So, it's been a while since my last blog post, but tonight's is a juicy one — I've had hands-on with an Alienware Steam Machine for the last couple of days, and I've got all sorts of thoughts about it.
In addition, I'm giving away five copies of The Talos Principle for PS4, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment at the end of this post.
But first, before we get to any of that, a disclosure: The review unit and Steam controller discussed in this post were provided free of charge by Alienware for the purposes of evaluation. We didn't pay a dime for this stuff, so take that as you will.
Now, with that out of the way, what do I think of the Steam Machine? Well, first impressions are that it's pretty fabulous.
In case you're not familiar, the Steam Machine is essentially an idiot-proof computer that's built for the living-room. It doesn't even really look like a PC, and nestles quite comfortably beside a PS4 or an XBO. It runs Steam OS, and comes with the special touchpad controller that's meant to bridge the gap between a regular controller and a mouse & keyboard setup.
I know some people reading this may be scratching their heads and wondering what is the Machine is good for, or who it's supposed to be serving, but that's simple – It's for somebody like… me.
Despite my love of games and gaming, I'm no fan of tinkering with computers and trying to get things to work. I actually hate it when tech goes awry. Like, literal hate. Despite all the advancements in ease-of-use and making things approachable, I've got notoriously bad luck when it comes to computers, and I've got no tolerance for when things don't work. Furthermore, when it's time to game, sitting in front of a PC is pretty much the last place I want to be. I've had a Steam account for years and I've got dozens of games there, but I never play them because PC gaming hasn't been a good fit. As such, the Steam Machine is kind of like a dream come true for someone in my position.
So, there are two components to the Alienware Steam Machine: the box and the controller. Let me tackle these one at a time. First up, the box.
As the picture shows in comparison to the Xbox One it's perched on top of, the Machine is a very small unit, incredibly compact and with a dainty footprint. Wi-Fi is built in, so after it was unboxed, all I had to do was plug it in and enter my Wi-Fi password. The setup was incredibly simple, and it synced itself with my regular PC Steam account with no problem at all.
Once it was up and running, I was quite impressed with the UI. It's utterly simple, clean, and not cluttered at all. The games in my library were clearly displayed, and everything about the interface is pure efficiency. After selecting a game from my library, it was downloaded into the box, and it played with no issue – it was just like a console.
As great as this all sounds so far, that's not to say there weren't a few hitches. The biggest thing to be aware of is that the Steam Machine only runs Steam OS. For games that support it, no problem – they download and play easy as pie. On the other hand, not every game available on Steam supports Steam OS. See that green bar in the pic below? It's a caution message that pops up for games that can only be streamed.
This poses a bit of a problem. In order to play games on the Steam Machine which do not use Steam OS, they must be must be loaded onto a nearby PC and then streamed into it. Taking a quick glance online, it's difficult to pin down exactly how many games support the OS, but it seems to be somewhere between 1200-3000. That's a pretty healthy number, but in the time that I've spent with the unit, it seemed like at least a third of the titles I already owned did not support it. Of course, that may be because my own personal library is slanted towards older titles that I scooped up on the cheap, but it's still a thing to be aware of.
On the plus side, streaming from a PC into the Steam Machine and onto my TV was incredibly easy. In fact, I was shocked at how painless it was. With just one or two button presses, the Machine configured itself and connected to my PC wirelessly, loaded a game on the PC and then began streaming without any further input on my end. It couldn't possibly be simpler.
I tried out a variety of games that were streamed, and while running them was no problem, the quality of the streaming was a bit hitchy, even with titles that weren't high-end. I decided to run it wired instead of wireless, and it was running like butter after that. I honestly couldn't detect any lag at all.
One other thing to mention is that while my computer was streaming these games to the Steam Machine, my PC wasn't able to be used for other functions. It's also necessary to log out from the PC itself before trying to power down the Steam Machine, otherwise the PC is shut down as well. It's a small thing to quibble over, but it is one extra step that could be removed from the process for optimal functionality.
