Review

Detailed review of the Alienware Steam Machine

There's no question that computing has slowly been moving away from the traditional desktop model and towards a mobile, always-on, always-available reality. Gaming has also been shifting away from the desktop and moving into the living room, with Microsoft and Sony (and, to a lesser extent, Nintendo) dominating the market. Valve has wanted to move their large platform off of general computer hardware and onto a dedicated console-like device for awhile, and they've taken another step in that direction by partnering with Alienware to release the first Linux-based Steam Machine.

So how does the Machine measure up to typical desktop computing? And how does it rank with console gaming? Let's find out.

Hardware

The Alienware Steam Machine is, at its core, a small console-like PC that fits unobtrusively into your living room. Sporting a 4th generation Intel processor, the device promises to provide high quality PC-like gaming to those who no longer want to be tethered to their office.

Unlike a typical console, the Steam Machine comes in four different models. The base version, costing $449.99, includes an i3 dual-core processor, 4GB of DDR3L 1600MHz RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, while the top-of-the-line model packs an i7 quad-core processor, 8GB of DDR3L 1600MHz RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. All four models utilize the same NVIDIA Geforce GTX graphics card with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM. Unfortunately, due to space and heat concerns, the video card is not upgradable, but the CPU and memory are.

For this review, Alienware provided me with the $549 model that includes the i3 processor and 8GB of RAM.

Most hard-core PC gamers are going to have an issue with the video card, as that's the component that drives the power of a system. Sure, the memory and CPU are important as well, but they're nowhere near the most important piece of hardware in the box. The card seemed to work fine for the games that I tried to play, but unfortunately there's no way to run typical benchmarking like 3DMark or PCMark, so I can't give numbers to back up how powerful the device is.

The design of the Alienware Steam Machine is very compact and while it probably won't "wow" anybody, it does look nice and should fit into any living room. The box itself is an 8" by 8" square that stands roughly 2.3" tall. The Alienware logo is the power button, and the Steam logo dissects the lower left corner of the box. Both light up blue by default, but the colors can be independently changed by the AlienFX configuration within SteamOS.

The Steam Machine has a wide variety of connectors available. On the front, there's two USB 2.0 ports, useful if you want to hardwire your controller to the box. On the back are two more USB ports, this time of the 3.0 variety. There's also a single Gigabit Ethernet connector, two HDMI ports (one for input, one for output), a TOSLINK fiber connection and, of course, the power connector. On the bottom, hidden under a panel, is a fifth USB port.

Inside the box is a wireless AC network and Bluetooth card. Upgrading to the i5 or i7 version of the box gives you a better radio.

If you want to see more pictures of the device, check out the unboxing article we did a couple of weeks ago.

The Alienware Steam Machine went on sale earlier this week at Dell.com and many GameStop locations. In a push to increase the adoption rate of the Alienware Steam Machine, Gabe Newall of Valve has partnered with GameStop to have interactive kiosks in select GameStop stores.

GameStop, GAME UK, and EB Games are leading retail destinations for core gamers and
early adopters. Creating a 'store within a store' across North America and the UK is a significant win for getting the first generation of Steam Hardware products into gamers' hands. -- Gabe Newall

Initially only ten stores will have the kiosks, but that is expected to expand in the future.

Operating System

The biggest change between the old Alienware Alpha and the new Steam Machine is that the latter runs SteamOS instead of Windows 8.1. For those who don't know, SteamOS is a Linux variant that Valve created in order to compete with Microsoft.

From a user's perspective, it works pretty well and looks no different than the Windows version of Big Picture Mode. Your game library is prominently featured in the middle of the screen, while the store and community buttons flank it. For those who want to use a web browser, that's available as well although using it proved to be complicated with the controller.

Since SteamOS is a Linux variant, not all of the games in your Steam library will be playable on the Steam Machine. Steam took this into account and setup filters. By default, you can see every game in your library, regardless of whether it's Windows-only or not. That's not very helpful on the console, so the first filter you'll almost always select is "SteamOS." Now your display will focus only on the games available through SteamOS. Another one that's handy to run is "Supports Controller," since most people will not be bringing a keyboard and mouse into the living room.

Unfortunately, running these filters is where you start to see the weaknesses in SteamOS. I have 90 games in my overall Steam Library, and while 50 of them are playable on SteamOS, only six of them are playable with a controller. The Steam Machine tries to get around this with the highly configurable Steam Controller, which I'll get to in a bit, but it's clear that the controller is still no match for a keyboard/mouse setup.

The Steam Machine will also require a little more setup than your typical console. For example, by default the system is configured to only use mono sound without a subwoofer. I had to manually go into the configuration to use my surround sound setup. I found this a little odd since I assume most people have at least a modest sound system in their living room but I have no data to back this up.

