Review: Dell Alienware Alpha Steam Machine

2 months ago Jack 0

This looks like a cheap way to get into PC gaming. There are HUGE limitations but some decent payoffs. Are you willing to deal with the downsides to save a buck? Read on.

First, I do NOT recommend you purchase one of these through my Amazon link. I’d appreciate it if you shop through the link though. Amazon’s Steam Machines are far too pricey to recommend. The refurbished, open box, clearanced one I bought was only $150. Even that was too much for the  out-of-box experience.

That said. it’s actually a tempting little system right? This review is going to be really short because, quite frankly, these are only going to satisfy (as much as material goods can) the needs of a small group of people. This first section is the worst of the experience. So please, read beyond if you think you can get past these problems.


The OS and User Experience

SteamOS is a dead system. It’s essentially a cut-down linux; low on features and stability. I bought the i3 system with 4GB DDR3 and a 500GB hard drive. I had to restore the system several times before it became stable. Before that, the GUI would constantly freeze or the video output would halt while the sounds continued. If everything ran smoothly, the interface would still be a mess. Menu items, friends lists, game libraries, and the store are a complete nightmare to get to.

Being linux based, only select games can be played on it. Want your whole steam library? You’ll probably need a Windows PC. Worse than that, almost every game I played on it ran worse than the games did on Windows. I’m not just talking about my beefy high performance desktop either. The GPU in the Alienware Steam Machine has way more power than my old laptop or some of my previous desktops with integrated GPUs. Yet, it couldn’t manage a stable experience in DOTA2 or War thunder and had serious lag problems in CS:GO.

In fact, CS:GO was completely unplayable. On an i3-6100 with the integrated HD 530, I had to turn the settings a lot lower than the steam machine could handle graphically to get the same frame rate readout on screen. The problem is that the steam machine couldn’t deliver that frame rate without stutters, lag spikes in the graphics and networking, and general sluggish feeling controls. Any competitive player would probably throw that machine out the window.

The rest of the user experience wasn’t terrible though. The hardware isn’t quiet, but not terribly loud either. The steam controller, while it had some issues staying connected here or there, was an interesting experience. The onscreen keyboard, for instance, made interesting use of the two touch pads of the controller. That made typing quickly easier than on a normal controller.


The Hardware

These Steam Machines are using CPU’s that are four generations behind what’s current. Granted, the whole system costs about as much as an i7-8700k even if you buy it at full price. Still, they’re older. The GPU is also on the older side. It probably performs somewhere in the range of an nVidia GTX 750 Ti; which is pretty good for MOBA gaming.

Also, if you’ve been reading internet tech forums (PLEASE DON’T) you know that Intel processors haven’t been evolving at alarming rates. A 4th gen CPU still gets the job done well enough.

For ports, you get two USB 3.0 on the back, two 2.0 on the front, and one 2.0 (I think) underneath the system in a hidden compartment. Mine came with the steam controller dongle parked in the basement compartment. That spot didn’t provide the best connectivity, so I moved it outside.

Also on the back you’ll find an HDMI in, HDMI out, toslink and a gigabit ethernet port. The HDMI in port is just a pass-through port. You can’t record to this system. Notice also that there are no microphone or headphone 3.5mm jacks. Sorry, but you’ll have to spend one of your USB ports with an adapter to pump out music to your speakers or gaming headset.

Oh, the system runs on a laptop-like power brick. Make room for that behind your TV.


The Guts

This system is user upgradeable. You can swap out the CPU, RAM, and HDD. The GPU is embedded so you’re stuck with that. Also, CPU are limited to “T” model speeds. Essentially, if you try to put a 4770K in here, you’re not going to overclock it. The opposite will happen and the system will clock it down. Otherwise, it couldn’t handle the cooling needed to keep your system running.

Fit and Finish

The system is really well made and exceptionally well packaged. Such a tiny box looks like it’s made to sit in a high end entertainment cabinet. If you’re in the Steam OS, you can even customize the lights on the power button and Steam logo corner cutout. A+ in this category.

Who Would Want This?

Well, this is tricky right? Supposedly you can install Windows 10 (another $100+ on the price tag) or another version of linux, but you may struggle with drivers and support. If you had a LEGAL COPY OF WINDOWS to install on this, and got it up and running, you would probably have a great little mac mini alternative on your hands; one with gaming power to boot.

Out of the box though, this will NOT give you a console-like trouble-free experience. If you find a refurbished, open box, and clearanced model like I did and you really want something to tinker with, this may be your system. If you just want to take it out of the box and use it, just avoid it. You’ll have more headaches and disappointments than it’s worth.

As an alternative, you might be able to find an Alienware Alpha with Windows pre-installed on the used market. It may only have Windows 8, but might give you an overall better experience than this one did. It’s essentially the same system otherwise.