Can A Mini-PC Replace A Console In The Living Room?

We have all been eagerly awaiting Steam OS and the inevitable flood of affordable console like mini-PCs that will let us play our existing library of games in the living room. The problem is Valve’s innovative new wireless controller is not ready, holding up the whole launch. Tired of waiting, some manufacturers have launched their own Windows based setups. But can they compete with your existing console?

In Australia right now your best two choices for a casual gaming ready mini-PC is the Alienware Alpha and the ASUS GR8. Both have discrete graphics cards and are designed to fit right into your living room. Shown off back in 2014, the Alpha was meant to be a flagship steam machine. Rather than sit around letting the hardware age, the Alpha has been packaged up for sale with a wireless xBox 360 controller and Windows 8.1. The problem is that Windows is not exactly controller friendly, so the Alienware boffins built a custom UI that lets you easily launch your games and adjust other options without needing a keyboard and mouse. Catering to a more hands on crowd, the ASUS GR8 is a semi bare bones machine (with CPU and GPU) that lets you add your own hardware to the basic system. The UI is up to you — the GR8 will be compatible with Steam OS but for now Windows and an xBox controller is the obvious choice. The Alpha starts from $699, while the GR8 will set you back $1299.

Hardware for both machines is fairly similar. The Alpha we tested has an Intel Core i3-4130T CPU, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce GTX 860m and a 500GB HDD. You can also get a more powerful CPU and more RAM, but the same GPU. The ASUS GR8 has an Intel Core i7-4510U and a GeForce GTX 750Ti. We tested with 4GB of RAM and a 500 GB HDD. Both also have the usual array of connectors — USB 3.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Gigabit LAN plus HDMI outputs. While this might seem low end, these machines are designed to achieve decent frame rates at 1080P on medium to high settings — not absolute cutting edge performance. That said, both units have more powerful hardware than the current generation of gaming consoles.

The Alienware Alpha has the advantage of being ready to go out of the box. Connect it to your TV, plug everything in and off you go. The UI is a little clunky and only lets you launch Steam games but it a passable attempt at a controller centric interface. For other gaming titles or programs you will need to plug in a keyboard and mouse and reboot into Windows 8.1 mode. Don’t get us wrong, the UI is handy, but still falls a long way short of a full console experience. In contrast, the ASUS GR8 is a totally Windows experience, albeit in a funky living room centric package. While you can game all you want with a controller, you will need a wireless keyboard and mouse to handle Windows.

But what about the gaming? Once you have actually launched your favourite title, the experience is great. Microsoft makes an excellent controller and for compatible games, it’s a relaxing experience to kick back on the couch after work. On either machine you can expect to game at 30+ FPS in 1080P with the graphics set to medium or high. Compared to the xBox or Playstation, the quality is noticeably better and you can get access to your full array of Steam games.

Ultimately though the experience feels like an awkward transition between console and PC. The mini PCs have a tiny form factor, look great and feature powerful hardware, but really don’t offer too much more than your PC already does. Compared to a console, or even building your own mini-PC, they command a bit of a price premium. Once Steam OS and the new controller actually launches, then you will be able to play your favourite PC games on the couch very easily.

But until then, dedicated console gamers won’t be swayed — it’s still a PC experience masquerading as something more. That said, if you have an impressive collection of Steam games and want a compact, stylish and simple way to play them on the couch, both the Alienware Alpha and ASUS GR8 are a decent way to make it happen. But don’t throw away the console just yet.

Check out the full specs and 3DMark Cloudgate Scores below.

Alienware Alpha

Intel Core i3-4130T CPU GeForce GTX 860M GPU 4GB DDR3 RAM 500GB 5400RPM HDD HDMI Input / Output 2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0

3DMark Cloud Gate: 8965


ASUS GR8

Intel Core i7-4510U CPU GeForce GTX 750Ti Up to 16GB DDR3 RAM 2.5” HDD Bay HDMI, DisplayPort 4x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0

3DMark Cloud Gate: 9269


Comments

    Going by 3Dmark test and price, there is a clear winner to me. Competitive price for the Alienware however I think I will stick to a full size HTPC for games for now, much more cost effective and powerful.

    Last edited 02/03/15 12:20 pm

    I just built a new PC in a Silverstone Raven RVZ01. While it's a far more powerful machine than my Xbox One, it still doesn't hold a candle to a modern console in that turn on and do what you want from the lounge ease of use. There is just no way of getting it to do everything you want, from gaming, to media, to TV, to bluray, and then connected apps like Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, etc without leaving a lounge room comfortable UI at some point.

    Not to mention it wont be turning on my TV and stereo, and doing any of the above by voice without dropping a lot of coin.

      Solid choice on the case!
      Im a big RVZ01 fan myself with the rig im currently building being able to play with the big boys and their full tower rigs!
      As far as things go with home automation there are loads of free sollutions which can handle all of those requirements with minimal hassle, it all just depends on how much time you want to spend getting your rig to operate the way you want.
      Just dont be too hard on your PC comparing it too much to a console as those developers have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours getting everything to work the way it does now.

        Oh hey, I have the PC at a desk to mainly use as a CAD rig, gaming second, but really I don't want to spend a heap of time tweaking things constantly and dealing with issues, that's why a console will remain under my TV. Gotta love that you can have an i7 GTX970 build in such a small case these days though.