While this process was mindblowingly easy and I give a standing ovation to the engineers who made it simple enough for non-techy people like, some folks may not want to run another cable into the living room to avoid lag if their Wi-Fi isn't fast enough, not to mention the fact that a game-capable PC must be part of the equation for games that don't support Steam OS.
Now, about this controller.
This is the first time I've laid hands on the Steam controller, and after spending some time with it I have to say… Damn, I just don't like it.
To be fair, it's quite unusual and different than what players have been used to — after all, dual analog sticks became the standard quite a while ago, and most of the industry falls in line with that design philosophy. And for good reason, since it's efficient and makes a lot of sense. That said, the designers at Valve are trying to satisfy both PC players and living room players, and since certain games require a mouse, the Steam controller is meant to be a bridge between those two worlds. Of course, things which try to serve two masters often end up satisfying none, and that's pretty much what's happening here.
In terms of how it feels, the dimensions of it seem a bit off. I don't have the biggest hands, so it feels a little too wide to me, and my thumbs have to reach too far in. The face buttons are on the small side, and the single analog stick doesn't feel entirely comfortable where it is, either. The two touchpads are quite sensitive and can both be clicked in as buttons, but their use felt alien and I didn't find myself playing games that required them.
While none of that was too great, I want to give credit to the controller for the buttons on the underside — see those little flanges in the middle on either side? Those are the buttons. It makes total sense to have buttons triggered by the middle and ring fingers, and they're so good that I think controllers on all systems in the future should have these. In fact, the Xbox One Elite controller already does. Seriously, I love these buttons. They're awesome.
Apart from those buttons, there wasn't much love. Trying to use the right touchpad as a mouse works, but it wasn't as smooth or as intuitive as I would've liked, and I found myself spending a lot of time trying to remap buttons to configure things into a scheme that made sense. I got frustrated with the process pretty quickly, and had many instances of the controller feeling almost good but not quite good enough. I quickly lost interest in spending my precious free time remapping things and it was just easier and quicker to plug in an Xbox 360 wired controller or a mouse and a keyboard. I think the Steam controller is a valiant attempt at trying to remove the necessity for a mouse and keyboard in the living room, but it doesn't quite get there for me.
So, overall thoughts… Honestly, I kind of love the Steam Machine. Aesthetically it's very pleasing, it feels right at home in my living room, and having access to my Steam library while sitting on my couch is fantastic. It's exactly what I've been wanting for years, and the engineers behind it have clearly thought through a lot of the problems that people like myself want to avoid. I had a harder time setting up and using my Xbox One!
On the other hand, I think it's a significant issue that a PC must be around for games that don't support Steam OS, and of course, the ever-present issue of needing to upgrade is still a thing. While it had no problem playing the games I have at the moment, who knows how far behind the curve the Machine will be next year. Unlike the fixed specs of the PS4/XBO platforms, developers are under no restrictions when developing for the PC, and I'm guessing there's a very real possibility that a high-end games might be an issue in days ahead.
However, putting future issues aside, I have to say that Alienware has done a fantastic job with the Steam Machine, and my overall impressions are incredibly favorable. Playing all of the untouched titles in my Steam library in the same comfy seat where I play PlayStation and Xbox is a pretty amazing thing, and I'm guessing that once more people get a taste of living room PC games, they'll think it's just as amazing too.
Oh, and about winning The Talos Principle for PS4… just leave a comment below and check back on October 30, the five winners' names will be posted here at Gamecritics.
P.S. – one last thing… If you read this far, you're in for a special treat. I've got *one* Valve Key to give away to someone who leaves a comment below. What is a Valve Key? It's a code that gives you every Valve game ever made, plus EVERY GAME THEY WILL EVER MAKE IN THE FUTURE. Get this code, and you can tell your friends you own Half-Life 3!
So what the hell, leave a comment, eh?
— Brad Gallaway