These are the Steam Machines - A look at the first designs, specs and prices

Date Posted Author
13th January 2014 Matt Bailey

There is still no such thing as a "SteamBox", Valve's long-rumoured entry into the console market, but there are now thirteen confirmed "Steam Machines", the brand for PCs designed for living rooms running the American developer's own SteamOS. While Valve revealed the programme last year, it was in the past week at the CES technology conference in Las Vagas that they revealed the first hardware partners, and in turn gave us a glimpse at the first generation of boxes to sport the Steam logo.

Rather than building a machine themselves, Valve have signed up Alienware, Alternate, CyberpowerPC, Digital Storm, Gigabyte, Falcon Northwest, iBuyPower, Material.Net, Origin PC, Next Spa, Scan Computers, Webhallen and Zotac. Some of those are more notable than others; Alienware has been the big name in pre-made gaming PCs for sometime and is also part of PC-selling giant Dell, Gigabyte are known for manufacturing motherboards although they are also a PC seller, while UK-based Scan Computers is a custom PC builder giving us a local Steam Machine. The thirteen different companies have each come up with their own ideas for a Steam Machine, leaving us with quite a variety of designs, specifications and prices - quite appropriate for a selection of PCs.

Despite having the cheapest machine in the lineup, CyberpowerPC's box looks rather nice

Despite having the cheapest machine in the lineup, CyberpowerPC's box looks rather nice

The machine with the cheapest price and confirmed specifications is CyberpowerPC's at US$499 (approx £300) - the same price as an Xbox One in the US. Depending on your choices, it features either an Intel Core i5 processor or its AMD equivalent, an AMD Radeon R9 270 or NVIDIA GTX 760, 8GB RAM, and a 500GB hard disk drive (HDD) - making it rather similar on paper to an Xbox One, in fact. Meanwhile, at the other end of the market you have Digital Storm's "Bolt II" with an Intel Core i7 4770K, 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GTX 780 Ti, 1TB HDD, and a 120GB solid state drive (SSD) - all for US$2584, around £1570. However, it's possible to go even higher as Falcon Northwest suggest an upper price on one of their unspecified configurations - which include an option for up to 6TB of storage - at a colossal US$6000 (roughly £3640). That's probably the most expensive consumer-orientated Linux PC we've seen.

As well as a mixture of specifications and prices, there's also an assortment of form factors in the machines we've been shown. While Digital Storm seem to have opted for a somewhat stylish, but rather regular, tower case - which seems an odd fit in the living room that Steam Machines are meant to focus on - the UK's Scan Computers have gone for an ultra-slim design that should fit neatly alongside your set top box, complete with an NVIDIA laptop-sized graphics card. It's also set to carry a UK price of £699. Zotac's, meanwhile, looks more like a wireless router, complete with two aerials at the back, and the Alienware machine features their traditional styling, but we're lacking any other details on that box at the moment.

The UK's Scan Computers is going for a set-top box approach

The UK's Scan Computers is going for a set-top box approach

With all that variety, what makes these "Steam Machines" and not just a PC with a Steam logo on the box? Well, for one they are pre-loaded with Valve's own Linux distribution, SteamOS, a tweaked version of Debian with Steam pre-installed (of course). By breaking away from Windows, Valve get to not only prevent Microsoft cutting them off with a Windows Store-only Windows 9 (although we have no current indication this will happen), they get to control the whole stack, and ensure there's always a future on PCs for Steam. It also means they can tweak the OS to improve gaming, in a way only consoles have been able to in the past. SteamOS isn't Steam-only either; it's a full Linux operating system when you peel away from the living room-friendly Big Picture mode which will likely be the focus of its use, so you can use it to do spreadsheets, write code, browse this website, and everything else many of us already use Linux for.

The other thing that makes these Steam Machines is that they will ship with the new Steam Controller, an interface that replaces the traditional analogue sticks and buttons with touchpads with haptic feedback. It's a very interesting idea, and general feedback has been positive from early testers; it's meant to be something that allows you to play mouse-driven games like Civilization V from your sofa, as much as the regular controller-driven games like Fez and Thomas Was Alone. It has potential, but it's going to take some hands-on time to win over the skeptics, and probably a lot longer to dislodge the Xbox 360 controller as the PC gamepad of choice.

Gaming PC specialists Alienware have joined in with their usual stylings

Gaming PC specialists Alienware have joined in with their usual stylings

With a game-focused operating system, a keen eye on the living room and the inclusion of a controller, this is surely Valve's attempt to take on Microsoft and Sony's consoles, right? Well, no. While some may see it as an attempt to steal the thunder away from the next-generation which kicked off (Nintendo aside) only a couple of months ago, in reality Valve aren't expecting to compete with the big guns in this arena. They want you to put a Steam Machine in your living room, but they know it might take time. If they did want to make a full-on push they'd have concentrated on a single box from a single manufacturer (although possibly with multiple configurations), they'd have been aggressive on pricing (possibly subsidising the cost as the console makers do), and they'd be looking to secure some exclusives. Valve have said that even their own games - including the likes of Left 4 Dead 3 and Half-Life 3 if they ever see the light of day - will not be exclusive to SteamOS, and no third-parties are currently looking to do so either. But many developers and publishers - from indies all the way up to so-called 'AAA' - are now looking to Linux, and in particular SteamOS, as a variable platform, and something worth bringing games to.

It's going to be a slow process, but in years to come we might be looking back at 2014 as the moment when Linux - or more accurately SteamOS - started to become a strong contender for Windows amongst gamers, or maybe we'll look back at a failed experiment for the otherwise highly successful developer and distributor. Either way, it's an exciting time ahead for Steam and for PC gaming in general.

SteamOS is available to try out now (do so at your own risk), while the Steam Machines are due to ship from the middle of this year. Images of the machines are copyright to their respective manufacturers.

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