For a long time, if you wanted to get into PC gaming and experience the highest quality models, textures, and shaders that developers could come up with, you had to buy an overpriced gaming rig from someone like Alienware, a more affordable PC from a shady OEM, or build a machine yourself. It was easier and cheaper to just buy a console.
That’s no longer the case. Pushed by Valve’s Steam Box initiative, several manufacturers have come out with affordable laptops and desktops that can play games at really high settings as long as you’re willing to play at reasonable resolutions — generally, 1080p HD. Curious to see what life was like with an affordable Windows gaming PC in the form factor of a console, I bought the $799 Alienware Alpha early last week.
As it turns out, it’s pretty awesome. I don’t have a high resolution monitor to play on, so I hooked it up to the 39-inch TV my roommates and I have in our living room. At 1080p, it’s been able to play any game I’ve thrown at it at High/Very High/Ultra settings, meaning those games all look way better than they would on the latest Xbox or PlayStation.
That’s because it’s got great hardware for the money. The Alpha I bought has a quad-core Core i5 processor (more than enough for most games), 8 GB of RAM, and a custom version of the Nvidia 860m graphics chip found in many mid-range gaming laptops that Alienware says they boosted for better performance (it’s also got 2 GB of RAM all for itself).
Most games I’ve played have no issues with the Alpha’s hardware or detecting the bundled Xbox 360 controller for playing from the comfort of your couch. In some cases, games would default to sub-optimal graphics settings. For instance, Tomb Raider defaulted to Normal settings even though I found out that that you could bump them all they way up and still get great performance, but those kinds of issues seem to be the exception, not the norm.
Below, I’ve embedded a playlist of short videos I put together showing what games look like at their best on the Alienware Alpha.
If you’re flinching at the prospect of running Windows 8 on your TV, Alienware put in effort to minimize the time you have to spend in the full PC interface. Most of the time, you’ll be able to boot into the “Alpha UI,” a thin layer on top of Windows that puts you straight into Steam, the de facto store for most PC games. Here, Steam’s “Big Picture” mode hides the complex desktop interface you’d normally see and presents a slimmed down experience that you can quickly navigate with a controller.
If you get the urge to play but friends or family occupy the TV, Steam also has a feature that lets you run a game on one machine but play on another, streaming video one way and controller input the other. I tried this mode with a few games on my MacBook Air, and whether the game was one I got from Steam or simply added to my library from another service (like World of Warcraft), I was able to play at the same high settings with a negligible dip in frame rates.
What’s most impressive about the Alienware Alpha isn’t its speed or price, but that fact that it manages to squeeze so much power into such a tiny package. The Alpha is a more powerful machine than either of the latest and greatest consoles, but its all contained in a device with a smaller footprint and far less volume.
If you’d like to have a gaming rig that can also serve double duty as a media center than can handle all kinds of content, are space constrained, and are willing to pay the premium over traditional consoles, the Alpha is a tough machine to beat.