To everyone’s astonishment, the video game console hasn’t died. It’s ironic that the Alienware Steam Machine is proof positive of the segment’s still vibrant life force. The Alienware Steam Machine is borne out of forces that we once agreed would tear the console market apart. Alienware makes gaming PCs, the antithesis of everything the Xbox One and PS4 stand for, prizing customization and power above all else. The SteamOS operating system that lives inside the device is open source and available to anyone, and everyone for free. By comparison, Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are closed ecosystems.
Being a console owner only, I was attracted to the Alienware Steam Machine for reasons any PC gamer will understand. I wanted to be able to upgrade my system if something happened. I always wanted a PC that didn’t look like a giant toaster oven, as so many custom-made PCs do. I also wanted a console-like interface for interacting with the device from afar.
The Alienware Steam Machine itself delivers the reasonably priced, console-like PC gaming experience that Dell promised it would. The SteamOS and Steam Controller that come packed with the PC are what send it over the top.
Alienware Steam Machine Review – Design & Internals
An angular black box measuring 7.87 inches long, 7.87 inches wide and 2.17 inches deep, the Alienware Steam Machine offers no outward hint at how powerful it is. For PC gamers, there’s nothing more important than being able to upgrade internals when the need arises. An LED face of an extraterrestrial sticks out from a sea of glossy plastic on the front face of the device. There are two USB 2.0 ports, with a glowing Steam logo acting as one of only two distinct design cues that face the user. Both this logo and the alien can have their default colors changed within the SteamOS settings.
A round power plug, 1 HDMI In, 1 HDMI out, infrared audio, a Gigabit Ethernet port and two USB ports sit on the back face of the Steam Machine. Vents on the back expel hot air past the cables connected to it.
If this sounds very unassuming, it’s because it is. The Steam Machine hardware blends in to its surroundings, making it the perfect addition to any entertainment center setup. It looks just as good on a desk as it does on an entertainment center shelf.
The matte top of the Alienware Steam Machine comes off to reveal the device’s internals. The processor, memory, storage and wireless cards are upgradable. Using the same off-the-shelf internals, makes upgrading the system relatively easy for those that really want to get into it.
The model Alienware supplied to Gotta Be Mobile came equipped with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX graphics processor with its own 2GB of GDDR5 RAM, 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive. Inside was a 3.2 GHz Intel Core i7 Processor with four cores. For $449, users can get an Alienware Steam Machine with more modest specs. Our version cost a still modest $649. There was no stuttering to be found. I was worried about throttling as a result of overheating during long gaming sessions, but I didn’t notice any. My Xbox One is the size of a Laser Disc player, for comparison.
Certainly, that’s more than competing gaming consoles, but nowhere near the cost of a dedicated gaming PC that would take up more space.
I can’t say this enough, the Alienware Steam Machine is the tiny, unassuming gaming PC that checks all the right boxes. Hardware-wise, the machine wasn’t overly loud and didn’t take up too much space, a criticism anyone paying attention would level at Microsoft’s Xbox One, at least.
Alienware Steam Machine Review – Experience
It was evident from the moment I plugged in the Alienware Steam Machine and powered it on that Alienware had done their job perfectly. The operating system started relatively quickly and there was little to no fan noise.
It was also evident that to achieve the console-like gaming experience that Alienware was going for, Valve had to deliver on their front. SteamOS, the software that powers the Steam Machine, needed to be well stocked with games and a decent browsing experience. The Steam Controller needed to be the mouse and traditional controller replacement Valve said it was going to deliver.
Seeking to upend Microsoft and Sony’s virtual duopoly in the living room gaming segment, Valve created SteamOS. Available online and for free, hardware makers and enthusiasts can install the variant of Linux on their machines. The operating system does everything from letting users browse the Steam Store to syncing controller profiles. It’s the lynch pin of the entire operation.
