By Lisa Eadicicco
December 2, 2015

The good: Partially upgradeable hardware, sleek design, easy way to bring Steam into the living room
The bad: Most games need to be streamed from a PC, controller is imperfect, PC games don’t always translate well
Who should buy it: PC gamers who primarily use Steam and are interested in a console experience
The bottom line: A good living room PC with some considerable limitations

For the most part, gamers have been divided into two camps: PC gamers and console gamers.

Being one or the other has its benefits. For instance, PC gamers can update their hardware whenever they wish (or can afford to) rather than waiting for a manufacturer to release a new console. They have tended to enjoy a higher level of precision afforded by a mouse and keyboard over a console controller. Consoles, however, are more suited to gaming in the living room and are configured to run smoothly from the moment you unbox it. They require less fiddling than gaming PCs and are generally cheaper all around.

Valve, which publishes some of the most popular games in the world and runs the popular PC gaming platform Steam, doesn’t believe these two worlds have to be separate. The company has partnered with hardware manufacturers to create console-like boxes called Steam Machines that can bring the platform’s library of games to your TV screen. Alienware’s Steam Machine is among the first of these devices to hit the market.

Starting at $449, this Alienware PC a slim device about the size of a cable box that runs on Valve’s SteamOS software. It looks like a compact console, complete with its own gaming controller, but can be upgraded regularly the same way a PC would. (Well, partially at least. More on that later.) That means gamers don’t have to wait years for a next-generation Steam Machine to get better performance. And it means gamers with a big library of PC games can access them on their living room televisions.

While the concept is appealing, there are still some considerable limitations. What’s it like in practice? Here’s a closer look:

Using it

The Steam Machine’s user interface is basic and familiar. If you’re accustomed to using Steam’s Big Picture mode on your PC, you’ll feel comfortable in SteamOS instantly since the interface is identical. Once you’ve logged into your account, you’ll be presented with a few tiles that span across the center of the screen which include Web, Store, Library, Community, and Chat. It works well.

There’s one aspect of the user interface that’s profoundly different from the experience offered by most consoles: the on-screen keyboard. Valve created a specific on-screen keyboard for SteamOS that’s meant to make it easier to enter text with two hands. The keyboard is divided down the middle with one cursor on each side. The idea is that you’d be able to input letters more easily since you don’t have to scroll across a full-length keyboard to select characters. It makes a lot of sense in theory, but the split keyboard layout didn’t feel as natural as I would have expected.

Although the Steam Machine is meant for gaming, it can perform some other useful tasks. You can browse the web through SteamOS, but the experience isn’t very seamless. (Few web-on-TV browsers are, to be fair.) The controller sometimes lagged when I tried to move the cursor around webpages. It also seemed odd that you need to press one of the action buttons to actually click on a link once you’ve navigated to it. Since the touchpad also clicks, it would have felt much more intuitive to simply press the touchpad to click on a link.

One of my favorite user features is the Steam overlay that appears when pausing a game. Pressing the Steam button in the center of the controller during gameplay will pause the game and present a few bits of relevant information, such as other friends that play the same game, how many achievements you’ve unlocked, any screenshots you’ve taken, and whether or not it can be streamed to a PC. If you want to view the regular pause menu for the game you’re currently playing, just hit the steam button again to get rid of the Steam menu. It’s a helpful adoption of something modern consoles do well.

Playing it

The Steam Machine’s most important attraction is that it allows you to access games you’d normally play on a PC through your TV from the comfort of your couch. If you’ve been considering whether to buy a console but have already purchased a ton of games through Steam, this sounds like a solid option.

But don’t get too excited. There’s a chance many of the games you purchased will have to be streamed from your PC and won’t run on the Steam Machine natively. Of the 6,500 games available in Steam’s store, only 1,500 are compatible with SteamOS. SteamOS is a derivative of Linux so developers have to adapt their games to run on the software.

During my time using the console, I found that games such as Fallout 4, Mortal Kombat X and The Witcher 3 could only be played if I was willing to stream the games from my PC via a wired connection. The streaming experience without a wired connection isn’t very stable. My feed cut out multiple times when I attempted to stream Fallout 4 from my nearby Windows PC to my Steam Machine. Those with a wired connection will likely appreciate the capability, though.

