Bringing PC Gaming to the Living Room
Awhile ago, I wrote a post about my sour experiences with both the PS4 and the Xbox One and said that I was trying something new after always being a console gamer. There was a lot of commotion around the release of Valve’s Steam Machines as they tried to bring PC gaming to the living room, console gaming masses. The hype seems to have been short lived though, I haven’t seen them covered much at all since the initial release. But, as the Steam Machines were delayed a few times before they finally came out to a mixed reception, Alienware got tired of waiting to release their living room gaming PC and put out the Alienware Alpha.
The Alpha offers the exact same hardware configurations as the Alienware Steam Machines, except it shipped earlier and features Windows and a Xbox 360 wireless controller and dongle rather than SteamOS and the Steam controller. It seemed like much of the mixed feelings about the Steam Machines were a result of the SteamOS they shipped with, which was basically a Linux build to run Steam in Big Picture mode. This limited the machines, as well as the library of games that they could run. While the same hardware with Windows offers only advantages, you can boot right into Steam Big Picture and can run almost any game on Steam as well as access the Chrome and other apps. Here are my thoughts so far about the Alpha and PC gaming in general.
A Console Gamer Getting Acclimated to a New PC
My main reservation about PC gaming has always been the mouse and keyboard inputs. Say what you will about the precision differences, I just have always used a gamepad controller and that’s probably what I’ll always prefer to play with. The Alpha runs a special Alienware developed UI that allows you to load games using only the gamepad. You can also use some specific controller inputs to do some things that normally would require other input devices, like force a game into full screen or control the mouse with a joystick and buttons. The UI is functional but not great and a little slow. I mostly used it to boot Steam anyway, so I opted for disabling it and booting straight into Steam Big Picture. The Alienware UI still runs in the background, so in a pinch I can operate the mouse pointer to close a menu or navigate, and I get all the perks of Steam’s controller friendly mode while on Windows.
Since buying the base model of the Alpha, I have made some upgrades. I added another 4GB of RAM for a few bucks, but mainly I swapped out the hard drive. The hard drives available in the Alpha all run at 5400rpm, which are fine for gaming, but leads it to boot slow and run slowly while using it for anything else. I put in a SSD and upgraded it to Windows 10 and now it probably boots into Steam Big Picture in about 10-15 seconds. The original hard drive got you gaming a little slower than the current gen consoles with their stock hard drives, but the SSD blows them away. I still have the stock base model 4th gen i3 CPU and the custom 2GB NVIDIA GPU and I am totally happy with them. The CPU can be upgraded easily, the GPU cannot unfortunately but I don’t see that as being too negative.
As you can guess from the GPU specifically, the Alpha is not designed to give you a top of the line PC gaming experience. The thing is about the size of the original Wii and I got mine for under $350 on Craig’s List, it won’t max out the graphics of every game out now, but it does play them well and they still all look great. The performance has been great for me as well, I play a lot of indie games that aren’t very demanding, but I also played through all of Metal Gear Solid 5 without a hitch. Benchmarks show that the machine is more powerful than the PS4, which puts it in a competitive place this console generation. I’m not looking to max out graphics, but I want my games to look good and run well, and the Alpha delivers very well in both of those areas.
What the Alienware Alpha Offers as a Living Room PC
For me, the Alienware Alpha delivers exactly what the Steam Machines were meant to. It brings PC gaming to the living room in a way that could attract some console gamers. It isn’t as simple to use as a console, but it’s not much more difficult than one either. I personally enjoy the extra layer of customization functionality it offers. I added a wireless keyboard with an integrated trackpad from Logitech that allows me to access all of its functionality conveniently from the couch. I usually use only the Xbox controller, but I have the option of the keyboard for accessing streaming services and anything else you’d want to use on a PC on your TV.
On an unrelated note to the Alpha’s hardware, PC gaming is great for a person like me. First off, it’s much more affordable. You don’t need to spend a ton up front on a top of the line rig to enjoy the savings offered by Steam Sales and services like Humble Bundle. There’s a ton more variety in PC games, especially since this generation’s consoles are so similar to PCs themselves. Developers can offer almost every game they make for consoles on the PC and add the same controller support. I’m amazed by the amount of games that support controllers, it makes PC gaming much more friendly to console gamers.
Steam is the New Home of Couch Co-Op
Another thing that I’m really excited about is couch co-op, an area that has traditionally been dominated by the consoles. There are more local co-op experiences on the PC by far, and they’re all controller friendly. I have had a great time bringing multiplayer games back to my living room. It seems like consoles have moved more toward online, where the PC used to dominate and PCs have branched out to include local multiplayer as well as traditional online games. My experience so far with a “cheap” gaming PC has been phenomenal and it really has rekindled my old passion while introducing me to a whole new side of gaming.
I’ve had the Alienware Alpha for about 6 months now and am totally happy with the purchase. I upgraded the RAM and SSD completely because I wanted to, not because it was essential. The Added controller functions make a huge difference and it’s been a great way to transition over to PC gaming.
I’m also happy to report that Dark Souls 3, a game which I’m completely stoked for, should run great on the Alpha. I just finished another play through of the original Dark Souls on my PC and finally got to play through the Artorias of the Abyss DLC. I CANNOT wait for Dark Souls 3 to be out on April 12th.
Let me know what you think in the comments below, thanks for reading!
Images Courtesy Forbes and Kotaku