Can A Mini-PC Replace A Console In The Living Room?

We have all been eagerly awaiting Steam OS and the inevitable flood of affordable console like mini-PCs that will let us play our existing library of games in the living room. The problem is Valve’s innovative new wireless controller is not ready, holding up the whole launch. Tired of waiting, some manufacturers have launched their own Windows based setups. But can they compete with your existing console?

Originally published on Gizmodo

In Australia right now your best two choices for a casual gaming ready mini-PC is the Alienware Alpha and the ASUS GR8. Both have discrete graphics cards and are designed to fit right into your living room. Shown off back in 2014, the Alpha was meant to be a flagship steam machine. Rather than sit around letting the hardware age, the Alpha has been packaged up for sale with a wireless xBox 360 controller and Windows 8.1. The problem is that Windows is not exactly controller friendly, so the Alienware boffins built a custom UI that lets you easily launch your games and adjust other options without needing a keyboard and mouse. Catering to a more hands on crowd, the ASUS GR8 is a semi bare bones machine (with CPU and GPU) that lets you add your own hardware to the basic system. The UI is up to you — the GR8 will be compatible with Steam OS but for now Windows and an xBox controller is the obvious choice. The Alpha starts from $699, while the GR8 will set you back $1299.

Hardware for both machines is fairly similar. The Alpha we tested has an Intel Core i3-4130T CPU, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce GTX 860m and a 500GB HDD. You can also get a more powerful CPU and more RAM, but the same GPU. The ASUS GR8 has an Intel Core i7-4510U and a GeForce GTX 750Ti. We tested with 4GB of RAM and a 500 GB HDD. Both also have the usual array of connectors — USB 3.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Gigabit LAN plus HDMI outputs. While this might seem low end, these machines are designed to achieve decent frame rates at 1080P on medium to high settings — not absolute cutting edge performance. That said, both units have more powerful hardware than the current generation of gaming consoles.

The Alienware Alpha has the advantage of being ready to go out of the box. Connect it to your TV, plug everything in and off you go. The UI is a little clunky and only lets you launch Steam games but it a passable attempt at a controller centric interface. For other gaming titles or programs you will need to plug in a keyboard and mouse and reboot into Windows 8.1 mode. Don’t get us wrong, the UI is handy, but still falls a long way short of a full console experience. In contrast, the ASUS GR8 is a totally Windows experience, albeit in a funky living room centric package. While you can game all you want with a controller, you will need a wireless keyboard and mouse to handle Windows.

But what about the gaming? Once you have actually launched your favourite title, the experience is great. Microsoft makes an excellent controller and for compatible games, it’s a relaxing experience to kick back on the couch after work. On either machine you can expect to game at 30+ FPS in 1080P with the graphics set to medium or high. Compared to the xBox or Playstation, the quality is noticeably better and you can get access to your full array of Steam games.

Ultimately though the experience feels like an awkward transition between console and PC. The mini PCs have a tiny form factor, look great and feature powerful hardware, but really don’t offer too much more than your PC already does. Compared to a console, or even building your own mini-PC, they command a bit of a price premium. Once Steam OS and the new controller actually launches, then you will be able to play your favourite PC games on the couch very easily.

But until then, dedicated console gamers won’t be swayed — it’s still a PC experience masquerading as something more. That said, if you have an impressive collection of Steam games and want a compact, stylish and simple way to play them on the couch, both the Alienware Alpha and ASUS GR8 are a decent way to make it happen. But don’t throw away the console just yet.

Check out the full specs and 3DMark Cloudgate Scores below.

Alienware Alpha

Intel Core i3-4130T CPU GeForce GTX 860M GPU 4GB DDR3 RAM 500GB 5400RPM HDD HDMI Input / Output 2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0

3DMark Cloud Gate: 8965


ASUS GR8

Intel Core i7-4510U CPU GeForce GTX 750Ti Up to 16GB DDR3 RAM 2.5” HDD Bay HDMI, DisplayPort 4x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0

3DMark Cloud Gate: 9269


Comments

    It's not an xBox. It's Xbox.

    It could if my console gamer friends wanted to switch away from XBL or/and PSN sure. But I don't see that happening.
    That's my specific circumstance though. Personally I have no problem having consoles and a desktop. Don't have any particular need for a mini pc.

    Last edited 02/03/15 9:54 pm

      I have to agree.

      I have my PC, laptop and console so I don't really need another device that isn't actually filling any gaps.

      Last edited 03/03/15 3:44 am

    I'd be first in line for one of these if the price was comparable to existing consoles and if there were more than just a few games that appealed to me on Steam. It's only a matter of time before machines like these become the norm, but price is the key to winning over the lifetime console gamers and casuals.

