows 8.1: the Settings menu offers simple options for networking, audio and video alongside tools to change the colour of the system’s LEDs. The Power menu has options to reboot or shut down the system, and a link to open the standard Windows desktop.

Steam’s Big Picture mode distils the desktop app to three main menus – the store, the library and your profile page. Games and the store are navigated using a horizontal menu, with smaller links to friends and the browser.

Related: How to install Windows 10 Technical Preview

Alienware Alpha UI

Alpha UI makes it easy to access games, but it’s not perfect. The divide between Valve’s software and Alienware’s UI is obvious thanks to different fonts, navigation and colours, even if the latter can be changed. There are practical variations; text entry in Alienware’s software is handled with a standard on-screen keyboard, while Steam serves up a more intricate dial-based system. Neither are as intuitive as a proper keyboard.

Alienware’s software isn’t particularly quick, and there are potential driver issues – Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software can’t be used to download updates, and Alienware hasn’t yet clarified how or when this machine will receive improved drivers.

Related: Best SSD Group Test

Alienware Alpha UI 5

The Alpha’s use of Valve’s software means you only have access to the Steam library while using the Alpha UI. That’s still thousands of games – many more than consoles – but it’s worth remembering that if you want to use Origin, UPlay or anything else you’ll have to head to the desktop and connect a keyboard and mouse.

This does break the Alpha’s console illusion, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing; it means even more games are available, and it also means the Alienware can be used for work, web browsing and more – functions that aren’t easily available on the consoles.

Stephen Middlehurst

February 13, 2015, 4:37 pm

i find myself in two minds about these systems. On the one hand you're right, they offer pretty good value for money (at least at the low end) and a decent gaming experience. On the other I can't help but think the words "at this moment" need to be added to that sentence.

Problem is while they may indeed match or even exceed the consoles for real world performance we're still in a world of cross-generation games. The next-gen only stuff that's coming out is starting to creep up the performance ladder with, say, Unity already wanting a core i5, GTX680 and 6GB RAM as a minimum spec (though granted Unity is appallingly optimized. On the consoles that's not so much of an issue as there's less cruft to get in the way and that can go a long way, on the PC... well, we'll see. Maybe if Windows 10 and DX12 live up to the initial promise the game might change but now I'd urge a little caution when considering the long term viability of these systems.

James Webster

February 14, 2015, 4:41 am

The hard drive situation on this unit is disappointing. Especially so when you realise that it is restricted to 7mm drives; if it could be replaced with a hybrid SSD/HDD such as the WD Black^2 that would be something but unfortunately such drives are a bit thicker, the WD being 9.5mm I believe.

Matthew Bunton

February 15, 2015, 12:38 pm

The trouble with this is that games are far better optimised for consoles than they are for PC. Therefore you need a lot more powerful hardware to get the same gaming experience or better.

Allen Smithee

February 15, 2015, 1:28 pm

The best gaming is the "Alienware 18" dual nvidia (sli ) 70s or 80s...hdmi in or out to use a ps4 ps3 xbox 1 or 360..cost more but well worth it...keep in mind..you get what you pay for.

Alex Walsh

February 15, 2015, 9:05 pm

There are at least 2 mini ITX GTX 970s out there, and you would have thought Alienware would have shoved one of those in this if they were serious about a console sized gaming PC.

Matthew Bunton

February 16, 2015, 9:32 am

You must be joking.

andyvan

February 16, 2015, 1:18 pm

The key thing is how well something like this will do in a year's time. I'm tempted by one myself, but I'll probably wait for Steam OS and Windows 10 to come through before deciding. If DirectX 12 delivers the performance improvements it promises, it could make the difference.

Matthew Bunton

February 16, 2015, 8:09 pm

There's a lot of ifs in that Andy.

But yes if all of those things turn out as well as expected it could make a huge difference to hardware such as this.

ncrase25

September 23, 2015, 5:50 pm

where the hell did you come up with this statement? so false.

Matthew Bunton

September 24, 2015, 12:46 pm

No it isn't, do your research before trying to tell me i'm wrong.

ncrase25

September 24, 2015, 2:52 pm

You sir are the one in need of research. You made two general sweeping statements and they're both wrong. It depends entirely on the developer. It's easy for you to think PC games are poorly optimized because shit really hits the fan when they do (Arkham Knight). However the vast majority are extremely well optimized. Look at Elite Dangerous and MGSV.

ncrase25

September 24, 2015, 3:46 pm

It depends entirely on the developer. It's pretty easy to think PC games are poorly optimized because headlines are made if they don't. However most of them are extremely well optimized. Look at Elite Dangerous and MGSV.

