When PC gaming juggernaut Valve announced its Steam Machines initiative in Fall 2013, it was unveiled as such:
"Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world. We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014, all of them running SteamOS."
Not long after, at CES 2014, Valve revealed a full line of Steam Machines from 14 different companies. Chief among them was Alienware, Dell's gaming PC arm, which showed a teensy $550 box called the "Alpha." Alienware was a standout not just due to name recognition, but because the company proposed a launch window for its "game console". The Alpha won't ship with any of the promises of the Steam Machines initiative: no Steam OS and no Steam Controller. Valve's delayed both, but Alienware's pushing on nonetheless with a fall launch.
That's all to say one thing: While the Alpha is still a "Steam Machine" in size and horsepower, it isn't a Steam Machine. The Alienware Alpha is a weird gaming PC.
Alienware held an event last week in New York City to show off the Alpha. We were given time to play games on the system, sure, but the focus of the event was on the custom operating system that Alienware's built to get around the fact that Valve's initiative isn't ready.
According to Alienware, Valve president Gabe Newell sees the Alpha as the "ideal Steam Machine." It's hard to see how, at least at the moment: It runs Windows 8.1, it ships with an Xbox 360 wireless gamepad, and it requires a USB-based wireless dongle to make that gamepad function. Alpha is $550 -- $50 more than the most expensive new game console -- and it's lacking in the horsepower department. Which GPU is inside? A "custom" NVIDIA Maxwell GTX. How about processing? Handled by an Intel i3.
In so many words, the Alpha is roughly as powerful as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, only it costs more and is nowhere near as accessible.