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Alienware is forging ahead with plans for a Windows 8.1-based home gaming console, following delays to Valve Software’s Steam Machine console plans.

The device, which is called the Alienware Alpha, was originally slated to launch as one of many Steam Machines – small consoles powered by Valve software, designed to bring PC gaming to the living room. After Valve delayed the planned Steam Machine launch until 2015, Alienware decided to release the Alpha, which is being marketed as a console that’s capable of becoming a Steam Machine when the time is right, but can be used as a home gaming console until then as well.

Marc Diana
Marc Diana

Marc Diana, the Business Development lead for the Alpha, told GeekWire in an interview that Alienware is still committed to the Steam Machine, and appreciates all the work Valve is doing to make sure that its launch is a success, but the company wanted to move ahead with its console vision now.

The Alpha’s base configuration costs $549, and sports an Intel Core i3 “Haswell” processor, along with a custom Nvidia GPU based on the company’s Maxwell architecture. Users can also choose to upgrade the device’s processor, RAM and hard drive at the time of purchase.

Unlike a traditional PC, it only ships with a wireless Xbox 360 controller, and not a keyboard and a mouse. Diana said that the console itself is slightly larger than a Nintendo Wii, and is designed to consume only a small amount of power and run as quietly as possible when it’s turned on.

We’ve been doing demos internally for the past three weeks, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s even on,” he said. 

Alienware’s offering, which will be released in time for the holiday season this year, sports a special Console-mode UI that makes it easy for users to navigate through the device’s menus with a controller, rather than use a keyboard and mouse. One of the interface’s key features is the ability to launch straight into Steam’s Big Picture mode, and easily launch games purchased from Valve’s online storefront.

Ordinary users can just use the Alpha like any other console, but people interested in tinkering with hardware can choose to upgrade some of the box’s internal components in order to increase performance.

“They’ll be able to pop the top of this box open, upgrade the CPU, upgrade the hard drive and upgrade the memory,” Diana said. 

$549 for a console is a tough price point in this market. Microsoft recently started shipping a new version of the Xbox One that doesn’t include the Kinect sensor and costs $399 so that it had a console at the same price as the PS4. But Diana thinks that the Alpha will be appealing to consumers despite its higher price. He said that the console brings greater value to consumers than they can get with the Xbox One or PS4, because people with an existing library of Steam games will have all of their favorite titles available from the get-go, without having to re-purchase anything.

steamOSWhat’s more, Diana thinks that gamers will be impressed with the performance of the console, even at its base configuration.

“The majority of the games that are out there are going to run like butter,” he said.

For now, the Alpha also brings a key benefit over Valve’s plans for the Steam Machine: it runs Windows. Steam OS, which will power the consoles when they’re released, is a flavor of Linux, based on the Debian distro. Valve clearly hopes that the launch of the Steam Machines will encourage developers and publishers to port games over to Linux so they can run on the consoles, but right now, Windows still hosts a far larger catalog of games.

It will be interesting to see what this change means for the future of Valve’s plans in the living room. It’s clear that the Bellevue-based gaming company wants to forge ahead with its plans to take PC gaming to the living room, but continued delays could lead other companies to introduce their own Steam Machine capable devices that aren’t yet a part of Valve’s ecosystem.

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