Alpha: My First PC
The PC port of Final Fantasy VII that I recently completed was the first of many PC-only games I wanted to play, but queued up because playing PC games is inconvenient. I have a 2011 Mac mini that I can dual-boot in Windows, which is what I mostly used for FF VII, but rebooting was slow, the mini was noisy, and its graphics card simply unable to properly play games made after 2010. I have a late-2013 MacBook Pro, but I keep using it for work, it's inconvenient for playing on a TV, and its graphics card could have been better.
I insisted on using Macs, even for PC games, because "gaming PCs" are just too much trouble. Almost all small-form-factor PCs sacrifice graphics performance for size and quieter fans, including the mini. On the other end, even your average "gaming PC" is expensive, a bulky tower with neon lights and require manual assembly. Here's the thing: I can do all of that without problem, from building a PC server to maintaining Windows Server. But that's what I do at work. It's as if there is not such thing as a "casual gaming PC for your TV". Well, at least until the Alienware Alpha, essentially a small-form-factor gaming PC.
The Alienware Alpha is presented as a kind of video game console. While it runs Windows 8.1, its default user account is running a modified version of XBMC that replaces the Windows desktop, and lets you run Steam in "Big Picture" mode. The entire setup can be done (a bit clumsily) using the provided XBox 360 controller (oddly, with its USB dongle for wireless use). For me, though, I already had my wireless mouse and keyboard (and a USB mouse with a long USB extension of FPS games), because I want to play older PC games made for a mouse and keyboard, so I ultimately disabled that "full screen" account and set up a standard desktop Windows account.
And you have to accept that the Alienware Alpha is a PC that isn't that user-friendly and requires tweaking to play games. For example, the frame rate of "Metro: Last Light" was terrible because it was using outdated nvidia libraries; updating the library files made the game much faster. Or Geometry Wars 3 had terrible lag issues, until you run it in windowed mode or manually edit its settings file. Actually, the simple fact that the Alpha's nvidia card is "too new" to be recognized by older games is enough to force you to tweak all the settings. I'm still curious about dual-booting into SteamOS, a Linux distribution of Steam that has a proper "console feel", though most games I want to play are PC-only or not in Steam in the first place (from GOG, actually).
With all that said, the Alpha is a pretty good PC. I was able to plan all the games at maximum settings at at least 30 frames per second, and much more on games made before 2012. It's well optimized for 1080p, which is less than 4K support from current-gen 3D gaming cards, but is perfect for TV use. The hard drive is slower than my MacBook Pro's SSD, but the 3D card is so much better on the Alpha that I don't mind the extra load time. You can still easily replace the hard drive in the Alpha with a SSD, and you can upgrade pretty much everything else but the motherboard and 3D chip, with detailed service manuals. It has an HDMI passthrough, digital optical audio output, many USB 2 and 3 ports (and even a hidden USB port underneath, perfect for my wireless keyboard dongle). Finally, its price is competitive, meaning absurdly cheap compared to similar specifications from Apple.
What I'm saying is that the Alienware Alpha is a good "entry-level" casual gaming PC for use on a TV, without the hassle of a typical PC tower. That, and I now have a PC. I still feel a bit weird about that.