Alienware Alpha R2 review: PC gaming in a compact package

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If you’re tight on space or want to PC game on your 4K TV, the Alienware Alpha R2 is worth a look — especially when coupled with the Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

TA-ratings-79There are console gamers, and there are PC gamers. While both have their advantages and disadvantages, there’s no argument that gaming rigs can take up a lot more space than consoles. Our Alienware Alpha R2 review takes a look at a small console sized box that brings PC gaming to those who don’t have a lot of space for a big gaming rig.

Specifications

Our Alienware Alpha R2 review unit had the following specifications:

  • Processor: Intel Core i7 6700T QC CPU @ 2.80GHz, 8MB cache, up to 3.6GHz (Intel Core i3 6100T and i5 6400T QC options available)
  • Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960 w/ 4GB GDDR5 RAM (AMD Radeon R9 M470X with 2GB DDR5 option available)
  • RAM: 8GB DDR4 @ 2133MH (4GB or 16GB options available)
  • Hard Drive: 1TB 64MB Cache 7200 RPM  SATA 6.0Gb/s 2.5″ Internal Notebook Hard Drive (500GB SATA, or 256GB/512GB/1TB M.2 PCIe SSD options available)
  • Ports: 4x USB 3.0 (2 in front, 2 in back), DC in, Graphics Amplifier Port, HDMI In 2.0, HDMI Out 2.0, 1x RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet, Toslink Optical Audio Out, 1x USB 2.0 (bottom)
  • Wireless: Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8620 2×2 + Bluetooth 4.2 (Wireless AC 3165 1×1 option available)
  • Operating System: Windows 10 Home (64-bit)
  • Dimensions: 2.2″ x 8″ x 8″
  • Weight: 2kb (4.4lbs)

What’s in the Box

  • Alienware Alpha R2
  • Alienware keyboard
  • Alienware mouse
  • DC power adapter
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Alienware Alpha R2 with including mouse and keyboard.

Design

The Alienware Alpha R2 is definitely compact in size. It’s smaller than an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 and is roughly the size of a Nintendo Wii. The square Alienware Alpha R2 is only 8″ deep and wide and is also only 2″ high. When looking at the front, the bottom left-hand corner is cut in a triangle shape with an LED light along each edge. To the right of this are a pair of USB 3.0 ports and about 1/3 of the distance from the right-hand edge of the front is where you’ll find the iconic Alienware logo which glows as well. All four sides have a gloss black finish.

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Alienware Alpha R2 front view.

The back of the unit is where most of the other ports are including (from left to right) the DC in port, Graphics Amplifier Port, HDMI In, HDMI Out, RJ-45 jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, and finally the Toslink optical audio out port. Of interesting note, which we’ll discuss further in the performance section, is the support for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier allowing you to externally upgrade your video card. Just above the connectivity ports are two vent ports.

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Alienware Alpha R2 back view.

Flipping the Alienware Alpha R2 upside down, you’ll notice a little door that is easily removable. Once removed, you’ll find a hidden USB 2.0 port which should fit most USB keys if you want some expandable removable storage. Because of its compact size, I found the hidden USB port rather neat as you’re not extending the depth of the unit by a couple inches if you have a USB key semi-permanently attached. The bottom also has four small rubber feet to prevent the unit from sliding around.

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On the bottom you’ll find a hidden USB 2.0 port that can easily accommodate most thumb drives.

My first question upon receiving the unit was wondering how easy it would be to upgrade, as that is a major advantage of PCs over consoles. As it turns out, one can easily upgrade the CPU, RAM, and hard drives as can be seen in the video below. Unfortunately, you can’t upgrade the GPU, but as previously mentioned the Alpha R2 does have a Graphics Amplifier Port.

The nice thing about the compact size and the fact that it has HDMI 2.0 in is that you can easily connect it and set it near your television and connect your DVR, home theatre receiver, cable box, or any other HDMI connected device to it. By connecting another device to the Alienware Alpha R2, you don’t lose an HDMI port on your TV and you can easily switch between the Alienware and the other device by using the CTRL+SHIFT+H keyboard shortcut or from the Alienware Command Center itself. This worked as expected during our testing, and really showcased that the Alpha R2 can be placed just about anywhere.

The Alienware Alpha R2 also ships with an Alienware keyboard and mouse, and to be honest I was a bit disappointed as they didn’t really strike me as “gaming quality.” Typing on the keyboard worked well enough, but the keys felt a bit soft. As far as the mouse goes, it felt more like your typical office mouse more than a gaming mouse. In the end, though, I mostly ended up using an Xbox One controller for gaming on the system, but it would still be nice to see a higher quality gaming oriented mouse and keyboard included.

Software

The Alienware Alpha R2 comes with Window 10 Home (64-bit) installed, and as we’ve mentioned in many previous reviews, Windows 10 works quite well. As far as extra pre-installed applications, the Alienware Alpha R2 comes with the typical Windows 10 apps and not much else.

If you plan on connecting your Alpha R2 to a TV or projector and leaving it permanently connected there, you may want to look into the Alienware HiveMind Interface. HiveMind, which is basically a skinned version of Kodi, allows you to access your Steam games, videos, images, and programs from a central hub with a controller. Once you’ve installed and launched HiveMind, you’ll be asked if you want to run the Alpha R2 in Desktop or Gaming mode. When you choose Gaming mode, it will reboot and start with the HiveMind Interface.