Games

You can have the best device in the world, but if there's nothing to play on it, what's the point? That's where the Steam Machine is a mixed bag. The marketing literature claims that the console has over 1,500 games available to play on it. While that number is probably accurate (I didn't count...), the issue is that most of the games are either old titles (like the original Half-Life), or games from independent developers. While the latter isn't always bad, it's like the mobile app stores: There's a lot of junk to sift through in order to find the gems.

Even though I don't follow what games are on what platforms very closely, I knew I shouldn't expect to see titles like the Halo series or Metal Gear Solid on the system. The first time I loaded the console, most of the games were really old. I saw lots of Valve games, which wasn't surprising, but also some independent titles I had purchased or received as rewards from Kickstarter, such as Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns. However there were a few surprises too, such as Civilization 5 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

The first game I played on the Steam Machine as the ever-popular Portal 2. I figured that it being a first-party title, it would play great right out of the gate. Unfortunately, that turned out to not be true. After playing for half an hour, I couldn't figure out why the game just looked... bad. That's when I decided to check the options and realized the resolution was set to 640x480. After manually adjusting it to 1920x1080, things looked much better, but I couldn't help but wonder how a device made for gaming in the living room would have games default to such a terrible resolution. It wasn't limited to just Portal 2 either: Almost every game I loaded had to be manually adjusted.

There's also an issue with viewing text on the screen. While trying DOTA 2, some of the fonts were so small during the tutorial that they were practically unreadable from the couch. Valve claims the box is for the living room and the "10 foot experience" (meaning distance from the TV to the gamer), but this is very clearly dependent on what games you decide to play, and the lack of standardization is hurting the Steam Machine.

While games that support a controller work fairly well on the Steam Machine, there's still issues, especially during the tutorial portions. Since the games don't know what a Steam Controller is, they don't know how to properly tell you what buttons to push while playing. In the DOTA 2 example, the tutorial says to right click, but that's not mapped to the right trigger by default. It will be nice once game developers realize players will be using the Steam Machine and not only code support for the controller but also update their tutorials to reflect the different button combinations.

There's also some idiosyncrasies within the games, some that rise well into the frustrating category. For example, while playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I went into the controller section to see what other options I had aside from "Gamepad." Clicking to the next option brings up, "Mouse," and it's at that point that the game stops responding to the controller completely, forcing the user to exit from the game.

Although the Alienware Steam Machine can only play games developed on Linux, the company claims that you still have full access to your entire gaming library by simply leaving the Steam client running on your main PC. Similar to gamers streaming games from their Xbox One to their Windows 10 machine, the Steam Machine is supposed to allow the reverse. I tried it out by firing up Pinball FX2. At first, things seemed to be working well, but at random times the game would simply freeze for up to 20 seconds at a time and by the time the connection was restored, the ball had already drained. I tried this both wired and wireless on the Steam Machine, and had the same problems in both configurations. It should be noted that I've successfully played Tomb Raider on the Xbox One streamed to a wireless laptop, so network connectivity should not have been an issue.

There were also some other random glitches that popped up from time to time. The most annoying was that, while playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game somehow shifted to the lower-right hand quadrant of my screen and there was no way to fix it without a reboot. Random weird things like that popped up and need to be ironed out before the product will become mainstream.

Steam Controller

While many people question the usefulness of the Steam Machine, nobody can deny the overall excitement for the Steam Controller. Designed from the ground up to be a suitable replacement for the traditional keyboard and mouse combination, the fate of the console may depend on people falling in love with the controller.

The Steam Controller can be used on both the Steam Machine and your PC, and we expect to have a full detailed review of it in the coming weeks. However for right now, the verdict is up in the air. While the device has promise, there are some glaring issues as well.

The Steam Controller looks similar to an Xbox One controller. There's a traditional game stick on the left hand side, and the typical A/B/X/Y buttons on the right. The Steam button in the top middle is flanked by the menu and select buttons, and the triggers and bumpers are there as well. That's where the similarities end.

Dominating both the right and left side of the controller are two touchpads. While the one on the left has indentations that mimic the d-pad, the one on the right is completely smooth. Both react to your touch and work well as a mouse pointer.

What doesn't work as well is using the touchpad in first person games. While trying to play Half-Life, Portal, and Counter-Strike, I found fine-tuned aiming to be nearly impossible compared to the mouse. The lack of precise controls had me longing for a traditional controller instead.

There's also some other minor issues, such as the fact that the A/B/X/Y buttons are shifted slightly to the left compared to the Xbox One controller, making pressing them just a little more difficult. I suspect with more time, I'll get used to it, especially if I stopped using the Xbox One. In addition, a message frequently popped up on the screen telling me that my wireless connection was spotty at best. Sitting only six feet away, I never noticed any issues in gameplay, but there was no way to remove the message from the screen.

