Alienware Alpha review

The best case for Steam Machines yet

Alienware Alpha
The Alienware Alpha review

Being such a small device tailored for living room PC gaming, the Alienware Alpha doesn't have many direct competitors at the moment, save for the Maingear Spark (and other boutique PC builders' takes on that design). And by "small", I mean tiny – smaller than both the Xbox One and PS4.

The Alpha measures about 7.9 x 7.9 x 2.2 inches (W x D x H) and weighs approximately 4.4 pounds. By comparison, the Maingear Spark occupies way less space at 5 x 4.5 x 2.25 inches, and hits the scale at just one pound.

But as you know, size isn't everything in electronics. The Alpha might be beat by some competitors in terms of dimensions, but how Alienware made use of its chosen figures is what sets this device apart. Judging from the specs below, Alienware managed to cram quite a bit of hardware in this tiny package.

Alienware Alpha

Here's the configured Alpha unit that Alienware sent to TechRadar for review:

Spec sheet

  • Processor: 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T (dual-core, 3MB cache)
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (custom, 2GB GDDR5)
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 (1600Mhz)
  • Storage: 500GB SATA (6Gb/s)
  • Connectivity: Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 1x1; Bluetooth 4.0
  • Operating system: Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64‐bit)
  • Ports: 2x USB 2.0 (front), 2x USB 3.0 (back), RJ45, HDMI-Out 1.4a, HDMI-In, optical audio out (Toslink)
  • Warranty: 1-year Alienware Limited Hardware; 10-14 day mail-in repair after remote diagnosis

This might not seem like much, but when you consider the included wireless Xbox 360 controller (for Windows) on top of what's inside for $549 to start, this starts to look like an OK deal. What you see here is the absolute minimum configuration, with the highest-end model coming in at a dense $849 (£699, AU$1,299).

That configuration nets you an Intel Core i7 chip, double the RAM, a 2TB spinning drive and 2x2 dual band Wi-Fi. In case you haven't already noticed, Alienware's customized GTX 860M is the only graphics option available across all Alpha models. In the nascent world of Steam Machines, only one GPU option isn't news, but nevertheless makes opting for a beefier version much less appealing.

Alienware Alpha

All said, opening up the Alpha does not void your warranty – Alienware practically encourages it – so you could easily pick up the base model and upgrade as you see fit. (Just don't touch the GPU – that stays.)

In comparison, the Spark's starting configuration comes in much, much higher at $749 (about £495, AU$972) to start. (Though, you can nab one for $599 to start for a limited time, as of this writing.) That nets you a quad-core AMD A8-5557M APU with embedded Radeon graphics, a matching Radeon R9 M275X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory (also the only available option), plus the same amount of RAM and storage.

However, the Spark chassis does offer room for both an HDD and a solid-state drive. But here's the kicker: Maingear does not include an operating system in the base price. Want Windows 8.1? That'll be 120 bucks, please.

So, the Alienware wins major points in the value department. Let's see how it did doing what it does best: playing games.