Alienware releases their Steam Machine

That headline requires more explanation than you might think. You see, this is a tale of three separate companies all coming together to make PC gaming more accessible. I don’t know how well they’ve succeeded, but let me give you some background, some opinion, and you can make your own decisions about whether or not this is a step in the right direction or not.

The first company we’ll mention is the well-known PC builder Dell, formed by Michael Dell who built PCs in his dorm room, sometimes going so far as to scrounge components from dumpsters. The company had huge success in the 90s, making its founder one of the richest men in the world, however they have since fallen somewhat from that high point although they still do very well. I personally only used Dells for many years, and for the price they’re good machines.

The next company to talk about is Alienware. Alienware builds custom – otherwise known as ’boutique’ – PCs; very powerful, and very expensive. Along with companies like Falcon Northwest, Origin, and Digital Storm, you can pay $5,000, $7,000 or more for a superfast state-of-the-art PC, using top-quality components (Falcon Northwest offers a $5,000 video card), and you can often get real flash to go along with it. For example, their logo, vents, trackpad, and keyboards are backlit, and you can set them to display or cycle any colors you want, and the system even comes with a program that lets you illuminate various keyboard zones with different colors if that helps you do whatever it is you do. For a visceral example of it, you can watch the oddly-filmed video below, and you might want to mute it.

Before I get to the third company in our list, I should explain why we mention Dell along with Alienware: Dell owns Alienware. That wasn’t always the case, with Dell buying Alienware back in 2006. Many people thought that would be the death of the Alienware brand and their performance builds, but Dell has allowed them to go on doing generally their own thing. That’s as opposed to the sad death of Voodoo PC, A luxury PC builder like Alienware that was killed off after HP bought them, which makes me wonder why they bought them in the first place. I used to have an Alienware laptop that was metallic green, and was so powerful (they just threw a desktop processor into the laptop) that the battery would die before it fully booted up. It was heavy as hell, too. It was a laptop in form only.

These aren’t my pictures, they’re from evilboy.org, but this is exactly the Alienware laptop I had:

laptop_01

laptop_02

laptop_03

Lastly, but not leastly, we have Steam. Steam is a digital distribution platform developed by Valve, makers of seminal, exceptionally popular and well-respected games including Half-Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress. In case you doubt, the success of those games and of the Steam platform have made Valve’s founder and former Microsoft employee Gabe Newell a billionaire. I personally consider Half-Life to be one of the best games ever made, a triumph in storytelling, artificial intelligence, and pacing. Steam did for the digital distribution and sale of games what iTunes did for music; it revolutionized it, legitimized it, and others have tried to follow suit, including Electronic Arts’ Origin service, and Ubisoft’s UPlay. Steam wasn’t the first, but they ostensibly did it best, and they are in the process of converting Steam into a full-fledged OS.

So how does all of this fit together? Steam was always something you accessed through a browser, buying and downloading games through a process not unlike going to Amazon or Macy’s. The service was popular, and Gabe Newell wanted to make it even more so. So back in 2012, Valve unveiled Big Picture Mode for Steam, which gave the service a new interface that was more appropriate for a big TV in a living room, so if you had a PC connected to your TV and not a console, you could get a console-like experience. You could buy games, download them, install them, all by using a controller and play them right there on your TV from the couch, just like a console, but with the added weight of a PC behind you, you’d get better performance, more storage, expandability, much faster loading times, and even the Steam Workshop, from which you can download mods and expansions for games, which consoles do not allow. My version of Skyrim, for those of you familiar with it, runs 65 mods and has transformed it into a completely different experience than what is found on consoles.

Steam Big Picture Mode

Steam Big Picture Mode

The next logical step was for PC builders to create what are known as Steam Machines, PCs that aren’t to be used as actual PCs, but have all the hardware that a PC has. They would boot into Steam’s Big Picture Mode, and be controlled just like a console, but with the added benefits of it being a full-fledged PC as mentioned above. The idea didn’t catch on as some had hoped, but Alienware has finally stepped up to the plate and released one, called the Alpha, and hence the point of all this background.

Strangely, after writing this dissertation, I’m going to tell you it doesn’t appear to be that great of a deal. Alienware has always been premium priced, but on their main page for the system, the prices range from $549 for a low-end Intel Core-i3 with 4GB of memory, which doesn’t make for a powerful machine, to $899 for a much beefier setup with an Intel Core-i7 and 8GB of memory. However I am exceptionally concerned that they all use the same GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), but they don’t specify which one, and a low-end GPU can bring a gaming experience to a screeching halt. On top of that, it boots to a custom interface through which you access Steam, but I would rather access Steam directly. I’m not sure that it can be used as an actual PC at all. I like the concept, and use Steam myself, but not the price or components.

alienware-alpha

Steam isn’t perfect, by the way. It has occasional problems with PayPal, it needs to be connected to the Internet to sync saves, Big Picture is much more limited than the web interface in terms of what it shows you and its store offerings, I am repeatedly, incessantly, and forever asked to input my birthdate, even for titles that have no objectionable content, their customer support is often poor, some games simply don’t work or work outside Steam, and although this is an issue because it’s a PC and not so much Steam itself, many games have to install Microsoft runtime components before they start. Consoles *are* easier. Even with all that, as I highlighted earlier there is a lot to like about it and I use it despite all these criticisms.

This is just my opinion, but if you’d like PC gaming on a big screen with the form factor and design considerations of a console, and if you’re able to build your own PC – or willing to pay Fry’s the additional $100 build fee – you should pick out better components yourself, and attach them to a mini-ITX (essentially meaning small form-factor) motherboard inside a mini-ITX case of your choosing. Then you’ll have an actual PC, with good power, custom built for you, at a lower cost than Alienware’s offering, that can do whatever what you want, including run Steam.

There are tradeoffs to using Steam or PCs as opposed to consoles. Games and software on consoles normally just work because the hardware is standard. Developers push the capabilities of consoles making better and better experiences, whereas on a PC they push the boundaries in a way that often forces expensive upgrades. PC games crash, and sometimes have mouse-based loaders. It’s a personal preference, however I believe that building your own is the better way to do it, plus it will be a good learning experience.

On a side note, if you’re interested i using a controller with a PC, my recommendation is an Xbox 360 controller with this adapter that you can only get from Amazon, and you want that exact one, made by Microsoft, not a knockoff. It works perfectly, needs little, or in many cases no configuration, and as you’ll see in the videos about how to set up your own streaming service, a controller can be used for much more than just gaming.

Going Up