Alienware_Alpha_002At E3 2014 Alienware is announcing that its PC-based Alpha Gaming Console will be ready on time for the “2014 holiday”. Apha is based on the Steam machine hardware that Alienware presented at CES, and I have seen a few myself during the Game Developers Conference 2014 (GDC). Since Valve’s Steam OS won’t be ready by the time this is launched, Alpha cannot be called a “Steam Machine“.

However, I’ve been told by Alienware that when that happens, users will be able to download Steam OS and install it. This means that the Alpha Gaming PC will run under Windows, but with Valve’s Big Picture full-screen interface and with the Xbox 360 controller. If you want to use the PS4 controller or another one that is compatible, it’s fine as well.

The Alpha name should not make you think that Alienware is building some kind of monster gaming rig. What the company is trying to do is to build an affordable and easy to use PC-based console that people can leave ON in their living room without hearing fans and other noises associated with PCs. And to do that, the specs are not what you are used to:

  • Core i3 Gen4 (Haswell) Processor, Up to Core i7
  • 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM, up to 8GB
  • NVIDIA Maxwell GPU,  2GB of VRAM
  • WiFi AC / BT 4.0, up to 2×2 WiFi
  • HDMI Out, 8 channel support and 4K compatible
  • HDMI In for pass-through mode
  • Gb Ethernet
  • 2x USB 3.0 and 2X USB 2.0
  • Optical Audio Out
  • 500GB SATA 3 HDD, up to 1TB
  • Windows 8.1 64bit
  • Base Price: $549

Alienware has worked with Intel and NVIDIA to make sure that the PC was not going to be too noisy. To that end, it seemed clear that both Intel’s Haswell (Gen4) CPU and NVIDIA’s Maxwell graphics architecture were important because they are highly power-efficient (for a PC).It is interesting to note that there is a single GPU option for all versions, so I would be very tempted to pick the Core i5 since it’s probably the sweet spot in terms of performance for the price.  The Core i7 may bring a marginal performance boost, but without a high-end GPU, I’m not sure that the console is CPU-limited anyway. Let’s wait for the independent benchmarks.

Alienware did not want to reveal what GPU this was and said that NVIDIA and Alienware worked on a special SKU for this edition. I’m not sure how “custom” the chip really is, but we’ll know what it is equivalent to as soon as the first benchmarks hit, I’m expecting something like a GTX 750Ti. The mere fact that it is using the Maxwell architecture demonstrates that this is an entry-level or mid-range graphics processor, since there are no high-end GPUs using NVIDIA’s Maxwell – yet.

Admittedly, Alienware wants to expand beyond its high-end niche (but lucrative) market and towards more affordable gaming. In an ideal world, the PC maker would like to see legions of customers buying this box to play countless Indie games that are available through Steam for $5 to $30. This is a very different value proposition when compared to what Alienware is normally proposing, but one that could mean much higher volumes if this works as planned.

Finally, I would like to point out that despite booting in Valve’s Big Picture, this is a regular Windows 8 machine, so you can close Big Picture at any time and run any PC software you like. This can be great for HD streaming, or playing some videos compressed in formats that are not supported by set top boxes.

What do you think? Is Alienware on the right track with this? Would you rather have a dedicated PC box to play in your living room? Drop a comment to let us know.

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