Interview – Alienware’s Joe Olmsted, Director of Product Planning
Alienware are bringing a new range of gaming machines to Australia, and in the lead-up to the PAX Australia weekend, I spoke with Joe Olmsted, Director of Alienware’s Product Planning Team. We talked about the company, naturally touched on the new range, but also the hard questions…
To start with, could you tell me about yourself, in terms of who you are within Alienware?
I’m the Director of our Product Planning team and we define the future products at Alienware. The product that we launched today, the Area 51, started development in 2010. We think about where we need to be in 3-5 years, develop the products and then we make them.
Obviously Alienware are known for their computers. How would you describe your target?
From a market perspective, unapologetically a gaming platform.
What position do you hold in the market?
We’re one of the larger brands. I know that we don’t record Alienware sales versus Dell sales, but I don’t know anyone else that does either. We have a few things that make us unique – we’re available in more countries than any other computer brand. The other thing we have is a fanbase of over 4 million active members on our fansite, alienarena.com, so I’d like to think that we’re the largest gaming brand in the PC space. I have no data to prove that, especially now that anyone can call a computer a gaming computer by putting a GTX graphics card in it, whereas we build a computer that’s meant for PC gaming first, and then everything else next.
Has your consumer base been a factor in supporting gaming tournaments, such as last year’s Alienware cup, or the League of Legends Fall Brawl?
We look worldwide at different gaming tournaments, which is part of our market, and it’s really to give back. We have a dedicated team of people here that do nothing more than work with the game development community and they’re working all the time on partnerships with game developers- primarily we have an program where we give our hardware and computers to game devs to make sure it even works, but also so they know what the latest performance available is. Then they can design something that can take advantage of it or maybe they’ll design something that doesn’t. We want to make certain that they’re producing products people want because their customers are our customers.
As far as your new products go, the prime one has to be the Area 51. It obviously stands out with its unique case design – is there a special name for it?
Internally we call it the Triad. It’s an obvious name to give it because it’s a triangle, and that’s the only internal codename we had for the design. We spent four years working on that design and refining it, just to make sure we could actually manufacture it. Even our factories had to adjust to a different type of manufacturing line for something that isn’t a box.
With the design process, were there other potential shape concepts that were discarded or might be revisited in the future?
Five years ago when we started looking at it, we discounted it just like everything else because it was so radically different, but every design iteration we went through, every rectangular case looked like every other rectangular case. It was hard to innovate and hard to be different. Alienware from its beginning has always tried to be the trendsetter for desktop gaming. We were first to do colours, first to do six-sided chassis, and had the Predator 2 case which was the last product we did while we were still a private company, and our competition kept catching up and copying, trying to learn from us. What we didn’t want to do was introduce a square that looked like a slightly different version of what we had, so we started looking at this triangle design – this Triad- and quickly learned it had airflow benefits, it had thermal benefits, and it really did make a lot of sense from any measure we could find. We’re able to get more performance and a smaller chassis. We have the most amount of power you can put into a residence in the United States, certainly in other countries as well.
Beyond the design of the case, are there any features that make the area 51 stand out against competing products?
We do things a little differently to most of our competitors. We currently ship into 55 different countries, and we ship the same product, so when we design a product, our customers are able to take that into any country they want to go to. There’s different power cords, but everything is warrantied, serviced, sealed – everything we design is meant to be able to meet all the different regulatory requirements of any country that we sell into so we have different requirements for rigidity, for manufacturing – if you sell things in certain countries you have to have a higher quality component.
I’m saying all this because we have to build to meet the requirements of 55 different countries, and their government regulations, so the biggest thing that makes us stand out against a DIY machine is they don’thave to follow the same regulatory requirements, or same level of shipping requirements. YOu certainly can’t get service. If you buy our product in Australia and move to Moscow, you can get service from the local Alienware service centre. To me that’s the one thing that we offer our customers, besides performance and design, but we have a product that’s built to world standards and serviced by the world.
Will all of this new line will be available in Australia?
Were there any particular hurdles you faced in bringing the Area 51 to Australia, compared to what you had to go through for the US Market?
Actually we didn’t have anything unique for Australia, and I say that because Australia follows most of the European and United States guidelines. I hope I’ve said that the way it’s intended – Australia is a unique market, just from a regulatory perspective, there’s nothing unique about Australia.
Moving on to the laptop that was announced, the Alienware 13, one of the big draws with that has to be the Graphics Amplifier accessory. Could you give a run-through of what that means for people?
The number one thing we’ve always been asked to do in the past is how can I upgrade, and it’s hard to upgrade a chip that’s under the motherboard. We spent a lot of time trying to figure this out, and back in 2004, we did introduce a custom module for the notebooks we had manufactured for us, and you could upgrade graphics. It was very difficult and again, very proprietary. We set out on how we could fix it in a mainstream fashion, and kept coming back to “I want my desktop card in my notebook”. We even mocked up making a notebook that had a legitimate desktop card in it, but was portable like a notebook, but we knew when we went through that concept, as ludicrous as it seemed, this isn’t that hard for us for someone like us.
We have an incredible engineering team that said “Let’s figure out how to put this in a box and put a cable to it”. Once we’d gone through that, we still had a lot of hurdles that come with not having graphics physically inside the PC. If you open a desktop while it’s on and pull the graphics card out while it’s running, your system is not going to like that – it’s going to be a very unhappy computer.
With a notebook and a cable, we had to solve that because someone’s going to accidentally unplug the Alienware Graphics Amplifier. If you’re playing a game and the game’s using that GPU and you pull the cord, yeah, the GPU’s no longer there and the game’s going to crash, but your system won’t. We spent the last two years working out the issues customer’s have with being able to instantly remove a graphics card. We have what we obviously consider a very elegant solution, but you can the brand new GTX 980 and put it onto the Alienware 13, and now you’ve got the mobility you want in a gaming notebook, and the power you want from a gaming desktop. As we know the i5 and i7 are very important, but you’re driven mostly by your graphics card.
