alienware alpha

Our interview with Alienware's General Manager discussing the Alpha

While game consoles like Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Xbox One have found their way into hundreds of millions of homes to be connected to televisions, it's been a challenge for the PC industry to offer a product that's designed to connect to a big screen TV and be used in a living room setting. A year ago, Valve announced a plan to launch its own Linux-based operating system, SteamOS, that was designed to be used in small living room PCs to play native Linux games and to stream PC games from their Steam service.

While Valve announced earlier this year plans to team up with a number of third party PC OEMS for a SteamOS hardware launch later in 2014, the company later revealed those plans have been pushed back to sometime in 2015. However, one of those SteamOS partners, Alienware, decided to go ahead and launch their SteamOS machine this year as a Windows 8.1 PC, the Alienware Alpha. While it may use Microsoft's latest operating system, the team at Alienware (which Dell acquired in 2006) are also developing their own UI that will allow owners to use the Alpha as a gaming PC with an included Xbox 360 controller, with no requirement to use the Windows 8.1 desktop.

To learn more about the upcoming Alienware Alpha, which is currently available for pre-order for shipment in November, we got Alienware's General Manager Frank Azor to take some of our questions. He also offered us some thoughts on the PC gaming industry in general, tells us if Alienware will ever launch a gaming-themed tablet, and more.

First, It's been a year since Dell became a private company once again. How has this change affected the Alienware division, if there have been any effects at all?

"It's been great. It is ironic coming from a private company at Alienware, being acquired by a large multi-national public company (at the time) Dell and now going back to being a private company. Dell has been executing the quickest that I have ever seen since my time here, we are becoming more and more agile every day and I dare say more Alienware-like :). It's a really exciting time to be part of this company."

The Alienware Alpha began as one of the PCs made to run Valve's SteamOS but will now be released as a Windows 8.1-based PC with your own UI. Why did you think it was important to release the PC now and not wait for SteamOS and its controller to officially launch?

"We have been working closely with Valve to help define and build our vision for enabling gamers to play their PC games in the living room. Alienware has actually been building solutions for the living room for years with some of our previous HTPC products and then recently with the Alienware X51. Valve decided that their best course of action was to hold off on SteamOS and the Steam Gamepad until it provided their intended experience. We commend them for their decision and continue to work closely with them on the readying of Steam OS and the Steam Gamepad.

The Alienware Alpha was ready and our customers told us that they wanted a purpose-built solution to play their favorite PC titles in their living room. We couldn't think of a good reason not to deliver, so we did. All of the main elements were ready; we have a great product in the Alpha that was purpose-built for the living room, we have plenty of content on Steam including over 3,500 games, 500 gamepad supported games and over 250 local multiplayer games, we have a great Living room GUI in Steam Big Picture and we have a very popular and successful gamepad with the Xbox 360 wireless gamepad. What was left for us to solve was making Windows 8.1 a console-like experience which we showed for the first time a few weeks ago referred to as the Alpha UI."

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Do you still believe that Valve is making a good move in launching the Linux-based SteamOS and its own controller in a bid to launch living room gaming PCs?

"Absolutely. The two pieces that have been really missing for PC gamers who want to play their titles in the living room are an operating system that is designed for a 10-foot experience and a controller that is compatible with games that may have been originally designed for a keyboard and mouse. Valve is solving both of these issues and that is incredibly difficult to accomplish. In the meantime, customers that have been begging for the perfect gaming capable PC for their TV will find a solution in the Alienware Alpha being offered today.

The Alpha UI was designed to give gamers the option to choose what platform they want to play their games on and enable a user to have a great living room experience. If users want to use their Alpha system as a standard Windows desktop PC with a keyboard and mouse they can elect to do so easily from the Alpha UI, if they want to use it as a console and only play gamepad games with it then can easily do that as well. Keyboard and mouse are optional with the Alpha, no other gaming PC is delivering that.

Users can choose to install SteamOS on their Alienware Alpha when it's released and some users may even decide that they want to install the SteamOS beta and we say more power to them. We want gamers to game the way they want to. The Alpha is all about giving our customers the choices they want to make."

The living room is a place where many companies, including Dell and Alienware, have tried to develop and released PCs with limited success. Why do you believe the Alienware Alpha will succeed when the others have not been as successful?

"Our customers have been asking us for a better solution to play their PC games in the living room for years. We've seen great success with the Alienware X51, which provides gamers with high-performance gaming for any room in the house and ultimate upgradeability. We took the lessons learned from the X51 and past systems, along with our customers feedback and put it to use when we began developing the Alpha. The technology has reached a point where we could provide the sweet spot in performance, design, form-factor, acoustics, thermals and price for the perfect gaming device to connect to your TV. Thanks to Steam and game developers the quantity and quality of titles available through Steam has grown exponentially, making it easier than ever to get great titles instantly on your PC. Steam's library of Gamepad supported and local multiplayer supported games has also exploded making the desire for a product like the Alpha more evident than ever. Our investments with the Alpha UI in making the Alpha experience fully navigable without the need for a keyboard and mouse coupled with Steam Big Picture mode will finally provide the solution gamers need."

