Alienware Alpha Review: Aliens Invaded My Living Room

Posted Apr 12, 2015
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Recently someone told me that the Steam Machine concept isn’t worth the money, that you can get a much better PC for your dollar if you either build something yourself or purchase something else entirely. I got curious as to why he’d think that.

I’d also like to challenge that by reviewing the Alienware Alpha, one of the better examples, and hopefully show that for the money, the concept has the potential to offer fantastic value and a form-factor that you can’t readily build yourself. It most certainly isn’t a useless concept by any means.

 Alienware Alpha

Aliens have invaded my living room.

The perfect PC is not the same for everyone. We all have different budgets, expectations, requirements and dreams of what our PC will be used for. A lot of thought can end up going into the creation of our fascinating hobby. Even though the base components are similar, the brand, differences in more specific features and supposed reliability variances are all elements to take into consideration. Sometimes, though a pre-built might actually be suitable.

The pre-built scene is sometimes chastised by the hardware community as being an easy out, or certainly a waste of money. And I can certainly see the logic in that if one is looking for something that they can indeed build themselves, but what about something a bit more unique? Something you can’t necessarily build yourself?

Upgrading has become a routine ritual that occupies a special place in our hearts. We spend countless hours researching and reading about various components we want to add and upgrade. The hobby itself is building and going through these processes It’s a kind of meditation, then, to scour the Internet to the answer to our questions.

So why would one limit themselves to such a small and limited box? Certainly it’s limited in what it can do, and it surely can’t provide us with a good gaming experience, can it?

The Alienware Alpha is a peculiar little lighted box that just might be the answer to your question. Then again, it also might be so far off the course as to be the direct opposite of what you’re looking for.

Certainly it’s at odds with the extreme PC enthusiasts mantra. But that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked entirely. This small shiny black box is far more useful than it may at first seem. Indeed it can provide a gaming experience that rivals that of consoles in addition to providing a full PC experience in a compact footprint using negligible amounts of power. And some bits are even able to be upgraded, like the CPU, RAM and the HDD.

No, this isn’t the bees knees, and it isn’t for everyone. But I do think it answers a question that someone has been asking. It’s a natural evolution of a gaming platform into a smaller, lower power package that’s more accessible and familiar to those that are used to the console world. It provides that console like form-factor for a price that rivals that of the modern consoles. Plus, it can do far more.

 Alienware Alpha

What the heck would you use this for anyway?

Quite frankly the Alienware Alpha is great as a secondary companion in the living room, just as it’s marketed. Hook it up to your TV with the one HDMI out and plug in the wireless Xbox 360 controller and you’ll be gaming in no time. It also makes a swell media streaming box as well with external or network storage.

It’s a capable gaming platform on its own, or when using Steam’s streaming feature to use your more powerful primary PC to push the games at their maximum settings. Oh yeah, and it makes for a great low-power and quiet office PC. I’ve started compartmentalizing and using the Alpha purely for office work, and playing the occasional game.

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This model is of the entry level variety, and even these meager specs provides better raw performance than the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.

CPU Intel Core i3-4130T @2.9GHz
Video Card GeForce GTX 860M+ w/ 2GB GDDR5
Memory 4GB DDR3L 1600MHz
Hard Drive 500GB SATA HDD (WD Blue)
Wireless Intel 3160AC + Bluetooth 4.0
OS Windows 8.1 w/ AlphaUI

In addition to that we also have a Z97 based motherboard that allows for overclocking and a 130W PicoPSU with AC adapter. The Alpha also has a variety of useful ports, though it does lack USB ports compared to MiniITX motherboards that are available. Everything except the motherboard and the video card are replaceable. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t use an MXM module for the video card. That would have made for a very compelling little box.

External Chassis Connections

  • 2x USB 2.0 (Front)
  • 2x USB 3.0 (Back)
  • 1x RJ45 GbE
  • 1x HDMI-Out 1.4a
  • 1x HDMI-In
  • 1x optical audio out (Toslink)
  • 1x DC in
  • 1x USB 2.0 – Tool-less access via bottom door

So the specs are a little light, definitely. That doesn’t necessarily translate into poor gaming performance, however. And all of that can be had for $499.99. Lets compare that to a similarly specced PC. For the purpose of this we’ll use parts found on Newegg and try to match the size as closely as possible. I’ll even throw in a PicoPSU for giggles as well. (Be advised that those prices have probably changed and can change at any moment since publishing).

