If you want an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset but realize that your existing PC just won’t cut it, don’t panic — you can get a guaranteed-ready system very shortly. Oculus has announced that pre-orders for both Oculus Ready PCs and those with Rift bundles will start on February 16th at 11AM Eastern, or 8AM Pacific. Amazon, Best Buy and the Microsoft Store will offer a handful of certified systems from Alienware, its parent company Dell and ASUS. Should you pull the trigger, you should get your rig sometime in April.
For the most part, these are standard gaming desktops that happen to meet Oculus’ recommended specs for a good VR experience. The big deal is that you’ll typically get a discount if you’ve already pre-ordered a Rift (between $100 to $200 off) — important when the cheapest system starts at $949 after you factor the Rift discount into the equation. This won’t matter much if you already have a speedy system, of course, but it’s a big deal for newcomers who want to get into VR without either a lot of knowledge or the time to track down an ideal PC on their own.
Sorry we haven’t updated the buyers’s guide in a couple months — we’ve been too busy pumping out reviews of all the new devices. Now that things have finally started to slow down (fingers crossed), let’s take a step back and look at all the awesome stuff we’ve had a chance to test this fall. For starters, there’s a bunch of excellent smartphones that we absolutely need to add to our guide. Namely: the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the Nexus 6P and 5X, and the Moto X Pure. On the tablet side, we’re inducting both the iPad mini 4 and the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft makes another appearance in the laptop section, where we’ve added the Surface Book, along with Dell’s Chromebook 13. Rounding out the list, we threw in a few miscellaneous items, including the new Xbox One Elite Wireless controller, the redesigned Sonos Play:5 wireless speaker and Google’s $35 Chromecast Audio.
Source: Engadget Buyer’s Guide
Lenovo and Samsung might not be the only big Windows PC makers pre-installing software that compromises your security. Computer buyers have discovered that Dell is shipping at least some PCs (such as the new XPS 15) with a self-signed security certificate that’s the same on every system. If intruders get a raw copy of the certificate’s private key, which isn’t hard, they have an easy way to attack every PC shipping with this code. The kicker? This is much like Lenovo’s Superfish exploit, only written by the hardware vendor itself — Dell had plenty of time to learn from its rival’s mistake.
Via: The Inquirer
I’ve long wondered why it was so hard to find a nice Chromebook. Sure, the Pixel may be an exemplary laptop, but it’s near-impossible to recommend that anyone spend $1,000 on a Chrome OS device. But most cheaper Chromebooks compromise your computing experience with bad displays, uninspired hardware or internals that just can’t keep up.
But there’s change in the air. Last year, Toshiba and Samsung both released 13-inch models that both moved the bar forward, but they also each had some serious flaws. Now Dell is trying its hand with its first 13-inch Chromebook, a follow-up to the successful 11-inch version it released last year. It may be marketed toward business users, but in a lot of ways this is a Chromebook that anyone who believes in the promise of Chrome OS could love. That quality comes at a cost, though: The entry price for Dell’s Chromebook 13 is $429. Does this Chromebook justify that bigger investment? Slideshow-329326
From the outside, the Chromebook 13 follows the demure styling found in the Dell Chromebook 11 — there’s nary a hint of color here outside of the Chrome logo on the lid. It might not be the most innovative or attractive laptop out there, but it’s functional and attractive in the same way as a navy blazer — it’ll never go out of style. The gunmetal gray magnesium alloy chassis, carbon fiber weave on the lid and shiny black Dell logo are all subtle and appropriate for the computer’s business pedigree and also appear to be highly influenced by the well-designed XPS series. It’s not something any employee (or consumer) will really be able to complain about.
That no-nonsense design extends to how the computer feels in your hands and in use. It’s a little thick (0.84 inch at its largest point) and a little heavy (3.23 pounds), but it at least feels strong and not cheaply built. Unlike most Chromebooks, there’s no flex when you’re typing or carrying the device around. It’s one of the best-designed Chrome OS laptops I’ve used, drawing a lot of influence from the Pixel — and it should at this price. It’s clear that Dell is leveraging a lot of its know-how from other notebooks in its lineup, and as such, this computer feels like a solid, time-tested design, not a first version of a new product for the company.
As far as I’m concerned, a Chromebook (or any laptop, really) has to get the keyboard, trackpad and screen right (which is why I’ve been so disappointed with the terrible 1,366 x 768 panels that populate most Chromebooks). Fortunately, the Dell succeeds on all counts here. The 13-inch, 1080p display is a standout — while Dell says it’s an IPS screen, viewing angles aren’t quite as good as you’ll see on more expensive computers. But it’s otherwise a wonderful-looking screen that finally offers up a decent-size workspace on a Chromebook. Sure, 1080p can make text a little tiny, but fortunately you can step it down to 1,536 x 840 if you need things to be larger. (Oddly enough, this panel can also be set to a higher, 2,400 x 1,350 resolution, but I wouldn’t recommend it.) Everything’s much sharper at 1080p, and the small text generally wasn’t a problem for me. I was happy to use this screen for hours every day during my testing.
