The Alienware Steam Machine has been rumored for a long time, with the beta testing invites going out way back in 2013. However, the project has been continuously delayed, and some wondered if the new gaming system was nothing more than vaporware. Even Neowin readers were questioning whether there would be a workable system released this year when an October/November timeframe was announced.
I'm pleased to say that the Steam Machine is a real product. Alienware provided the gaming console to us in order to provide our readers a full review of the device. I've been playing with the box for about a week and wanted to provide some unboxing photos, as well as my first impressions of the gaming rig that will be officially released on November 10th, 2015.
The Steam Machine comes in an attractive sleeve that highlights the product. The first thing you'll notice is that the device looks exactly like the Alienware Alpha and that's because the device pretty much is the Alienware Alpha. The main difference, aside from the power of the components, is that the new Steam Machine is running Steam OS to provide Linux gaming vs. running Windows 8.1 for typical PC gaming.
The other big difference between the Alpha and the Steam Machine is that the latter comes with the updated Steam Controller. On the surface, it looks similar to a standard controller, but in reality it's a revolutionary gaming peripheral that allows users to customize it however they want. I'll get more into that in a bit.
When you open the box, you'll find that everything is packaged extremely well. In the center of the box is the console itself, while on the right hand side is the power adapter and an HDMI cable, and on the left is the Steam Controller, two batteries, and a USB cable to connect the controller to the console. Maybe it's just me, but I instantly thought that the insert for the controller looked like a sad face.
The power adapter and HDMI cable are all pretty non-descript: If you've seen one, you've seen them all.
The Steam Controller is definitely the big winner when it comes to the aesthetics of the components in the box. Made of black plastic, it's almost entirely dominated by two disks on the right and left. Having never even seen a picture of the controller before, it definitely caught my attention at how cool it looks.
While it doesn't have a premium feel, it's not that different from the Xbox One controller. The handle grips on either side are made of a smooth, glossy plastic, whereas the center section is made of textured plastic.
Aside from the unique touchpads on the front of the controller, the Steam Controller also has buttons on the back of the controller. When your fingers wrap around to the back of the device, you can squeeze them and they react to the gaming action if configured that way. It's an interesting way to add another button, and something I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft incorporate into a future controller.
Take a look at the following few pictures to see the rest of the controller, including the battery case.
The device is expected to run for nearly 100 hours on a pair of AA batteries.
The Steam Machine itself was packed very firmly in the foam and was a little difficult to get out. Once it was removed from the packing material, I was a little disappointed at how it looked. The top is made of textured black plastic and is cut into three sections to add some visual appeal, but the material they used definitely attracts dust and smudges as you can see from the picture after just removing it from the box.
Other than that, it's a just a tiny non-descript square. The company's logo is used as the power button, and the left edge of the box is cut off and has the Steam logo.
The lights on the front of the box light up and can be configured using the built-in Alien FX software on the console. Unfortunately, unlike the Alpha, games can not yet control the colors via an API.
One interesting twist the Steam Machine has is that Alienware put a hidden USB port in the bottom of the box, under a secret compartment. This is where they install the dongle that allows you to control up to four wireless controllers to the system. It's a nice touch to avoid having the dongle hanging off the front or back of the box.
So now that we know how the device looks, the big question is how well does it work? Unfortunately, it's a little early to give any sort of concrete review of the system. Steam and Alienware are updating the software and firmware, literally on a daily basis. That's good too, because there have been some bugs that have cropped up on this beta unit, including a few hard crashes.
The Steam Controller is definitely the most unique controller I've used. SteamOS allows you to configure each and every piece of the controller. For example, the touchpad on the left can be configured as a directional pad, as a mouse, as a regular joystick, and everything in between. In addition, the four buttons (A, B, X, Y) are slid just a little more to the left than they are on the Xbox One controller, so using them is a bit more difficult due to muscle memory. While the controller has potential, there is definitely a learning curve.
The biggest issue is that most Steam games do not natively support the controller, so in order to use one, you have to map keyboard and mouse input to the Steam Controller. You can either attempt to assign your own mappings or you can find one that the community has developed and use that. I tried playing FTL using both my own configuration as well as a community one, and it just didn't compare to the keyboard and mouse combination.
In addition, there is a limitation of games. Alienware boasts over 1,500 native Linux titles, but most of them aren't the AAA titles you'd want to play. However, SteamOS does support streaming PC games from a Steam client, so theoretically that could be the bridge to play your games on the TV.
For now, we're putting the box through its paces and will have a full review for you in a couple of weeks. Until then, if you have anything you want us to explore in detail, let us know in the comments below!