The Steam Machine is all but officially dead by this point, its glorious hopes of competing with consoles having been smashed to pieces thanks to Valve not making the process of choosing one simpler, and being unable to explain why you’d spend so much cash on a Steam Machine when so many alternatives were available. Still, the dream of putting computers where consoles reside hasn’t gone away completely, hence today’s review of Alienware’s Alpha R2, a small box that packs a wallop.
Alienware have smartly gone with a relatively subtle design for their “console”, sticking with a black paint job and a nice customisable LED accent on the left-hand corner that gently reminds people that this small box is a sophisticated piece of hardware, powered by black magic and voodoo. Using the pre-installed software you can alter the color of both this corner LED and the Alienware button on the front of the machine, although sadly there’s no way of tweaking the brightness in case you like to game in a darker room where bright lights can be very distracting.
Opening up the machine is a breeze since all you do is flip it upside down and deal with four screws. Inside we find two black funnels with fans to help keep everything running nice and cool. Helpfully Alienware have actually created some videos outlining how to open their machine up, and that’s because both the CPU and RAM are upgradable, plus you can slap an M.2 SSD in there too, thanks to the PCIe-based M.2 slot that sits near the RAM. There’s just one RAM slot though, so if you want to upgrade that you’ll need to replace what’s already there. Likewise the CPU is limited by only being able to handle low voltage options. The only thing that can’t be swapped out is the graphics card, which Alienware has opted to solder into place on its custom motherboard in a very clear bid to push consumers towards the Alienware Amplifier, which we’ll be talking about later.
So what goodness does my Alpha contain? For starters it boasts an Intel i7-6700T running at 2.8GHz with a turbo boost of up to 3.6GHz, using an impressively small 35-watts of power considering the performance it can deliver. That’s combined with 8GB of Hyundai RAM which is absolutely fine for almost every game, and upgrading to 16GB in the future isn’t a massive expense. Handling the graphical side of things there’s a 4GB GTX 960 squeezed into the box, which I find to be an odd choice. On its release last year the GTX 960 was a good but not great card, and a year later it obviously isn’t faring any better. There are better offerings in its price region, so my assumption is Alienware opted for it due to its low power requirements and modest heat output. The one notable disappointment was the included 500GB Western Digital Black Mobile HDD. It’s not exactly what I’d call a speedy storage device, with the pre-installed Windows 10 taking quite a while to boot up and even shut down. Moving around the operating system was a bit sluggish as well, along with longer loading times when gaming. I honestly though that something was wrong, so I performed a quick run through CrystalMark which revealed that the HDD was actually fine, reporting a sequential read and write of 101.9MBs and 104.2MBs respectively, and 4k test results 0.330MBs and 1.059MBs. Really the problem is me, and my computer which runs its operating system on an SSD and therefore boots up quicker than I do in the morning. Still, even though CrystalMark was showing the HDD to be just fine, the whole thing still felt a bit slow. In 2016 an SSD not being standard feels strange. However, there are some options on the Alienware site for upgrading. Replacing the default HDD with a 256GB SSD will set you back an extra £70, for example, while a 1TB HDD and 256GB SSD combo will cost £110.
In terms of ports on the front you’ll find two USB 3.0 slots, along with another two at the rear. There’s also one hidden away in a compartment on the bottom of the Alpha which is designed to be used with wireless dongles to hide them away, such as the one that comes supplied for the included Xbox 360/Xbox One wireless controller. At the rear you’ll obviously find an HMDI output for connecting the Alpha to a screen, but there’s also a surprise in the form of an HDMI input so that you can do things like plug in a set-top box, reinforcing the idea that this is a machine intended for the living room. Considering most modern TVs have plenty of HDMI ports already however, I’m not sure how useful this will be. Then there’s a Gigabit Ethernet port for that lovely, lovely Internet access, plus a S/PDIF connection and proprietary port for the Alienware Amplifier, which we’ll chat about later. There’s just one thing missing; a 3.5mm audio jack. It’s still one of the most commonly ports, so it’s a little surprising to see it excluded. Of course sound will be send via the magic of HDMI to your TV, and then to whatever audio setup you have there, but I’d still like to see a 3.5mm included.
