At a glance
Alien (+) Sexy chassis; small and portable; quiet.
Alien vs Predator (-) Only small portion of Windows games; lack of video streaming apps; Linux performance issues.
Updated with video review!
We’ve been looking forward to Valve’s Steam Machine initiative for a long time, mostly because Valve has never really failed us in the past. Well, there’s a first time for everything, and unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that Valve has made a misstep here.
At the frontlines of the initiative is Alienware’s little 2.1x7.8x7.8-inch box. If the system looks familiar, it’s because it’s largely the same small PC as the company’s Alpha system we reviewed earlier this year. It’s still super sexy, portable, and has the same ports. The biggest difference here is that the Steam Machine version uses Linux (with Steam’s Big Picture Mode overlay on top) instead of Windows. Also, instead of coming with an Xbox controller, the Steam Machine comes with Valve’s new Steam Controller, which has a steep learning curve, but let’s you play every single game on Steam and allows you to easily navigate Valve’s 10-foot UI.
Steam Machine video review
Our particular Steam Machine is running the same mobile graphics card that its Alienware Alpha counterpart uses—essentially a variant of Nvidia’s 860M GPU. The system does offer some much-needed enhancements, which include Intel’s 3GHz Core i5-4950 quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 7,200rpm hard drive. Conversely, our Alpha came with an i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 5,200rpm HDD.
Linux currently has access to roughly one-fifth of the entire Steam library.
Despite the beefier hardware, however, we’re sad to report that the Steam Machine, with Linux, performed much worse in our gameplay benchmarks compared to the Alpha. There aren’t that many Linux games with benchmarks, but we tried Bioshock Infinite, The Talos Principle, and Shadow of Mordor, and all of them ran 20–30 percent worse than the Alpha, which is troubling considering the Alpha is only a little more powerful that the current-gen consoles. Playing a popular game like Ark: Survival Evolved was damned near impossible at anything but the lowest settings, and then it looked like crap. To be fair, Ark is still in Early Access and the game will likely be better optimized over time. Still, don’t expect to run intensive games above medium settings here. Only in Valve’s own Half-Life 2: Lost Coast benchmark, which uses the non-taxing Source engine, were the two systems comparable. This suggests that the other games weren’t well optimized for Linux.
The Steam Machine comes with Valve's Steam Controller.
Perhaps worse than the unoptimized ports, however, is the lack of games compared to Windows offerings. While Valve has done a very commendable job of increasing the amount of games we get on Linux in the past couple of months, with a total library of 3,389 games at the moment, that’s still only about 22 percent of titles that are available on Windows. Even MacOS currently boasts a greater library of games with its 5,602 titles, which is disconcerting because we would never recommend buying a Mac as a gaming PC. While there are some high-quality games on Linux, and we’re sure more will follow, so far, a lot of the big publishers haven’t brought their big guns to Steam. For instance, there’s no Fallout 4, GTA V, or Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 here. You could use the Steam Machine as a streaming box from your Windows PC, but unless you’re using a wired connection, you’re going to be experiencing the same Wi-Fi latency issues as Valve’s hit-and-miss Steam Link. And going with Linux, you’re also missing games outside of Steam, such as titles on Battle.net and Origin. It simply makes much more sense to bite the $100 bullet and purchase Alienware’s equivalent Windows box.
Beyond the game limitations, the Steam Machine has other issues. For some reason, some cloud saves didn’t carry over for us on certain titles. Another gripe we had is that there are no native video streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, or Youtube. Nowadays, people use their consoles for more than just gaming. Luckily, there is a browser built into Steam so you can launch Netflix from there, but this solution isn’t very elegant. What’s more, the Steam Controller doesn’t support a headphone jack, so you can’t issue it voice commands to search for things like you can on the Xbox One or Nvidia Shield console. The Steam Machine itself doesn’t have an analog mic port either, so you’re going to have to use a USB headset to communicate with your friends online.
Truth told, we’re not really sure who this is for. The key market seems to be PC gamers who absolutely won’t install Windows, but how many of those people exist? Because we like the hardware, we would suggest going with the Alienware Alpha box with Windows instead, as Alienware has made several improvements to the UI and it works equally well with the Steam Controller. For $100 more, the extra performance boost and access to every Windows game is definitely worth it.
|Alienware Alpha||Alienware Steam Machine||Percent Difference|
|Bioshock Infinite (fps)||69.5||48.1||-30.8%|
|Talos Principle (fps)||49.3||37.8||-23.3%|
|Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (fps)||235.9||231||-2.1%|
|Shadow of Mordor (fps)||50.6||35.4||-30.1%|
Our zero-point is Alienware’s Alpha with a 2.9GHz Intel Core i3-4130T, 8GB DDR3 RAM, a GeForce GTX 860M, and Windows 8.1. BioShock Infinite tested at high settings; Talos Principle tested at high settings; Lost Coast tested at max settings; Shadow of Mordor tested at medium settings; all at 1080p.
|CPU||3GHz Intel Core i5-4950T|
|GPU||Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (variant)|
|Storage||1TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Connectivity||HDMI (out and in), S/PDIF, 3x USB 2.0, 2x USB 3.0, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11ac|
|Carry Weight||4 lbs, 8 oz|