The HiveMind Interface is navigable with either a mouse or a game controller. It features six main sections: Games, Music, Programs, Pictures, Videos, and Settings. If you’ve ever used Kodi, you’ll be pretty familiar with the HiveMind Interface. In the games section, which you’ll no doubt hit first, you have the option of adding a number of HiveMind launchers including Battle.net, Steam, Origin, GOG Galaxy, and a number of others. There are quite a few options available, and the interface is pretty sleek in comparison to some other Kodi interfaces. Even though the video below is over a year old, it does give you a good idea of what you can expect when using the HiveMind Interface.

While you can do most of these things straight from the Windows desktop, the HiveMind Interface definitely adds that simplified console-like interface for use with TVs or projectors. One thing to note however is that the HiveMind Interface launches as a separate Windows 10 user — Alpha Console, so when you’re installing games you’ll have to make sure to install them for all users to access. The HiveMind Interface isn’t too difficult to setup if you have previous Kodi experience but might be a bit trickier for those who haven’t used Kodi before.

Performance

Our review unit was an interesting configuration. With the top CPU you could get — Intel Core i7 6700T QC CPU @ 2.80GHz and an 8MB cache, it came with the 1TB SATA hard drive (as opposed to the PCIe SSD), and 8GB of RAM (you can order them with 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB). As such, out of the box performance was mediocre at best, especially considering the best video card option you can get is the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960 with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM.

During our testing, we were able to get a solid 30fps at 1080p on Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, while we were able to maintain 60fps at 1080p on Ultra settings in Heroes of the Storm – which is fine, but underwhelming when you have a monitor capable of 2560 x 1440. Forza Motorsport 6: Apex was pretty much unplayable on the higher resolution, while Heroes ran fine once we bumped the settings down.

Now that’s not to say that the Alienware Alpha R2 can’t perform. Given my previous experience with laptops and desktops running SSDs and 16GB of RAM, I can definitely see the potential the Alienware Alpha R2 has. Graphics wise, the Alienware Graphics Adapter connects to the Alienware Alpha R2 (or Alienware laptops). The Graphics Adapter is a video card case which allows you to install nearly any video card currently on the market including the new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 series cards. Once you plug it into your Alpha R2, the internal video card is disabled and all your graphics operations — including video games — run through the Graphics Adapter. NOTE: we did not test the Alpha R2 with the Alienware Graphics Adapter, but have reviewed the Geforce GTX 1080 in a few desktops before and are well aware of its performance.

Regular office and graphics editing tasks ran fine, but could definitely do with a boost from more RAM and an SSD instead of the HDD drive.

If you are in the market for a compact gaming PC, I’d definitely recommend getting the Alienware Alpha R2 with 16GB of RAM and an SSD out of the gate. The video card choice will be up to you, if you plan on picking up the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, you can definitely save a few dollars by getting the AMD Radeon R9 instead of the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960.

Speakers/Sound

The Alienware Alpha R2 doesn’t have onboard speakers, but it does have a few options. If you connect it to an HDMI source that supports audio — like a TV, you’ll obviously get audio. You can also connect to a USB audio device like speakers or a headset, but the best option is connecting it via the TOSLINK optical audio out. While all these options are fantastic solutions, notably missing is the standard 3.5mm AUX jack so you won’t be hooking up the vast majority of headphones to the Alpha R2.

Price/Value

Starting from $549USD ($799CAD) for the Intel Core i3 version, the price seems pretty reasonable at first glance. Our review unit as configured doesn’t seem to be available but probably runs around the $800USD mark. Personally, I’d definitely want an SSD drive and the 16GB of RAM at a minimum with the Intel Core i7 processor for it. That unit has a regular price of $1249.99USD but is currently on sale for $999.99USD.

Depending on what type of gaming you want to do, you’ll want to consider the Alienware Graphics Amplifier as well, which runs just under $200USD and then you’ll have to factor in the cost of a high-end video card like the NVIDIA GeForce 1080 which will run you anywhere from $500USD upwards.

As you can see, the cost adds up pretty quickly, but if space is an issue or you’re looking to game on your 4K TV or a projector, the price might be the trade off you’re willing to make for the compact size of the Alienware Alpha R2.

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The Alienware Alpha R2 is definitely one compact, sleek looking unit.

Wrap-up

While our review unit was somewhat lacking in GPU power, the compact size of the Alienware Alpha R2 with its multiple USB ports, Toslink optical audio out, HDMI In, Graphics Amplifier Port, and easy upgradability make it a unit to consider for certain setups.

*We were sent a demo unit of the Alienware Alpha R2 for the purposes of this review.

Alienware Alpha R2

$549+ USD
Alienware Alpha R2
7.9

Design

8/10

    Software

    8/10

      Performance

      8/10

        Sound

        9/10

          Price/Value

          7/10

            Nailed it

            • Compact size
            • Sleek design
            • Easily upgradable (except GPU)
            • Can use with Graphics Amplifier Port
            • HDMI pass-through
            • HiveMind Interface for use as a 'console'

            Needs work

            • Basic GPU lacks for most newer games
            • Internal GPU is not upgradable
            • No 3.5mm AUX jack
            • Can get pricey depending on options and addons
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