Alienware Alpha review

The best case for Steam Machines yet

Alienware Alpha
The Alienware Alpha review

The Alienware Alpha is squarely aimed right at the leading game consoles, Xbox One and PS4, checking off boxes like "native 1080p support," "4K video support" and upgradability. But since the three are entirely different platforms, direct performance comparisons are impossible.

Comparing the Alpha against competing gaming PCs is also difficult, given its customized mobile GPU and the lack of directly similar systems. At any rate, here's how Alienware's first crack at the living room fared in our suite of tests:

Benchmarks

  • 3DMark: Ice Storm: 85,121; Cloud Gate: 9,678; Fire Strike: 3,524
  • Cinebench CPU: 263 points; Graphics: 74 fps
  • PCMark 8 Home: 2,935 points
  • Bioshock Infinite (1080p, Ultra): 44 fps; (1080p, Low): 99 fps
  • Metro: Last Light (1080p, Ultra): 16 fps; (1080p, Low): 48 fps

Right off the bat, we're looking at numbers vastly better than what the Maingear Spark managed to produce. The most notable of which is 3DMark's Fire Strike, which the Spark reported a score of 2,301 points – not exactly competitive.

That said, gaming laptops, like the Asus GL551 with an 860M packing 2GB of video memory, scored results within 100 points of the Alpha on most of our tests. While I'm not comparing these machines directly, the similarity in scores – despite Alienware's modifications on that same GPU – is striking.

At any rate, the Alienware Alpha is prepared to play most PC games at 1080p and decent graphical settings (save for Metro: Last Light, of course). Using Fraps, I managed to play Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor at 1080p and high settings to excellent effect, with a silky frame rate of 43 frames per second and plenty of detail.

Alienware Alpha

Inversely, games like Titanfall didn't perform as well, despite its age and keen tuning for a range of GPUs. Notched at high settings and FHD, Fraps reported a 26 fps frame rate. That doesn't quite make the playable threshold on paper, but knocking things down to medium leveled that out a bit and brought it to 28 fps, which actually felt much better.

The thing is that this is a mobile GPU pushing these games, and the power gap is still there between the 800M series of mobile chips and Nvidia's desktop counterparts, regardless of Alienware's modifications. (Now, if Alienware were to update the Alpha with something from the new 900M series, we might not even be having this little aside.)

Not quite like the rest

Even the GTX 750 Ti inside my own gaming PC can register better Titanfall numbers than that – at least 10 more frames per second. That said, Titanfall might not be optimized for the specific drivers issued for this modified GPU.

Nope, you cannot update the Alpha's GPU drivers through Nvidia's GeForce experience. However, Alienware works with its partners to deliver updates to the system through its custom UI. (The system was lasted updated on its Nov. 6 launch, so it better not be long before another refresh – kidding … kind of.)

So, the Alpha is definitely in need of some firmware updates, not to mention more work with developers to help optimize their games for Alienware and Nvidia's modified GPU. In the meantime, there are plenty of games to enjoy, many of which are (semi-)exclusive to PC, like TowerFall Ascension and Rogue Legacy.

Alienware Alpha

Build or buy?

The PC is slowly reacquiring its sphere of influence by targeting the living room directly, and the Alienware Alpha is the vessel. Though Alpha is but a ship among many, to sound over dramatic, and approaches the enemy from a different angle.

Alienware is clearly playing to the sensibilities of the console gamer. It's true that you could open the Alpha up, never connect a keyboard and mouse to it, and treat it like a game console. Though, I wouldn't recommend it, since this is a Windows machine and all, and requires updates and security scans, unlike most console or mobile operating systems.

Still, the Alpha represents the sense of simplicity and focus of a game console, while offering those players a tease at what's possible. Not fast enough? Try swapping in more RAM – easy enough. Still want more power? Then throw in a new CPU (but better break out the manual first). Soon, you'll have a budding PC builder, thanks to a machine that's a little more inviting than the rest.