          Cant agree with you more!
          I love the form factor and i love that you can build a rig that can perform just as a full tower and remain console size, i think its fantastic.
          Still, it doesnt have the convenience and simplicity that an out of the box console has, but the trade off makes it worth it in my opinion.
          In my lounge room, nothing will replace my console and if for some reason i do want to play my PC on the big screen the RVZ01 is perfect for that as its small and only takes a few minutes to unplug off my desk and plug into the Tv :D

            Did you use a half length GPU? The only issue I had with the case was the power plug fouled on my graphics card. Ended up having to remove the screws and just leave it hanging out of the case.

      I just use a wireless mouse on the couch, I seriously think it's pretty comparable to a remote.

      I totally, respectfully disagree. My HTPC can do everything you mentioned. Some parts work better than others but I can control it all from my phone, get a $30 IR blaster and the one device can turn on the whole system.

      Admittedly it's complicated, and there can be some software issues but it's definitely possible.
      And with Steam In-Home Streaming you can play all the high end games with a very basic HTPC. It's far cheaper than a console this way and so are the games.

      The flexibility of a PC outweighs the console every day. Most of the software you need is free, it can use a standard xbox controller and it doesn't even have to be "more powerful" than a console if you already have a gaming PC.

      I don't want to sounds like an ass but There is just no way of getting it to do everything you want is flat out wrong.

      Last edited 02/03/15 6:32 pm

        I walk into my house, say Xbox On, then Xbox Go To whatever I want. I tell it to put a channel on TV, etc. That's going to be free on PC? I think not. I can control it by voice, remote, controller, phone, tablet, PC. Whatever I choose. There's a next level of convenience in a full next gen console setup that most haven't experienced, so can't appreciate. As you said, getting your PC behaving that way, which isn't anywhere near as convenient as my Xbox, was complicated, meaning it will never be convenient to set up and get going in the first place.

      Hi, I bought that case for my HPTC as well.
      I didn't go with a GPU but with AMD APU. I play games but they don't seem to require that much of a spec (the ones i played).
      But i do intend to upgrade it in the future, and apparently i can crossfire with the APU?

      Do you have any extra cooling? Mine seems to kick the fan into overdrive just to maintain the temp. Would like to know what you do to keep the temp down.

      May i see your specs, be cool to know what others are doing.

        https://www.pccasegear.com/index.php?main_page=wish_lists&wlcId=396174&action=wish_lists
        That's what I'm running. I moved the CPU exhaust fan to the second mount over the GPU, and just have that huge heatsink with the fan it came with for the CPU. The heatsink was a bastard to mount though in that small a space.

        I know standard intel coolers are pretty loud, couldn't imagine standard AMD being any quieter.

        Last edited 04/03/15 11:41 pm

    Definitely... I already have my main PC hooked up to my TV with a gamepad and really, really, reeeeally long cables, for any games that I feel like I might want to use it.

    Only thing it can't do is console exclusives.
    Though I'm sure with a little ingenuity and blatant disregard for terms of use, that could probably be solved, too.

    I still think In Home Streaming is actually the best feature for these Steam Machines, if you already have a gaming PC.

    I currently have my 2012 Core i5 Mac Mini hooked up to my TV and wireless Xbox 360 controllers, with my GTX 770/Core i7 PC doing all the heavy lifting. I get a constant [email protected] on everything I've thrown at it, and while there is some (very minimal) input lag, for the games I play it's irrelevant.

    Considering the specs on the Mac Mini, I think the future (particularly for core gamers) will be something like my set up, low end, small form factor, PC in the living room, with something more powerful backing it up in the office/games room.

    Also, done this with Android using Limelight and it works fantastic. I tried it with Raspberry Pi, but only with the Raspberry Pi 1, and it wasn't great ([email protected] was ok I guess). Haven't tried it yet with Raspberry Pi 2, but from the youtube videos I've seen, it looks semi feasible.

      I like the sound of this. I already have a HTPC which should be able to cope with the front end, no problem. Then, put the beast in the study for the back end.

        It honestly doesn't take a very powerful computer, the Mac Mini has crappy Intel graphics and I was originally running it with only 2gb of RAM. Most important thing in my experience has been a good network connection.

        If you're doing it over WiFi, a strong 5ghz connection is pretty much a requirement. Wired obviously works fine with a 100Mbps connection.

          That sounds like the best way to me.
          Without the SteamOS streaming thing, how do you stream from your beast to your miniPC?

            Steam itself has streaming built in, so you just need to run the Steam client on both boxes.

            The other option is Limelight, that uses nVidia's Gamestream stuff, so the PC you're streaming from requires a recent-ish nVidia card.

      I have a Mac Mini (2011 or 2012, I forget) hooked up to my TV for HTPC use, so I might just give this a try tonight!

      I've previously had my desktop hooked up directly before, but the extra wires running along the wall were a bit unsightly.

    has anyone tried using an airmouse (like a wii remote) for controlling their HTPC? I have an IR remote/bluetooth mouse, keyboard but not one easy to use device that can do everything.

    Microsoft could be in an excellent place to disrupt this market. I personally think Windows 8/10 in "tablet" mode (perhaps with a few tweaks) supporting XBox controllers would be great on a television. But that could hurt XBox, so they won't go all-in on this.

      Heat heat heat heat heat
      Heat heat heat heat heat
      Heat heat heat heat heat
      ouch

      We are talking PC gaming here not angry birds

      Last edited 02/03/15 2:10 pm

        I'm not talking about plugging a Surface into the TV, I'm thinking exactly what is being sold in the above: A small form factor, high-specced PC, just running a Windows OS tweaked slightly for controller input and TV.
        ... Which in hindsight is almost the definition of an XBox.

    But until then, dedicated console gamers won’t be swayed — it’s still a PC experience masquerading as something more

    Isn't a PC inherently "more"?

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