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

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway or contact him at bradgallaway a t gmail dot com
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Anonymous
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Anonymous

Don’t know if the valve key is still on offer, but if it is put me in the hat.

Please don’t put me in the hat for the Talos Principle (already have that) plus I don’t have a PS4.

And while I am at it nice review of the steam machine; too bad the controller feels off.

Dyna
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Dyna

Wow I never heard of such a key to exist.
But I would love to win a Valve key.

Steamer
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Steamer

Great article. It still sounds too complicated to me, though.

AuburnRDM
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AuburnRDM

Thanks for the in depth impression on the new machine! It’s a neat idea but I don’t think it’s for me right now. I was thinking about grabbing just the controller but I’m considering holding out for one of those fancy new Xbox Elite whatchamacallits.

Also, a Valve key!? That sounds like quite the prize. 🙂

louiedog
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louiedog

Shame about the controller. I find myself using a controller with my PC more and more, but not for some genres that just don’t work with sticks. Maybe I’ll give it a shot when it goes on sale. Valve likes to do those.

And count me in for that Steam key for Valve games. I’d love that. If my name gets pulled for Talos move on to the next person. I don’t have a PS4 and I already have the game on Steam. It’s incredible and everyone should play it.

Natty
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Natty

#gamergate endorsed disclosure. Awsome

Zolbrod
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Zolbrod

Thanks for the impressions, Brad! I haven’t tried the Steam Box myself yet, but the controller just looks really awkward to me. I’m a man who needs a proper d-pad, dammit! I did try Valve’s VR thingy once though, which was very impressive. I’m curious to see how much the Steam Machine and the VR helmet are going to cost when they’re finally released to the public. Like yourself, the PC has never really found its way into my gaming life/habits, so the Steam Machine could potentially be something of interest to me, but it’s going to depend largely on… Read more »

Peter
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Peter

I’ve read some people being confused about this being a Pc of a console. Actually it’s a Pc set up as a console: It’s a Pc using regular Pc hardware. You could definitely install Windows onto this machine or whatever version of Linux you would like. But the intention is to have SteamOS installed onto it. With SteamOS installed, the Pc will act like a console and can be easily controlled by a controller. You wouldn’t need a keyboard or mouse. Some pros and cons: Pro: – Easy to use as described in the article. – Don’t mess around with… Read more »

tom
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tom

OT, A hybrid game that I think would be brilliant, just came to me – merging Galak-z combat with PixelJunk Shooter world of environmental playground/ puzzles.

No need to thank me universe, just that Valve key will be thanks enough.

Marcus
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Marcus

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Steam Machine + controller! I’ve actually been considering a Steam Machine purchase myself, but since I have a pretty beefy gaming PC already, opted to just get a Steam Link instead. So far it’s working out well enough. I’m not a fan of setting up my own controller profiles for games which don’t have controller support, though. It makes me realize just how inept I am at game interface design (or whatever) despite playing years of games. With that said, I enjoy the Steam Controller a bit more than you, so I have… Read more »

Modern_Angel
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Modern_Angel

So.. if I understand correctly, my comment does not have to be related to the article. It is possible to be honest about the fact that you just want The Talos Principle on PS4 :). One related comment though: Steam Machines come in all sorts of configurations. I think that will make them hard to market. You can buy one for € 500, but you can also buy one for € 10.000. I think this will confuse customers, and will be a source of disappointment: some kid gets a cheap Steam Machine and can’t run Battlefield 4 on it. Apart… Read more »

Wim
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Wim

I’ve read the whole article and I don’t understand the difference with a console. It sounds like it IS a console, so why aren’t you calling it that? I understand that there will be different steam machines with different specs bus it’s not like a steam machine can actually replace a PC and that is what I expected it to be. Don’t get me wrong though, it sounds great to be able to play all those steam PC games from my couch! I’m exactly like you in that I absolutely hate setting everything up before I start gaming. Gaming should… Read more »

Stoner
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Stoner

It’s hard for me to imagine this ever really taking off to be anything more than a niche product. It’s really not that difficult for somebody even slightly computer savvy to run their desktop computers through their TV. And the presence of far cheaper boxes designed only to stream being yet another option, the steam machine just seems like a fix to a nonexistent problem. And I am extremely frustrated with the controller. This thing has been floating around for a very long time now, and I don’t believe anybody has ever given it a ringing endorsement. They’ve known all… Read more »

Graeme S
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Graeme S

A shame about the Steam Controllers. I thought it might be a good in-between option for a controller and keyboard/mouse, but it sounds inferior to just using one or the other.

