Friday, December 23, 2016

Reviewing the Alienware Steam Machine i7

My wife picked up a Black Friday special for me (ironic, yes): the Dell-made Alienware Steam Machine i7, which went on sale for $375 at Gamestop. After a harrowing journey in which UPS seemed to lose it, and asserted to us the machine had been stolen, the Steam Machine mysteriously appeared.

This machine is 1/2 the size of an Xbox One
and about 60% the size of the PS4

I can't recommend the Steam Machine as it was intended....which is a Linux-based platform operating on SteamOS... for two reasons: first, it would hang on the intro screen and refuse to boot up properly; this seems to be a common issue that is a real pain for Steam Machine owners, based on my own googling. Second, it didn't really matter, because I had no intention of suffering through the SteamOS environment with the medicore lineup of Linux-compatible titles, so I picked up a copy of Windows 10 and reformatted the system anyway.

Now I have a Windows 10-based Micro PC that is more powerful than my two gaming consoles (PS4 and Xbox One), smokes my old Core i5 in terms of performance, and is half the size of both's tiny! It also runs silently....especially compared to my wife's own rig, which is a very expensive Xidax monstrosity she picked up two years ago and which sounds at times like a jet engine taking off.

Anyway....if you've ever seen one of these Steam Machines and wondered what their value was, I just have to say that so far (one week in) it's been an amazing experience, and well worth it once you kill the Linux/SteamOS and boot it over to Windows 10. If you read online most of the advice is about trying to set it up for a dual-boot format, presumably for gamers who have some vested (or technical) interest in keeping the Steam Machine with it's intended OS, but the fact is the thing runs great with Win 10--and as a result dramatically increases the number of games you can actually play on the PC.

Now that I have this machine it really makes my PS4 and Xbox One look kinda....redundant. The Xbox One is now back to the status of "Game Console I own so I can play Halo" and PS4 is the device I play Destiny on. Sony and Microsoft just don't have enough exclusives to make their devices stand out once you have a superior gaming PC....and Microsoft's concerted effort to make all of their first-party titles cross-platform compatible on the Xbox One and the PC means I can now load Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 on my PC and enjoy them there.

I learned to hate the disc on the right. And the one on the left might 
suck too, but I spent too much time loathing its buddy to notice.

The one downer in this package is the Steam Controller. The Steam Controller is an interesting but failed concept, an effort to make a tactile interface on the controller that reacts to your touch/pressure. It replaced one of two analog sticks with one of these touch-based discs, and the result, while not bad for navigating the cursor without a mouse, is utterly terrible for first and third person shooter experiences. I could see it being potentially useful for RTS type games, or games that don't require lots of precision control over a character, but my efforts to adjust to it so far have been miserable.

My preferred controller remains the one for the PS4, which I am pleased to see is getting a lot more compatibility and support from current game titles, so it runs great on PC with, say, Titanfall 2 and Doom (both of which I grabbed for PC on sale.)

Anyway, if you find a second generation Alienware Steam Machine i7 or a first generation version with Windows already on it, and you happen to like the idea of a micro PC smaller than a console with more power than what the Big Two currently have on offer, then I suggest grabbing one. At the price my wife paid for this one it was a complete steal.

SOLID A! Would have been A+ with Windows 10 pre-installed and a better controller packed in.

(And yes, this is the reason I've been posting less in the last few days....)

UPDATE: You know I was thinking some basic stats might be useful to people. Here's the scoop:

USB Info: There are two front USB 2.0 ports and two rear 3.0 ports. The 3.0 ports really are blazingly fast. I have my SSD externals hooked up to the back, so I have 3TB of active storage on this machine now, and run many games from the externals. 

Drive Support: There is no disc reader/writer, so if you want to be able to play DVDs or Blue Rays you'll need to keep that in mind.

Graphics Card: The on-board graphics card is, to the best of my knowledge, not something you can replace. However for the price I paid I expect to be able to upgrade anyway down the road. 

Also, Bluetooth: this thing connects effortlessly to my bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Adding this device dramatically decreased the number of wires and plug-ins littering my workspace.

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