The backlit keyboard isn’t as good as the one on the Pixel, but it’s far ahead of just about every other Chromebook I’ve used, with great travel and key caps that never feel like they’re going to go flying off if I type too vigorously. In fact, it’s as good as a keyboard on a laptop that costs twice as much. The trackpad is also a pleasure: It’s highly responsive and supports multitouch gestures. Again, it just felt like a component from a more expensive computer. I wish it were a bit bigger, but that’s the only knock I have.
One surprising thing about the Chromebook 13’s hardware is its robust audio output. Sure, you’re still listening to music on a laptop, but my casual testing revealed a computer that had solid speakers. It’s not as good as the Skullcandy setup on Toshiba’s Chromebook 2, but it’s better than I expected and certainly good enough for music or video playback in a pinch. Listening to music over headphones sounded similarly clean, with no distortion and clear playback at both high and low volumes.
As for ports, the Chromebook 13 gives you the essentials, but not much else; here are two USB ports (one 2.0 and one 3.0), an HDMI connection, a headphone jack and a microSD slot. The latter is probably my biggest issue with the laptop’s hardware: This computer feels big enough that having a full-sized SD slot on board shouldn’t have been a problem. Not having one means you’ll likely need a cable or adapter to get photos off a digital camera, which is a bummer. There’s also a 720p camera for video calls that does its job, but is otherwise unspectacular.
Performance and battery life
Dell is offering a wide variety of hardware configurations for its Chromebook 13. The $429 base model currently for sale (which I tested) features a Celeron 3205U processor along with 4GB of RAM, a 16GB solid-state drive and that 1080p non-touch display. (There’s also a $399 model with only 2GB of RAM; it’s not on sale yet and we do not recommend buying any computer with that little memory.) You can bump the processor up to a Core i3 or i5, increase storage to 32GB, jam in 8GB of RAM or get a model with a touchscreen. But for most customers, the low-end model will probably be enough for their needs — Dell’s base 13-inch Chromebook is a solid performer that outdoes just about all its competition.
|SunSpider v.1.0.2*||Google Octane||Mozilla Kraken*|
|Dell Chromebook 13 (Celeron 3205U, 4GB RAM)||371ms||
|ASUS Chromebook Flip (Rockchip RK3288C, 4GB RAM)||700ms||
|Chromebook Pixel (2015, Core i5, Intel HD 5500)||298ms||
|Toshiba Chromebook 2 (Celeron N2840, 4GB RAM)||967ms||
|Samsung Chromebook 2 (11-inch, Celeron N2840, 2GB RAM)||525ms||
|Acer Chromebook 13 (NVIDIA Tegra K1, 2GB RAM)||609ms||
|Lenovo N20p (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM)||567ms||
|ASUS C200 Chromebook (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM)||483ms||
|Acer C720 Chromebook (Celeron 2955U, 2GB RAM)||342ms||
|Dell Chromebook 11 (Celeron 2955U, 4GB RAM)||340ms||
*SunSpider and Kraken: Lower scores are better.
Intel’s newer Celeron 3205U processor appears to be a big step up over the N2840 model used in last year’s Toshiba Chromebook 2, although it’s not as big a step up over the Celeron 2955U chip used in the Acer C720 and Dell’s own 11-inch model. But the only Chromebook we’ve tested that definitively outperforms Dell’s new model is the Pixel. It wasn’t just in these benchmarks, either — the Chromebook 13 rarely slowed down at all, no matter how many tabs I had open. I’d typically have instances of Tweetdeck, Slack, Simplenote and Google Play Music or Spotify running alongside at least two more Chrome windows full of tabs and things ran smoothly nearly all the time. If I really pushed the number of tabs, I could cause music playback to start stuttering a bit, but in my normal usage scenarios, the Chromebook 13 ran admirably.
That excellence extended to the battery life. If I brought this computer fully charged to the office and forgot the power cable, I would not even break a sweat. As I write this review, the Chromebook 13 has been off the charger for over seven hours — and the computer still has 33 percent of its battery life left. That’s simply excellent, and results when running our battery test (looping HD video playback with screen brightness set to 65 percent) were similarly strong. Dell’s Chromebook 13 lasted 10 hours and 25 minutes during our test. This laptop also charges particularly fast — plugging it in completely dead for 30 minutes got me up to 35 percent, which is good for over three hours of work according to the battery life indicator. And it only took about 90 minutes to charge it completely.
|Dell Chromebook 13||10:25|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)||12:51|
|ASUS Chromebook Flip||10:49|
|HP Spectre x360||11:34|
|Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015)||11:23|
|ASUS C200 Chromebook||11:19|
|Acer Chromebook 13||10:07|
|Chromebook Pixel (2015)||10:01|
|Microsoft Surface 3||9:11|
|Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch)||8:22|
|HP Stream 11||8:17|
|Apple MacBook (2015)||7:47|
|Dell XPS 13 (2015)||7:36|
|Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro||7:36|
|Lenovo LaVie Z||7:32|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 3||7:08|
|Lenovo LaVie Z 360||6:54|
|Toshiba Chromebook 2||6:34|
|Acer C720 Chromebook||6:27 (Core i3) / 5:57 (Celeron)|
Of course, none of this matters if you can’t live your computing life in Chrome OS. If you haven’t checked it out lately, it’s a much more mature OS than it was a couple years ago. Almost every part of my daily workflow functions perfectly well in Chrome. Slack, Tweetdeck, Simplenote, Dropbox and Wunderlist all run as well as browser tabs as they do on my Mac; Spotify’s web player has improved a lot over the last year; and, obviously, all Google apps and services work like a charm. With more and more software moving online, the case against a Chromebook is harder to make these days. Even the Office documents I have stored in my Dropbox are easy enough to edit: I can access them through the Dropbox web interface, open them in Office Online with one click, make my edits, save them and exit right back to Dropbox. It’s a surprisingly efficient workflow that makes having a full Office install basically unnecessary for me.
