Alienware Steam Machine: A smaller game library than Windows, but a controller with big potential (hands-on)

What if you could buy a new type of affordable gaming console that had the guts of a PC, a pre-established library of 1,000 games, a tried-and-true interface already beloved by hard-core gamers and an innovative new controller, and it all cost less than $500?

That’s the elevator pitch for the Steam Machine, a new gaming platform from Valve, the PC gaming company behind the popular Steam online game store for Windows and Mac, as well as hit game series such as Portal, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life.

The Steam Machine concept has been gestating for some time, going all the way back to late 2013. The first piece of prototype hardware we saw was an Alienware set-top box, coupled with a previous design of its innovative included gamepad, the Steam Controller.

After delays, redesigns and other roadblocks, the Steam Machine concept is finally a living, breathing product. It’s fitting that the first major hardware release is…that very same Alienware Steam Machine we originally saw nearly two years ago.

The Steam Machine platform starts with Steam OS, Valve’s Linux-based game storefront and operating system. The company then invited numerous PC makers to build hardware that would run Steam OS and play Steam games, and the prototypes we’ve seen run from small console-like devices to full-blown gaming desktops that could cost thousands of dollars.

But this particular configuration, the Alienware Steam Machine, built by Dell’s gaming division, feels like it closely hits the original Steam Machine concept: to build a living-room device that costs about as much as a game console but acts much more like a gaming PC. It’s available to consumers on November 10 for $449. (There are no UK and Australian prices yet, but that works out to about £290 or AU$615.)

It’s a laudable concept, but one that raises some tough questions, not all of which have been satisfactorily answered by this final retail version of the hardware and the still-evolving operating system software. For such a PC-like experience, the game selection is quite limited, supporting about 1,000 games, versus the 4,500-plus available to Windows gamers on Steam. To be fair, though, that’s about 975 more launch titles than you’d find on other recent gaming system launches.

The system can also “stream” other PC games if you have a gaming laptop or desktop elsewhere on your home network — but if you already have a killer gaming rig, then you might not be in the market for a Steam Machine in the first place.

Finally, the elephant in the room is another version of this system, with nearly the exact same hardware, that Alienware released in 2014. It looks and feels the same, offers tight Steam integration, but runs Windows, and is called the Alienware Alpha. Like the Steam Machine version, it starts at a very reasonable $449, and is one of my favorite PC gaming options, especially after a recent update to its custom living-room-friendly interface.

Both versions of this Alienware product are essentially identical hardware. The base model for each starts with an Intel Core i3 processor, 500GB of storage and a custom Nvidia graphics chip based on the mainstream GeForce 860M card. (The Alpha originally shipped with a slower 5,400rpm hard drive, but Alienware, as of October 13, pledged that it will use the same 7,200rpm hard drive in both versions.) The only difference, besides the operating system, is that the Windows version includes a standard Xbox 360 controller rather than the Steam Machine’s fancy new gamepad.

A series of upgraded Steam Machine configurations are available. For $549, you’ll double the RAM to 8GB and the hard drive to 1TB. For $649 and up, you can step up to an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. All Steam Machine configurations include one Steam Controller, Valve’s own gamepad.

Meet the Steam Controller

It’s that Steam Controller that really makes the Steam Machine platform feel different from standard PC gaming. Getting the controller right was apparently one of the major reasons the Steam Machine platform is more than a year behind its original release date. Just as the idea of Steam OS is to provide a console-like feel to PC gaming, the Steam Controller hopes to add PC-like precision to a console experience. That is to say, one you’re enjoying on your sofa in front of a big-screen TV, rather than leaning into a PC monitor inches from your face.

Hands-on, the new controller takes some getting used to, and there’s a clear reason the Xbox-style gamepad is such a universal choice, even for PC gaming. The usual sticks are replaced with touchpads that give you the thumb control of a gamepad with a level of precise control it’s hard to get outside of using a mouse. But there’s a definite learning curve, and some games will simply always be better with a gamepad.

There’s a deep series of settings menus that allow you to change the behavior of the various buttons and pads on the controller, and the gaming community will no doubt come up with a consensus on what’s best for specific games. For those who crave the familiar, you can always just swap in a standard Xbox controller instead.

Using the Steam controller reminds me of switching to a full-time touchpad from a computer mouse. It’s not for everybody. It takes some getting used to, and a willingness to tackle a learning curve. Some people may never warm to it, just because it’s so different, or because they try it once or twice and then give up, deciding they don’t like it.

While it’s not a clear winner over an Xbox-style gamepad, there’s enough potential there that I’d encourage giving the Steam Controller a legitimate shot, and not just trying it once or twice and giving up. Frequent OS and controller firmware updates over the past few weeks have made it even better, and Valve says many more updates are coming before the Alienware’s November 10 launch.

Gaming on the Steam Machine

Perhaps the best way to judge the combination of Steam OS, Alienware hardware, and new controller is to test-drive a variety of games from the Steam platform. The first issue is, of course, figuring out which games from the vast Steam library will work on a Steam Machine.