Matthew Bunton

September 24, 2015, 5:17 pm

Elite was originally a game developed for PC and is now being ported to console hence the good optimisation on PC.

MGSV is being praised along with Ground Zeroes for it's optimisation and quality porting. Hence why people are making such a fuss over it as it is unusaul for a multiplatform game.

Just a few recent bad PC ports that are better optimised and look better on the PS4:
Far Cry 4
Batman Arkham Knight
Fifa
Pes 2016
Lords of the Fallen
Most Assassins Creed games
Dynasty Warriors 8 XL
Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires
etc. etc.

If games are originally developed for the PC then optimisation is generally good. However, most multiplatform games run better on consoles albiet at lower resolutions than a good PC is capable of.

Matthew Bunton

October 1, 2015, 12:49 pm

You keep quoting 2 recent games see my list above for more detail.

I have a gaming PC, PS4 and Xbox One and I enjoy gaming on all three. However I stand by my original satements.

My PS4 cost £250 there is no way in hell that you could build a PC for that let alone one than could compete with it. Even when it was released people were trying to build equivalent gaming PCs' at that price and failed. The joke of it was that they never even included an OS nor a K/M.

Multiplatform games are better optimised for consoles as that is where developers and publishers make their money fact.

ncrase25

October 6, 2015, 2:23 pm

Those are 2 very recent and relevant examples that's why. How about Witcher 3, GTA V, Pillars of Eternity, Payday2, Bioshock Infinite etc etc etc

You can't build a PC for $380 that can compete with consoles are you kidding? You should read this: https://www.reddit.com/r/pcmas...

The 'console gaming is cheaper' joke is you're not including the cost of your HDTV, XBL/PSN subscription, extra controller, and $60 per game.

Felix_Canis

December 5, 2015, 11:29 am

This looks like a sponsored piece. "Its GPU matches consoles for power and offers more gaming grunt than we’ve ever seen in a desktop that costs £449"

This is untrue on both counts. The review shows it does not match a PS4, and the low-to mid-range graphics chip of the 750 TI is meant exactly for this price range, and with some care one can find custom built PCs with far better GPUs, especially now when these things are actually getting some attention along with the (equally ranged) Steam Machine.

It is clear that a lot of money is paid for the low size of these systems and then they are still MORE expensive than consoles and not even as fast (Xbox One is simply a failure as a system and tries to brush over the fact that it's slower than the PS4), and of course slower than a PC of the same price(s).

xPhoenixMoon

December 18, 2015, 4:44 am

Actually it is simple to understand. PC's have never been dedicated gaming machines, that is why you cannot run a PC with the same exact specs of a console, and get the same performance or better. The console will perform better, even if only marginally.

Now I wouldn't say you need a lot more powerful hardware, cause "a lot" means high end to me. You would need more powerful parts though, than what the console offers.

The console is not wasting resources on whatever else you have running on your PC. Since again, a PC is not a dedicated gaming machine, even with a clean install it has so many more processes running than a console would, and you can do a lot more than just play video games on a PC. Unlike consoles which only offer limited media experiences compared to a PC.

xPhoenixMoon

December 18, 2015, 5:20 am

You are reaching, bud. If you're going to leave important components out of your PC argument that you'd need if you were completely new to PC gaming, why are not applying that same logic to consoles? If you did, you'd easily see no matter what you do, a PC that can perform the same as the PS4 or Xbox One will be more expensive.

In the same sense the example you're using, in assuming you don't need certain things for a PC, cause you already have them. The same could be said about a console.

Bringing up the cost of a HDTV and games, I mean really? As if you don't need a monitor or an HDTV to use with a computer...? And as if PC games don't cost the same price, brand new, as console games? Some retailers sell these PC games for slightly more than their console counterparts when they've both gone on sale.

It shows you're reaching by acting like you have to buy a second controller or a subscription service with your consoles, which are both optional. And bringing up games, which both PC gamers and console gamers have to buy.

Example, if someone were to walk into Walmart to buy The Witcher 3, it's slightly cheaper for PS4 than for PC. So that isn't always valid that PC games are always cheaper.

http://www.walmart.com/ip/The-...

http://www.walmart.com/ip/The-...

