The First Steam Machine: Initial Thoughts

A few weeks ago I had a look at Valve’s Steam Box, the upcoming challenge to Microsoft and Sony’s long term dominance in the living room gaming arena. Now though, we’ve seen the first glimpses of a certified Steam Machine prototype, a console from another party, iBuyPower, running Valve’s Steam OS. So what exactly is a Steam Machine, and how will it fare in an increasingly crowded marketplace?

Steam Machines are going to be a range of games consoles released throughout 2014, and perhaps beyond, manufactured by a host of different companies. Valve, the company behind Steam and games such as the Half Life and Portal series, have laid out a set of design specifications to third party vendors, who will design and manufacturer consoles running the Linux-based Steam OS.

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iBuyPower’s Steam Machine prototype.

This first prototype comes from a vendor called iBuyPower, and is certainly raising a few eyebrows already. Hardware-wise, it sports a multi-core AMD CPU and ATi’s Radeon R9 270 GPU, enough juice to power games at 1080p and 60fps, according to the California-based manufacturer. More impressive though, is the price. Significantly undercutting Valve’s own Steam Box by approximately 50% at just $499, the same price as the Xbox One, though slightly more expensive than the PS4. Also, the console is a far more aesthetically pleasing unit than most tower PCs, with a white plastic enclosure and a customisable LED glow through the middle.

The unit has impressive specs and a great price, but the bigger question is where exactly this fits in the market. First of all, the specs are high, but they’re not top end. You can’t expect them to be for that price, but one of the biggest draws to PC gaming over console gaming in the past has been the ability for more powerful, more customisable hardware.

There’s no word on whether or not these Steam Machines will be drastically customisable, but the specs are very similar to those in the next-gen consoles as standard, so they’re not going to draw anyone away that way. Also, while it’s cheap, it’s not cheaper than the Xbox One or the PS4, so it’s winning no real fans on price either. So what exactly is the benefit of this over, say, an Xbox One?

A PC sold in a console form, with a simple to use OS and controller out of the box, is really a far less daunting prospect than a delivery of parts ready for assembly, or a Windows machine which requires regular maintenance on both hardware and software, for sure, and that could potentially be a huge drawer for people who’ve often leaned towards PC gaming but never quite made the leap due to the convenience of a console.

There’s also the added benefit of being able to use a mouse and keyboard for games which quite clearly require them. A Steam Machine will enable you to comfortably play both FIFA and Football Manager on the same device, and when all is said and done, what else matters?

Also, let’s not forget that the price of games is significantly lower on Steam than for PS4 or Xbox One, with current titles going for over £50, though I expect they’ll come down in the new year.

All in all though, I can’t see a huge market for a Steam Machine, and nor do I expect these manufacturers really believe they’ll be competing with the main consoles, however with a flood of similar Steam OS consoles heading our way in 2014, they’ll be lucky to sell very many at all individually. Unfortunately despite the price, I just think many will find the Steam Box itself more appealing, and if they’re not bothered enough to spend that much more on a quality gaming PC, then I fear they’ll just buy a PS4 or Xbox. Hopefully Steam Machines can find their niche when they go on sale next year.

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