Many video game consoles have come and gone through the years, but for the past decade the so-called “console wars” have been a two-man brawl between Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Meanwhile, PCs have looked on from the sidelines and laughed. But now, they’re entering the fray with the rise of the “steam machine” – customizable, console-esque gaming rigs built by third-party manufacturers that use Valve’s Steam Controller, run Valve’s Debian Linux-based SteamOS, and (most importantly) bring Valve’s Steam experience into the comfort of the living room. More than a dozen officially branded boxes will hit store shelves this month, but the vanguard of this would-be gaming revolution is the Alienware Steam Machine.
The body of a console…
Alienware has most certainly nailed the look of a console; its take on Valve’s couch-centric vision of PC gaming is a sleek, simple chassis that will feel perfectly at home next to your PS4 and Xbox One. The top is matte black and the sides glossy, with just two LED accents – one behind the alien head-shaped power button and one behind the Steam logo-branded triangular corner. You can mix-and-match the color and intensity of each LED in the system settings, adding a personalized touch, but otherwise it’s a refreshingly subtle, sophisticated approach from a company known for cranking out some over-the-top designs in the past.
It’s also small, measuring just 8″ wide by 8″ long by 2.3″ high. That’s about half the size of the massive Xbox One, yet packed into that smaller space you get so much more. Obviously, with this being the first of many steam machines to market, there may be boxes from other manufacturers that have a smaller (or larger) footprint, more (or less) power, and better (or worse) design. But even with nothing to compare it to yet, I really love the look of this box. I was admittedly dismayed by how fingerprint-prone the material was, but being a smudge magnet is part of the console experience, I guess. And a few stray thumb prints certainly don’t stop it from running colder and quieter than my other consoles.
…with the heart of a PC
The Alienware Steam Machine comes in four flavors. The $449 base model has an i3 Dual Core CPU, NVIDIA GTX GPU with 2GB of GDDR5, 1×1 802.11 AC Wireless Card + BT, 4GB DDR3, and a 500GB 7200RPM HDD. For $549 you double your memory and hard drive, with 8GB DDR3 and a 1TB HDD (this is the review unit we received). For $649 you upgrade your processor and wireless antenna, with an i5 Quad Core and 2×2 802.11 AC Wireless Card + BT. And finally, for $749 you max out your processing power with an i7 Quad Core.
That’s the guts. As for the external features, it has 2 USB 2.0s in the front and 2 USB 3.0s in the back. A wireless dongle, which supports up to four Steam Controllers, is cleverly plugged into a fifth USB port hidden on the bottom of the system. I didn’t even realize the controller had a dongle until Alienware Marketing Manger, Chris Sutphen, mentioned it in a product briefing. The Alienware Steam Machine also sports HDMI out and HDMI in, for routing your cable box or DVR through the system. And last but not least, it does the same job as Valve’s Steam Link, allowing you to stream – via wireless network or ethernet connection – any game from your PC to your living room TV. Some PC gamers will argue that you can build your own gaming computer for less. But Alienware sweetens the deal by including Valve’s Steam Controller and a software bundle that includes Payday 2, Brawlhalla, Screen Cheat, and Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball, as well as some DLC for the former two titles.
I defected from a computer to a console years ago, after one game too many failed to work because I had the wrong graphics card, the wrong sound card, the wrong operating system, etc. They may not be as pretty or as powerful as PCs, but consoles are easy to setup, easy to navigate and the games just work. SteamOS does a great job of emulating the “plug and play” feel of a console. Fire up the box for the first time, and it walks you through signing EULAs, adjusting your screen, setting up your internet, and logging into your Steam account. From there you’re greeted with the best version yet of Steam’s Big Picture mode. Your gut will tell you you’re on a console, despite your brain’s insistence that you’re on a Linux-based PC. The illusion is pretty seamless. And the interface – with it’s large, centrally placed buttons – is close enough to Sony and Microsoft’s landing screen layouts to feel familiar while still carving out its own identity. Using the Steam Controller, it’s easy to navigate between the library, store, community, friend chat and web browsing from a single screen.
If I had one complaint, it would be that it’s too easy. Or rather, Valve has gone too far in simplifying the UI for the casual gamer; the dumbed-down interface quickly reveals its limitations when it comes to navigating Steam’s massive store. You can browse games by curated lists. You can filter these lists according to genre. But if you just want to see all of the games in a certain genre – not just “top rated action games” for example – you’ll be left wanting. The same goes for sorting your search results by name, release date, price point, relevance or review score. All of the Steam store’s advanced menus are missing. The only way to get to a game not included on one of the curated lists is to search for it by name. The fact that a Valve-endorsed machine running a Valve-designed OS makes it harder to shop for games on the Valve-created platform is a big problem.