One of the few games in my library that was compatible SteamOS was BioShock Infinite, which is now more than two years old. There are a handful of other top-tier games that are capable of running on SteamOS, including Civilization V, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor. Still, the fact that I can’t play all of the games in my library without streaming them from a PC makes it difficult to imagine using a Steam Machine as a primary gaming device.

That being said, Valve does plan to add more games to SteamOS, such as Rocket League, over the next few months.

There’s also no easy way to filter SteamOS games from regular Steam games when browsing through the store. SteamOS, like the desktop version of Steam, allows users to filter games by using incredibly specific tags that sort games according to price, genre, or theme among other modifiers. This is handy, but there’s no search capability that allows me only browse games that are compatible with SteamOS.

You can, however, see if a game runs on SteamOS before you purchase it. When clicking on a title, you’ll notice small icons that tell you which platforms the game is compatible with just below the preview window. If it works with SteamOS, you’ll see a tiny Steam symbol.

Despite these shortcomings, the Alienware Steam Machine provides a smooth console-like experience when playing games that worth with Steam OS. The configuration I reviewed costs $649.99 and is powered by an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of memory, a one-terabyte 7,200 RPM hard drive, and an Nvidia GeFroce GTX graphics card with 2GB of RAM.

Games launched almost instantly and gameplay felt fluid whether the system was running a casual platformer like Fez or a more graphically sophisticated title like BioShock Infinite. This specific configuration offered the best performance with the graphics set to medium while playing BioShock.

Although the Steam Machine looks just like slim gaming console, there’s a crucial feature that separates it from devices such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Alienware Steam Machine is customizable, which means you can open it up and upgrade the memory, hard drive, or processor whenever you wish. That’s an important advantage for gamers that care about keeping their hardware up to date rather than waiting for a next-generation device to launch. The downside, however, is that you can’t replace the graphics card since it’s built into the device’s motherboard. This is arguably the most important part of a gaming PC.

The Steam Controller

Valve

The controller that comes with the Alienware Steam Machine is shaped similarly to Microsoft’s Xbox controller, but with some of Valve’s own tweaks.

Most modern gaming controllers come with two joysticks, a directional pad, and four action buttons. One joystick is typically used for moving your character, while the other controls the camera that lets you pan around your environment.

Valve, however, has swapped the joystick that’s usually used to rotate the camera in favor of a touchpad. Overall this worked well, but it slowed me down in a few instances as I was playing BioShock. It takes a bit longer to turn around quickly compared to using a joystick or a mouse, which can be important when playing first-person shooters. Despite this, the touchpad worked quickly with virtually no lag in other less-urgent instances.

In general, there’s a learning curve that gamers will have to get used to. The directional pad, for instance, doesn’t feature any tactile buttons but instead a smooth, flat surface that you can tap to move in either direction. The overall design of the controller makes it comfortable to hold though, especially for those who are used to gaming with an Xbox controller or a similarly shaped third-party controller.

Since Steam is a desktop platform at its core, many games available on Steam are configured to work with a mouse and keyboard rather than a controller. Valve touts the ability to easily program the buttons on the controller to line up with the commands you’d like them to execute directly from the pause menu. However, this wasn’t quite as easy as I expected it to be. I found the buttons to be unresponsive when I tried to program them through the option in the pause menu.

Regardless of whether or not you configure the controls, these games should work with Valve’s gamepad at a basic level out of the box. In my experience, however, the controller wasn’t receptive at all when trying to play Counter-Strike, which is designed for the PC. It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t need to use Valve’s gamepad—the Alienware Steam Machine supports Xbox One and Xbox 360 controllers, too.

Final thoughts

Creating a gaming console that’s designed to appeal to PC gamers is an ambitious and trying task. But Alienware’s Steam Machine is an indicator of the potential that exists for bringing these two worlds together. The idea of buying a machine that can function like a gaming console while offering the customization of a PC is something that will likely appeal to many gamers, especially among Steam’s large community. But the SteamOS library is small, and the overall Steam Machine experience still has a few hiccups to work out, such as making traditional PC games feel more controller-friendly and improving the streaming experience.

3 out of 5 stars

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