In the Weapons Locker: Alienware Alpha [Core i3] (with Video)
In the Weapons Locker is an ongoing series that highlights the tech that I have in use. In a lot of cases, I try to highlight devices, apps, and uses for both that you may not have heard of or considered. Today, I’ll be going over the Alienware Alpha Core i3, a small form-factor gaming box that a lot of people slept on due to its size and the stigma associated with the early Steam Boxes.
When Valve announced that they were going to create a gaming ecosystem anchored by a LINUX-based Operating System, I thought of it positively. It would provide a nice alternative to Windows-based gaming. And I thought that the Linux-powered boxes would also be less expensive. That has not really borne out to be the case. And as Windows has steadily seen gaming performance improvements across Windows 8 and 10, I’ve become less concerned about even tracking the progress of Valve’s effort. The best thing about the Steam OS / Steambox effort has been the rise of inexpensive Windows gaming PC’s that offer a good bit of power and a heck of a lot of convenience.
My personal take is that these devices, both the Windows variant and the Steam variant, are good if you are looking for a gaming desktop PC at the low end. It will sound a bit cavalier, and I expect that most wil not feel similarly, but $500 is about the zone for me to consider a device a throwaway device. As long as I get a year’s worth of use out of it. The Alpha should provide that easily. Point is, when I plunked down for this, I was not concerned about its limited upgrade path, which has been one of its criticisms. Despite those criticisms, by the way, the Alpha can be upgraded. Access to the hard drive and memory is quite simple. Mine came with 4GB of RAM and I almost immediately jumped it to 8GB. You can access the HDD from the bottom once you have removed the cover. I have plans to drop in a 500GB to 1TB SSD when I can get around to it.
So when I needed a gaming PC over the summer, but didn’t want to spend that much, and didn’t need a laptop because I have tons of monitors lying around, I grabbed this. Seeing videos of the upgrade path put me over the edge when I realized I could get in for $500, and drop a new HDD and added RAM in for less than a higher spec’d machine would have cost me. In fact, I had the 8GB of RAM lying around to upgrade a gaming laptop that I have recently retired, so that was a sunk cost. The Alpha has been perfectly serviceable as my primary gaming workstation for the past 5 months. I have not thrown anything at it requiring a big burly, but that is where I live as a gamer anyway. I will readily say that if you are looking for something beefier, DYI is the way to go.
Possibly more than anything I love the space-saving factor of the Alpha. I have two small kids who, amazingly, have yet to destroy anything in my computer lab. But I make purchases being very wary that that day will certainly come. While I would like a mid-tower or larger, that size of a case is not something I want sitting up on a lab-bench due to both its weight and the amount of desk top real-estate that would eat. I also do not want it on the floor where tiny hands can easily access it. But the Alpha is like the size of two smartphones sitting on my desk. The lighting scheme is a neat novelty. Dell’s support software that they pre-loaded is obnoxious. nVidia’s GeForce Driver Experience package, though, means I never have to use the Dell app to keep my GPU drivers up-to-date.
The GPU in the Alienware Alpha, at least my version, is a custom fab using something that is very close to the GeForce GTX 860M. It is just now that we are seeing the GTX 9XXM series GPU readily available at reasonable prices , so the 800M series is not that far removed from eminence. The 860M is the 11th most-popular GPU ranked in the PC Spec survey on Steam (I toss the Intel HD chips that are listed there; I suspect those are integrated chips that show up in the utility’s scan, or low-power 2D desktop options used in laptops that have dual GPU’s).
I’ve been very happy with this purchase (being hoodwinked by the dual-HDMI ports on the back notwithstanding). I love the easy access to the I/O ports. And the amount of room it gives me on my desk for HOTAS units and other joysticks and my other peripherals. I am pretty sure that this will last me my one-year minimum or more. If I do not keep it in-service for longer than that for myself, it can easily be converted over to a home theater box or a unit for my wife or a general purpose PC for the home. All for the same price or less than other manufacturers charge for small-box PC’s that have integrated graphics, tons of bloatware, and couldn’t play a 3D accelerated game to save their lives. Most of my PC game captures and streams have been from the Alpha. I am hard pressed to think of a more cost-effective gaming machine that I’ve ever owned. Like they say, competition is always good for consumers. This side-effect from Valve’s effort to offer an alternative to Windows for PC gamers has been quite welcome. I hope that devices in this price range are here to stay.
Here is some video from my last gameplay session on the Alienware Alpha in the October release of Rebel Galaxy. Not a super-graphically intensive game, but there is a lot of eye-candy going on. The stream was captured using an Elgato HD60, so the Alpha was not shouldering the streaming load itself.