Yes, there will always be people who need more full desktop-class apps, but nearly everything seems to be moving online right now — even Photoshop will work on Chromebooks soon enough. You should still carefully consider what you need your computer to do before buying a Chrome device, but I’m finding more and more apps every year that let me accomplish nearly everything I want to do with a Chromebook. Photo editing does remain a big problem — Google Photos is a wonderful place to back up, view, share and make minor tweaks to your pictures, something that’ll be enough for most people. But when it came time to process the photos for this review, I went right back to my Mac. Sooner or later, I’m sure this issue will be solved, but we’re not there quite yet.
At $429, Dell’s Chromebook 13 is in a class of its own. As I’ve mentioned, most other Chromebooks out there can’t really compete on fit and finish, display quality, overall hardware or performance. There is one that can: Toshiba’s newest Chromebook 2. Toshiba just updated the laptop with a newer Celeron CPU — and it’s selling for a full $100 less. And if you want more power, you can upgrade it to a Core i3 processor for the same $429 as Dell’s Celeron model goes for. We haven’t tested it yet, so the question of battery life remains; the original Toshiba Chromebook 2 lagged behind a lot of the competition in that department. The Dell model also feels like a more solid piece of hardware, although Toshiba’s screen is probably the better of the two. I’m partial to the great keyboard and insane battery life of the Dell, but your mileage may vary.
It’s a good time to be in the market for a Chromebook. That’s because laptops like Dell’s newest model go a long way toward dispelling the notion that Chromebooks are cheap, compromised machines that don’t have the hardware or software to cut it as your main computer. Chrome OS will likely always lack some features or applications that Windows or Mac options offer — but for a lot of people, living life in the browser is becoming more and more viable every day.
Until recently, finding good Chrome OS hardware has been as hard (or harder) than finding a good web-based workflow — but Dell’s Chromebook 13 raises the bar on how good a relatively inexpensive computer can be. Yes, it costs more than most other options out there, but you get a lot for your money. If you’re on a tight budget, Toshiba’s Chromebook 2 is probably a better option, but for my money, the Dell is the best Chromebook I’ve used. There’s just no compromise to speak of here, and as such it’s an easy laptop to recommend to anyone who might want to make a Chromebook their main computer. That may have been a crazy idea just a few years ago, but it’s not anymore.
That “PC Does What?” ad campaign from the likes of Dell, HP, Intel, Lenovo and Microsoft isn’t a rumor anymore. As Business Insider notes, each of the five spots highlights a different aspect of modern Windows PCs including their svelte designs, gaming prowess and convertible configurations. The series of 30 second ads will start airing October 19th, but if you’re the impatient type you can hop past the break and see them embedded below.
[Image credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images]
Via: Business Insider
Source: Intel (YouTube)
I laughed when the rumors started back in 2012: “Valve is building a PC-based game console for living rooms.” Sure it is, I thought. Imagine my shock when “Steam Machines” turned out to be real. The project promised a bizarre, revolutionary controller, a Linux-based operating system designed specifically to play PC games and in-home game streaming for titles that required Windows to run properly. The proposal was unbelievable, but it’s finally here; it’s real; and it will ship to customers in early November. As of today, I have an Alienware Steam Machine nestled in my entertainment center that delivers on almost everything those original rumors promised. Let’s talk about that.
Note: Valve says it plans to continue rolling out software updates ahead of the Steam product family’s official launch on November 10th. We plan to update our story as these new features come out. We will also hold off on assigning the Alienware Steam Machine a numerical score until the final hardware goes on sale.
If the Alienware Steam Machine looks familiar, it’s probably because it has the exact same chassis as another PC built for the living room: the Alienware Alpha — the unofficial Steam Machine Dell launched without Valve’s support late last year. Dell classifies these PCs as different products, but they’re mostly separated by their operating systems: Windows 10, for the Alpha and SteamOS for the Alienware Steam Machine. Today we’re looking at the latter, Valve-sanctioned Steam Machine, but both rigs have a great chassis: It’s compact, subtle and fits right in with everything else in your entertainment center.
Visually speaking, the Alienware Steam Machine is a simple thing: a glossy black square with a matte black top and a few simple LEDs — one behind the power button and another highlighting a triangle-shaped bisection of the chassis corner. A Steam logo glows out from this triangle-shaped cut, marking the only design tweak that separates the Alienware Alpha from the Valve-sanctioned Steam Machine.
