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Spec Analysis: Alienware Alpha

The tiny gaming PC that trades blows with PlayStation 4.

Originally planned as a Steam Machine running the Linux-based SteamOS, the Alienware Alpha is due for release very soon now, running Windows 8.1 and bundled with an Xbox 360 wireless controller in lieu of the delayed Steam controller. We took a look at the console-like PC at a recent meeting with Alienware and reckon it's got potential: the form factor is tiny, first impressions of the acoustics are good and the only unknowns concern the quality of its bespoke console-like interface (we weren't shown this, but some early shots are out there), and of course the raw performance of the internal components.

The form factor of the machine is really quite impressive. It's very small - seriously tiny, in fact. Unit dimensions are in the region of 200x200x50mm, but you can get an idea of just how tiny it is by looking at the chassis - those are standard USB ports on the front, indicative of a highly compact design. It's much smaller than the hulking Xbox One, and even the PS4 is much larger, although the Alpha has an external power brick, unlike Sony's hardware. The shot above, showing the Alpha positioned next to an Xbox 360 controller should also give an idea of how small the design actually is.

Component choice is interesting - this machine is designed with power efficiency in mind. Core i3, i5 and i7 processor options are available, but they are the low-voltage variants, pegged at 2.9GHz for the i3 with the quad-core i5 running at a 2.0GHz base clock, turbo-boosting up to 3.0GHz if thermals allow. The i7 adds hyper-threading to mix, but retains the relatively modest clocks. These are 35W TDP parts, as opposed to the top-end desktop versions, which can hit 88W.

In terms of actual power drawn from the wall, the Alpha may well be more frugal than the current wave of consoles - the power supply is rated at just 130W, and real-life energy consumption is likely to be significantly less. By comparison, we measured Xbox One at around 120W under load, while PS4 maxed out at 140W. We look forward to hooking up an Alpha review unit to the watt meter for the final word.

Core i3 SKU: $550 Core i3 SKU: $599 Core i5 SKU: $799 Core i7 SKU: $899
CPU: Core i3-4130T dual-core with hyper-threading Core i3-4130T dual-core with hyper-threading Core i5-4590T quad-core Core i5-4765T quad-core with hyper-threading
Processor Clock/Cache: 2.9GHz, no turbo, 3MB 2.9GHz, no turbo, 3MB 2.0GHz, up to 3.0GHz turbo, 6MB 2.0GHz, up to 3.0GHz turbo, 8MB
GPU: GTX 860M variant with 2GB GDDR5 GTX 860M variant with 2GB GDDR5 GTX 860M variant with 2GB GDDR5 GTX 860M variant with 2GB GDDR5
Memory: 4GB DDR3L at 1600MHz (single-channel) 8GB DDR3L at 1600MHz (dual-channel) 8GB DDR3L at 1600MHz (dual-channel) 8GB DDR3L at 1600MHz (dual-channel)
Storage: 512GB Hard Drive 1TB Hard Drive 1TB Hard Drive 2TB Hard Drive
WiFi: Intel dual-band wireless-AC 3160 (1x1) Intel dual-band wireless-AC 3160 (1x1) Intel dual-band wireless-AC 7265 (2x2) Intel dual-band wireless-AC 7265 (2x2)

Part of that is down to the choice of GPU. Its identity has been the Alienware Alpha's biggest mystery up until now, with the firm mooting a customised design based on Nvidia's new Maxwell architecture. However, those hoping for a GTX 970 or GTX 980 (or even their potent mobile equivalents) are likely to be disappointed. The chosen graphics processor found in the Alpha is based on the GTX 860M - which, at an architectural level at least, is identical to the desktop GTX 750 Ti we reviewed earlier this year (both are based on Nvidia's GM104 chip design). Alienware reckons that this GTX 860M has been clocked higher than it ever has before, and although the firm won't be drawn on performance, it hopes that it will produce better results than the standard desktop 750 Ti.

So what are we dealing with here? Well, let's be clear. The GM107 chip is what we'd consider an entry-level GPU if you're serious about gaming, but that's not to say that you can't get some excellent results. Based on our tests with the desktop version, this graphics architecture runs Crysis 3 at a locked 30fps at native 1080p on the high preset, and you can hit something approaching a fixed 60fps on Battlefield 4 on high settings by adjusting resolution to 900p. Based on our recent testing, The Evil Within - as unoptimised as it - should be able to match the general performance level found in the 30fps PlayStation 4 version, based on our recent CPU and GPU testing. 2GB of GDDR5 rated at 6gbps is attached to the graphics hardware as standard (UPDATE: It's 5gbps in the final hardware, but it's rock-solid with a 6gbps overclock) - more than good enough for the majority of games, though certain titles (Shadow of Mordor and Titanfall for example) may need texture quality reduced in comparison to the console versions in order to sustain performance.

