Not too long ago I said that given the Steam Machine controller won't be ready for retail until sometime in 2015, hardware partners will likely release their solutions in 2014 anyway without the controller and the Steam Machine stamp of approval. Alienware is one company that has done just that -- the Alienware Alpha "console" PC.
The Alienware reps I spoke with this week at E3 2014 said that Alpha was supposed to be the company's Steam Machine solution. But due to the delay, and with Valve's blessing, the company decided to release the console anyway. "We're very proud of it," one rep told me.
To get an idea of how small and light this portable PC is, take a look at the black (and original) Nintendo Wii console. Both units feel like they weigh the same. Even more, both also look similar in size save for Alienware's logo and the illuminated angular cutout. According to the reps, Alpha is slightly larger in size.
For the uninitiated, Alienware said that its "Alpha" console will ship sometime later this year with a base price of $549. For that price, which is slightly higher than the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, customers will get an Intel Core i3 "Haswell" processor, 4 GB of RAM (up to 8 GB), a custom Nvidia "Maxwell" GPU with 2 GB of VRAM, and a 500 GB SATA 3 hard drive (up to 1 TB).
Also included in the Alpha console is Wireless AC and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity (up to dual-band), Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports. Other specs include optical audio out, HDMI output, and HDMI input so that the console can sit between your cable box and an HDTV. This console will ship with one Xbox 360 controller, but owners will be able to use the Xbox One controller now that the drivers are available for the Windows platform. The Alienware reps noted that owners can still use a mouse and keyboard if desired.
Given that the machine runs Windows 8.1, you won't see any signs of Microsoft's platform on the Alpha unit. Instead, the company has done an excellent job in creating the Steam client experience with a custom GUI. Still, that doesn't mean you can't get access to the core Windows platform; that will be possible for advanced users. The Alienware reps pointed out that Windows 8.1 just isn't an ideal interface for a desktop experience. What I saw was still in its early stage, so expect something extremely streamlined when the console ships later this year.
The good news despite all the "console" talk is that this former Steam Machine is easily upgradable. On the bottom are four screws for removing the lid from the base. While they didn't show me the inside, the reps said that Alpha owners will be able to upgrade the processor, the RAM and the hard drive. The only thing you can't upgrade is the graphics, which is soldered to the motherboard.
"This thing right here is about as powerful as the laptop's sold outside," one rep said, referring to the Alienware laptops on display in the booth. "Well not the [Alienware] 18 because it's a beast."
The company had a good number of Alpha kiosks set up in the booth, one of which ran the Gauntlet remake. The controllers were hooked up via USB (don't panic; wireless is supported), and allowed three other onlookers to jump in and take part in the action. The game was rather awesome, but so was the machine running it in 1080p.
In addition to the Alienware Alpha, a ROCCAT rep was at the booth showcasing a mouse and keyboard combo platter with built-in wrist and mouse pads. The prototype was interesting, but I pointed out that it doesn't cater to left-handed gamers. The rep said that they may make the unit modular so you can move the mouse portion over to the left side.