Want connections? You got ’em. The Steam Machine has two USB ports on the front, two more in the rear, HDMI output, optical audio out and an Ethernet port. Just like with the Alpha, there are two other connectors here, as well: an HDMI input for piping a cable box through the Steam Machine interface (no, it won’t capture video or stream your other consoles to Twitch) and a fifth USB port hidden under a panel on the rig’s undercarriage. Don’t get too excited: That extra USB slot is already spoken for. The console ships with the Steam Controller’s dongle pre-installed in the secret compartment (sit tight, we’ll be talking about that very soon).
In general, Steam Machines are a difficult thing to define. Too often, we describe it as a “game console” for PC gaming, but it’s more complicated than that. A Steam Machine isn’t just a simple piece of hardware designed to play games on a TV; it’s an ecosystem of disparate parts that come together to create a versatile platform you can use to play games on your TV.
Put simply, a Steam Machine is made up of three main components: a gaming PC, Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS and the paradigm-defying Steam Controller.
The Alienware Steam Machine earns its name by the simple virtue of having all of this in one package. It presents itself as a consumer game console — which is the idea — but as we move forward, don’t lose sight of that bigger picture. This is a normal, powerful gaming PC loaded up with a special version of Linux and controlled with a bizarre gamepad. It’s not a game console, but that’s what’s amazing about it: It feels, acts and performs almost exactly like one.
The console masquerade
Truth be told, I didn’t expect a lot from the Alienware Steam Machine when I first turned it on. To me, it was just a collection of things I’d seen before. SteamOS’ TV-friendly interface has existed for years as the desktop app’s “Big Picture” mode. Almost every version of the Steam Controller I touched over the years felt like an awkward prototype. Not even the hardware was new to me — the Alpha came close to mimicking the feel of a game console, but the illusion was incomplete. I couldn’t imagine it all coming together into one cohesive whole, but it does. I almost can’t believe it.
The Alienware Steam Machine is everything that Windows-based PC “game consoles” aren’t. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, extremely reliable and practically idiot-proof. Let me invoke the Alienware Alpha one more time to illustrate this: When I booted up Dell’s original media-center gaming PC for the first time, it presented me with a “grab your mouse and keyboard” Windows 8 setup screen. It was awful. The new machine? It showed me a simple outline of Valve’s Steam Controller, asked me to press a single button and then effortlessly led me through signing EULAs, adjusting TV settings, setting up the internet and logging into Steam. It was easy.
The recently redesigned Big Picture mode that makes up the SteamOS interface is a huge improvement over Steam’s previous TV-scaled layout. The core elements of the menu are presented front and center in large buttons: Store, Library and Community, all of which can be selected using the gamepad’s joystick. Diving into any of them brings up a list of deeper options on the screen’s left side, while a dynamic layout of games and content is plastered on the right.
From there, everything is extremely self-explanatory. The Library menu, for instance, shows your games as wide billboards on the right with options like “recent,” “installed” and “favorites” on the left. Pop in into any of those menus, and a filter menu will peek out from the right side of the screen, enticing you to search or sort your library with various attributes: controller, supported, installed locally, etc. When you settle on a game, the menu morphs again, moving the title’s banner to the upper-left corner of the screen and underlining it with more options. These allow you to play or manage your game (another sub menu that offers controller configuration, launch options, and so on). There’s also a list of community content for the title (screenshots, artwork, videos, live broadcasts, etc.).
This feels like a console experience because it is a console experience — it never betrays itself as a Linux desktop PC rigged to run in Steam’s Big Picture mode. Pop-up windows and errors don’t leave me wanting for a mouse and keyboard. Like a game console, it just works — without troubleshooting. For the most part, the interface “just works” too.
SteamOS’ Big Picture mode may be the best version of the TV interface Valve’s made to date, but there are definitely a few areas that still need work. I specifically had problems with the Store. Steam’s online marketplace is enormous, fun to browse and fairly well-organized, but on SteamOS, it’s also incomplete. Valve says there are over 6,000 games available to purchase on Steam, about 1,500 of which are compatible with the Alienware Steam Machine. If you’re using SteamOS at the time of this writing, though, you can only view a few hundred of them.
Right now, SteamOS only lets users browse curated lists of featured and recently released games. These limited lists are organized by “top sellers,” “recently updated” and “popular new releases,” but they only make up a tiny fragment of the available library. The menu has no advanced options for sorting through titles, and will only bring up a non-featured game if you search for it manually. I had to visit Steam’s website via the console’s built-in web browser to add BioShock Infinite, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Left 4 Dead 2 and Spec Ops: The Line to my library. All of these games are natively compatible with the Alienware Steam Machine, but none of them showed up in the store menu. That’s a problem.
SteamOS feels very close to a real console menu, but its interface is still in development. As I was writing this piece, Valve pushed a beta update to my device that changed the layout of the store and introduced a bug that caused it to display Windows-only games that aren’t compatible with the Alienware Steam Machine. Two more updates arrived after that, fixing various UI issues. For now, it’s a waiting game: Valve has told us that the system will be getting several major updates before its official November launch. With any luck, they’ll sort out these issues and deliver a more complete experience before the product ships (we’ll let you know).
