Updated: Steam Machines: Valve's PC-like game consoles explained


Update: Valve recently said during a GDC 2016 keynote that it’s looking into optimizing its SteamVR framework for older or lower-power graphics cards. We speculate on what this might mean for Steam Machines a bit more below, so read on.

Original story continues…

Once upon a time, PC gaming was at the desk, console gaming was in the living room and never the two shall meet. That gaming fairytale is supposed to end now, as Valve has brought Steam to your HDTV, thanks to the Steam Machine.

If you’re unfamiliar with “Steam”, think of it as iTunes for PC games, with a buddy list and chat for joining your friend’s games. It started off on Windows, but now has a healthy number of titles for Mac, too. Not to mention Linux, which we’ll touch on further in a moment.

Valve’s Steam Machines are aimed to shake up tradition, bringing PC gaming to the living room TV. None of them are actually built by Valve – partnering manufacturers have put together their own boxes – but Valve has injected them with SteamOS, its new Linux-based operating system (OS).

Cut to the chase

  • What are they? Home theater-ready gaming PCs with Valve’s SteamOS loaded
  • When are they out? You can buy one now from various gaming PC makers
  • How much do they cost? They generally start at $549 (about £384)

Valve already took a big step into the living room with Steam’s Big Picture mode years ago, but that still required a desktop PC in your entertainment center – or a really long HDMI cable. Perhaps because of that, a lot of Valve’s phrasing regarding SteamOS treats Steam (the service) and the new OS interchangeably.

Steam Machines
Syber, a subsidiary of CyberPowerPC, has an attractive model

Still, Valve’s goals with Steam Machines and SteamOS are clear: bestow upon PC gaming the ease and accessibility that console jockeys already enjoy – in a way that lets PC hardware makers continue to compete.

And that puts Steam right at the center of it all, ready to vacuum up its cut of games sold on Steam Machines like it’s the Steam summer sale all year long.

Read more: SteamOS: what you need to know

The journey from announcement to launch has been long and a tad messy. But, at GDC 2015, Valve revealed the final details of its living room plans, which included Machines, the revised controller and its Vive virtual reality headset. Since then, a few smaller events and announcements kept things going into the 2015 holiday launch and beyond.

Losing steam already

After a false start or two, Valve went on to finally launch its Steam Machines back in November 2015 to little fanfare. While there are some 15 Steam Machines available today, Valve publicly endorses but a few makes, namely Alienware, Maingear, Materiel.net, Scan, Syber and Zotac.

Each of these Steam Machines are essentially gaming PCs inside home theater-friendly cases that run on the Linux-based SteamOS and come with one Steam Controller. Unfortunately, it’s even more difficult to peg which box is best for the kind of games that you want to play, as they all offer multiple configurations.

In the few reviews of Steam Machine candidates that we’ve published, we have run up against the same conundrum: do Steam Machines really make PC gaming that much simpler?

It seems as if we’re not alone in asking that question, as PC World reports that a scant 1% of Steam users play their games on Linux or SteamOS.

Steam Machines
The Zotac Steam Machine is decidedly more subtle

Who are Steam Machines for?

The easiest way to answer this one is to say “console gamers that have been put off by the complexity and prohibitive hardware pricing of PC gaming.” However, while that may be the case, that hasn’t turned out to be the result so far.

Console gamers might find Steam Machines far easier to set up than gaming PCs, but that still doesn’t solve the problem that PC games are often developed for a wide range of hardware. Sometimes, PC game makers want to develop for the highest-end systems, which most Steam Machines certainly aren’t.

This causes problems that you can probably already foresee. For instance, what if someone who bought a Steam Machine for the next big Fallout game release? She will still have to see whether the parts inside her Steam Machine can run the game well, much less whether Valve’s proprietary SteamOS is even supported by the game. That’s not at all how consoles work.

Read our hands on SteamOS review

So, when you ask who Steam Machines are for, it’s almost easier to answer who they aren’t for, and that’s discerning hardcore gamers. Folks in this category can either put up with complexity for the sake of a great gaming experience on PC or know enough to avoid it altogether with a console.

Steam Machine
The controller you see here went through several iterations

The silver lining: Steam Controller and Steam Link

Every Steam Machine comes packaged with might be the best product of Valve’s big coup for the living room, the Steam Controller. Sold separately for $49 (about £35), the Steam Controller primarily uses haptic feedback touchpads for input, a first for modern PC gaming.

The controller is affordable, beautifully designed and infinitely customizable. In fact, Steam now offers a fully-fledged community of Steam users that share uploadable controller profiles that can change everything from button mapping to the intensity of the haptic feedback motors.

Then there’s the Steam Link, which doesn’t solve the problem that Valve claims to be tackling with Steam Machines, but does one better. This $99 (about £69) set-top box allows you to stream games played on your PC via Steam to whatever HDTV the Link is connected to.

Streaming happens over your local network, and essentially allows you to play PC games in front of your TV without the need for a complicated HDMI setup or other methods. Steam Machines, running on SteamOS, offer this capability, too. But why spend 500-plus dollars for that feature when you can spend 100?

Steam Machines
We’re rather smitten with this little gaming box

Where do Steam Machines go from here?

The future of Valve’s living room project is largely unknown, as there hasn’t been much said of future Steam Machine releases from neither their creator nor its partners. At that rate, Steam Link has a better chance of fulfilling Valve’s couch-ridden dreams than any Steam Machine does.

With the 2016 Game Developers Conference, or GDC 2016, having came and went with nary a word on Steam Machines, it would seem that Valve is in a holding pattern with the project. However, Valve recently said that it wants to get lower-power graphics cards to work with its SteamVR platform, so perhaps it has Steam Machines squarely in mind with this. Steam Machines bundled with HTC Vive, anyone?

Article originally contributed by Alex Roth

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