Alienware went through eight revisions over two years in collaboration with Valve before the gaming PC vendor came to its final Steam Machine. That’s how serious Alienware claims to be about Valve’s hardware initiative, and it shows in the design.
This Steam box is more subdued than most of Alienware rigs, with the only lighting on the all-black box being on its glossy face. Naturally, the Alienware logo glows, but so does Valve’s logo, which appears in a triangular cut into the bottom-left corner of the device. At the moment, the Alienware logo is a hard button that changes the lighting from blue to green to red and so on.
Up front, the unit houses two standard USB ports. Around back, Alienware kept the I/O simple, with just two USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet and HDMI-out below two large vent outputs. (Intake lines the bottom edges of the unit.) Up top, the unit is coated in a soft touch finish.
Honestly, after eight revisions, I would expect something more radical, but Alienware’s Steam Machine is right up there with the PS4 in terms of size and style. The company doesn’t dance around that it borrowed heavily from its X51 mini gaming PC design in crafting its version. Smart move.
How will it play?
While the company brought just a mockup to CES 2014, I’m told that the design is final. If the show were a month later, Alienware would have a working model to show, a Dell (Alienware’s parent company) representative told me. Instead, Alienware had an X51 running Steam OS to give an idea of how the final Steam Machine would operate.
I played a few incredibly clumsy minutes of Metro: Last Light in 1080p with the latest version of Valve’s Steam Controller, and the machine had no frame rate or screen tearing issues whatsoever. According to a Dell rep, the entry-level Steam Machine will play Metro: Last Light in 1080p locked at 30 frames per second. I just wouldn’t expect very high settings.
If anything, this instills confidence that the Linux-based Steam OS doesn’t harm the performance of Windows games ported over. For one, Linux is an inherently lightweight kernel. And two: There is a minimal amount of background processes running on Steam OS, giving the CPU, GPU and RAM more to offer your games.
Sparking another console war
Alienware claims that its Steam Machines will house even more powerful hardware than the latest X51 models; all three configurations (good, better and best) will house Intel processors and Nvidia GPUs. More importantly, the company claims that its entry-level model will be "competitively priced" against the Xbox One and PS4.
Considering many of the console-priced Steam Machines are running Intel’s integrated Iris Pro graphics on Haswell chips, that could be a boon for Alienware’s offering. And if the final living room units will be even more powerful than the latest X51 models, I expect an even better showing by the final units.
But it’s only companies like Alienware that seem concerned with Microsoft and Sony regarding their Steam boxes. Valve doesn’t have as much of a stake in whether the Steam Machines succeed as its partners. If the Steam Machines initiative falls flat, then tough luck for Alienware and its competitors.
Valve has more users on Steam (65 million as of October 2013) than there are Xbox One and PS4 players combined, and it will be that way for some time. Companies like Alienware can’t say the same, but they’re banking on Valve’s vision as a means to compete.
Alienware’s Steam Machine is a gorgeous piece of hardware – something that would fit right in with your other game consoles or cable box in the entertainment center. While the company was only prepared to show a mockup unit, it’s somewhat comforting to be told that the entry level model should be able to play one of the most demanding PC games around locked at 30 fps and 1080p.
Like all Steam Machines, the hardware is the easy part. There’s nothing stopping them from beating the consoles at their own game in terms of raw performance. (Perhaps even at competitive prices.) However, Valve – not to mention the vendors – have plenty of work to do elsewhere.
It’s up to Valve to convince more game developers that Steam OS truly is the future of living room gaming, and that the audience will be there. At the same time, the hardware manufacturers face an uphill battle of showing the entrenched console gaming audience why their alternatives are more ideal. One cannot happen without the other.
Being primarily a console gamer these days that sees the value of Steam and hardware upgrades, I might want to see an Alienware Steam Machine under my TV. But how many more are out there like me? Alienware and its competitors’ success seems to depend on hypotheticals like this. For most, it will be tough to make a $499 (at least) purchase based on what if’s.