A console controller for PC games
I may have had my doubts about Valve’s plan to build a PC platform for the living room, but the company’s Steam Controller had my attention from day one. Valve had designed a prototype gamepad that eschewed every convention we’ve come to expect from modern game controllers. It didn’t have analog sticks; it had clickable touchpads that promised to replace a PC gamer’s mouse. Instead of face buttons, it had a large, high-resolution touchscreen. Valve even put extra buttons on the back of the gamepad’s grip. It was new. It was weird. It was exciting — but it was a little too bold.
Valve spent the next two years trying to make the Steam Controller feel a little less alien. Today, it’s a balanced combination of innovation and familiarity: a single analog stick, four face buttons, standard shoulder and trigger toggles, two rear-facing grip buttons and two big haptic touchpads. It’s probably the biggest deviation in traditional gamepad design since Sony introduced the DualShock Analog Controller in 1997, and I love it.
Most of the Steam Controller’s components feel exactly as you would expect: It has a top-flight analog stick, responsive face buttons and good triggers — but the flagship feature is definitely those weird touchpads. These slightly concave surfaces allow the controller to work as a surprisingly precise mouse. It’s not just a 1:1 mouse control, either: The Steam Controller cleverly emulates the momentum of a track ball. If you drag a thumb over the surface slowly, the cursor will move with deliberate, precise motion. Flick that same thumb and it will accelerate and gradually slow down. Haptic engines under the touchpads lend a tactile feeling to the entire experience. It feels good. Great, even.
This kind of control opens doors for mouse-only PC titles. Games that rely on cursor control like Shadowrun Returns and Papers Please are suddenly playable without a mouse and keyboard. I found myself playing Civilization: Beyond Earth in my living room. In first-person shooters and action games, the Steam Controller offers me a more sensitive mouselook-style input than I’ve experienced with a traditional gamepad.
It’s exactly what I want in a hand-held PC game controller, but I won’t lie: The learning curve can be brutal. Those touchpads are incredibly sensitive, and using them in first-person gaming feels wildly different than pushing against the consistent pressure of an analog stick. Appropriately, it’s more like using a mouse and keyboard — flicking quickly in one direction or another to look around and picking up and repeatedly moving the “mouse” (or in this case, your thumb) to achieve certain movements. It takes time and patience, and won’t come easy to everyone.
The Steam Controller also relies heavily on Valve’s software. Every game now has a “configure controller” submenu that allows the user to customize the gamepad to their liking. Want to adjust the sensitivity of the trackpad? Looking to disable the requirement to “click” the left pad down to register a directional pad input? Need to remap a button with an obscure keyboard toggle to get the control to feel right? You can do all that here — there are dozens of options to tweak.
You can also select from three default templates — a gamepad-emulation mode, keyboard (WASD) with mouse and a hybrid mode that blends gamepad controls with the higher-precision camera allowed by mouse control. These three profiles were enough to make most of my Steam library playable, but they aren’t perfect: The gamepad mode does a pretty poor job of emulating the right thumbstick, resulting in a control scheme that feels unnatural and slow. The hybrid mode fixes this for most titles, but some simply don’t play nice with simultaneous gamepad and mouse inputs — those will need to be configured using the WASD mode. This usually works, but it means any on-screen prompts you see in the game will be for a mouse and keyboard. Like I said, it’s not perfect.
Many games come with a default or recommended profile, but watch out: Some of them are wrong. If a game requires dual-analog controls and recommends using the gamepad-emulation mode, it’s usually an awful experience. You can adjust the sensitivity curves of the emulated stick, but more often than not there’s a “community” profile made by another user that has already solved the problem. Oh, did I not mention? Any controller profile you make can be shared with the community — and these crowdsourced profiles are usually the best available.
Also, I think it’s a little telling that almost every game I played that recommended “gamepad” mode from the publisher also had a community profile titled “Alienware PAX” that swapped out the right-stick emulation for high-precision mouse control.
When it works, though, it’s phenomenal. Valve has baked native Steam Controller support into some of its own games, and they’re excellent. Portal 2, for instance, has controller profiles that automatically remap certain gamepad buttons to fit your situation. If you’re in a level, the Steam Controller adopts one setting; if you’re in a menu or the game’s puzzle editor mode, it’ll adopt another.
These native profiles are a game changer — replaying Portal 2 with the Steam Controller has been an absolute joy. The sensitivity curves are just right, while the jump and use functions of the rear-facing paddle buttons feel natural. Valve even included an optional motion-control profile that lets you tilt the gamepad to control the camera, similar to the aiming mechanic Nintendo uses for Splatoon. It feels great, like Portal 2 was made for the Steam Controller.
If true native Steam Controller support becomes a PC gaming standard, I’ll never touch my Xbox 360 gamepad ever again… but in the meantime, I’m not getting rid of it. I was perfectly happy to use the Steam Controller for most of the titles in my library, but every now and then one wouldn’t play nice with hybrid gamepad mode and also didn’t feel right in WASD-keyboard-and-mouse mode. In these rare cases, reverting back to the Xbox gamepad worked best. Luckily, the Alienware Steam Machine natively recognized my wireless Xbox controller dongle. With any luck, I won’t need it in the future, but I do right now.
