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.
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
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