I’ve got a pretty decent desktop hooked up to my TV, so if anything I’d like to get a Steam Link so I can move my desktop to a more convenient location.

Arindam
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Arindam

Alienware also makes Windows versions of their Steam machines called Alienware Alpha (same hardware). These were released last year and gets around the problem of not all games being compatible on SteamOS and requiring a separate PC for streaming them. The Alpha comes with the Xbox 360 wireless controller.

drewrowland82
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drewrowland82

The Steam Machine sounds awesome. Even though you didn’t like the controller, I’m still interested in it.

Ripso
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Ripso

Man, I’d really like to test that steam controller, but wouldn’t just want to blindly order one. I hope some stores here get one so you could sample it. Though it has to be pretty damn good to top the dualshock 4.

Daniel
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Daniel

I really liked the review.I used to mainly be a PC gamer but after a wrist injury I cannot use a keyboard and mouse for long periods of time. I am really interested in a form factor like this instead of the huge tower I currently have. I am hoping the steam controller can work well with some strategy games like Civilization.

Thanks again for the great review.

Ben Robinson
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Ben Robinson

Are there any options to browse the web, watch or stream videos, play music etc via the Steam Machine?

Will be interesting to see if this idea takes off at all. Then lack of support for Windows games is a big turn off for me, but if these devices become more popular then I can see a lot more AAA games getting Steam Machine (Linux) versions released.

Tom
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Tom

Since I’m naturally cynical, I expect Valve to continue to rework games controller support more so for its own Steam controller for its own benefit and revenue, rather than spend that development time and encouragement on the superior input device of current console controllers. In one part, I see Valve wanting to totally break free away from other format holders ( something I understand very much ) so to create their own integrated hardware/OS ecology – which includes their OWN controllers. But at this point it seems like a bad move with the steam controller compared to the far superior… Read more »

Gurp
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Gurp

Great review Brad, always love your perspective

Tony
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Tony

Re: the Steamboy-

http://www.pcgamer.com/steamboy-or-smach-zero-is-a-portable-handheld-steam-machine/

So it is geared towards older/less demanding games, given internals/reality, but that doesn’t strike me as a bad compromise. It seems like such a good, fun idea…but can they deliver it, who knows? I would gladly pay the asking price for a pocket-sized device capable of running full fat HL2/Dark Messiah/VtM, if nothing else- would definitely have me looking forward to the bus commute each day :).

geno55
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geno55

Hi Brad, great to hear your thoughts on the Steam box.

Congratulations ahead of time to whoever wins the Valve key. I thought those were just myths!

Darren Forman
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Darren Forman

I always suspected that your PC wasn’t hooked up to a plasma with a wireless 360 controller attached to it like nature intended! :p

I’m kinda curious, is there any advantage to the Steam Machine if, like me, you already have your gaming PC rigged up to your main gaming TV? The Steam Machine OS there seems to basically mirror Big Picture mode on Steam almost to the letter and I’m drawing a blank on what the device could offer me personally.

I understand standard PCs may be too large for some living room environments, but aside from form factor, anything else?

Brad Gallaway
Guest
Brad Gallaway

Chiggtastic> I’d go 360, no doubt. I’m really not a fan of the Steam controller. Hesham> Yep, that’s all you need to do. = ) Santiago> I haven’t played EUIV with it, but my guess is that you’d want to stick with m/k. Sperllit> I’m sure they’ll iterate, but i’m still not sold on the basic idea. Tom> totally agreed. i’d much rather see better controller support added to games than trying to reconfigure the steam controller to things. since i’ve started experimenting with the various games on steam, it really seems like many of the games that don’t support… Read more »

Darn Ragnar
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Darn Ragnar

Nice well rounded review. It hasn’t sold me on the need for a steam machine in my house but I’m definitely more interested then I was before.
I know you had free access to the unit but do you have any idea what the RRP is?