The Steam Controller is pretty handy for text entry and web browsing, too. No, really — pull up a text-entry field in SteamOS’ Store search or web browser, and the system will let you use the dual touchpads to touch-type text. Simply drag your finger across the pad, use the on-screen cursors (one for each pad) to select a button and click down to select it. After years of smartphone text messaging, it feels completely natural, and it’s my new favorite “game console” mechanic for text entry. The right touchpad also works like a real mouse in the web browser and the left works as a scroll bar. For the first time in my life, I’m comfortably browsing the web on my television. It’s nice.
Finally, there’s one killer feature the Steam Controller and the Alienware Steam Machine are missing: The ability to power on the console using just the controller itself. This is a standard feature for every other device in my entertainment center, but the Alienware box just can’t do it. This isn’t a surprise: Most desktop PCs can’t be powered on from a device over USB, but some devices can be put into sleep mode and woken up by a remote controller. As far as I can tell, that’s not an option here, either. If you want to play Steam, you’ll have to get off your couch and turn the machine on yourself. How tedious.
Gameplay and performance
Okay, so the Alienware Steam Machine has the right operating system and the right controller — but does it have the right components? Can it keep up with today’s consumer game consoles and still pass muster as a gaming PC? Most of the time, yes.
My $749 test unit costs a pretty penny more than the highest-priced console on the market, but it has a lot to offer. The flagship Alienware Steam Machine packs in a Core i7-4785T CPU, 8GB DDR3 memory, a 1TB 7,200 rpm hard drive and a customized NVIDIA GTX 860M graphics chip with 2GB of video RAM. That turned out to be enough power to run almost everything in my SteamOS-compatible library on high visual settings at a decent frame rate.
Most games automatically configured themselves to medium visual settings by default, hovering at 45 frames per second or higher, depending on the title, but I found the system could push most of them a little further. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel happily bounced between 35 and 50 fps (depending on how much action was on screen) on maximum visual settings, and both Shadow Warrior and Spec Ops: The Line eclipsed 50 fps with the dials turned to 11. BioShock Infinite dipped just below 30 fps on Ultra, but maintained a solid 40 average when tuned down to “very high” settings. I had similar results with Serious Sam 3, finding Ultra to be just a tad too much, but High ran just fine. It should be no surprise that Valve’s own games also ran great on the first official Steam Machine: Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2 had no problem hitting 60 fps on their highest visual settings.
Even The Witcher 2, one of my library’s heavier hitters, ran moderately well, managing to stay above 30 fps on high settings and comfortably hitting the 40s on medium. Simpler offerings like Civilization: Beyond Earth had no trouble hitting playable frame rates on maximum settings, and the machine also shrugged off the plethora of indie titles available for SteamOS + Linux.
The games that ran poorly surprised me: Shadow of Mordor struggled to hit playable frame rates at my television’s native 1080p resolution until I dialed back its graphics options to their lowest settings. I don’t know if the game is simply more resource-intensive than I realized, if it’s poorly optimized for PCs or if it’s just a bad Linux port.
Installing, running and playing games on the Alienware was usually a seamless experience — jumping directly from the SteamOS menu into a game. Most of the time, this led to a smooth, console-like gaming experience, although there was the occasional hiccup. The Witcher 2 doesn’t launch straight into the game, and requires the user to click “play” in a launcher program before starting in earnest. To navigate this quirk, I had to press the Steam Controller’s “home” button to change profiles multiple times.
A few games also suffered from weird stuttering despite running well at high specifications: BioShock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel would all occasionally drop a few frames, causing the game to look like it was “hanging” for a quarter of a second every few minutes. Weird.
Right now, our test unit represents the absolute best Steam Machine that Dell has to offer — if you want more power, you’ll have to upgrade it yourself. Fortunately, that’s pretty easy: Four screws on the bottom of the tiny case are all you need to remove to get access to the Steam Machine’s RAM, HDD slot and LGA 1150 CPU socket (compatible with Haswell and select Broadwell processors. Sorry Skylake fans).
Getting less power is pretty easy too: Dell sells a $649 model identical to our test unit, save for a downgraded Intel Core i5 CPU. Dropping down to the $549 build will saddle you with a Core i3 CPU and one fewer internal wireless antenna. A bottom-dollar $449 unit is available as well, shipping with the Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a smaller 500GB HDD. Fortunately, all configurations share the same NVIDIA GPU.
Knowing that the Alienware Steam Machine can play modern releases (with a few caveats) is great, but that alone isn’t enough to say if it can compete with traditional consoles or other gaming PCs. In an industry where content is king, are there enough Linux games available on Valve’s platform for SteamOS to thrive? It depends on your perspective.
In a strictly numerical sense, SteamOS has tons of games — over 1,500 titles available to download and play right now, today. In a more qualitative sense? Maybe don’t bank on a Linux-based Steam Machine as your only game console. Not yet, at least.
