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Review: Alienware Steam Machine

by Paul Strauss

One of the hotly anticipated gadgets for the holiday season is the Alienware Steam Machine. This compact device is designed to put a complete PC gaming system in your living room, capable of playing games from Steam’s extensive library. I’ve had the opportunity to check out an early production version of the system, and am here to share my experiences. Keep in mind that I’ve been using a Beta version of SteamOS, and the package didn’t ship with the documentation that buyers will get with theirs.

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The Alienware Steam Machine is designed to bridge the gap between PC gaming and big screen gaming. Like other PCs, the Steam Machine is generally more powerful than dedicated gaming consoles, and has upgradeable hardware. Measuring in at just 8″ square by 2.3″ tall, and packed into a simple gloss black box, it fits neatly into any living room or media center setup. It’s also whisper quiet, making it perfect for home theater setups.

The system is priced competitively with other small form-factor PCs, and close to the pricing of the Xbox One and PS4 consoles. To reduce computing overhead and to keep pricing low, the Steam Machine runs on SteamOS, rather than Windows. This has its pros and cons, as there are significantly fewer games available for the Linux-based SteamOS than on Windows at this point. To put things in perspective, there are about 1500 SteamOS compatible titles, and over 6000 PC compatible titles on Steam. Still, in raw numbers, SteamOS has more native titles than PS4 and Xbox One combined.

Alienware is offering the Steam Machine in four different configurations, ranging from a dual-core i3 with 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD to a quad-core i7 with 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD, and an upgraded Wi-Fi card. For my testing, I’m using the Core i3 model with 8GB RAM and a 1TB HDD. This is likely to be one of the more popular configurations, given its reasonable $549 retail price. The hard drive, memory, CPU and wireless card are all user upgradeable, and changing them won’t void your warranty.

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Connecting the system is easy. Just plug the included HDMI cable into the HDMI out port and into your TV or AV receiver, then plug the system’s power brick into an outlet, and power on. You can also connect another device to the HDMI In port and toggle between the game system and that input with the controller’s large center “Steam” button. There’s an easy guided setup process which connects the system to your network and pairs your controller. Once set up you’re greeted with an easy-to-use interface that’s designed for big screen use.

Each Steam Machine comes bundled with a custom Alienware Steam Controller, which offers a unique setup that’s designed to bridge the gap between mouse and keyboard and console-style gameplay. At first, the design seemed a bit odd to me, with the thumbstick and D-Pad replaced with touchpads. While I’m still not totally sold on this being better than the dual joystick setup found on popular consoles, it definitely makes the sort of precision moves you get out of a mouse a little easier to master than with a joystick. The controller is wireless, and worked without lag across my living room. Alienware says you can connect up to four of these controllers to the system, though I only got to test with a single gamepad.

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If you find yourself longing for a mouse and keyboard, you can connect any of those via USB, just like a regular PC. There’s support for Xbox 360 controllers via USB as well. The system also has Bluetooth 4.0 on board, but I couldn’t figure out a way to pair any wireless 3rd party controllers or keyboards.

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I was quickly at home in the SteamOS interface, and when I logged in with my Steam ID, I immediately saw my previous purchases, achievements, etc. I proceeded to download several of the SteamOS titles that Alienware provided me with, including Valve classics like Portal 2, Team Fortress 2, and the Half-Life series.

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Games downloaded quickly on my 100meg cable connection, so I was up and running in minutes. The 1TB HDD should be sufficient for numerous games, but can be upgraded and expanded just like a regular PC if you so choose. Gameplay on the Valve games was fast and responsive, though I had to bump up the display settings on some of them to take advantage of full HD resolution. Unlike consoles, this is a PC world, so tweaking visual settings is part of the process of getting games up and running at the best combination of detail and frame rate. This is good and bad. You certainly have way more control than you do with a console, but it also means that everyone’s experience will be different – especially novices.

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Jacked up to the highest visual settings, Portal 2 ran smooth as butter, as did the other Valve titles I tested. Since the latest and greatest games have yet to make it to SteamOS, most titles don’t push the boundaries of the hardware, but Alienware says that you should expect 1080p gameplay at 30 frames per second or more on most games, which is better than many console games. And some games can run at much higher frame rates too. In case you’re wondering about the Nvidia GPU inside, it’s a custom job with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, and roughly the equivalent of an 860M in terms of performance.

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One more recent title I tested was the zombie x parkour action title Dying Light, which looks great and ran smoothly at the default texture and resolution settings. Then the zombies killed me.

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Of course, the Steam experience isn’t just about GPU intensive 3D games. There are tons of cool and awesome arcade and indie games in the Steam shop, among them such titles as Broforce, Guacamelee, Papers, Please, Hotline Miami 2, GoatZ: Goat Simulator, and FTL.

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Here’s a video that Alienware shared that shows off some of the many titles that run on the Steam Machine:

One thing to keep in mind is that most games weren’t designed specifically for the Steam Controller, so you may have to tweak the controller settings to your liking. Fortunately, they make this super easy, and you can map any button, pad, or joystick to your exact preferences. You can even share your controller settings or download ones contributed to the community, which is often the fastest way to get up and running.

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At least in its current state, the trickiest thing with the SteamOS interface is finding what games you can actually download onto the console. There are thousands of titles in the store, and while the Store is supposed to filter out games for other operating systems, I always saw games for both Windows and SteamOS. I presume this is because the system thinks that any game you might want to stream from your Windows PC counts as a game you might want to buy in SteamOS. Personally, I found this frustrating, and hope that there’s an easier way to filter the Steam Store to show only games you can actually download and install on the system. I found myself having to go to my PC and filtering the list of available apps in order to decide what I could buy or download. For now, here’s a link where you can quickly browse a full list of SteamOS compatible titles.

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If you want to, you can attempt to stream games from your PC to the Steam Machine, but this is only recommended on a wired connection, which most of us don’t have these days. I tested PC streaming on my theoretically very fast 802.11 AC wireless home connection, and even with the Steam Machine, router and PC in the same room, the stutter and stalling made it impossible to use this feature. I also had to have the other PC’s volume turned up in order to hear audio on the Steam Machine, which seems really odd.

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Frankly, I’d rather just play native SteamOS games anyhow, so I’m hoping that more and more games offer native support. Not that 1500 titles is a small launch catalog for any console. I see the streaming ability sort of like backwards compatibility on game consoles – it’s a less than perfect way to expand your library until native support takes hold.

While SteamOS seems pretty stable at this point, it’s important to note that the OS is still in Beta as of this writing. Its first official release is slated for early November, to coincide with the launch of this system. I’d anticipate that any kinks will get worked out as more users start to spend time with the system in their living room, and Valve is really good about providing frequent updates to their software.

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The Steam Machine is great for PC gamers who want the sort of control and diversity of titles found on desktop machines, but want to play in their living rooms. Since it is a full-fledged PC, you can also mod away to your hearts content on it, installing your own OS – even Windows if you so choose. The Xbox One, PS4 and PCs offer more launch day AAA titles at this point, but I can definitely see the potential for the Steam Machine to become a meaningful participant in the battle for the living room.

The Alienware Steam Machine will be available on November 10th, 2015. For now, you can find more information on the Alienware Arena website. Prices for the system range from $449 to $749(USD), depending on configuration, and the system includes one Steam Controller and a bundle of content valued at over $200. Additional Steam Controllers are selling for $49 each.

[FTC Disclaimer: Technabob was provided with the hardware tested in this review by Alienware at no cost. However, all reviews on Technabob are the unbiased opinions of our authors, and in no way represent the views of the product manufacturers represented here.]

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