If you’ve been wanting to get Steam games into your living room — and don’t want to wait for Valve’s official Steam OS— Alienware is now ready to take your money. Interested buyers can now pre-order the Alienware Alpha console, which starts at $549. That’ll get you an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, 500GB of storage, and a custom Nvidia-based graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory. Alienware is also selling a number of other configurations with more memory, hard drive space, and faster processors.
What’s most notable about the Alpha, however, is what isn’t included — instead of using Valve’s Linux-based Steam OS and the Steam controller, the Alpha is essentially a standard Windows 8.1 PC. After Valve announced that it would delay the Steam OS and controller to 2015, Alienware decided to design its own user interface on top of Windows rather than delay its console. The goal of that custom interface is to provide users a way to get right into Steam’s "big picture" mode without having to mess around in Windows or use a keyboard and mouse.
Back at E3 when Alienware announced its new plan, the company wasn’t ready to show off its new interface — but to go along with the pre-order, we’re finally seeing how users will interact with the Alpha when they boot it up. Upon launch, Alienware’s interface takes over the machine and asks users if they want to launch into "Windows mode" or "console mode." As you might expect, Windows mode boots the computer as a standard Windows desktop — but Alienware only allows that to happen if you have a mouse plugged into the machine.
Alienware hopes and expects that most people will use the included Xbox 360 wireless controller (the Xbox One controller should be supported by launch) and boot the Alpha into console mode. From here, you’ll keep moving through the setup process in a UI that is simple, straightforward, but still unmistakably Alienware. Users will hook up to a wired or wireless network, adjust their screen resolution and audio settings, install the inevitable day-one patch, and eventually arrive at the main Alpha screen. It presents users with three easy options: power, settings, and launch Steam.
At the end of the day, Alienware’s new UI is an important but ultimately minor piece of the puzzle — most users will simply turn the box on, click through to Steam big picture, and start playing games. It’s a smart and necessary element so that users can interact with the Alpha without resorting to using Windows, thus making the box more like a true console and less like yet another living room PC.
As for actually playing games, Alienware is quick to note that while the Alpha isn’t a top-of-the-line machine as configured at the entry $549 price point, the company believes that it should run virtually any game out there at least on medium graphics settings. In most cases it’ll be able to handle more, but the company was quick to admit that it wasn’t trying to reach the bleeding-edge gamers building $2,000 machines to play — it’s trying to bring Steam to the living room in a way that’s similar to playing games on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Whether or not Alienware’s hybrid Steam / Windows strategy will win over those who may have been waiting for Valve’s official Steam OS release remains to be seen, but the company notes that Alpha consoles can easily be updated to run Steam OS and support the Steam controller when they finally launch. Until that happens, that hybrid solution will have to suffice, and it’s hard to say yet what kind of an audience the Alpha will find. We’ll know more in the fall — the Alienware Alpha is expected to begin shipping to those who pre-order this November.