Is it important for the PC industry to get devices like the Alienware Alpha into the living room in general and if so why?

"It is incredibly important, especially for all of the indie game developers out there who now have the resources and opportunity to share their amazing titles with an audience like they never have before. That's one of the main reasons we designed the Alpha, console gamers don't currently have the opportunity to experience a whole catalog of amazing titles developed by the independent developer community. Valve has made amazing progress with programs like Greenlight that highlight and give these developers the means and platform to be discovered and the Alpha is the perfect system for gamers to experience these games in their living room."

alpha UI

The Alienware Alpha will still use Valve's Big Picture mode on Steam combined with its own UI. How will this work for the owner of the PC and will he or she never have to see the Windows 8.1 Start screen or desktop while using the Alpha?

"The Alienware Alpha is designed to be configured and controlled using nothing but the bundled Xbox 360 gamepad without seeing the Windows desktop. Gamers will be able to set the basic configuration for common settings like audio sources or resolution and then jump into Steam Big Picture Mode to access their games. Once initially configured, the Alpha can even be set to boot directly into Steam Big Picture Mode if the user prefers. At the same time if users want to access the Windows environment and use Alpha as a standard desktop PC they will be given the option to do so by simply connecting a keyboard and mouse. The Alpha is basically a 2 in 1 product, you get a great desktop gaming PC and an amazing gaming console all in one.

We will not stop any user from using their Alienware Alpha in "Windows mode." We're all about choice and there are some awesome new peripherals like Roccat's Sova lapboard that users may want to use in their living rooms. Gamers can also play any games that aren't distributed through Steam. In which case, they would need to install and launch the game just as they would on any Windows PC. They can even set those titles to launch through Steam if they want to access them without entering into the Windows environment in the future.

Our team and Valve has been working through and testing thousands of titles to ensure that there are no surprises when accessing them through the Alpha. We're working hard to identify and work with the game developers and Valve to resolve any issues we uncover."

alpha ui

Alienware is also still launching more conventional gaming PCs such as the upcoming Alienware 13 laptop, but we have yet to see a gaming tablet from the division. Is a gaming PC tablet something that Alienware would like to release at some point in the future?

"Some websites have been testing games on Dell's current tablets with surprising results. We don't have any plans to launch a gaming tablet at this time but we would definitely consider it if it is something that our customers ask us for."

Let's talk about the gaming PC industry in general. Now that the Wii U, Xbox One and PS4 are out, where do you and Alienware see the industry moving in the future in terms of PC hardware and software services and will they be able to compete with those consoles in terms of pricing and features?

"It's important to note that the Alienware Alpha wasn't designed to compete with the traditional consoles. Gamers already have great solutions to play games like Call of Duty or Battlefield in their living rooms. The Alienware Alpha was designed to offer PC gamers the choice to play their collection of titles including their entire back catalog on Steam and enjoy them with their friends and family in the living room. Few of us want to play great games like Gauntlet, BroForce and Knight Squad with 3 other people on a 24" monitor, those games and about 250 others like it on Steam are best played on a big screen TV with friends. The Alpha was also designed to give gamers the opportunity to play the huge catalog of amazing indie titles that they don't have access to with the other consoles. The PC based indie game developers are thrilled, they finally have a PC console to design to.

The price point of Alpha is a little misleading on the surface. Alpha starts at $549 and comes bundled with an Xbox 360 gamepad. While that seems like a more expensive product than an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 there are a lot of factors to consider:

  • Steam games are much less expensive on average than traditional console games
  • The library of games is exponentially larger on Steam and you can play your back catalog of games you've previously purchased
  • There are no subscription costs to access the Steam network and play games online
  • The Alpha comes bundled with 9 games, 3 of which have already been announced, traditional consoles don't come with any at their entry price points
  • You can use your existing Xbox 360 gamepads rather than having to buy a whole new set of gamepads
  • You can upgrade several components in it yourself including the hard drive, memory, CPU and WiFi card
  • Ohh and it's also a fully featured Windows based PC if you chose to use it as such basically giving you 2 products for the price of 1"

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Microsoft has announced DirectX 12, but it may not launch for a while. Based on your knowledge, will it be a huge step up for PC game graphics when it is fully released?

"The demos during Siggraph look good but the rest I'm sworn to secrecy on therefore I have to direct you to Microsoft :). Sorry."

In your opinion, will a cloud-based streaming game service ever really take off and offer as good of an experience compared to playing PC games on a local hard drive?

"Only time will tell. Right now, the infrastructure isn't in place for a majority of gamers and it will take a while for the performance and latency to meet the expectations of enthusiast, hardcore and competitive gamers. In a competitive Counter Strike, LoL, DOTA2, WOT match, milliseconds mean life and death."

Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about Alienware Alpha and its upcoming launch?

"We are taking preorders now for our initial production build of the Alpha and units will begin shipping to customers in November. We have a very limited number of units we are going to be able to deliver before the end of this year so if you're interested put your pre-order in now at www.alienware.com. I've never been more proud of a product from Alienware as I am of the Alpha. It's an amazing piece of hardware and software, you're going to love it!"

We would like to thank Frank for taking the time to answer our questions!