Alienware Alpha Review: Is It the Best Gaming Rig of Today?

Alienware Alpha

It is interesting that when you attempt to access the Live Alienware Alpha webpage on the Dell website, you are told that the item is no longer available online and you are promptly redirected to either the Aurora or the Area 51 mini-desktop models.

Could this be another case of the Dell DJ Ditty?

For those of you who are upright and facing the right way, Dell bought Alienware in 2006, and you have to do a little digging to find the cached and hidden Alpha profile page, through which we are told that the Alienware Alpha, before it was discontinued came in two flavors: the original Alpha and the Alpha R2. The former was billed as a PC/Console hybrid, and it was released in 2014, featuring a custom-built Nvidia GTX 860M video card, Core i3, i5, or i7 processors from Intel, 8GB RAM, and an option of a 500GB to 2TB HHD.

The latter featured an ultra-small form factor, was also a console hybrid and it was released in 2016. Alienware Alpha R2 came with the customizable configuration of an AMD Radeon R9 M470X GPU with 2 GB GDDR5 memory or a Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 GPU with 4GB GDDR5, and the processor consisted of the choice between 6th generation Intel processors: Core i3 6100T, Core i5 6400T, or Core i7 6700T. The RAM came in 1 stick configurations of 8GB or 16GB, and HDD and SDD were also available.

The Alienware Alpha History and SteamOS

Dell Alienware Alpha R2 Mini Gaming Desktop PC - Intel Core i7-6700T...

Moreover, the HDD in the R2 was a 1TB drive with a 7,200 spin rate, while the SSD came in the form of the M.2 mini-PCIe standard and offered sizes ranging from 256GB to 1TB. The console also featured a graphics amplifier slot as well as a Windows 10 OS.

The Alpha shipped with Windows 8 and was too underpowered to play most popular games in full hardware mode, which didn’t exactly stir the coals into embers of enthusiasm with gaming fans to begin with. However, for a brief time in 2015, the Alpha R1 morphed into a Steam Machine that came with the much heralded open-source LINUX OS called SteamOS.

Sale
Alienware Steam Machine ASM100-6980BLK Desktop Console (Intel Core i7,...
  • Intel Quad Core i7-4785T 2.2 GHz Processor
  • 8 GB DDR3L SDRAM RAM Included; 16 GB Maxium
  • 1 TB HDD Storage; Optical Drive Not included; 5 USB Ports

In a time when many suffered from Windows fatigue as they awaited the next stable operating system from Microsoft, SteamOS offered a glimmer of hope as an alternative gaming and PC OS savior. However, as the people waited the years passed, and still there was no sign of the SteamOS.

Then, in 2015, the year of the Steam Machine, it finally arrived. However, the goodwill and anticipation was slightly diminished even then and dissipated ever further when the OS was quickly proven to drop frames during gameplay and presented many issues in full-screen mode. These bugs revealed that it clearly was not ready to be thrust into the limelight of mainstream gaming.

However, originally, the Alpha was going to be the flagship Valve Steam Machine, and it came with both the wacky Steam Controller and the Open Source SteamOS. But when Valve called an audible to regroup and revamp their failing OS, Alienware decided to ship the R2 with Windows 10 and the Xbox 360 controller instead.

Alpha R2 Specs and Info

Dell Alienware Alpha R2 Mini Gaming Desktop PC - Intel Core i7-6700T...
  • This Certified Refurbished product is tested and certified to look and work like new. The refurbishing process includes functionality testing, basic cleaning, inspection, and repackaging. The product ships with all relevant accessories, a minimum 90-day warranty, and may arrive in a generic box. Only select sellers who maintain a high performance bar may offer Certified Refurbished products on Amazon.com
  • Intel Core i7-6700T Processor (2.8GHz, up to 3.6GHz with Turbo Boost, 8MB Cache)
  • 16GB DDR4-2133MHz RAM - 256GB Solid State Drive

The R2 had a lot going for it: the Alienware name, its two in one value, its built-in power, and its small, attractive form factor. Moreover, it was smaller and more powerful than it main console competitors at the time, the PS4 and Xbox One. Plus, it actually doubled as a desktop PC. What could be cooler? You could get cheap PC games for your PC computer and more expensive titles for you console and play them both on one machine.

But the price point was decidedly a little hard to swallow. Even so, the machine did offer some pretty impressive numbers in its 3.2-GHz Intel Core i3-4170T CPU, 4GB of RAM, 500GB, 7,200-rpm HDD; and a Nvidia GTX 960 GPU with 2GB of VRAM.

Dell Alienware Alpha R2 Mini Gaming Desktop PC - Intel Core i7-6700T...
Dell Alienware Alpha R2 Mini Gaming Desktop PC - Intel Core i7-6700T...
Dell Alienware Alpha R2 Mini Gaming Desktop PC - Intel Core i7-6700T...

Plus, if you were an AMD fan you could go for Alpha R2, which included a Radeon R9 M470X GPU with 2GB of VRAM, an Intel Core i3-6100T CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive. Even now, a pimped out R2 model (with Windows 10) can still be found online.

