There's a reason that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have dominated living rooms around the world where the PC has languished (relatively un-loved) in the corner. Gaming consoles are small, easy to understand, easy to control with their bundled wireless controller pads. But with the (slow, somewhat abortive) rise of the Steam Machine, we've seen a few genuinely impressive small gaming PCs rise above the noise to challenge Microsoft and Sony's stranglehold on the big-screen TV. One of those is the Alienware Alpha, the second hardware refresh of which is one of the best small-form-factor, high-performance PCs you can buy.
What Is It?
The $999-plus Alienware Alpha is a pint-sized, console-beating, Intel- and Nvidia- (or AMD-, if you so desire) powered desktop PC. Measuring 200x200x55mm and weighing only about 1.8 kilograms, it's significantly smaller than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One that it intends to take on. It's not bundled with a wireless controller (or a Steam Controller), but it does come with a keyboard and mouse and even a HDMI cable is thoughtfully included in the packaging. The Alpha is mostly glossy black, but has adjustable RGB lighting around a few of its edges.
- CPU: Intel Core i3, i5 or i7
- RAM: 4GB DDR4 (up to 16GB)
- GPU: AMD Radeon M470X, up to Nvidia GeForce GTX 960
- Storage: From 1TB 5400RPM
- Dimensions: 200x200x55mm, 1.8kg
This particular version of the Alpha is interchangeably known as the Alpha R2 or the 'New Alienware Alpha' — the new revision, with newer processors and graphics, is still substantially the same on the outside but brings in Intel's most up-to-date CPUs and (relatively) new Nvidia and AMD graphics processors. Across the three $999, $1299 and $1499 price points of the Alpha, you have a choice of Intel's Core i3 dual, i5 quad and i7 quad-core CPUs, and AMD's Radeon M470X mobile-grade graphics on the entry level is bumped up to a desktop-grade GeForce GTX 960 on the top two. There's also a choice of mechanical and solid-state hard drives, as well as anywhere from 4GB to 8GB of RAM as standard.
Around the back, you'll find a curious but mostly adequate range of input and output ports. The Alpha's laptop-esque power plug is joined by both an HDMI input (great for connecting a Blu-ray player, maybe?) and an HDMI output, two USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and optical audio output. What it doesn't have is equally interesting. There's no DisplayPort, no extra USB ports, and — yes — no analog 3.5mm audio jacks. Around the front of the Alpha, there are two temporary-use USB 3.0 ports.
What's It Good At?
Alienware's downloadable HiveMind interface is probably the best compromise we've seen between between a unified 10-foot GUI for couch-bound gaming, Steam's own Big Picture mode, and Windows' own modern tile-based interface. You can choose to boot into Console Mode or Desktop Mode as you wish — which makes sense, because sometimes you'll be using the Alpha as a regular ol' desktop PC on a massive high-res monitor — and the console mode presents your favourite game launchers like Steam, Origin, Battle.net and GOG Galaxy in one place. It's also possible to simply list every downloaded game you have in the same way as you might find on Nvidia's new GeForce Experience, which is convenient for gaming-only use.
Considering the size of the box that everything is crammed into, the R2 revision of the Alienware Alpha has a hell of a lot of power. Its Intel Core i7-6700T quad-core processor can hit speeds of up to 3.6GHz under full load, despite a 35 Watt TDP that's almost a third of the top-spec 4.2GHz i7-6700K. Its Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 is currently mid-range in its performance potential, but it'll handle any modern game (Tomb Raider, Star Wars: Battlefront, et al) at 1080p resolution and smooth 60fps-plus frame rates, or at slightly higher resolutions at slightly lower quality levels. In anything but the basic model you get a fast PCIe solid state drive and at least 8GB of DDR4 RAM, too — the combination makes for a desktop machine at (almost) the size of a laptop that has the power of a mid-size gaming PC tower.
And, if you happen to need more graphical or graphics-boosted computational power from your Alienware Alpha R2, you can invest $199 more and get yourself Alienware's Graphics Amplifier, which is a standalone box — significantly larger than the Alpha's small case itself — into which you can install any recent AMD or Nvidia graphics card. Almost uniquely for a laptop or small-form-factor PC — apart from Razer's Core, which works with the Blade Stealth — the Alpha can provide a massive amount of extra power for gaming once the Graphics Amp is hooked up. Because you've already got a fast CPU, a decent amount of RAM and fast storage, the internal graphics card is the only weak point for newer, higher-resolution games, and the Amp just fixes that.