Although most games do not support the Steam Controller natively, the company wisely made the controller extremely configurable. Within each game you're able to map what each button and pad does, whether you want it to act as a mouse, an individual keyboard key, or anything in between. In addition, as gamers define profiles for games, they can be shared with everyone on Steam so that you won't have to reinvent the wheel. This will become useful in the future as more people use the Steam Controller, but as a day one user, it's still frustrating.

There's a large learning curve you have to get over in order to feel comfortable using the controller and after a couple of weeks of moderate gaming, I'm still not completely sold on the idea, but I can see the potential it has.

Upgrading

The biggest advantage for the Steam Machine is the fact that anybody can open it up and upgrade the memory and CPU in the box.

Opening the case is extremely straight forward. There are four screws in the bottom of the box. Simply unscrew them, and the top pops right off. From there, you can take the bottom part of the frame off and see all of the components.

Inside are two small heatsinks and fans that keep the CPU and GPU cool. The system memory and CPU are both located above the power button on the case. The fan assembly pops off easily to expose the CPU heatsink and the memory. The heatsink is held down by four screws, revealing the CPU. Taking the whole thing apart literally took only a few minutes.

The question is whether anybody will actually take the time to upgrade the machine. Chances are, by the time this version of the Steam Machine becomes obsolete, the graphics card will need to be updated as well, and that's something the Steam Machine can't handle.

It's important to note that while Alienware does support user upgrades and will maintain the warranty, that any calls in for support will require the system to be put back in its base configuration before troubleshooting can begin. That seems like it will be used to put a damper on any potential upgrades.

Miscellaneous

The Steam Machine is in a weird spot. I was told by the Alienware Product Manager that the device is not competing directly with consoles, but rather it's targeted to PC gamers who want to expand their gaming to the living room. However most gamers I show the device to generally say that they can build a similar machine themselves for much cheaper.

The Steam Machine is also missing some functionality that is all but considered standard nowadays, the most obvious of which is the ability to turn the box on via the controller. Unfortunately the Steam Machine doesn't support this, so in order to turn the box on, you have to physically press the Alienware logo button on the front of the device, which seems rather old fashioned in today's day and age.

There's also a lack of general purpose applications that people have come to expect on a device connected to a television. You won't be able to watch movies on Netflix or Hulu, can't Skype with friends and family, and can't stream your game session to Twitch. This isn't a limitation of the system itself, but rather the entire ecosystem. Valve will need to show developers that they should spend time writing their code for the Steam Machine, but that will take time and there's no guarantee it will ever happen.

Conclusion

There's no question that the Steam Machine is an interesting device. Steam has millions of users on their platform, so it's a good gamble to try and get them to move from their desktop to the living room.

There's a lot to like with the Steam Machine. The device itself looks unobtrusive and fits into the living room environment very well. My wife was concerned when I first told her I was going to be reviewing one, but once she saw how small it was and that it fit in with the rest of our systems, she didn't mind. In addition, the operating system itself seems to be fleshed out fairly well. It's easy to navigate, find games to buy and play, and navigate messages.

If Valve can get the Windows PC streaming working flawlessly, that would be another great win for the machine and would open up a lot of extra interest aside from the Linux-specific games. That strategy could also backfire though, as developers would be less willing to code for SteamOS if it can, in essence, run Windows games.

Unfortunately, while the machine does have a lot of potential, this clearly feels like version 1.0 of the product when it comes to actual games. I realize that developers aren't as likely to write programs against SteamOS until there's a larger install base, so this might be Valve's way of getting the studios on board. Until that happens, the lack of AAA titles and the bugs that are inherent on the current system will continue to hold the system back. In addition, not being able to reliably stream games from a Windows PC Steam client was incredibly frustrating, but something that should be able to be fixed with software.

Also, not having basic streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and the like, is a definite negative of the platform, but something that developers can easily remedy if they see a financial incentive to do so.

While PC gamers are used to configuring settings and aren't expecting a plug-and-play experience, the general population has come to expect that they can simply plug a game in and start playing when in their living room so that will be a large gap for Steam to bridge. Alienware and Steam will also have trouble convincing the hardcore gamers to buy a system instead of just building their own, especially given the price point and the lack of an upgradeable video card.

Alienware is the first to bring the Steam Machine to market, but other companies will soon be releasing versions as well so you'll have multiple vendors to choose from. This might help to reduce costs.

 

Report a problem with article
img_0879
Next Article

Microsoft Lumia 550 is now available for pre-order in the UK

dsc08249
Previous Article

Review: Onda's 'V820W' is a budget 8" Windows 10 tablet priced at $100

24 Comments - Add comment

Advertisement