Best Portable Gaming PC Processor: Core i7 6700T 2.2Ghz | RAM: 16GB | GPU: GTX 960 | Storage: 500GB HDD VERDICT:The Alpha R2 might seem like a boring black box at first, but power it on and you have the perfect console replacement. For couch-gaming this is the perfect small form factor PC
Alienware Alpha R2
Best Portable Gaming PC
Processor: Core i7 6700T 2.2Ghz | RAM: 16GB | GPU: GTX 960 | Storage: 500GB HDD
VERDICT:The Alpha R2 might seem like a boring black box at first, but power it on and you have the perfect console replacement. For couch-gaming this is the perfect small form factor PC
Remember back in 2015 when Valve announced their new lineup of “Steam Machines”? There was actually a fair amount of hype surrounding that announcement. The idea of a steam machine was to provide a console-like experience with desktop-like specs. This wasn’t possible with windows, as it isn’t really a “couch friendly” OS like we see on consoles.
So even though steam machines were small, powerful and quite capable of replacing your consoles, they never caught on. This was largely due to the SteamOS (Valve’s solution for a couch friendly UI) had way too many bugs and glitches. Plus it was very clunky compared to the Xbox, PS4, or even Nintendo’s OS.
But compact PCs still have a place somewhere in the living room. For people who don’t want to put together their own custom PCs, or just need a home theater system, small form factor PCs will always exist. The Alienware Alpha R2 is a prime example of that. But let’s figure out if this tiny little PC belongs in your living room.
The Alpha R2 is the second iteration of Alienware’s small form factor PC, as the name itself implies. The original Alpha was quite a capable machine as well, but the Alpha R2 makes some notable improvements. Originally, the Alpha lineup also started with SteamOS, but as we talked about that before, it quickly died out. Since then, the Alpha R2 follows the footsteps of its predecessor and runs Windows 10 Home out of the box.
The exterior of the Alpha R2 isn’t that much different from their steam machine or last year’s Alpha. It’s basically a small black box made out of polycarbonate. If we’re talking about size, the Alpha R2 is much smaller than the original Xbox One and about the same as the original “fat” PS4. Sure both consoles now have “slim” versions which have a more streamlined design.
There are 2 LED sections on the front that you can customize through software. There’s the alienware head logo and a small triangular area that lights up.
If we’re talking about build quality, the Alpha R2 feels pretty dense and solid overall. Sure there is plastic all around but we didn’t notice any weak points in the build, nor is there any flex in the chassis. Overall, the alpha looks and feels good.
The Alienware Alpha R2 has a tonne of ports, so connecting all of your peripherals shouldn’t be much of a problem. We have 4 USB 3.0 ports, two on the front and two at the back. We also have ethernet, optical audio out and an HDMI port. There is also a USB 2.0 port underneath, hidden beneath a flap, this is most likely for a dongle for your wireless mouse/keyboard.
That’s about the gist of it. Of course, there is also Bluetooth 4.2 built in, so you can connect wireless devices easily. If you get the configuration with the GTX 960 GPU, you also get a proprietary connector for pairing the Alpha R2 with Alienware’s Graphic Amp (More on that later).
So, the Alpha R2 does have a tonne of ports, but it does miss the mark here and there. First off there is absolutely no Thunderbolt 3 support. Meaning if you have a Thunderbolt 3 display or a super fast Thunderbolt 3 external drive, you won’t be able to use them to their full potential.
There’s also the strange omission of the regular 3.5mm audio jacks. If you want to connect a pair of headphones, you’ll have to use the 3.5mm analog jack on the back of your monitor, or use a USB headset. A slight annoyance for sure, but definitely not a dealbreaker.
Say Hello To Hivemind
Honestly with a brand name like Alienware, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they went with a name like “Hivemind” for their OS. Sure, the Alpha R2 runs Windows 10 out of the box, but you can download Alienware’s own custom OS for a more couch friendly experience. Now with a name like Hivemind, you’d expect a futuristic and polished user interface. Well, that’s quite a ways off from the reality.