The other thing we had early on as an absolute requirement, we know if a customer has a big desktop, whether it’s ours or another, they’re going to upgrade the graphics card often. We want you to take your old graphics card and repurpose it for your notebook. We support Nvidia for instance, any 6, 7, 8 or 9 series graphics card. There’s some that we don’t recommend – a 640 desktop card from three years ago will have lower performance than the notebook gets on its own, but we knew people would have these other graphics cards. It’s an industry standard slot, industry standard card; you could purchase them new, buy them off eBay, it doesn’t matter, and have it supported in our machine. We immediately said this can’t be a custom Dell GPU – it had to be industry standard.
Will future Alienware laptops beyond the 13 support the Graphics Amplifier?
We believe that the future of mobile gaming is internal and external.
Is that a yes?
I’m saying that we’ve made a huge investment, and you should expect to see that work on a lot of notebooks.
At the moment, the entire Alienware 13 range appears to be i5 – is that correct?
It is, but at the moment we’re using the 4th generation Haswell i5-4210u – I think that’s the actual CPU model number. At the moment they’re all i5, and we chose not to do an i7 at this time, though not to say that we won’t add one later.
The other product I need to ask about is the Alienware Alpha. It’s being positioned as a console and was originally intended as a Steam Machine, which it doesn’t seem to be anymore.
The moniker Steam Machine is really a Valve brand. Valve defines a Steam Machine by SteamOS and Steam controller. The Steam controller’s not ready. SteamOS you can download the beta, and it works great on the Alpha, but we don’t ship with it. The way we define a Steam Machine versus the way Valve defines, it’s not a Steam Machine if we don’t ship with their controller. Otherwise if we ship with Valve’s controller, it’s ready to be a steam machine.
Now when Valve notified us earlier this year that they were going to go back and tweak the controller, we knew our product was everything we wanted to have in our living room, living room audio, living room video, and all we had to do was figure out how to get Windows to work with a controller and that may sound easy, unless you’ve ever tried to use windows with a controller. We do have a dedicated software team within Alienware, still at our old Miami office, and we gave them the challenge of making a UI that’d work on Windows and you could use a controller for, and we have it – what we call Alienware UI.
You do not need a keyboard or mouse, Alienware Alpha, you can ship and game without it. When you turn it on for the first time, you’re presented with the question of “Do you want console mode, or do you want desktop mode?” Desktop mode will only pop up as an option if you have a keyboard or mouse plugged in. You can adjust settings, join or rejoin networks, adjust resolutions, and most of the other necessary control panel applications, without ever plugging in a mouse or keyboard.
We love Alpha, we love the SteamOS, but the benefit of it being on Windows is you have every windows game you’ve ever had available for Alpha – your entire library. The controller wasn’t ready, but the content is tremendous in a living-room console. There’s three living room consoles – two have less than a hundred games, and one has thirty-five of them. We thinks that’s a huge advantage for the Alpha and really why we don’t call it a Steam Machine because that’s really a marketing name, but when you turn this on and go through the setup, you’re in Steam Big Picture mode. You have all of your Steam content. We have a controller you’re familiar with, the Xbox 360 controller, and will work with the Valve controller when it’s ready, so we’re still a big supporter of both.
And that means there’s games that aren’t on Steam that will work on the Alpha at the moment?
Any Windows game will work on Alpha, though some games are not meant to be played with a controller. So, thinking of Civ V, not really a controller game, but you could play that on Alpha with a keyboard and mouse. You can play any Origin game on Alpha right now – you won’t do it through Steam Big Picture obviously, but it’s still underlyingly a windows-based PC and you’ll need to use a keyboard and mouse for some of those games.
Are you working with EA or others to getting a controller interface for accessing those games?
The biggest difference is Origin does not have a controller-friendly launcher. We are meeting with them on a regular basis, but I don’t have any announcements or anything like that. We all believe that the living room is right for a controller, and there’s nothing holding either them or us back, we’re just ready because there are six-hundred games already on Steam and many are controller-based.
In terms of the Alpha, is the Graphics Amplifier relevant to the conversation?
On Alpha, no. There’s not an external graphics port for the Alpha. We’re talking about it internally but haven’t made any decisions yet. The main thing we did around alpha was we wanted to make it spouse-friendly. If you think about putting it first into your living room, I know my wife would not let me to do it, and work for a PC gaming company. She sees all sorts of crazy things come through my house, but I don’t get to hook them up to the TV.
Alpha’s great and the Graphics Amplifier’s great, but we’re not sure yet if it meets that task.
Are the accessories for the Alpha such as keyboard, mouse, and controller, supported wirelessly?
We ship with a wireless Xbox 360 controller, so that is out-of-the-box wireless. The keyboard and mouse that we do recommend in our online eco-system are also wireless, but we’re not shipping anything in the box – only the controller.
Talking about the whole Steambox thing, did somebody drop the ball in not calling it the Steam Engine?
*Laughter* We’ve had the same conversations, but I think it was organically called something else, but I don’t know why. It was the obvious thing, right, with the piston logo? Yeah.
At home, what colour do you set your Alienware lights to?
I set it to orange. I live in Austin and there’s a school in Texas and burnt orange is their colour.
All of the new line up will be at PAX Australia this weekend?
We’ll have all of our products available at PAX.
PAX Australia starts on October 31st, so if you’re there, swing by and look at the shiny. Thanks to Alienware’s Joe Olmsted for answering so many questions and PPR Australia for organising the interview.