    I used to play on my PC in the 90's things like jill of the jungle commander keen and jazz jack rabbit and batman returns but since then I've been solely consoles. I've had a ps1, ps2 and ps3 but the ps4 hasn't convinced me to jump aboard. I really like backwards compatibility which is making me leniant towards a PC or steam machine.
    Yet I like some Playstation exlcusives like the unfinished swan, journey, ICO and the shadow of a the colossus and the old crash bandicoots which I can't get on steam. I also never want to emulate games. I would only buy from steam.
    Yet steam hasn't convinced me either as I feel like I don't completely own the games I buy. On a Playstation if I download a game I am assured I can play it years down the track as long as the Playstation doesn't shit itself. Yet on a PC if for whatever unlikely reason steam shuts down then I lose access to my games.
    I dont like the idea of having to sign into Steam. I don't really understand offline mode so someone please fill me in..
    Anyway if anyone can prove me wrong and send me in the right direction on what they think the better choice is it would be greatly appreciated coz I have no idea. Cheers.

      Steam is like the PSN or Live, only far, far superior. You don't pay for multiplayer, you only pay for games, and some of them are dirt cheap during sales. Steam is better than a Playstation, as you can login to Steam on a different PC any time you like and download and play your games there. The chances of Steam going down are not realistic for concern. If Steam went down you'd be more worried about electricity and food, that sort of scenario. Once you put your login into Steam you don't have to log back in, unless you change users. Same as a console. AAAAND offline mode is what you use when your internet is dead. Have a single player game you want to play? Offline mode!

        Thanks for the feedback

        I don't know what it's like these days but Steam's offline mode has always been a bit iffy compared to consoles. If the game uses the Steam API then you are most likely going to run into problems but otherwise it's most likely going to run ok.

      I remember the idea of Steam shutting down and denying us access to the games we've paid for being a concern when Steam launched way back when. I remember reading that Valve have some kind of patch they could release that would deactivate the games' need to connect to the Steam network to function should they go out of business.

      I can't find the link from back then, but this guy got a similar answer: http://www.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/18mzcn/i_asked_steam_support_what_happens_to_my_games_if/

        The link helped heaps cheers definitely answered any doubts

    Problem is a 750Ti isn't really going to impress more than the current gen of consoles. You'd have to sell it another way, like Steam sales and early access benefits. Especially when these things cost more than consoles and don't have any games bundled in with them.

    It's something I'd consider, but not at that price when current consoles are cheaper and offer a better experience overall.

    I built a mini pc about a year ago and never looked back, it's an I5 8 gig ram and 5tb storage with a 760 gtx, I use a Logitech wireless controller and the hp media keyboard, running steam big picture I use it to launch anything I need to run with seamless plex integration for all my media.

    The box runs anything I throw at it at 60fps + it eats consoles for breakfast and you can't even see it in my tv unit :)

    Build your own box, pc gaming on a couch with a big screen is bliss!

      how much did it all cost? Because I'm thinking about building my own pc and I'm stuck on what parts I want to get.

      There is a chap from Korea that builds small form factor pcs out of Lego and sells them. They'd look very cool in any lounge room.
      http://www.fit-pc.com.au/#!Lego-Computers/c1ltt/55149a990cf2aa181160f4dd

    I have the Alpha system with the I3 processor and all I did so far is add another 4gigs of mem bringing mine to 8 gigs and I love the machine. I have close to 100 steam games and I also play Blizzard , Orgin , and Amazon games on it with no problems. This weekend I played Tomb Raider and Hitman oh and I also have MMO LOTR online. And yes I also own an Xbox one, 360 and orginal xbox and a PS3.

    yer I would consider something like this but the price for the parts you are getting is definitely a no go. As $1299 for and just getting a 750ti is a rather expensive; my current pc which I built last year cost $1400 and could run circles around that set up.
    For not having custom ui yet you could easily set it up so that steam launches in big picture mode on pc start up so you could control everything with a controller once you have set it up the first time and you can add non-steam games to the steam ui pretty easily as well.
    But until someone comes up with a better price to parts ratio I wouldn't recommend it (and this is comparing prices to other computers not consoles as consoles generally are cheaper to start with but pc makes it up in cheaper games)

    Personally I would much rather build my own mini PC to have hooked to the TV. That way I can have the bits and pieces I want and it would most likely be cheaper.

    Not worth it at the moment. Miss out on console exclusives and can't play PC exclusive titles properly without keyboard and mouse.

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