Findaer
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Findaer

Hey Brad, nice to see a writeup from someone in the target audience for this type of thing. Since you are on a couch and the controller doesn’t jive so much, are you using a keyboard on your lap and a mouse on an armrest? Curious how that works for you with games that are really mouse dependent- or if you just tend to avoid those types of games in favor of better gamepad games. Also, are you going to continue tinkering with the Steam controller to see if it will grow on you or is it a new toy… Read more »

tom
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tom

Thanks Brad. Valve was really committed to PC Couch gaming when they introduced Big Picture mode, and these new Steam Machines seem like an extension of their commitment to Couch gamers – And personally I am grateful because I’m very much a couch gamer. Big Picture Mode enticed me to buy my first ever PC for gaming for use on my TV. The new controllers are a part of that support, but it seems like it doesn’t really work well enough from everyone I’ve read that has tried it. About the controllers, Valve has even said that this is an… Read more »

Faraz
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Faraz

Nice first impression man, i was really thinking of importing the steam machine. Also entering the giveaway, fingers crossed

rwisdaman
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rwisdaman

Def gotta take brad up on the offer, crazy if you don’t.

Sperllit
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Sperllit

That’s disappointing that the controller has gotten a number of bad reviews. I was really hoping it would bridge the gap between mouse and keyboard vs controller. I wonder if they can improve it with better drivers/software or if it will remain as is.

Jokerass15
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Jokerass15

Really liked your review Brad! I Was wondering about the Steam machine and after reading your review it looks like something I will buy, looks very compact so it will fit well on my small desk and can easily play Steam games on the big screen. Thank you very much for this review! it was very helpful.

Santiago
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Santiago

Hi, i was wondering what you think of the controller in order to play grand strategy games, like EU IV or Crusader Kings, Civ V and other games like that?

Hesham.B
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Hesham.B

All I need a to do to win is leave a comment?!?!
(This is counts as a comment right?)

chiggtastic
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chiggtastic

Let’s say that if you’ve never touched a console controller by any chance in your life, would you rather play with he Steam controller of the Xbox controller? I’m just wondering. I’m really skeptical about that steam controller as well.

Brad Gallaway
Guest
Brad Gallaway

Upselo> Yep, you can filter for Steam OS in the store, so you can figure out what’s what before you buy. Jay> Yeah, it’s not quite as simple as a console, but it’s way better than playing on PC for someone like me, so I’m pretty happy. Josh> Tough to say. I’m sure the controller can be improved, but when you get right down to it, i think it’s always gonna be stuck halfway between the best ways of playing. Tony> I haven’t heard of the Steamboy… Fill me in! And thanks! I’ve been swamped lately, but I’m gonna try… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

So I like everything that you said here. Too often I don’t play steam games because my pc is too old/I like using the TV. My big question is for games that support an Xbox controller can that be used with the console as well?

Tony
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Tony

I’ll bite :). I love the form factor of the machine itself, but SteamOS and the hybrid controller don’t exactly put it over the top, for me. As mentioned, without a similar or better Windows PC to stream from it seems like a less useful version of last year’s Alpha, albeit with a slightly sped up HDD but with all other specs comparable? If Dell is going to let both versions coexist I am afraid that the pure Steam version will have difficulty gaining traction except among the dedicated, who themselves are probably repurposing baling wire and old flower pots… Read more »

Josh C.
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Josh C.

Thanks for the review Brad, I was curious about the Steam machine + controller. It’s a shame that the controller didn’t work out that well, but at least Valve is trying to innovate. I wonder if the trackpads are something that can be iterated on and improved or if the whole idea is just different but not necessarily good.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Hey Brad,

well, lemme leave a comment then…

So the Steam Machine… I dunno, I like you’re enthusiasm but I think I personally stick to my Playstation. One gaming machine will do and also the whole streaming thing, it’s a little hassle. I bet the first thing my girlfriend wants to do when I turn on the PC for streaming, is, use that same PC.

Keep up that good work and thanks for blogging. (I guess blogging and websites are fxcking almost old school nowadays, with Twitter/Facebook around)

Jay
PS. Watch Citizen Four. Interesting doc.

Mentazm
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Mentazm

Just a heads up, the games that work natively on steamos have to have linux versions, as steamos is Linux based. Around half my 200+ library works.

upselo
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upselo

That’s a really generous offer Brad, I think I’ll take you up on it 😉
SteamOs seems a nice surprise, though not knowing which games are supported makes it less likely that I’ll pick it up (I hope there’s a list somewhere or that it’s noted on the game page on Steam).