All of this comes packaged in a box that is considerably smaller than the Xbox One and PS4. At just 20cm wide, 5.5cm high and 20cm deep it’s a compact beast, not counting its external power brick. It’s tiny, and therefore looks right at home sitting next to your TV. This compact nature does come at a price however, and I’m not just talking about the RRP. With just one two fans attempting to cool the entire box the Alpha can get a bit hot, with NZXT’s CAM software reading peak CPU and GPU temperatures at 73c and 83c respectively after an hour of Far Cry 4 at the highest settings in a room with an ambient temperature of 18c. The fan spins hard to keep up with the card and CPU, which means the little box gets a bit noisy under full load, audible over what I’d view as normal TV volume. It’s got a slight whine to it, too, which can grate on the nerves, but if you tend to play with the volume ramped up or headphones on then it’ll be fine. To be fair to the Alpha you won’t be running Far Cry 4 at max anyway, so you shouldn’t see temperatures get quite that high.
Pricing all of this up is a bit tricky. You see, the package I was sent doesn’t quite match up to anything currently listed on the Dell and Alienware sites. For example, all of the UK versions of the Alpha currently listed use the AMD M470x with 2GB of DDR5 VRAM. Meanwhile the included mouse and keyboard are standard Alienware offerings, and not the Roccat Kiro mouse and Ryos keyboard that I was supplied with. Furthermore you can get an Xbox One controller, whereas I was sent an Xbox 360 pad. I’ll update this review with exact pricing once I get it. In the mean time pricing on Dell’s site begins at £449, but that nets you the older model Alpha with the vaguely named Nvidia GTX GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM, 4GB of regular RAM and a 4th generation Intel i3 CPU. £639 gets you the Alpha R2 with a spec sheet of an AMD M470x GPU sporting 2GB of GDDR5, 8GB of RAM and an Intel 6th generation i5 CPU. To snag the i7 that my review machine is running costs a whopping £799, and that’s still paired with the AMD card rather than the better GTX 960. In my estimation the i5 with the GTX 960 represents the best price to performance ratio since the extra oomph of the i7 won’t provide a huge difference in game performance, and will only be able to flex its muscles during processor intensive tasks or in a few select titles.
By default the Alpha runs the controversial Windows 10, which frankly gave me quite a few problems as it tangled with a few pieces of software and screwed up some of my tests due to background updates and other nonsense. Still, Windows 10 would be an article by itself, so we’ll leave that alone for now. The Alpha doesn’t boot straight to windows though, rather it fires up straight into Alienware’s Hivemind interface which attempts to present a simple and easy to navigate system in the vein of Steam’s Big Picture mode. For the most part it works quite well. It’s not the most responsive, but it suits a controller well. There’s even a handy gaming tab that collects together all your games into one place for ease of access, although it did seems to have trouble detecting everything.
Heading into my Steam library I began putting the machine through its paces across quite a few different games, ramping the settings up as high as I could get them in each example. Hitman, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of Mordor, Thief and F1 2016 all have their own benchmarking tools, so those were all used and therefore it’s worth mentioning that they don’t always provide an accurate representation of actual gameplay since AMD and Nvidia can cheat a touch to get better numbers, but for the most part they’re a reasonable indicator of performance. As for the rest of the game’s the method varied a little in each case. For Far Cry 4 I assaulted an outpost for a few minutes, making sure to toss in a good number of grenades and get reinforcements to drop in for the party.. For BioShock Infinite I used a section in The Hooks level featuring some combat and leaping around the skyhooks. For DOOM I went nuts in a pretty intense firefight that lasted a couple of minutes, although I couldn’t crank up to the absolute fullest settings since the GTX 960 doesn’t have enough VRAM. You’ll find the framerates below. Note that the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmarks have their own graph since the in-built benchmark has three different segments, each with their own ratings. As always, the higher the numbers the better.
As you can see from the graphs the Alpha is far from being able to handle a lot of games on the highest settings at 1080p while maintaining anything near that magical 60 FPS, but that’s hardly shocking. Titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Far Cry 4 are quite big hitters and will work the system hard, but with some tweaking you should get satisfactory results provided you aren’t looking for the best visuals. It’s those big drops to the minimum frames that are a bit more concerning. Again, though, with some careful balancing in the settings everything should be fine. To be honest the GTX 960 is a slightly underwhelming card and a surprising choice for the system. Still, if you drop those settings down and it’ll do just fine, or in some cases crank them up and play with a console-syle 30fps. Despite what PC master racists will tell you, playing at 30FPS won’t give you cancer. And despite the fact that I find the GTX 960 to be a questionable choice there’s no denying that the Alpha does pack a good punch.
