The team at Dell’s Alienware division has been fighting the good fight, so to speak, for many years in PC gaming. Some have herald that PC gamers are a dying breed, especially with the onslaught of Microsoft’s and Sony’s next gen consoles but the team at Dell’s Alienware division would vehemently disagree of course. The Dell division’s Alienware X51 SFF gaming PC is a testament to that, with a console-sized footprint and high performance internals, the device is as at home in the living room as it is on or under the desktop. But there’s another movement afoot that takes convenient, sleek PC gaming further, with industry backing and the critical mass of Valve Software’s Steam gaming platform and forthcoming SteamOS operating system.
OEM PC manufacturers have lined up offerings for Valve’s Steam Machine beta program that is set to disrupt the living room, bringing the convenience of console gaming on a straight-up PC platform. And now Dell too has tipped their hand with respect to their commitment in the Steam Machine initiative.
Dell’s Alienware Steam Machine is a forthcoming small form factor (SFF) PC that will run the new SteamOS operating system that’s built on Linux exclusively for gamers. I got some hands-on time with a mechanical mock-up of the product, as well as some time with another Dell system that was running SteamOS and a few games, at CES 2014 in Las Vegas this week. It’s safe to say that Dell is cooking up something special with their Steam Machine. It’s significantly smaller than either Xbox One or PlayStation 4 consoles and weighs only a few pounds with what Dell is disclosing currently as Intel and NVIDIA internals. Dell is still firming up specs but the system could use standard desktop components, mobile technologies or a combination of the two. What’s impressive about Dell’s Steam Machine, however, is that it’s much smaller and sleeker than any other Steam Machine I’ve seen thus far and how Dell is targeting a form factor that could put traditional consoles to shame. The Dell Alienware Steam machine is actually more the size of a set top box and the Alienware execs we spoke with also claim the device will be priced “competitively with next generation consoles.”
Disruptive Tendencies –
Later that night over dinner, I had a discussion with some industry folks about PC gaming versus consoles. We all agreed that, while PC gaming graphics fidelity and performance is far superior to consoles, consoles offered a vastly better experience in terms of usability and being able to just jump in and play without the need to configure and fuss with things. This sort of convenience is what the gaming PC industry needs and what Valve and manufacturers designing and building these Steam Machines could bring to the table. Valve’s Steam gaming platform offers excellent convenience and social connectivity features for chatting with friends and setting up private group gaming sessions. It’s the underlying operating system, drivers and network configurations that sometimes trip novice PC gamers up. SteamOS has the potential to disrupt console gaming with a similar experience and it will be very interesting to see how things pan out later this year when it’s released.
Valve and it’s ecosystem partners have also taken the concept a step further, designing a controller that could help bridge the gap for PC gamers coming from a keyboard and mouse to a console-like controller. I had some time playing with the current iteration of Valve’s Steam Controller and it was impressively easy to use. The controller has two circular control pads. In the game I played, a first person shooter, one was setup for panning, strafing and aiming in traditional AWSD fashion, while the other was setup for forward and back movement. Control of my character was smooth and precise, much more so than I could previously achieve with a traditional console thumbstick-driven controllers. Triggers buttons were setup for firing and aiming down site. You could also customize bindings and share binding profiles with friends on the Steam network. It’s this sort of innovation that could really disrupt the gaming market over time and it’s exciting to see something new and break-out like this in gaming peripherals.
Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until the second half of this year for Dell’s Alienware Steam Machine to see the light of day. Dell will likely be gated by the production release of SteamOS as well but, in terms of form factor and aesthetics, Dell Alienware has set the bar for Steam Machines and will be a top player to watch in this product category that will be fleshing out and officially launching later this year.