The short answer is somewhere around 1,000 of the 4,500-plus games Valve currently sells through its Steam platform. Most of the games on Steam run on Windows PCs, and these include all the big PC game hits, from Call of Duty to Dragon Age. A smaller number run on Apple’s Mac OS X or Linux. Some games run on two or even all three. (BioShock Infinite is a good example of a multi-platform game available on Steam.)

As the Steam OS builds on Linux, the easy shorthand for figuring out what you can play is this: If the game supports Linux, you should be able to buy and play it on a Steam Machine. On the Steam storefront, Valve now indicates these games with a small Steam OS logo.

To say that the Steam OS library is limited is an understatement. Of the first 20 games listed on Steam’s website as “top sellers,” only three offer native Steam OS support. Big-name hits, from Grand Theft Auto V to the Assassin’s Creed series, are unavailable, as is the eagerly anticipated Fallout 4. There is a way to play all these games on your TV via a Steam Machine, but that involves having the game run on a separate gaming-ready computer on your home network and routing the output over Ethernet or Wi-Fi to the Steam Machine, or using a separate device Valve sells for that specific purpose, called the Steam Link.

Still, there are a lot of excellent games in the Steam OS library. Some are popular e-sports standards, such as Counter-Strike or DOTA 2. Other highlights include BioShock Infinite, Metro: Last Light,Civilization V and Shadow of Mordor. Not necessarily the newest games, and maybe not the best suited to a TV, but certainly ones worth playing if you haven’t already. Valve’s own games, such as the aforementioned Portal and Half-Life series, are also available.

Testing several games with the Steam Controller, I found some hits, some misses, and some that just needed a little practice and controller tweaking to work well. There are several default controller templates to choose from, emulating gamepads and mouse/keyboard combos. These can be accessed at any time by pressing the glowing Steam logo button in the center of the controller and going to the “Configure Controller” menu option. For most games, I found the configuration called “Gamepad with High Precision Camera/Aim” was the best bet, allowing you to move your character with the left thumbstick, as with a console gamepad, but using the right control pad as a laptop-style touchpad for moving the camera.

In BioShock Infinite, that control scheme worked well, though I had to go back into the configuration menu and turn up the sensitivity of the right control pad. In this case, the mapping of buttons from an Xbox-style gamepad to the Steam Controller was intuitive and required very little guesswork to decipher. The game defaulted to a 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution (1,080p) and medium graphics settings, but that seemed to tax the low-power Core i3 processor, and there was a little hitching and stutter during gameplay.

Team Fortress 2, an online multiplayer classic (and another Valve original), offered what felt like the smoothest first-person gameplay with the Steam Controller, so much so that I might actually prefer it for precision aiming, once I got the hang of not over-steering with my right thumb. But the game was clearly confused by the Steam Controller, and figuring out which commands mapped to which buttons was a trial-and-error process, and navigating the game’s menus was nearly impossible.

One of the few brand new games to support Steam OS on day one is Soma, an indie game about exploring a spooky underwater base. There, the first-person controls also mapped well to the Steam Controller, and the slower pace felt perfect for getting the hang of using the controller’s pad to move the first-person camera around. If anything, the Steam Controller, when well-supported by a game, feels capable of much more precise movement than a standard gamepad’s analog stick.

One thing the usual Xbox-style gamepad can’t do well is control games specially designed for the keyboard and mouse. Strategy games are a good example, and where the advantages of the Steam Controller really start to shine.

In Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the Steam Controller pad was treated as a mouse or computer touchpad, allowing me to zoom the cursor around the screen with ease, using either the triggers or the face buttons as left and right mouse clicks. Some keyboard shortcuts, especially important in strategy games, get lost in the translation, but you could go in and map them yourself, or wait for a Steam community member to do so and share his or her personalized configuration.

Too many ways to play games

A year or so ago, the Steam Machine platform seemed revolutionary. But now, so much time has passed that the current living room consoles are much less expensive — the PlayStation 4 recentlydropped its starting price to $350, matching the Xbox One‘s entry-level buy-in price. Traditional gaming PCs, meanwhile, do more and cost less, and other living room competitors, from the Nvidia Shield to the new Apple TV, offer endless ways to play games on your TV.

Valve says the platform, its software and its game library will continue to evolve, especially in the weeks before the official November 10 launch, so we can’t yet offer a final verdict on the Steam platform or this specific Steam Machine.

But we can say that you should strongly consider Alienware’s sister product, called the Alpha, which has been available since last year. It uses most of the same components, is built into the same exact chassis and, because it runs Windows, it can play nearly every game in the Steam library (as well as non-Steam games). Despite its entry level Core i3 processor, our Alpha runs even graphically challenging games such as The Witcher 3 with decent performance, and it starts at the same $449 as the Steam OS version. Keeping in mind the performance limitations at that price, it’s one of our favorite gaming PCs.

We will continue to test the Alienware Steam Machine, and will offer a full review once the system software and firmware is finalized for its retail release.

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