With all the talk about Steamboxes and comfy living room PC gaming in the last few years, it’s no surprise so many different companies have started to do their own take on the small form factor market while Valve continues to piddle their thumbs over release dates. The Alpha is longtime boutique builder Alienware’s take on that very same market and device. The company tried to take the compactness and user interface of a console, and blend it with the performance a desktop can give. What we’re left with is an interesting kind of fusion between desktop performance, console ubiquity, with an absolutely tiny and portable form factor. While definitely no “console killer”, it has a couple of neat ideas that definitely warrant some praise, even if not everything is up to snuff just yet.
Under the hood, the baseline Alpha sports a 2.9 Ghz Core i3-4130T, 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB mechanical hard drive, and an Nvidia Geforce GTX 860M. Surprisingly, the case of the device itself is relatively easy to open access to Individual components, and, again to everyone’s surprise, the CPU can be swapped out and upgraded at any time. All systems also come with a wireless Xbox 360 controller included in the purchase. The mobile GPU inside the Alpha uses Nvidia’s power efficient Maxwell architecture, and is surprisingly as fast as the ever popular Geforce GTX 750 Ti. It’s most definitely not the fastest GPU on the market, but it’s enough to keep up in most games, and performs better than either current gen console. The mechanical hard drive included with the system is a notorious bottleneck however, leading to massive delays in doing simpler things like switching between Alpha UI and Windows, or even just starting the computer. Upgrading to a solid state drive alleviates all these hiccups, but that’s extra cash that could’ve gone towards something else.
RELATED LINK: Something else that money could have been spent on !
One of the most unique features of the Alienware Alpha is the Alpha UI, which is a custom made shell for Windows 8 designed to emulate the layout of a console’s UI. The interface can be loaded at system boot up, and can be toggled between standard windows 8 as long as it’s activated.Alpha UI allows for navigation using a controller as well as direct access to Steam’s Big Picture Mode, which further adds to the console like experience . A nice little cosmetic bit is AlienFX, which allows you to change the colors and properties of the system’s backlights through software.
Value: Is It Worth It?
Alienware sells four different models of the Alpha. For each, the majority of the internals stay the same aside from CPU model, RAM, and hard drive space. You start to encounter diminishing returns as you pick the more expensive models for a number of reasons. Herein lies one of my biggest gripes with the system, and the point where my love for it faded. This device is built for gaming. Despite that very obviously stated purpose, there are no options for a GPU upgrade whatsoever. For people unaware, a faster GPU is much more important for games than the CPU is. Completely restricting the possibility to upgrade it makes sense from a thermal design standpoint, as the GPU itself has to fit a certain thermal threshold to prevent components from throttling in such a tiny form factor, but really? The Alpha’s current $499 base price is due to sales as well, as the traditional price is $549. At anything above that baseline price, I simply cannot recommend it. At $499, it’s a great value. you get a nice performing computer in an excellently sized package, as well as a full installation of windows, a wireless Xbox 360 keyboard and the antenna to hook it in. After that $549 base price, a self-built computer’s value becomes glaringly evident. It’s a real shame, because there’s a lot to like with the baseline Alpha. For the size it’s a great performer, and the Alpha UI and included controller are nice additions. However, if your focus is gaming with a small PC and you intended to go for one of the more expensive models, you can build substantially faster Mini ITX computers for the same price as the higher end models. The baseline configuration seems like it’d be a great gift for a teen interested in PC gaming but afraid of building a PC their self. Otherwise, your money may be spent better elsewhere.