Even on Amazon the PC version is more expensive than the console versions, even on sale, new.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Witc...

So how you get your games cheaper generally depends on how long you're waiting for them to go on sale, buying them used or where you're buying them in general.

I just think it's extremely ridiculous trying to act like PC games are that much cheaper, only smallers games get that cheap on PC, and all the AAA titles are generally all priced the same as on consoles. You aren't buying AAA games for 99 cents on Steam, unless they're very old. And you can get these same types of sales on consoles for very old games, too.

And the whole free to play, indie argument doesn't matter anymore, either. Consoles have free to play games and tons of cheap indie games to play, just like Steam or GOG. Of course PC has a bigger gaming library, but a lot of the games you say are so cheap are usually pretty crappy and that's why they're are so cheap, even a lot of the free to play games on PC are garbage. Or unless like I said they are just old games.

That reddit thread you posted is not completely factual at all, and is nothing but a bias PC user obviously. First of all, they're assuming you already have all old parts lying around or a previous OS to use, things they clearly left out of their argument only to benefit their bias.

How contradicting is that and unfair to the actual debate, this person lists things in assuming you already had a gaming PC before? Then to make matters worse they show these fairly ridiculous setups, as if those setups didn't cost a grand or more, especially the guy with like 5 monitors.

I love PC, but how are you not going to factor in needing a monitor/HDTV, mouse, keyboard, OS, speakers/headphones, and preferably a good sound card. This would significantly increase the cost of this persons $340-$510 estimate, and these are things you absolutely need to build a PC from scratch, minus the sound card since they're built into motherboards, but if you want better performance in games and better sound I recommend getting on for your PC.

Even then with listing the bare minimum given you've already had a gaming PC in the past, it's still more expensive than buying a console anyway. So what did that reddit thread prove, other than proving that to get the same or better performance, you'll need to spend more money than you would on a console.

If we're going to be talking about what is actually more expensive, you factor in what it takes to build the system from the ground up. And for many people coming from consoles only, it is a fact, it's more expensive to match the performance of current consoles building a gaming PC from nothing. Including games and other unnecessary things that you don't have to buy right away with a console is pointless to add, cause you don't have to with a PC right away, either.

Whether what you consider to be expensive doesn't matter, if it's $50 more or $100 more than it would be to just buy a console, it is more expensive by default. Some may consider that to be a good chunk of change for them. And bottom line it is by definition more expensive.

As a PC enthusiast first and foremost, I absolutely hate all this dumb PC master race crap. Consoles are not meant to beat PC's, they are not meant to be PC's, otherwise what need would there be for them?

Maybe some people prefer the convenience of a console, and not having to set up an entire PC, then map a controller just to be able to kick back and play games like they could on a console. And if your going to be all PC master race anyway or are even a real PC enthusiast to begin with, you aren't using controllers, that's for sure. You are using wired mouses and wired keyboards, wireless is not good for gaming on PC.

ncrase25

December 18, 2015, 8:40 pm

Sigh. I don't have the energy to address everything that's wrong with this misguided essay you wrote. Price quotes retail PC games? Cmon man. The reddit thread is not factual at all you say, but you hate the PCMR, and they're the ones who are biased huh. Right. Using a controller means you're not an enthusiast? Lol. One of the PC's strengths is its versatility(some games are designed for/better with a controller, others a keyboard/mouse. And last but not least you actually think the consoles' subscription service is truly optional, you're delusional.

ncrase25

December 18, 2015, 8:47 pm

You can run a PC with the same exact specs of a console and get the same performance or better. Windows is perfectly capable of this, it just depends on the developer. What processes are those exactly that have that big an impact on performance? Can you list them for me please because I'd like to know, thanks.

BO_stinks

January 13, 2016, 10:40 pm

far more games than the PS4 and still at great fps, what's to complain about?

Jason Hall

March 26, 2016, 8:18 pm

Have you seen a console lately? Limited media experiences? What limitations are we talking about, I watch television, you tube, Netflix, Amazon prime, and Hulu through my console....I can download music, record and upload video, use Skype, and it's even equipped with an Internet browser.....what are you using a PC for home media wise that either of the new consoles can't do? By the way, my i7 alpha outperforms my xbox and ps4 graphically and frame rate wise even with the "inferior hardware".

Jason Hall

March 26, 2016, 8:22 pm

Then replace the hdd with a ssd, simple as that lol

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