One that is available on Amazon boasts a 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7-6700T processor with 16GB of RAM, a 1TB, 7,200-rpm hard drive, and a Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 GPU with 4GB of VRAM. However, the entry level price point at the time had people asking why not just invest in (or build) a beefy, upgradeable desktop PC instead for similar or even less money?

The Alpha R2 did try to add value to their hybrid PC and gaming console by offering a large catalog of multimedia apps for music and video, but, alas, much like the plight of Saga, the Alpha line was already doomed, in part, due to its several missteps from previous iterations, and was finally discontinued in 2016-17.

Unboxing an Alienware Alpha R2

Alienware Alpha R2

Still might be fun to unbox one, with the help from our friends at Tom’s Guide. And, according to Sherri L. Smith, the first thing that struck her was how small it was. Smaller than her Xbox 360 or PlayStation 4, it was closer in size to something like a Nintendo Wii, only boxier and black.

The black box is unadorned with the exception of a lopped-off corner and a blue glowing alien head power button. The backlighting that illuminates these features can be controlled via the preinstalled AlienFX software. The second thing she noticed was how long it took to get up and running.

While peripheral cable and device amount to a laptop-style power brick, a wireless adapter, and an HDMI, the problem arises in having to navigating through Windows setup screens, signing into accounts, and registering an Alienware email (an annoying and required step), setting up an Alienware password, signing license agreements, and rebooting more than
once.

The result is a grueling hour-long set up that is quite the buzzkill for an excited gamer. Plus, once you have made it past Windows, you have to set up Steam Big Picture Mode and buy and install games, which, by the way, can only be downloaded one at a time and can’t be played until they’re fully downloaded. You also can’t start playing the first game while you download others in the background, at least not by default; that ability must be specifically enabled somewhere within the depths of the Steam Big Picture Mode.

Dell Hardware Flops

Your best bet, then, is to download and install a whole bunch of games overnight and sit back with a cold one. It really is a curiosity that a company would bother to make a console with such a frustrating way of distributing games. But Dell is not new to the idea of releasing hardware without considering how consumers will use it.

Inspiron Duo

When Dell's tablet-laptop combo premiered in 2010, the public and media were abuzz about its potential duality, varied uses, and functionality. The Inspiron Duo was supposed to herald in a new generation of laptop/tablets, but all consumers got was a flimsy 10-in tablet mounted on a swivel with laughable battery and a price that punched far above its price class. Needless to say, the Inspiron Duo had a short run.

DJ Ditty

And, remember the DJ Ditty? Neither do most people. But this supposed “iPod Shuffle killer” was built as Dell’s response to the wildly successful Apple media consuming product, the iPod Shuffle, and featured a 5GB of memory and an FM radio. Unfortunately, Dell didn’t consider retail channels or media distribution chains, and the Ditty was a Dodo by 2006.

Dell Adamo

The Adamo was an ultra-slim laptop before ultra-slim was cool. It featured a giant 17-in screen and portability to rival the MacBook Air. Heralded as the next coming of lightweight powerful computers on the go, what consumers got was an anemic 1.3-GHz processor, a machine that could not be upgraded. The line was short-lived and eventually killed in 2011.

The Dell Smartphone and a phone/tablet hybrid that was too big to fit in your pocket but not big enough to watch movies on round out the top hardware flops from the company, but we may have to add the Alpha to the list as well.

Alienware Alpha R2 Games and Ports

Alienware Alpha R2 ports

To make matters worse, the early R2’s were equipped with a painfully watching-paint-dry slow 5400rpm hard drive that Alienware should never have shipped with this system. Freezing, dropped frames, sluggish loading and booting all were a result of this oversight. Plus, the lack of a keyboard and a mouse meant that some PC classic games could not be proper launch or run at all. Another misstep.

It really was too bad because the Alpha looked pretty sweet, and, by all accounts, on paper, it should have been. Armed with some powerful hardware and the ability to upgrade through various ports - 3.0 in the front, a 2.0 at the bottom, Ethernet, optical audio out, and a proprietary connection for the Alienware Graphics Extender (for hooking up beefier GPU’s) - the Alpha should have found appeal with those craving gameplay in front of their 52 inch plasma TVs.

The distinct lack of DisplayPort and Type-C or Thunderbolt is definitely an oversight but included Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were certainly valuable additions.

Alienware Alpha Wrap-Up

Well, then, what really happened to the Alpha? Do you want a game console? What happened to it was that by the time Alienware figured it all out and began making a top-notch console, it was too late. The public had moved on.

The Alpha proved over and over again that there are way too many things wrong with it, from Alienware themselves originally stuffing it full of underpowered hardware to Valve jumping the run with their SteamOS release. Microsoft, too, didn’t consider the user experience much when they developed the Alpha OS.

Despite all that, it might still be the console that looks best in your living room. Plus, you can now find versions with SSD drives, Corei7 processors, and upgraded RAM. Keep a keyboard and mouse laying around close by. Of course, you will be stuck with a flaky OS without updates (since it's been discontinued), but the upshot is that you’ll have access to 1000’s of PC games that you can play on your wide-screen TV.

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