Thirteen Steam Machines were unveiled at CES this week, boasting an array of different specifications, capabilities, and price points. It looks like preparation for Valve and co.'s invasion of the living room is well underway, but there are a few sticking points that have left us all a little sceptical and relatively unconvinced that the arrival of the Steam Machines (kind of sounds like a Doctor Who episode) will herald the living room PC revolution that Valve are hoping for.
Anyway, here's what we thought of the initial reveal...
New device reveals are always exciting, but I can't even muster up a sliver of enthusiasm for the Steam Machines that were revealed today. Then again, Value and the manufacturers of these (for the most part) hideous boxes aren't aiming them at people such as I - they're trying to aim them at those looking for the very best in convenience, and the issue I see right now is that that particular audience is a bit limited.
The effort from Cyberpower is certainly the most affordable, but it's still more expensive than the brand new crop of consoles, and there's the issue - do you spend your money on a better known brand with the knowledge that sooner or later the big hitters - your Halos and Uncharteds - will make an appearance down the line, or do you spend that money on a Linux machine with a library that, while growing, is limited to begin with?
Don't get me wrong - we here at Dealspwn know that Steam can be dirt cheap for games, something we love Valve for, so in the long term a Steam Machine has the potential to be the best value for money, but the problem is that without big hitting exclusives the non-gaming general public won't care, and those of us PC gamers with already powerful rigs won't want to spend money on a new system. It's for that reason that these "better" and "best" options (to borrow the terminology thrown around during original announcement) are not what I'm looking for - it's the "good" option that still piques my interest.
Where are the $100 options that allow us to stream our existing beastly rigs throughout our homes, because those are the devices I'm waiting for. After all, why would I spend anything over £800 for a device that will only just beat the rig I finished building last year? I just hope there is something in the pipeline that caters to this, because I have a nasty suspicion that Valve will end up turning round to us more tech-savvy PC users and saying "build your own streaming device," give us an online guide to do so, and send us on our merry way.
At least that would be a better path than stating the Rotac machine is their answer to "good", because they can jog on if that's the case.
As far as I can tell, Steam Machines have taken inspiration from Southend seafront on a Saturday night when it comes to styling. With the exception of Alienware's achingly beautiful obsidian roof tile, all of the gaudy living room PCs drip with LEDs and silly details that even the most tasteless boy racer would think twice about installing on their 2002 Fiesta. I'm pretty sure that the CyberPower monstrosity has a spoiler.
Never mind about looks, though, because it's what's inside that counts. Though many manufacturers are keeping schtum, there appears to be a Steam Machine for anyone; for any niche, budget, power requirements or gaming predilection. This is tremendously exciting, especially when twinned with the PC's great big dirty cheap variety of games.
And it could also be a major problem.
Personally, I think that Valve's biggest hurdle will be usefully educating consumers about Steam Machines - or in plain English, getting the word out. There's one PS4. One Xbox One. But with over a dozen Steam Boxes already revealed, the concept is dilute and diffuse; difficult to market effectively and potentially confusing people who just want "something to play games on in the lounge." I love the idea of SFF living room PCs (having chickened out and bought an eminently portable X51 for precisely that reason), but we'll wait and see whether Steam Machines can break into the mainstream.
Here's hoping that Valve's controller makes the difference. If Owlface™ can bring every genre from 4X to flight sim into my lounge, then the living room PC revolution will have one clear flagship product to march behind and show to us unwashed masses. Hopefully, much like an owl, it will eat mice for breakfast...
About this time last year, The Verge reported that Valve's Gabe Newell had touted a three-tier range of Steam Machines, with pricing ranging from $99 for a streaming kit to around $300 for a "midrange" device, with the upper echelons basically wide-open to enthusiasts willing to pay whatever they want.
Of course, that rather seems like horsesh*t now.
Looking at the thirteen examples of first-wave Steam Machines -- and trying hard not to look too hard because they're all ugly as sin -- it's difficult not to be disappointed. Wasn't the whole point of this initiative to work Steam into living rooms in an affordable manner? We already have small form factor PCs and Big Picture Mode, after all. The only difference with these devices is that these will be running the Linux-based Steam OS... which is free anyway.
I posited in my predictions for 2014 piece that the release of Steam Machines this year would be a welcome one, but not the gamechanger many are hoping for, and this first-wave confirms the major fear I had: affordability. Many serious PC gamers will already have an expensive rig, and many (like myself) would have been looking for an inexpensive way of securing a device to work in sync with an existing machine to support living room play.
So where are they? The cheapest models available are Cyberpower and IBuyPower's $499 base models, which look underfed to say the least. The Linux Steam library is growing, but slowly, and there are big hitters coming this year from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Newell said later in 2013 that he considered Apple to be Valve's biggest competition for living room supremacy. Well, they'll be laughing their arses off at this.
But the biggest problem is that I have no idea who these Machines are aimed at. I thought, thanks to Newell's inclusive words earlier in the year, that I might have been part of that target audience. But not any more. Gadget hounds with deep pockets and a love of all things Valve will of course buy one. Brands sell products, and Steam is a popular brand indeed. Some will buy them just because of the piston logo on the side. But most high-end PC aficionados will know a good deal when they see one, many will have built their own rigs, and many will recognise that there's more power to be had for less money. Many may already have SFF gaming setups. Others will look towards more established living room names for greater convenience at lower prices and simply continue playing Steam games on the PCs that they already own.
Those are our thoughts on the matter, what about yours? Are the prices too high? Has one model in particular caught your eye? Let us know what you make of the first wave of Steam Machines in the box below.