The Alienware X51 isn't the biggest gaming PC the Dell-owned company has ever unveiled, nor the fastest, but it's arguably the biggest challenge to traditional consoles to-date. Packing a full PC into a Xbox-scale chassis, the X51 promises to turn its hand to everything from the latest FPS, high-def multimedia playback and even mundane Office tasks. As the central hub for a smart home, that could be enough to edge it ahead of gaming heavyweights like the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Fast, small PCs aren't especially new, though it's only now that processor and graphics technology has caught up that SFF models can hold a candle to the bulky PC gaming rigs of old. Sony and Microsoft fettle their dedicated consoles to pretty much a single purpose, delivering optimum gaming performance from a device that has to work as an predictable appliance; it also means their abilities are pretty much unchanged since their hardware was first announced. The X51, in its high-spec'd form at least, is likely to be capable of better graphics and handling more intensive games.
The tipping point will come when Windows 8 arrives. Microsoft has already said that it plans to support Xbox LIVE on Windows 8 PCs, hooking platform-specific as well as other titles into the social and ranking system. "Live has been successful on the Windows Phone. Live will be built into the PC" Microsoft's VP of global marketing Mike Delman said back in June 2011. "It will be the service where you get your entertainment. We were talking about it - you will not just see consoles and handhelds at this show next year, this show’s going to morph into other devices."
[aquote]Microsoft's not stupid[/aquote]
Now Microsoft's not stupid. It knows it has a perfectly serviceable console platform in Xbox, and the likelihood of it doing anything that legitimately threatens the Xbox 360's rising appeal - or the potential success of the next-gen Xbox - is low. Still, there are a lot of people out there who might not buy a dedicated console but could be swayed to pick up a compact box that delivers not only gaming but HTPC functionality.
That blurring of the distinctions between console and computer - and, indeed, phone - all fit in with something the company has referred to as "three screens and a cloud"; gaming, desktop and mobile platforms all interlinked, your entertainment following you on the most appropriate device at any one time. Microsoft has also been readying its Kinect for Windows kit recently, promising a February launch for developers at least. Still, when the motion-sensing bar makes it to broad availability - we're guessing at around the time Windows 8 hits PCs later in 2012 - it will bulldoze through another differentiator between 360 and the desktop.
Pricing will remain the big differentiator, at least for the moment. The X51 kicks off at $699, though that's with a Core i3 processor; figure on spending $1,149 upwards if you want a Core i7 chip instead, and we've a feeling most hardcore gamers will. That's enough to buy six Xbox 360 consoles with spare change left over, or one console, a Kinect and a whole catalog of games.
Still, consoles as we know them are gradually being squeezed, with capable and compact PCs at one side and the rise of casual gaming on affordable Smart TV set-top boxes at the other. Just as has been the case in mobile, with dedicated portable consoles losing out in favor to gaming smartphones and PMPs like Apple's iPod touch, the center of our living room entertainment is also evolving. Alienware's X51 isn't going to kill the Xbox 360 and PS3 today, but it's further evidence the old guard of gaming needs to step it up if they want to remain relevant tomorrow.