We've paired plenty of CPUs with the desktop version of the GM107 chip in the past - everything from the Pentium G3258 to an overclocked Core i7 - but we've yet to try Nvidia's Maxwell processor with the ultra-low voltage parts used by Alienware here. The i5 and i7 are probably overkill for powering a reasonably modest graphics chip like the GTX 860M, but the Core i3 sounds like a good fit. Obviously, it won't be beating the i5 or the i7 in any benchmarks, but it's still a fairly potent force in its full-power desktop guise. Our one reservation is the fact that it's a low-voltage chip in the Alpha - this sheds a full 500MHz compared to the standard Core i3 4130.

The GPU inside the Alienware Alpha is architecturally identical to the GTX 750 Ti, though we should expect clock-speed differences on core clock and RAM. To give some idea of what the chip is capable of, here's how it copes running Battlefield 4 on console-standard high settings, at 900p and 1080p. Note we have an overclocked i7 powering the show here. Performance will vary with other CPUs.Watch on YouTube

It's in the price-points that the Alienware Alpha provides both delights and disappointments. At the base level, the Core i3 version of the hardware with a 500GB mechanical hard drive is yours for $550, which should translate to something in the region of £450 in the UK. Bearing in mind you're getting a very cute, bespoke machine with a controller and Windows 8.1, that's actually fairly good value. Sure, you can probably build a cheaper machine with more horsepower, but we suspect it won't be as living room friendly as the Alpha, and it probably won't be that much cheaper once you've actually bought your OS and controller. However, the base machine comes with just 4GB of DDR3 memory - 8GB needs to be the minimum for Alienware to credibly talk about comparisons with Xbox One and PS4. What's more, that 4GB is via a single module, throttling bandwidth, but at least it allows for an easier 8GB upgrade - you only need purchase one new module rather than two (just make sure latency timings are a match for the supplied RAM).

In terms of value, the other SKUs see upgrades make a bigger dent in your wallet that we suspect is disproportionate to the boost provided to the gameplay experience. We don't have the full UK prices yet, but the US costs see an i3 model with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB drive hit $699 - a $150 premium. Want a quad-core i5? That'll be $800 for an 8GB unit that has little else to show for it other than enhanced 2x2 WiFi. Meanwhile, at the top end, we have the Core i7 version, which has all the features of the i5 model, along with a 2TB drive. The Alpha is a cute device, but the further you pull away from the base price, the more it seems to lose its allure.

Without hands-on access to each version, it's difficult to draw final conclusions but our gut feeling is that we'd take the base model and see about upgrading the RAM ourselves - Alienware says that every element of the package, bar the GPU, is upgradeable. While low-voltage CPUs are supplied at stock, standard desktop chips should fit - it's just a case of whether the cooler can handle them. It looks like the Alpha utilises laptop RAM too, based on BitTech's Gamescom shots of the Alpha's internals.

The GTX 860M is what we'd describe as an entry-level enthusiast GPU. It can run any game on the market at decent frame-rates, but you have to pick your battles carefully for the best gameplay experience. Nvidia's desktop GTX 750 Ti is very similar indeed to the more mobile-focused 860M in the Alpha - here we're playing Crysis 3 at 30fps on high settings using this GPU in concert with the Pentium G3258 CPU.Watch on YouTube

The fact that the GPU isn't upgradable is clearly going to be a bit of an issue for the hardcore gamer, but despite the not-so-subtle digs towards the current-gen consoles in the marketing, Alienware tells us that it sees this machine as targeted towards the more casual gamer, the assumption being that the hardcore are more likely to build their own unit anyway. It's a PC that comes with no keyboard or mouse, but apparently its ease of use ensures that it doesn't need them - the front-end Alienware is working on takes care of everything and apparently it plumbs in easily with Steam's Big Picture mode (though we have no information on any Origin integration). It's something we're looking forward to testing.

We came away from our meeting with Alienware intrigued by what the Alpha offers. We maintain that the GPU choice limits the overall options you have with the machine - even with the Core i7 CPU in place, you'll still be getting what is (by our terms) an entry-level enthusiast performance level - but if our experience with the desktop version of the GPU tells us anything, it's that you can still get some sensational results providing you're sensible with the graphics options. We still look back at our Crysis 3 testing with the GTX 750 Ti and the £45 Pentium G3258 with some fondness: we targeted and locked at 30fps, and this freed up enough CPU and GPU time for some simply beautiful visuals, allowing us to play the game with accomplished anti-aliasing on the high preset, just one 'notch' down from the overkill very high setting that challenges even the most potent graphics card. As long as you're realistic about settings, even a relatively modest GPU can still hand in some excellent results.

But it's the chassis that's the star of the show, and a major factor in any purchasing decision. The Alpha is miniscule and discrete, comparing favourably with ultra-compact mini-ITX PCs, but with significantly more CPU and GPU horsepower under the bonnet. It's also well geared towards living room integration in a way that many PCs aren't, thanks to the inclusion of an HDMI input, presumably for set-top box passthrough. Our overall impression is that this isn't going to be the games PC for everyone, but what we've seen looks quite promising.

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