Hivemind is based on Kodi, an open-sourced based media player. So you can already imagine how things are. Sure, it’s controller/remote friendly so you don’t have to leave the couch. But that’s pretty much where the convenience ends. The menus are confusing, the overall design theme is way over the top and everything feels downright clunky.
Sure, you won’t be spending a lot of time in the menus, as we imagine you’d use this just to fire up a game. But honestly, everything feels so clunky that we’d just recommend avoiding it entirely and using Windows. Maybe this is the reason why SteamOS failed as well. We haven’t seen a polished OS like the Xbox or PS4 UI on PC yet, and we don’t know if we’ll see it anytime soon either.
The Alpha R2 can be configured to your liking. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, you can use it as a good old home theatre system in your living room. But if you actually want a real console killer, you can max out all the specs and enjoy console killer performance, without ever leaving the couch. The base model comes with either a 6th gen core i3, i5 or i7, a 500GB Hard drive, 8 or 16 gigs of memory, and an optional GTX 960
Obviously, if you want to do any real gaming, we’d recommend pairing the i7 and the GTX 960, along with 16 gigs of RAM. That is the exact some configuration we are reviewing here. Sure, the GTX 960 is a pretty old video card, but then again there aren’t a lot of pre-builts in this form factor.
Obviously, with 16 gigs of RAM, the Alpha R2 is pretty snappy to use. Binge-watching a show on Netflix with 9-10 chrome tabs opened in the background wasn’t much of a problem. However, you might want to avoid the 8 gig configuration, as a lot of people have reported slow-downs over time. As for the 4GB configuration, well that’s a major no.
But how is it for gaming? Well for the form factor, and even the price, it absolutely crushes the PS4 and Xbox One. On most e-sport titles such as CS:GO, Rocket league, and Overwatch, we’re getting 80-100 fps on average at high settings. This is obviously much higher than your average console. Dropping down the details a bit, we were able to get the Witcher 3 running at 70-80fps at 1080p, with a few details lost sure. But this is still more than your average console.
The Alienware Graphics Amplifier
An External Graphics card is still an upcoming and ever-improving technology. Let’s be honest here, in 2019 it’s questionable if they’re still relevant. We already know what they do, you drop in a GPU in the enclosure, connect it you your laptop/Desktop PC and you basically have a portable working graphics card.
Sure, not everyone is going to agree with the cost of the enclosures alone, and adding the cost of the GPU, things can get a bit ridiculous. But Alienware’s Graphic AMP is still one of the best solutions out there. It has a 460W ATX power supply, which is a desktop PSU. But it’s not the smoothest process. Setup is a bit weird and takes its time, it requires a proprietary connection and the PC will restart every time you connect or disconnect the Amp. But that proprietary connection is what gives it all of that raw power. The Graphics Amp might be the only solution out there which actually maximizes the power of the video card inside. It’s actually quite close to a full desktop class performance.
So, if you feel like the GTX 960 in the Alpha R2 can’t hold up overtime, you can just get the Graphics Amp in the near future, and add some more life to this already amazing machine.
So that’s the Alpha R2 for you, a small form factor and couch friendly little PC, which is actually pretty versatile. It is by no means the perfect gaming PC. The “Hivemind” OS is pretty clunky, and the GTX 960 is definitely an aging video card.
However, there aren’t a lot of small form factor PCs like this on the market. The ones that do exist have newer cards such as the 1070 or 1080. That sounds great at first, but then they also cost over $1500 which is just ridiculous if you want a PC for the living room.
If you want to play some games on the couch, and you don’t mind dropping down the settings a bit, you’ll still get more performance out of the Alpha R2 then most consoles. The Alpha R2 with the maxed out configuration goes for $900, but these days it can be found for much less. If you can find a good deal on it, we’d definitely recommend picking one up.
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Prices taken/valid at the time of review.