CPU Intel Core i3-4130T $119.99
Motherboard ASRock Z97M-ITX/AC $117.99
Memory Crucial 4GB DDR3L 1600 $25.99
Hard Drive WD Blue 500GB $49.99
Video Card MSI GeForce GTX 750Ti $149.99
Power Supply HDPLEX 160W PicoPSU $48.00
AC Adapter Generic 19.5V 130W $22.99
Case Cooler Master Elite 110 $39.99
$574.93


Hmmm. Interesting. So a pre-built is actually cheaper than building your own? That’s a new phenomenon.The Alpha also has smaller dimensions than the Cooler Master case option, making for a better alternative if size is indeed an issue. That still doesn’t mean it meets all your own personal requirements. Sometimes building your own can be fun in its own right. I get that, trust me.

Granted, you have extra ability to upgrade in building your own with even a slightly larger case, and you always have the option of having a custom made (though more expensive) mini-ITX case like the Ncase or several others that can be found on forums around the Internet. But I digress, the Alienware Alpha is actually the cheaper alternative if all things are considered equally.

Alpha UI

The AlphaUI interface that it ships with is configured as a separate user account and is mainly just an interface for starting Steam Big Picture. It does precisely what it’s designed to do and does it well actually. I have no complaints whatsoever and think it’s a nice stopgap before the full SteamOS arrives. There were no crashes

Benchmarks, benchmarks and benchmarks

Now this is what everyone has been waiting for. Benchmarks. First we’ll run a few novel tests to see how the diminutive Alienware Alpha does in OpenCL and CUDA tests, and then we’ll transition over to games. Remember, I don’t just test the common slew of game benchmarks, but I record the performance for a significant number in order to better portray how it actually performs.

First up is ViennaCL. This benchmark I introduced in the Titan X review as a means to start using different benchmarks than the usual to show mathematical and compute performance.

And now for double precision performance.

Considering the difference in number of compute cores between the two, the results aren’t surprising. But it does so at a significantly lower power envelope as well.

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Can it play Crysis?

Oh it can, it can indeed. And even on High Quality the Alienware Alpha is at least able to maintain it’s composure  and provide a smooth, albeit excruciatingly slow, play-through.

In honor of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt being released very shortly and including some incredible graphical enhancements, I’ve included a comparison of how the Alienware Alpha performs in The Witcher II. The following was a play through of the competitive arena, which is surprisingly demanding give the effects, background and characters present.

As you can see, The Witcher II is still a demanding game, though one that provides a playable experience even at High settings. I was a taken aback with just how great The Witcher II looks even today compared to it’s newest iteration.

Now let’s take a look at how the Alienware Alpha handles a wide range of games that are likely still played today and represent what buyers might play on their system. All of these were played at 1080P with graphics presets used in game to set the quality unless noted next to the name. Also, keep in mind that Star Citizen is still not complete so it isn’t representative of final performance.

I think it’s pretty clear that for a wide range of games, it the Alpha most certainly isn’t useless. But what about the temperatures while playing? The following temperatures were taken during the run through Battlefield Hardline. Data was recorded using HWiNFO64.

So the CPU definitely does get hot, but that isn’t above the thermal design limit, so there is no damage being done. The noise it generates isn’t terribly annoying, either. It’s a soft “woosh” sound that gets more intense as the fan-speed increases. Compared to the PS4, it sounds both quieter and of a better frequency.

Now the GPU temps. Again, these were obtained during the run through Battlefield Hardline and all info gathered using HWiNFO64.

Again, these temperatures are certainly up there, but not truly anything to worry about. The decision to use Maxwell here early on really pays off. But are these temperatures low enough to not effect the clock-speed? The listed clock-speed for the 860M is 1029MHz, so are we sacrificing that speed in order to keep within a lower temperature threshold?

It looks like we aren’t at all. It’s even reaching a boosted clock-speed of 1097 and is able to maintain it through the entire play-through. That’s not too shabby indeed!

Conclusions

I know what you’re probably doing right now, scoffing at the use of medium graphics settings. Well, to be perfectly honest, coming from a console you’d be hard pressed to find a difference in quality alone. In fact, unless you pause and stare at a screen specifically to find flaws and differences, then the graphics quality is downright great.

In fact, this little magical black box can put out frame-rates that I didn’t think were wholly possible. It defied my own expectations and helped define what “play-ability” truly means. For some it’s about more then graphics, but even when it is, the Alienware Alpha can actually perform great.

But this isn’t for you, the hardcore PC enthusiast, either. This represents an introduction to the PC world that is light on the wallet, low on power use and works rather nicely with a wide variety of games.

I think that if you’re in the market for this type of system, or if you want to make the move from a console into a gaming PC for the first time, then this little magical box is perfect.

It’s capable, it can play games better than you might think and best of all? You can upgrade some components. RAM and HDD upgrade guide will be coming soon!

 

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