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Alienware Alpha review

Richard Easton
28 Mar 2015
Alienware Alpha front living room
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
469
inc VAT

The Alienware Alpha is a delightfully small living room gaming PC but its console-like experience isn’t as seamless as we would like

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Specifications

Processor: Dual-core 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T, RAM: 4GB, Front USB ports : 2x USB, Rear USB ports: 2x USB3, Total storage: 500GB hard disk, Graphics card: Custom Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M, Display: N/A, Operating system: Windows 8.1

Alienware’s previous foray into the living room, the X51, was a great attempt at capturing an area dominated by the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It was powerful yet compact, but price was its downfall; it started at £599 and rose quickly as soon as you started upgrading components from the base specification. The Alpha starts at a much more palatable £469 - a price that is on first glance more acceptable relative to the competing games consoles.

While the X51 very much resembled an Xbox 360 Slim, the Alpha more closely resembles a set-top box than a games console. The pleasantly small black chassis lies horizontally and is smaller than both the PS4 and Xbox One. The Alienware logo and front left corner light up in your choice of colours, although they can be turned off if you find them distracting. The overall design is much more subtle, which is a surprise considering Alienware’s penchant for the outlandish.

The Alpha has two USB ports on the front and another two on the back, but only the two on the back are the faster USB3. An optical TOSLink connection is available, but the Alpha can output audio over HDMI. A second HDMI in port acts as a pass through, which is useful if your display lacks more than one HDMI port. We tried connecting a Playstation 3 and were pleased there weren’t any latency issues. The Alpha system will have to be turned on to act as a pass through, however. There’s also a Gigabit Ethernet connection and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

It was a real surprise how easy it is to upgrade certain components. Removing a few screws on the bottom lets you pop off the top cover, exposing two fans. One is for the non-upgradeable graphics card, but removing the other exposes the CPU heatsink and RAM. It’s possible to swap out both. Removing the bottom cover lets you access the hard disk, which again can be popped out and replaced with another 2½in drive. An SSD would be a tangible upgrade over the standard 5,400RPM mechanical hard disk.

We reviewed the base £469 model, which has a dual-core, 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T processor, 500GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, but it's definitely worth spending £30 more to upgrade to 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard disk. You can specify up to a quad-core, 3GHz Intel Core i7-4765T CPU, which takes the price up to £679, but also increases storage capacity to 2TB and RAM to 8GB. 

^Steam Big Picture mode makes using a controller for tasks such as typing far easier with a great interface

Steam already has a Big Picture mode optimised for the living room, and it's perfect for navigating with a controller. All the icons are large and even inputting text via the controller is made easier through an a combination of the controller’s analogue sticks and the face buttons to quickly select the correct letter. This is far quicker than manually scrolling across an onscreen QWERTY keyboard.

However, Big Picture mode is really a stopgap until Steam releases its own SteamOS, which is expected later this year alongside a number of other Steam Machine consoles. Alienware has somewhat pre-empted everyone with the Alpha, but has promised it will support the operating system when it’s released. For now, Steam Big Picture mode is a good compromise.

Gaming performance unsurprisingly won’t rival a full-size PC with a powerful desktop graphics card, but the Alpha still stands toe-to-toe with next generation games. It achieved 42.7fps in Dirt Showdown at 1080p with 4x anti-aliasing and Ultra quality graphics, while it managed 47.2fps at 1080p and maximum settings in Tomb Raider.

Metro: Last Light Redux is a much tougher prospect as it uses demanding super-sampled anti-aliasing (SSAA). With the game set at 1080p, SSAA turned on and Very High quality, the Alpha only managed 16fps. Turning SSAA off and dropping the quality to High produced an eminently more playable 39.8fps, however.

While the Alpha UI aims to provide a console-like experience, the Alpha is still a fully-fledged Windows 8.1 system. You can access the desktop from the Alpha UI menu, but doing so requires you to sign out and back into a different Windows user account. The Alpha UI doesn’t have any sort of media playing capabilities, so jumping between the two modes becomes an unwanted regular occurrence.

Desktop performance from the i3-4310T was middling, achieving only 41 overall in our tough new benchmarks. The Alpha is capable of average tasks such as web browsing but don’t expect to complete any more difficult tasks such as video encoding without a lot of patience.

The Alienware Alpha gets a lot of things right. Gaming performance is top-notch, but its promise of a console-like experience falls short of the mark. Forcing Windows 8.1 into the background isn’t ideal when you still need it to play multimedia files, and booting into the Alpha UI takes a significant amount of time.

As it stands, the Alienware Alpha has a lot of unfulfilled potential, but it will be interesting to see how it does with SteamOS in the future.

Core specs
ProcessorDual-core 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T
Processor socketFCLGA1150
RAM4GB
Memory typePC3-12800
Maximum memory16GB
MotherboardCustom
Motherboard chipsetIntel Z87
Ports and expansion
Front USB ports2x USB
Rear USB ports2x USB3
Networking1x10/100/1000, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Case typeSFF
Case size HxWxD76.2x203.2x203.2mm
PCI (free)0
PCIe x1 (free)0
PCIe x16 (free)0
Serial ATA (free)None
Memory slots (free)2 (1)
Drive bays 2 1/2" (free)1 (0)
Drive bays 3 1/2" (free)0
Drive bays 5 1/4" (free)0
Storage
Total storage500GB hard disk
Memory card readerNone
Optical drive typeNone
Graphics
Graphics cardCustom Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M
Graphics/video portsHDMI
Sound
Sound cardRealtek HD Audio
Sound card outputsOptical TOSLink
SpeakersNone
Display
DisplayN/A
Native resolutionN/A
InputsN/A
Other hardware
KeyboardNone
MouseNone
ExtrasXBox 360 wireless controller + dongle
Software
Operating systemWindows 8.1
Operating system restore optionRestore partition
Buying information
WarrantyOne year RTB
Price including delivery (inc VAT)£469
Price excluding monitor (inc VAT and delivery)£469
Supplierwww.dell.com/uk
Detailswww.dell.com/uk
Part CodeAlienware Alpha