Of the 6,000+ games on Steam, about 1,500 are compatible with SteamOS. And of those 1,500, only a few hundred show up on the SteamOS store. You can filter games according to your current operating system, which in theory should only show those compatible with SteamOS, but this is still more theory than reality; with the filter on, plenty of Windows-only games still showed up in the search results. There were a few more annoyances: No matter what time zone I selected in the settings, the clock wouldn’t change. When I added a second profile, it mixed the libraries together in one giant alphabetical list. You can’t turn the machine on from the controller, which is a standard feature for every other device in my entertainment center. And there are no native apps for Netflix, Hulu or HBO Go, and accessing them through the browser feels like a workaround. Technically, SteamOS doesn’t leave beta until tomorrow’s November 10 launch, so some of these issues may be fixed with future updates; just during the course of this two-week “first look,” Valve has pushed out several updates, with more sure to follow once the user base blossoms from a few hundred critics to a few thousand consumers. But in its current iteration, SteamOS has a lot of catching up to do.
I’m guessing the time Valve didn’t put into fine-tuning SteamOS was spent working instead on their Steam controller, which strikes an impressive balance between old and new controls. The final design has lost the alien look of the original prototype in favor of a familiar analog stick, four face buttons, shoulders, triggers and grip buttons. The innovation comes in the form of the two big haptic touchpads that dominate the face of the controller. This isn’t the random rumbling of a DualShock; the haptic feedback of a Steam controller is much more nuanced. These concave touchpads not only emulate the function of a directional pad, button, mouse, and joystick, they also emulate the feeling. Set the pad to work as a mouse, and the movement is precise and controlled. Set the pad to work as a trackball, and with the flick of a thumb it zips away before gradually slowing to a stop. Open up the keyboard, which splits the keys between the two pads, and you get a satisfying click. At first the controls felt strange and overly sensitive, and I spent time in more than one game literally spinning in circles. There’s a definite learning curve, but after a couple of hours (okay, a couple of days) I decided I loved it.
The best thing about the Steam Controller is customization. Games fall into three categories – those with full controller support, those where controller configuration is required, and those where a keyboard/mouse is required. For those first two categories, you can choose from three default controller configurations – gamepad, WASD, and a hybrid mode that blends the controls of a gamepad with the higher-precision camera movement afforded by a mouse. Most of the games in my library worked with one of these default configurations, but still required a little tweaking to dial it in just right. Thankfully, you can open the controller menu and make changes – remap buttons, adjust sensitivity, change the emulation mode – at any time by pressing the Steam button. The Steam Controller even has motion control; by default, its internal gyrometer is disabled, but turn it on and you can use the haptic touchpads and motion control in tandem.
Before jumping into the deep end of customization, I fired up a fully controller supported game using the recommended controller configuration. And I quickly learned a valuable lesson – do not trust the recommended controller configuration. Even games with baked-in controller support are setup for the Xbox 360 controller (which you can still use), not the new Steam Controller. So even if it works, it could work better. Maybe in the future games will come with native Steam Controller support. Until then you’ll spend some time tweaking the default profiles, creating your own or choosing from a community created profile. For the few games that had them, I found the community profile was the way to go. They are ranked according to how many people are using them. And as more people get their hands on the Steam Controller, creating and sharing their custom configuration profiles, the best will rise to the top.
Gameplay and Performance
To really test whether Valve’s controller could replace a mouse and keyboard, I fired up a first-person shooter. And though there’s no beating a keyboard and mouse for precision and control, the experience felt damn close. Personally, clicking a mouse to shoot does nothing for me, so the ability to pull an actual trigger gave this setup an edge, despite the slight trade-off in speed. Games like Counter-Strike: Global Offense, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Dying Light required a little fine tuning of the controls, but they looked beautiful and played smooth. Most games automatically defaulted to the medium settings; I could bump the visuals up higher, but the i3 started to show the strain with stuttering, crawling frame rates and crashes on graphic-intense games like Ark: Survival Evolved.