That’s not to say there aren’t lots of great games available for SteamOS and Linux — every single one of the titles I listed above ran natively on the system — but there are definitely fewer multiplatform AAA titles on the Linux section of Steam’s marketplace than you might find on Windows, Xbox or PlayStation. Worse still, some games that were promised to launch on Linux alongside Windows and consoles missed their mark: The Batman: Arkham Knight Linux port failed to surface when the game re-launched on PC and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is still absent from Steam OS five months after its Windows release.
On the plus side, Valve carries a lot of weight in the gaming industry, and it has a vested interest in convincing developers to port big-name games to Linux. It’s extremely probable that we’ll see an explosion in Linux-compatible releases over the next several years. In the meantime, SteamOS’ Linux library offers one extra advantage: It’s unique. There are literally hundreds of distinct, fun, independent and lesser-known titles lurking in the Steam marketplace that simply aren’t available on Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Not enough? Okay — Valve has one more trick up its sleeve, but it requires another computer: Steam In-Home Streaming. This feature has been around for a while, but now it’s baked directly into the SteamOS ecosystem. If you have a Windows PC anywhere on your network running Steam, you can pipe its games to the Alienware Steam Machine to fill in the holes in the Linux library. This trick tends to work better over Ethernet, and the whole thing depends on the health of your local network, but it’s a good stopgap for folks with another gaming machine. Already have another gaming PC but don’t want a Linux game console for your entertainment center? You may want to look at the Steam Link — it’s cheap; it comes with a Steam Controller; and it’s designed specifically for users who want to stream their gaming PC to their TV without adding a whole new computer to the network.
I used to laugh when I saw Linux users scramble to build compatibility layers to play “real” PC games. I chuckled when Valve CEO Gabe Newell lambasted Windows 8 as a “catastrophe for everyone,” proffering Linux and SteamOS as a viable alternative. It seemed so far-fetched, so silly. Truth be told, I’m still laughing — but now it’s because I’m enjoying myself. The Alienware Steam Machine has some growing pains, but it’s fun. Lots of fun.
The first commercial Steam Machine isn’t quite an idiot-proof console just yet, but it’s close. In fact, it’s close enough I’m thinking about recommending it to friends hesitant to step into the world of PC gaming. It’s fun and easy to use. The issues it has are minor and simple to troubleshoot. It still needs some major patches and more games support, but Valve seems dedicated to providing that support. I’m looking forward to seeing how the company updates SteamOS before its official November 10th launch. Be sure to check back between now and then, as we plan to update our story as new features roll out.
It’s no secret that the PC industry is hurting. Sales are down, in no small part because the PC itself isn’t as important as it used to be — why get a basic computer when your phone is frequently good enough? However, that isn’t stopping some heavyweights in the field from making a bid for relevancy. Recode understands that Dell, HP, Intel, Lenovo and Microsoft are uniting for a “PC Does What?” ad campaign that shows what newer computers can do. It’ll reportedly run in China and the US, and it’ll likely include a “sizable” marketing blitz. Don’t be shocked if you see ads plastered all over the web and TV.
There have been general PCs-are-great ads before. Just look at Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” pitch from 2008 if you need proof. However, this would mark the first time that several of these companies (including direct rivals) have banded together. The unity would represent a tacit admission that the PC market has diminished — it wouldn’t otherwise need a boost to its public image, would it? It’s hard to say if the campaign will be effective, but the promos won’t hurt when there’s a wave of interesting new PCs arriving at the same time.
[Image credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images]
Dell has agreed to buy EMC Corporation for a deal worth $67 billion. While EMC isn’t a household name, some of its products and subsidiaries are. In addition to selling cloud services, storage and analytic solutions to enterprise companies, EMC owns the security firm RSA and the virtualization solution VMware. The deal is huge — it’s being billed as the largest tech acquisition in history. EMC is probably worth twice as much as Dell itself right now, and has some 70,000 employees worldwide.
How can Dell afford the takeover? The deal is being financed by MSD Capital (Michael Dell’s investment firm) in partnership with Silver Lake, which also helped fund Mr. Dell’s takeover of the company he founded in 2013. If the deal passes the relevant regulatory hurdles, it’ll make the resultant company a giant in the enterprise computing field.
There’s one caveat to the $67 billion figure, and that’s VMware. Rather than being folded into Dell, it’ll remain an independent publicly traded entity. Dell’s agreed to pay $24.05 per share to EMC shareholders, plus tracking stock in VMware. That means the overall figure is an estimate, and could change slightly by the time the deal goes through.
We first reviewed the Dell XPS 12 back in 2012, when Windows 8 had just come out and touchscreens on PCs weren’t yet standard. It had a weird design, but it worked: a screen that flipped around inside its frame, allowing you to convert the 12-inch laptop into a 12-inch tablet. No, it wasn’t as versatile as the now-ubiquitous Yoga, but it was a well-built, fast machine that could serve multiple purposes, and whose comfortable keyboard made it a dream to use in regular notebook mode. Now Dell has re-released the XPS 12 with a new design — a 2-in-1 detachable that takes after the Surface Pro. Unfortunately, though, it’s a poor imitation, and ultimately feels like a step backward.Slideshow-326756
But first, the good news. For a starting price of $999, the XPS 12 comes with a keyboard dock in the box. And it’s an excellent keyboard too — I know because I tried it. The backlit buttons here are well-spaced and springy, with a pleasant soft-touch finish that feels great beneath the fingertips. Also, the display is a delight: 1080p resolution to start, with an optional 4K panel that Dell says meets 100 percent of the color gamut, depending on your screen brightness and what you’re looking at. Also, the tablet is easy to remove from its dock with one hand, although the magnetic connection otherwise seems strong.
