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Steam Boxes – Answers Bring More Questions

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By NAG3LT19-01-2013

For a long time there were rumours about Valve making their own console. As with many rumours, there were not many reliable details, so it was hard to know the real state of things. Finally, with the announcement of Big Picture mode and Steam on Linux in 2012, we knew that development of some sort of “Steam Box” was not just a rumour. Now, after CES 2013 there is a lot more information about Valve plans for hardware and Steam in the living room.

Judging from Gabe Newell’s interview with Verge, Valve is making its own hardware configuration, as well as discussing the features that players like with other hardware manufacturers. The plan for Steam Box is for it to be not just for gaming, but a flexible multimedia device, servicing several displays in the home and allowing seamless transition between them. GabeN considers motion controls too imprecise and currently the main focus is on traditional gamepad and biometrics. Valve’s own Steam Box will be Linux-based, but there will not be any lock stopping players from installing Windows. Actually, there are two projects at Valve – more developed “Bigfoot” home system, and more portable touchscreen “Littlefoot”. There is even the idea for future GPUs with support for both multiple games and monitors at the same time to be the central home servers, allowing several people to play different games simultaneously on the same Steam Box.

Obsolete Merchandise?

Obsolete Merchandise?

Other companies have already shown hardware at CES, which are geared towards running Steam games in Big Picture mode. One of the most noticed ones was the Xi3 Piston, which is a small modular PC for the living room. Xi3 had tried to Kickstart their computers before, but those attempts had failed and Piston was finally partially financed by Valve. Considering the investment, it seems probable that some hardware design ideas from Piston will find their way into Valve’s own Steam Box.

First noticeable thing about Piston is its size – a small squashed cube with a 10cm edge, almost fitting in your palm. This small size is the key factor to all its features – performance, storage, price, upgradability. While Xi3 has not shared any details about Piston yet, we can make an educated guess by looking at their proposed X7A model. It had AMD’s Trinity quad-core 3.2GHz R-464L GPU, 8GB DDR3 RAM and SSD. There is a lot of place for connectivity at the back, with 4 USB3, 4 USB2, 4 eSATA, HDMI/DisplayPort. While internal parts come from the laptop world, the interesting part is the separation into 3 boards – one holding the GPU and RAM, while storage and IO are on other 2 boards. That allows upgradability but its non-standard design means that Xi3 will control their availability and price.

Reinventing the old.

Reinventing the old.

Price/Performance ratio casts the big shadow on the potential of the Piston. Current AMD Trinity offers graphics performance a bit higher than Xbox360 or PS3, thus allowing to play modern games at low settings at 1280x720, ~30FPS. Not something that would be able to compete with whatever Sony and MS will release for Next-gen. The standard PC versatility and upgradability may help, but price and storage are a major problem. Small size leave SSDs as the only storage option, and those are still quite expensive for each gigabyte. With the size of modern PC games, 256GB drive is a minimum (unless you play exclusively one game for weeks), and such SSD adds a lot to the cost. Taking X7A’s price as reference, we are looking at $1000 or more – quite a lot, considering the specs. While more versatile that any current consoles as a general media device, it is hard to consider it to be worth 3-4 times the price of those consoles. It remains to be seen if release of AMD’s Kaveri in late 2013 – early 2014 and decreasing SSD prices will bring us a more affordable version of Piston.

Another interesting device at CES was Razer Edge, utilising everything that Windows 8 and Steam’s Big Picture has brought to the table. Edge is a 10.1” gaming tablet with Intel’s Ivy Bridge CPU (low voltage), GeForce 640M GPU, 1366x768 display and accessories to turn it into several different configurations. To support the full gaming experience on the go, a double grip gamepad with thumb sticks and buttons is available for purchase, turning it into something similar to a Wii U gamepad. With a docking station and standard USB gamepad it turns into a console you can connect to TV and play your games from Steam. The new touch interface in Windows and Big Picture should make such device quite usable for those who want to play their games on the go. Compared to Piston, pricing does not seem as bad, but still Razer is not cheap; a model with i5/4GB RAM/64GB SSD costs $999, while bundle i7/8GB RAM/128GB SSD with gamepad is $1499 (256GB SSD costs additional $150).

Genius or a dreamer?

Genius or a dreamer?

The overall picture with the Steam Box is not yet clear, looking at available hardware and Newell’s interview. On the one hand we have small PCs for use in living room with TV that can be used with a gamepad and Steam’s Big Picture. Smaller ones have low performance and high price, and we can expect something bigger, faster and cheaper from other manufacturers. Those will be good enough for running a single game on a single screen. On the other hand we have a centralised media centre that runs several games and can service many displays simultaneously. That would require a lot of performance, meaning not just high end GPU, but something like NVidia GRID GPUs with corresponding power and size, giving us a very large “Bigfoot”. Not a silent living room PC, but a central home multimedia server standing somewhere further away.

No matter which scenario is the main course for Steam Box, its adoption would be good news for PC gaming, and especially good news for Linux gaming. If it becomes popular, some games that are usually released only on consoles (f.e. fighting games, Japanese games) will find their way to PCs, as there will be minimal difference in hardware architecture. It would also bring in people who consider computers too complex to use, as Steam Box will likely be very close to the idea of plug and play. With a bigger playerbase, there will be more to gain from prioritising PC versions of games in development. As for Linux – while indie games get Linux versions sometimes, it has remained the backwater of PC gaming so far. If Valve manages to make Steam on Linux (including Steam Box) popular enough, we may see much more interest in Linux from major developers and the Linux gaming library may overtake MacOS.

Steam Box is real and it will come in many faces – that part we know for sure. The details are cloudy at the moment, however, as we saw only several devices utilising the idea, as well as quite different ideas from Valve. It may turn out to be a success, beneficial to PC gaming or a short-lived flop – only time will tell.


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Good article, man!

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