It’s small. It’s sleek. It’s sexy. Honestly, I think my Alienware Steam Machine is a better looking console than the actual current-gen consoles it sits between. But it’s not a console. It’s a computer. And just like its massive desktop brethren, this miniature PC gaming powerhouse is upgradable. As a traditionally console-centric gamer, the idea of loosening even a single screw is anethema to me. But such is the brave new world of the steam machine. So emboldened by Valve’s vision of the future of gaming, I decided see for myself how easy it is to upgrade Alienware’s little black box.
Though a dozen more are on the way, the Alienware Steam Machine is the first to hit store shelves and has become the unofficial face of Valve’s push to bring PC gaming to the traditionally console-dominated living room. They’ve definitely nailed the aesthetics, but the point of steam machines isn’t just to replicate the look of a console, it’s to replicate the ease of a console without sacrificing the power of a PC. And there’s the catch. The power of a PC comes from the ability to customize and upgrade hardware components, which would seem to crap all over that “ease” caveat.
But just as they have with the outside, Alienware has streamlined the inside of their PC-console hybrid, granting even the most technically challenged gamer the ability to future proof their steam machine. Of course, you can always choose from four ready-made options; Alienware’s $449 base model comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, 500GB of storage and a custom Nvidia graphics chip equivalent to a GeForce 860M card. For $549, you’ll double the RAM to 8GB and the hard drive to 1TB. For $649, you ‘ll get more wireless power and an Intel Core i5 processor. And for $749, you’ll step up to an Intel Core i7. But if you’re planning to do your own upgrades, all you need is a standard phillips head screwdriver to remove the four screws on the bottom cover.
It will take a bit of elbow grease to free the bottom cover, which “snaps” into the top cover along the perimeter with the aid of some small plastic tabs. In other words, you should ignore that terrible sinking feeling when you hear the first of several loud clicking noises and continue to slowly pry the bottom cover off; that’s the sweet song of unlatching, not the sound of breaking plastic. Once you’ve popped off the plastic, you’re ready to tinker!
With the bottom cover removed, you have easy access to the hard drive. The housing slides and locks into place pretty snugly, but just to be sure they threw a screw in there, too. Once that’s removed, it just takes a push to unseat the drive, a screwdriver to remove the four screws securing the housing, and a credit card to purchase a new notebook-friendly 2.5-inch SATA drive with a ludicrous amount of storage.
To get to the true inner workings, you’ll need to turn the system over and remove the top cover. It lifts off, revealing the shrouded guts of the system. You don’t need any tools to remove the heat sink shrouds for the GPU or CPU, just squeeze the bright blue tabs in the direction of the arrows and off they come. Beneath the GPU shroud, you’ll find…the GPU heat sink! And beneath the GPU heat sink…the GPU! Which you can do nothing more than look at because it is soldered to the motherboard!
The graphics card is the one thing that you won’t be able to upgrade, as it’s a custom-built NVIDIA GTX GPU comparable performance-wise to the mainstream GeForce 860M. The inability to upgrade the GPU could be a bottleneck for the system in the future, but for now the Maxwell architecture-based card has enough horsepower to run almost all of the current AAA releases on high visual settings. You can upgrade the wireless card, also tucked beneath the GPU heat sink shroud. Alienware’s two lower-end configurations come with a 1×1 802.11ac wireless adapter, with a single antenna each for receiving and transmitting, but you can strengthen your reception and double your speed with a 2×2 802.11ac dual band + BT 4.0 card.
Removing the CPU heat sink shroud reveals the RAM. The Alienware Steam Machine is DDR3 rated, with two 204 pin SoDIMM DDR3 slots. And yes, I had to Google that. There’s a joke in there about me being “SoDIMM” that my last lingering shred of self-respect won’t let me flesh out, but the dumbed down explanation is that you can max out your on-board memory at 8GB per slot for a total of 16GB. Just pull outward on the spring latches with your thumbs, and the memory pops right out.
It should come as no surprise that beneath the CPU heat sink shroud is also where you’ll find the CPU. The heat sink is easily removed; just unscrew the four bolts securing it to the motherboard, giving the whole thing a slight twist as you pull upward. The heat sink should be able to be removed with very little upward force, but sometimes the thermal compound doesn’t know when to let go. Finally, find the silver lever and pull it – out and then up – to lift your old CPU off of the socket. I’ve still got some saving to do before I can swap my i3 out with an i5 or up, which I strongly recommend, so I just slapped the heat sink back on after a couple of photos. Had I actually been switching it out, I would have needed an alcohol-soaked cloth to wipe down the bottom of the heat sink and the top of the old CPU before removing it, as well as a tube of Arctic Silver to apply a fresh layer of paste to the new CPU after installing it.
The Alienware Steam Machine is surprisingly easy to dissemble, upgrade and reassemble. It’s a good thing too, because despite looking and playing like a console, it is still very much a PC. And PC hardware evolves at a much faster rate than consoles, meaning in order to play the latest and greatest games you’ll need to perform some upgrades in the future. But if your start with at least 8gb of RAM, a 1tb hard drive, and a 4 core processor, that future will be further away.
The Alienware Steam Machine is now officially available for purchase via Dell.com and GameStop.
ThatVideoGameBlog does not accept payment in exchange for coverage, but does accept games, gear or products to provide honest opinions from a gamer’s perspective. The Alienware Steam Machine was sent to us for review purposes. All opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not reflect those of Dell or Alienware. This post may contain affiliate/referral links.