That said, I see a few potential problems. One is that because the tablet uses a hingeless keyboard dock instead of a kickstand, the screen angle is not adjustable the way it is on the Surface and other 2-in-1s. What’s more, because of that fixed angle, it isn’t possible to insert the screen facing away from the keyboard, the way you can on other convertibles, and like you could on the old XPS 12. We might be more forgiving if the 12 was primarily meant to be used as a tablet, but a Dell spokesperson actually described it to me as a “laptop first.” To not have an adjustable screen immediately puts it at a disadvantage against proper notebooks, especially when it comes to using it in one’s lap.
Problem number two: In the interest of making the device as lightweight as possible (2.8 pounds, or 1.75 pounds for the tablet only), Dell went with one of Intel’s lower-powered Core M processors this time instead of something from Intel’s Core i3/i5/i7 family. As we’ve seen already in our own testing, Core M takes a performance hit, but doesn’t offer significantly better battery life in exchange. To be fair, HP also this week announced a skinny Surface-like 2-in-1 with a Core M chip, and the base-model Surface Pro 4 will have an even slower Core M chip plus half the RAM. So it’s not like Dell is the only one compromising on performance. But because the XPS 12 used to have more robust Core chips — and fast performance to go with it — this feels like a move in the wrong direction.
Problem number three: The XPS 12’s pressure-sensitive pen doesn’t actually come in the box, the way it does on the Surface and other rival devices. But that’s not nearly as outrageous as the Surface being sold without a keyboard.
The XPS 12 ships in November starting at $999, keyboard included. For that price, you get a Core m5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage and a 1080p screen. There will also be a $1,299 configuration that steps up to a 256GB SSD and that 4K screen I mentioned. Either way, the processor and memory allotment is the same.Slideshow-326761
Whenever people ask what my favorite Windows laptop is, I’m always quick to say the Dell XPS 13. It has very few flaws to speak of, with a stylish design, comfy keyboard, vibrant screen and fast performance. It’s no surprise, then, that when Dell got to work redesigning the bigger XPS 15, it rebuilt it in the 13’s image. The updated notebook, which goes on sale today, inherits many of the features we loved in its smaller sibling, including a carbon fiber weave and a nearly bezel-less display that allows the notebook to have a compact footprint. All told, the 15’s weight starts at 3.9 pounds, with Dell claiming that it’s the world’s smallest 15-inch laptop and the lightest “performance-class” machine of this size.Slideshow-326757
And performance-class it is indeed. In fact, the XPS 15 was always intended to be a machine creative pros could use to get work done. It still is, at least if you shell out for one of the higher-specced models. At its best, it has a color-accurate 4K screen, quad-core sixth-generation Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 2GB NVIDIA 960M GPU and either a 1TB hard drive or a 1TB PCIe SSD. Battery life is rated at up to 17 hours, but that’s if you get a model with the 1,920 x 1,080 display, SSD and the larger 84WHr battery (instead of the 56WHr option). Even with a tricked-out 4K configuration, though, Dell is promising around 11 hours on a charge.
All told, it should give Windows users a solid alternative to the 15-inch Retina display MacBook Pro. Some might also argue it competes with Microsoft’s just-announced Surface Book. And it does, at least in terms of performance: The 13.5-inch Surface weighs a similar 3.48 pounds, and will also be offered with an NVIDIA GPU, up to 16GB of RAM and a comparably high-res display. At their best, then, they cater to a similar user, offering similar specs in a similar price range. I would guess, though, that anyone who covets the Surface Book is taken with its distinctive hinge that allows users to flip the screen back into tablet mode or detach it altogether. The XPS 15 does none of that; it’s a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed screen. If you want a convertible, Dell’s latest is not for you, and if you think Microsoft’s design feat is a gimmick, the Surface Book doesn’t have a leg up after all.
Wrapping up, Dell’s smaller XPS 13, the machine that inspired the new XPS 15’s look and feel, has also been refreshed. Nothing major, mind you: just fresh sixth-gen Intel Core processors and a bigger battery with runtime now rated at up to 18 hours on the lower-res 1080p model. It will now also be sold with more RAM and storage options, including a 16GB upgrade and a 1TB PCIe SSD.
Both the updated XPS 13 and the new XPS 15 are available today, with the 13 starting at $799 and the 15 starting at $999. Just keep in mind that in the case of the 15 in particular, that starting price includes modest specs, including a Core i3 processor, 500GB hard drive, integrated graphics and a relatively lower-res 1080p non-touch screen. For discrete graphics, you can expect to pay at least $1,199, with 4K models starting at a lofty $1,599.Slideshow-326758