And it's a good looking machine, too — important if it has to find a home somewhere near your TV screen. It's smaller than a PS4 or an Xbox One, despite packing in significantly more power and the extra potential that Windows 10 offers over both consoles' gaming-focused operating systems. It's almost squared off, but for the triangular section taken out of its left-hand-front corner, cut out and lined with a set of RGB LED lights that can be altered to any hue or brightness that you want. The same is true of the alien-headed Alienware logo on the front, which sits alongside the only two front-facing ports, both of which are USB 3.0 compliant.
What's It Not Good At?
For the money that you're spending on the Alienware Alpha, the fact remains that you could build a more powerful machine from parts, especially if you pit a home-built machine against the Alpha plus its Graphics Amp and external graphics card. You will be making the significant trade-off that the machine will be larger, yes, but there are some nice ATX-sized PC cases out there that look perfectly at home in an entertainment rack. What you're buying, as well as the highly-integrated design of the Alpha and the Alienware logo on its front, is a year's warranty on the machine itself, which starts to feel a bit short — we'd be happier if Alienware offered two or three.
And, being a small chassis with a unified cooling solution for CPU and GPU alike, the Alienware Alpha gets hot under load. Those two account for 155 Watts of thermal output to be taken care of by a single fan and heatsink setup, and that means the Alpha's fan does have to run quite loud under load to keep internal components at a bearable temperature during high-stress running. You can muck around with fan control programs if you like, but out in the open churning through a graphically intensive game or transcoding some video files, the Alpha is audible from a few metres away in an otherwise quiet room. Using the Graphics Amp actually takes the internal GPU out of the equation, cooling and quietening things down considerably.
While Alienware has made some great choices — including a keyboard and mouse and HDMI cable in the box, for example — there are choices it has made with the Alpha that don't make as much sense. No analog headphone or microphone 3.5mm jacks — not only not on the front of the machine, but not anywhere is baffling, especially considering that gamers are more likely to have their own standalone speaker systems to hook up. No DisplayPort video output is a little odd, too, considering that it's a real desktop PC as much as it's a console-esque device meant to sit alongside a television. But the crowning disappointment, small as it is, is the fact that the Alienware Alpha's keyboard and mouse aren't wireless. For a machine that's meant to sit three metres away from your couch, that's a very strange — and somewhat frustrating — decision. If you buy the Alpha, invest in a good wireless keyboard and mouse, or a wired couch-gaming setup like the Roccat Sova.
Should You Buy It?
The Alienware Alpha R2 is a very attractive proposition as a standalone couch-gaming PC, given its small stature and the amount of power that it packs into that tiny chassis. It's the kind of machine that would find a home next to a big-screen 1080p or 4K TV, although you probably won't be able to play a great deal at a 4K TV's native resolution unless you invest extra in the Alpha R2's optional Graphics Amplifier and a powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card to go inside it. It's just about the only machine we'd suggest live beside a TV given its size, reasonably quiet running for everyday use, and the components inside.
Price: from $999
- Tiny footprint for solid gaming power.
- Excellent HiveMind interface.
- Optional Graphics Amp.
- Fan can be loud.
- Weird I/O omissions, wired peripherals.
If you're willing to stump up a little extra for the top spec — it's $1499 rather than the $999 entry level price, although the mid-spec $1299 unit is also tempting — then you get significant internal upgrades in the form of a quad-core Core i5 or i7 processor, 8GB of DDR4 RAM and the option to double that to 16GB, as well as the significantly newer and more powerful GTX 960 graphics. It's unfortunate timing that Nvidia's 10-Series mobile graphics chips aren't out, because they would have found a good home in the Alpha, but even then the 960 is gutsy enough for most 1080p titles at medium to high graphics settings — at least for the time being.
And then there's the Graphics Amplifier to take into account. If you're willing to shell out $199 for the amplifier and then anywhere upwards of $300 for a AMD Radeon RX 480 or upwards of $700 for a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or upwards of $100 for a GTX 1080, then your gaming performance — necessarily reliant upon a good GPU — is massively supercharged. That's not to say that it's a necessary purchase or even a financially sensitive one, considering the extra cost, but it does offer a significant future upgrade path for the Alpha. Which is very, very rare for this kind of highly-integrated desktop or laptop.
With that in mind, and apart from a few puzzling omissions and inclusions — no 3.5mm audio jacks, really? Only four USB ports, really? A wired keyboard and mouse, really? — the Alienware Alpha is a very tempting piece of consumer electronics. If you're thinking of buying a machine to live beside (or behind) your television, or deep within your entertainment cabinet, then your choices are quite limited in the first place, but the second iteration of the Alpha makes a great case for itself. You're paying a slight premium for the Alienware brand, but a lot less than you used to, and the Alpha is worth its asking price.