Install Windows on Alienware Steam Machine R2

This is my first blog post on medium.com!

I was planning to post this in my github.io, but later found I didn’t save my _config.yml in github and later accidentally deleted the _config.yml file. To blog on my github.io again, I’d have to set up hexo configuration again, which I remember is non-trivial.

My second thought was to post something in LinkedIn, the company I love and am working for, but, this post is not something professional or related to my job, so I ended up writing this post here!

Warning: it is not a plausible experience to install Windows on Alienware Steam Machine and I may use some improper words through out this article. It is really bad but it is still much better than migrating half a million LOC from Swift 2.0 to Swift 3.0.

TL;DR

Only Windows 8.1 works for Alienware Steam Machine R2.

Background

I haven’t used Windows much since my first contact of macOS in 2012. Back in the old college days, I thought people using macOS, iOS are nincompoops. There are few applications/games available for macOS and MacBooks are so expensive. Also, the UI looks weird.

“You’d fall in love with macOS/iOS after using it for one week. After that, you’ll never get back to Windows”, warned by a friend.

No shit, I didn’t believe that but couldn’t resist my curiosity and temptation to buy a cheap refurbished Mac Air and try it out.

I haven’t touched Windows after using my Mac Air since then.

OK, back to the topic, a couple of questions you may ask:

Why the f* do you want to buy Alienware Steam Machine with steamOS by default but intend to install Windows on it?

A bargain-love heart and a nerdy mind. As LinkedIn was acquired by MSFT, we got access to MSFT employee store and the price there is incredibly low compare with market price. As Windows 10 costs roughly $100, this cost apparently would be added to any machine with a pre-installed Windows. There is no reason for me to pay that extra money.

Why not assemble the machine yourself instead of buying a brand machine?

There are a couple of reasons to this. 1. A bit lazy to buy and assemble all those hardwares and check the compatibilities. 2. The prices of Intel CPUs and Nvidia GPUs have hiked up and there was no deal for them. 3. The highest configuration of Alienware Steam Machine already fits my needs (i7–6700, 8GB RAM and Nvidia 960 4GB) and it is only $650 under some discounts.

The Story

I received my Alienware Steam Machine on a sunny Saturday morning around one week after placing the order and I had already got my Windows 10 installation USB stick ready. I thought everything should be good I would be playing Overwatch or Witcher 3 at 60FPS+ after entering the serial number, tapping Next/Next/Next and wait for half an hour of installation. Bullshit, that was only the beginning of my weekend nightmare.

First try

After booting the machine, I kept pressing F2 and got to the familiar BIOS screen. The Boot tab was there, EZ, I just need to navigate to the Boot tab, yes! Change BOOT priority to [USB Drive].

Wait, where are the BOOT priorities??

File Browser Add Boot Option?

Nope, nothing there. You can’t choose USB as boot device.

Did some research online, it is the fancy UEFI and you have to build a UEFI installation stick to bootstrap into that. A workaround is to switch back to the [Legacy] Boot option.

Nice! The [USB Storage Device] selection is there! Happily chose that, save and reboot.

Plugged in my USB and booted into the coolest and best Windows 10 installation page, serial number, next, next, install and Yay, time to go out and grab lunch. It should be good after an enjoyable lunch. BS.

It stuck at copying Windows files, wtf?

It might be caused by the existence of steamOS, I rebooted the machine and formatted the disk. Another try, still stuck there. There is nothing online on working around this, I had to tackle this by myself.

Second try

Maybe Windows 10 could not be installed through a USB drive? I managed to find another USB drive and burned a Win8 PE into it. After booting to Win PE, I dumped the Windows 10 ISO file into the hard drive and unzipped it. Nice, there was a setup.exe file, simply double click it and we should be good? NO WAY! Stuck at the installation page again but in a different stage — “Copying files for installation 20%”.

Third try

Sort of frustrated after the first two trials (I repeated the steps a couple of times, never worked). It had been 5pm in the afternoon. I turned my eyeballs to Windows 7.

Quite straightforward, boot into Win PE and dump the Windows 7 ISO file there, setup.exe, let’s go.

Rebooted and installation went smoothly! AWESOME! My old mate — Windows 7 is launched! Finally booted to Windows!

Wait, my mouse can’t move?? hmm.. no Wireless driver? Damn it, there is no wired network access point in my zen. We should at least have mouse driver, keyboard works but I am not really a fan of navigating across the whole OS without using my mouse.

Fourth try

Windows 7 and Windows 10 didn’t work, what about Windows 8? Our last resort! I copied an Windows 8 ISO file from my roommate and copied that to my poor machine which has been wiped more than a dozen of times.

Super smooth, everything looks good, similar as Windows 8. And the best thing is —

Windows 8 has the driver for the mouse! Oh Yay! There is no driver for Wireless card tho, but it is fine, I can download it from my other laptop, copy it over and install it in my Alienware.

Didn’t work.

It was already 2am and I finally gave up and went to bed.

Fifth try

Tried different drivers for my intel 8260 wireless card (btw, the model is wrongly specified in the Alienware’s website, it says 8620. But it is actually 8260 since there is no 8620 at all). They all didn’t work.

I finally realized my assumption that Windows 8.1’s drivers should work for Windows 8 was wrong, even though it is a minor version bump. Let’s grade Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 then?

Opened Windows Update Manager and ready to update! It kept at 0% and the useless progress indicator kept changing its color gradient:

But I know it is actually working behind the scene. Time for lunch, it should be good after I come back from lunch!

“Windows Update failed to install some updates.”

WTF? Tried again, didn’t work. F*.