Setting up SteamOS is pretty easy, but the dashboard users are taken to every time they start the machine is pretty rigid in itself. There are deep links to the Steam Store and access to the forum communities that PC gamers love. Game saves and controller profiles sync over pretty effortlessly. Better, previous game purchases sync over too.
SteamOS is rigid. It offers no big customization options besides hard LED customization and options for attaching different controllers and controller configurations. I also found the start-up experience to be a bit lacking. Deal alerts are one of the many things tucked into menus that can only be accessed in the top right corner. As you move around the interface, the paired Steam Controller lightly vibrates, almost like the sensation of water being poured out of a bottle. The sensation is awkward at first, but definitely a nice touch.
Inputting text in the Steam Machine requires use of the dual touchpads on the Steam Controller. It’s wacky, but it grows on you. It’s not necessarily better than on-screen keyboards for other consoles, just different.
There are things that anyone can get over given the right amount of time. The look and interaction methods and very strange keyboard belong to this category of oddities. They’re different but not necessarily a deal breaker. What could be a deal breaker is the surprisingly slim assortment of PC games built for Linux and available on the Steam machine. For every Civilization Beyond Earth and Cities Skylines that worked, there were a few that didn’t. Dell smartly gifts buyers a few games with their purchase which softens the blow. Also, SteamOS can stream games from other PCs on your local network, which helps fill the void.
Trying to distill an entire gaming experience into something that’s easy to browse on a couch is hard, but Valve manages to pull it off and take some of the complexity out of PC gaming. The inclusion of game news directly from developers, forums and mod access telegraphs just how well Valve understands the PC gamer. I’ve never felt more connected to my favorite developers than browsing my Steam library and ingesting fresh posts and news topics from Steam forums.
Valve Steam Controller
My feelings aren’t as mixed on the Steam Controller that comes bundled with the Alienware Steam Machine. Two touchpads dominate the Steam Controller, with a single joystick positioned on the bottom left and four basic buttons on the right. Press down on the right touchpad and you have the equivalent of a middle-click on a gaming mouse. A set of bumpers, triggers and paddles on the back of the controller rounds everything out. There’s also a giant Steam button that takes users back to the home interface.
Overall, I liked the preciseness of two touchpads in games that were mouse and keyboard-centric, like Cities Skylines. That isn’t to say that they’re perfect for everything. Sometimes they were downright unwieldy in games, like shooters and adventure games, where I needed to really have control over camera angles and positioning of my character
I don’t agree with folks that say the Steam Controller is terrible. The touchpads are great for PC-centric games. What games you like will largely determine how much you enjoy the controller’s inputs. I offer only two criticisms of the controller. First, it’s not Bluetooth, forcing a USB dongle on players. Alienware smartly hides the receiver within the body of the Steam Machine underneath a door on the bottom. Second, the Steam Controller feels surprisingly cheap in the hand compared to the PS4. The textured plastic feels off and maybe it’s a tad bit too light.
Alienware Steam Machine Review – Should You Buy?
The Alienware Steam Machine is definitely something that every gamer should look into – provided they’re open to the idea of playing games on PC instead of Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Within weeks, I’d embraced the idea of two gaming ecosystems in my own life. I got used to the idea because the Steam Machine and SteamOS were straight forward and simple, even though what I really had under my TV was a PC.
The Alienware Steam Machine is a terrific buy, offering a unique controller, upgradability, a decent graphics processor and a lot of storage for a reasonable price. It’s not flashy and it’s not ostentatious. It’s PC gaming done right in console form. Well, almost done right.
Anyone planning to buy it should strongly consider installing Windows and installing the Steam client. In fact, I think Alienware might want to consider just pre-loading machines with Windows and simply installing the Steam client as a pack in. You might lose some simplicity, but you pick up a bigger general library which is more important. I’d recommend the Alienware Alpha as it comes with Windows installed, but SteamOS is worth a try and the the Steam Controller is a much better companion than the now ancient Xbox 360 controller the Alpha comes with.
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