I also ran into some issue with supposedly SteamOS-friendly games launching to settings screens that would only let me advance by plugging in a mouse or keyboard (Jotun) or not launching at all (Descent: Underground). But that’s an issue tracing back to the developers, not Alienware or Valve. Games that have been optimized for steam machine play, specifically Valve’s slew of sequels – Portal 2, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 – really show what a steam machine can be. And it can be amazing. Portal 2 has a Valve-created controller profile that automatically remaps certain buttons depending on whether you’re playing a level, editing a puzzle or browsing a menu. It’s hands down the best way to play Portal 2, recreating that sense of wonder I felt when I played it the first time around.
As awesome as it was to play through Valve’s critically-lauded library of games from the comfort of my couch, I’ve played them all before. Of the 1,5000 games compatible with SteamOS, there isn’t (currently) an abundance of recently released AAA titles; Batman: Arkham Knight and The Witcher III are coming, but not until 2016. While Metal Gear Solid V, Grand Theft Auto V and Star Wars: Battlefront – as well as upcoming high-profile titles like Call of Duty: Blacks Ops III, Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – remain stubbornly Windows-only. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t some great games available on SteamOS.
You can play recent releases like Ark: Survival Evolved, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Shadow of Mordor, Alien Isolation and Dying Light. And of course there are tons of great indies, like Battleblock Theater, Rogue Legacy, Shovel Knight, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Banner Saga, Antichamber, SOMA and many more. But steam machines aren’t going to fly off the shelves until more developers support SteamOS. And more developers aren’t going to support SteamOS until steam machines fly off the shelves. This paradox is one of the steam machine’s biggest hurdles. The time-versus-reward of developing for Linux – which despite growing in recent years, still represents a fraction of the total PC gaming market – isn’t worthwhile for most developers. If anyone can convince studios to also port their games to Linux it’s Valve, whose Steam platform has brought about a Windows and Mac OS X gaming renaissance. In the meantime, if you want access to your entire library, you’ll have to stream your games from your Windows PC.
PC vs Console
The Steam Machine isn’t a console killer, lacking the all-in-one media center functionality that’s become rote in next-gen consoles. But Alienware insists it’s not looking to replace your console, nor your PC for that matter. Rather, the Alienware Steam Machine is meant to be an expansion of your existing gaming ecosystem. “It is absolutely meant to live alongside the gaming rig that you have in your house that you’ve been building for four years that you upgrade every year with the newest components…and it’s even meant to sit on the same shelf as a Playstation or Xbox,” according to Sutphen. “It’s going to bring a different experience [but] it is still a PC at heart.” Still, when it looks like a console and lives next to a console, you can’t help but compare it to a console. And the fact is, consoles have a longer lifespan – seven years on average – compared to PCs; while you continue to enjoy the latest releases for your PS4 and Xbox One right up until the Ps5 and Xbox Two are announced, your steam machine will be struggling to run the newest PC games on the lowest settings.
You can upgrade everything but the graphics card, which is soldered onto the motherboard; it’s a custom-built NVIDIA GTX GPU based on the GeForce 860M. Right now, that’s enough power to run almost all the games in the SteamOS library on high settings, but knowing the PC market, that won’t last long. In the meantime, its specs are strong; Alienware’s steam machine gets better resolution and better frame rates than the PS4 and Xbox One. And as far as its cost, you really are getting a lot of computer for a low price. I don’t know what truck your PC components fell off of, but sourcing these parts separately adds up to more than Alienware’s ask. Add in that it works like a Steam Link, comes with a Steam Controller, and includes bundled software, and you have a package tempting to even the most upgrade-obsessed gamer.
The Alienware Steam Machine is a good little gaming PC. If you want access to all those great PC-only games but don’t want to go through the trouble of building your own gaming rig, the steam machine’s combination of console convenience and PC upgradability is the perfect compromise. And Alienware’s steam machine in particular is well designed, solidly built, whisper quiet and cold running. I would readily recommend it to console gamers looking get into PC gaming. For existing PC owners it’s a harder sell, at least until Valve and developers prove their dedication to the platform with more support for SteamOS and more games, respectively. If you can’t wait though, treat yourself to the mid-range quad core i5 configuration at the very least, for a more future-proofed gaming experience. UPDATE: 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.
Alienware Steam Machine
Alienware has done Valve’s vision proud, making a sleek-looking, cold and quiet-running steam machine that will integrate seamlessly into your entertainment ecosystem. The hardware is solid, now they just need Valve to work out the problems with the software and for developers to support the Linux gaming market. In its current condition, it’s not quite ready for battle against the PS4 and Xbox One.