The Update Manager might be sabotaged but I should be able to download the upgrade files from Microsoft — Windows 8.1 upgrade. After a short while, I finally downloaded the upgrade patch (1GB). After decompressing the package, I got a series of installation files. I followed the instruction and was pumped to install the first binary — clearcompressionflag.exe.

“this app can’t run on your PC to find a version for your pc, check with the software publisher”

WTF? I got completely mind blown, tried a couple of other executables, all don’t work.

Sixth try

It was 3pm on the Sunday. I finally gave up and was ready to file a return request to Dell, but its painless return service advertisement was rigged.

“You can’t return this item online at the moment, please call our customer support at XXX-XXX-XXXX”

Ah, I don’t really like calling someone.. What about online chatting then? Opened a chat window with a Dell custom support, he told me you can only buy stuff with online chatting, not return your crap.

Sixth try

5pm on Sunday. My whole weekend was almost gone and I planned to call Dell the next day and schedule a return, in the meantime, I put an order for Alienware Alpha R2 with Windows 10 installed. I spent 20 hours trying to bargain for a $75 margin, my rate is f* less than $4/hour. I should definitely have chosen a machine with preinstalled Windows.

Seventh try

Wait, install Windows 8.1 directly might work? A strategic idea hit my brilliant mind. OK, last try!

Downloaded the Windows 8.1 ISO and installed it. Finger-crossed, installing Intel Drivers, Graphic Drivers… HOLY MOLY! IT WORKS NOW!!!

It worked!

Finally, finally, GOD! After more than 30 hours of experimenting, I finally managed to install Windows 8.1 peacefully in my Alienware Steam Machine was able to put all appropriate drivers together. Nice! Time to joy!

End of Story?

Not yet. The following Monday, I shared my story with my coworkers and an old school geeky guy told me — dude, you must have installed Windows 10 in a wrong way, it should work if you turn on UEFI and turn on Secure Boot in BIOS. Besides that, you should burn the USB drive with Windows 10 using Microsoft’s default media creation tool.

I trusted him.

Eighth try

That night, I did what he told me, burnt Windows 10 into the USB stick with MSFT’s media creation tool. Set up the BIOS correctly, reboot. There is no USB choice as before?

Perhaps I could try [File Browser Add Boot Option]? Yes, the USB drive’s FS showed up. I was able to figure out bootx64.efi might be the one we need (by intuition..). Added a [u5] to use that bootx64.efi in the USB drive. Save, reboot!

Nicely done!

Booted into Windows 10 installation page with high screen resolution, apparently the default graphic driver started to work. Next/Next/CD-KEY/NEXT.

“Windows cannot be installed on this disk, The selected disk has an MBR partition table”

If I format my disk with the tool in this windows installation tool, it should be automatically converted to GPT table? Should I take the risk to wipe my disk again for the sake of installing Windows 10? I chose to take the red pill and wiped my disk.

F*, same error.

Did some research, I found you have to use some tool or Windows 8’s cmd tool to migrate your disk from MBR to GPT. I used a tool (disk genius) to do the migration. Pretty smooth. Reboot, Windows 10, I am finally getting you.

F* the world.

I got stuck in the exact screen as my second try — “Copying files for installation 20%”

I didn’t know what I could except for reverting all my changes. It was already Monday 11:30pm.

I overcame my sleepy eyes and reset my disk from GPT to MBR. However, disk genius screwed up disk after migrating back to MBR, I could no longer assign disk letter to my partitions and the disk no longer showed up in My Computer. Thankfully, I was able to fix that by piggybacking on Window’s default disk utility.

At 2:00 am, I was finally able to reset my Alienware to Windows 8.1.

Conclusion

If you are not interested in wasting 40 hours getting Windows to your machine, please don’t consider Alienware Steam Machine R2, it is a nightmare. If you are thinking of replacing PS4, Xbox One, Wii U/Switch with Alienware Steam Machine in the living room, you must be joking. If you search for steamOS best games 2016/2017, there is literally nothing worth playing and I don’t have much confidence on games built on top of OpenGL for Linux as Linux platform is definitely a third class citizen (after Windows and macOS) in the gaming world.

If I were able to choose again, I’d simply buy a $375 Alienware Steam Machine R1 from Gamestop (i7, 1TB, Nvidia 870m and the installation Windows 10 R1 is easy, tons of tutorials in the wild) or a $1000 Alienware Aurora.

Update 04/09/2017

Finally I was able to install Windows 10 in my Steam Machine and now it works perfectly!

Yesterday, I tried to play AOE II HD on steam with my friends, however, the game simply crashed on launch. In order to fix the problem, I searched online the suggestions led to update the system and re-install Visual Studio C++ Redistribution 2015.

But my Windows 8.1 refused to update and stuck at installing KB2919355, which is critical to the future updates.

I was frustrated and considered sending Steam Machine back to Dell again. Unfortunately, Dell has the 30-day return policy which starts from invoice day, and yesterday was the 31st day after the invoice so I was not able to return it :(

Since I have installed so much update in the system and I am also connected to Ethernet, maybe another shot of Windows 10 update would work? Installing with the same Windows 10 ISO file, it worked!

The only difference between this time of installation and last time is that — I plugged my Steam Machine to the Ethernet (I fixed my Ethernet through another blog post). The Windows Update program is able to update itself to pick up some latest changes (possibly picked up some hardware drivers for Steam Machine) and was finally able to install Windows 10 on it.

I think the final conclusion is: if you want to install Windows 10 on your Steam Machine, make sure your Steam Machine is connected to Ethernet and install it from disk(boot from WinPE or another OS).