Wanting those extra frames and nicer particle effects is where Alienware’s patented Amplifier comes into play. It’s essentially a rather bulky elongated box with a built-in power supply and slot where you can stick in any graphics card on the market, including the GTX 1080. Then by using a special proprietary connector you can hook the Amplifier up to an Alienware device that supports it to utilize whatever card you’ve plonked in the box. Mostly it’s aimed at the Alienware laptops, with the idea being that you can take the laptop to work or on holiday, and then when you get back home set it on the desk, hook up the Amplifier and boost the graphical power available to you for some gaming goodness. In this instance the Amplifier came with a pre-installed GTX 980, a sizable leap up in power over the Alpha’s GTX 960. It is rather nice to have the ability to boost a computer’s performance by just plugging in a box and the entire thing is quite easy to get working, but I’m not exactly convinced that the Amplifier is a useful tool. The Amplifier itself is an expensive piece of kit, and you’ve still got to purchase a card on top of that to fit into it. Down the line when the GTX 960 isn’t cutting it anymore or if you just want to upgrade the Amplifier adds a hefty premium. The size is also an issue as it sorts of makes a mockery of having a more compact living room computer, again indicating that it’s more intended for laptops.
So all in all, how was my time with the Alpha? Truthfully, it was pretty damn good. Of course it doesn’t hold a candle to my own PC, but these days you can often get really solid framerates from titles without sacrificing much visual quality. With a little time and patience I was able to get games looking great and playing well, and while that may mean the Alpha can’t compete with the plug and play nature of consoles where graphical settings other than brightness aren’t a concern it also equals a much more customisable experience. Consoles are locked to whatever the developers chose to focus on, but with a PC you’re free to chase those extra frames or sacrifice them for some bonus eye candy.
The Alienware Alpha is up against some stiff competition, though. Knocking aside both the Xbox One and PS4 there’s a raft of small form-factor PCs on the market from a variety of manufacturers who are all looking to get their machines into the living room. Then there’s also the Steam Link, a handy little device that let’s you stream games from your computer to whatever the Steam Link is connected to, making it a great option for people who already own a reasonable system and that don’t want to spend a lot of cash since you can pick one up for about £45. With a price-tag that starts at £449 the Alpha isn’t exactly cheap compared to consoles, which probably puts it out of range of younger consumers. And like most pre-built machines you pay a reasonably hefty premium for the Alienware name and the fact that someone else put it together. Source the parts yourself and watch a tutorial or two and you could build a machine that’s either just as powerful and cheaper, or the same price and considerably beefier in the specs department. The lack of an upgradable GPU is also a bit of the pain in the ass, because a few years down the line you may want to consider an upgrade, at which point you’ll need a new machine or an Amplifier.
We also have to consider that more powerful versions of both the Xbox One and PS4 are coming soon, with the PS4 Pro launching in just a few short weeks. Indeed, the PS4 boasts an AMD GPU that Sony claims is rated at 4.20 teraflops and the machine will cost £350. Even against the current consoles the Alpha doesn’t offer double the power despite being double the cost for even its most basic configuration. Of course the Alpha does have the advantage of being a full PC, making it a more versatile piece of kit, but then are most people really looking to create spreadsheets or do heavy Internet browsing on a living-room PC? Personally I don’t believe so. I imagine most people would want this as a console of sorts, and in that regard both the PS4 and Xbox One are cheaper while also offering a level of graphical quality that is actually quite close to what the Alpha can deliver, without all the faffing around in settings.
I’m conflicted, as you can probably tell. It’s not that I think the Alpha is somehow a bad machine. It’s built with all of the quality you would expect from a company like Alienware, packs quite the punch and looks good to boot. For anyone looking to skip building a computer themselves and with the extra cash to splash on something a bit more powerful and versatile than both the existing Xbox One and PS4 the Alpha R2 is a rather tempting proposition. And yet I’m still note quite sold on its market. The large leap in price between consoles and the Alpha doesn’t really warrant the relatively small graphical increase, especially since you won’t be nailing 60FPS. However, what’s good value for money and what isn’t is a whole separate argument, and I’m here to review the machine, not figure out market potential, what you might want from a computer or console and what you should be spending on it. With that perspective in mind, is the Alienware Alpha R2 a quality package? Absolutely. Sure, a beefier GPU option wouldn’t go amiss, but overall it for some 1080p living room gaming it’s solid enough, and while Xbox One and PS4 owners have a varied selection of games an Alpha owner gets the benefits of Steam and its colossal library of titles. Just hook it up to a TV, grab the wireless controller, kick back and enjoy yourself. And then go do those spreadsheets.