It’s Alien to Me

alpha hero

Anyone who has even briefly perused this blog might get the idea that I love the Mac mini. This is Apple’s smallest and least expensive Macintosh computer. They even updated the mini last year, which didn’t amount to much except to show that Apple doesn’t believe in RAM upgrades after purchase. Since the mini was introduced, PC makers have produced several Windows-based minis. None have really been anything great, but that has definitely changed and Apple should start to worry.

PC makes like Dell and HP produced small PC desktops that never really could compete with the Mac mini. They did compete with the price back when the mini started at $600. Dell had the Studio Hybrid for a while and then replaced it with the Zino. These were ‘OK’ Windows boxes that didn’t have the style and build-quality of the Mac mini. For the most part, the mini was faster and could do more than these cheaper “clones”.

Not too long ago, Intel introduced the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) concept PC. This was an incredibly small full-function PC that ran full Windows OS. Several other makers followed their lead and started making some amazingly small desktop PCs. Some of these were based on very low power processors, but soon there were units using the same Intel core-i processors that Apple used.

A few years back, Dell bought out Alienware, a high-end gaming PC maker. Dell has done pretty well keeping Alienware going with some interesting desktop and laptop machines. They now have a very mini-like desktop called the Alienware Alpha.

The Alpha is being packaged and sold as a game console styled gaming PC. It even comes with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. The physical size of the Alpha is 7.87×7.87×2.17 inches – almost identical to the mini that measures 7.7×7.7×1.4 inches. For more specs on the latest Mac minis, head over to the Apple website.

Inside the Alpha is very much the same as the mini, but with some extra bonuses. The mini comes with either an Intel i5 or i7 dual-core processor. The Alpha is available with an i3, i5, or i7 processor. The i3 is a dual-core unit, while the i5 and i7 models have the quad-core versions of the processor. Currently, Apple only offers dual-core processors.

Just like the mini, the Alpha has a 2.5-inch laptop hard drive. The base model has a 500GB spinning drive. Unlike the new minis, you can add more RAM to the Alpha. There are two slots for up to 16GB of memory. The hard drive is also easily replaced since it uses a standard 2.5-inch SATA laptop drive. Something they both have in common is the lack of an optical drive.

What is really impressive is the graphics processor. While the Mac mini is still stuck with an Intel integrated GPU (which have gotten better), the Alpha has a real one. According to Dell, the Alpha has an Nvidia GTX 860M video card with 2GB of GDDR memory. This is very capable GPU that can play many modern games at full HD (1080P) at a decent frame rate. The more demanding games can still be played at over 40fps, when set down to 720P.

Just like the mini, there are just enough ports to get by. Interestingly, there are dual HDMI ports. I was slightly disappointed when I found out that one is for input and the other for output. This means no multiple monitors for the Alpha (Mac minis have HDMI and mini-displayport for dual monitors). It does show that this thing is designed to be a media/gaming center. You can plug the output of your cable or satellite box into the Alpha and then the Alpha into your HDTV.

Other ports include (2) USB ports in the front, (1) USB hidden in a compartment in the bottom, (2) USB in the back, gigabit Ethernet, spdif out (digital optical audio), and power. The USB ports are not color-coded so it’s difficult to know which ones are 2.0 and which ones are 3.0. From what I have found, the front and hidden ports are 2.0 and the two in the back are 3.0.

While Dell/Alienware is touting this as a gaming console style machine (aka – steambox), I would of liked to have seen dual video outputs, analog audio outputs (headphone jack), and maybe a memory card slot.

HP and others have some very cool mini sized PCs, but the one I’m really interested in is from a company called Zotac. They have some nice current mini PCs out there with fast processors and real GPUs. Last month they announced two new models coming later this year – the EN960 and EN970. These are probably going to be a bit more money, but they will have even better gaming capabilities using Zotac’s GTX 960M and GTX 970M video cards. You might be able to guess which card is in which model. From the photos I’ve seen, the EN 970 has the same ports and more. There are (4) HDMI ports, (2) Ethernet, a WiFi antenna jack, audio out, mic in, and an SD card slot. No pricing yet for either model, but I’m guessing the 970 will be close to the price of the base iMac.

For the most part, Dell got the Alpha right. It’s the right size, it looks cool, and it’s more powerful than the current mini, especially the ones with quad-core processors. Windows 10 is being release at the end of July and looks to be the major improvement to Windows 8 that everyone was hoping for. Maybe Apple should go back to the drawing board and do a bit more thinking on the next Mac mini. Whenever that will be.

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