Steam Machine

Teardown - Steam Machine

Valve is looking to disrupt the established gaming landscape with its Steam machine - so we get our hands on the console to see what makes it tick.

Just how much customisation do gamers want? The gamers we are talking about here are not hardcore PC system self-builders, but a broader community willing to venture beyond dedicated Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo consoles.

In many respects that is the question posed by the Steam Machine platform. It is not a console in its own right, rather a reference design on which game developer Valve has, so far, enlisted 13 custom PC builders to use for products that will enter battle against the Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this autumn.

It is basically a Linux-based PC platform in a console box. Beyond that, there is also a highly configurable haptic controller. So much is evident from a teardown of one of the 300'beta units, which Valve has been making and sending out to select testers since the end of last year.

The evolution out of PC gaming is quite deliberate. It was frustration on the part of Valve's CEO, Gabe Newell, with trends in PC operating systems that got the Steam hardware project going. It is his kick back against the 'closed' Apple and Microsoft architectures.

Valve's own beta has therefore been built around a range of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components including the general and graphics processors as well as other modular elements (notably, both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are far more COTS-based than their predecessors, though do have dedicated CPU/GPU system-on-chips).

It is understood that the betas come in a variety of combinations, but the key COTS parts in the iFixit unit included a 3.2GHz Intel Core i5-4570, a ZOTAC Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 3 GB GDDR5 graphics card, and a 1TB Seagate 2.5in SATA laptop solid-state hybrid drive. So far, so self-buildable.

The controller though, as iFixit notes, seeks to marry the ergonomics of a console controller with something that will accommodate the wider variation of keystroke combinations required for PC gaming. It looks pretty smart, but again much of the heavy loading is provided by a COTS NXP microcontroller.

Given that Valve wants to recreate the customisation and swap-in/swap-out upgradeability of PCs, but packaged in a console'that looks nice beside the TV, the big number is arguably iFixit's repairability rating. And that is a very strong 9 out of 10.

"The Steam Machine is designed to be opened and worked on. The case is secured with a single Phillips #2 screwdriver," says the review. "Modular design with off-the-shelf components makes it easy to remove and upgrade the hard drive and video card."

However, RAM in particular is a little tricky to remove. But that is a comparatively minor point.

The other big part of the story, though, is the Linux operating system. A Debian-based build, it is now being subjected to the demands of those beta testers and some reviewers. The feedback so far is good. Of course, the immediate response to that is to wonder whether there are (or will be) enough attractive Linux-based games on sale when Steam Machines begin to reach stores. But even here Valve has a couple of tricks up its sleeve.

It originally acquired Steam as an online marketplace for the PC gaming market - indeed, it is the largest. However, in addition to title downloads, it is rolling out virtualisation technology that allows users to play the latest games on older computers. The video itself is streamed, with the heavy processing done at Steam's head-end. Steam Machines will be able to connect to this service and, as long as you are on a newer network the latency over commands is not noticeable. That, then, is one stop-gap against complaints of limited Linux titles.

However Valve's Newell has taken his notion of the box's OS openness still further. In a Reddit chat, he said he would have no problem with rivals such as Electronic Arts (EA) having complete access to the technology. One implication of this is that in return for the onus of porting a big title to yet another platform, the developer can theoretically sell direct. Steam would be likely to continue as the biggest online supplier of PC-platform games, but EA could theoretically develop its own app and cut retail prices while retaining higher margins.

It is in this last regard that Steam has the potential to be extremely disruptive.

If there is a serious question against the Steam system, it is price. An estimate of what a home-build version of its beta Steam Machine would cost - an easy enough task given its COTS components - comes up with a figure in the region of $1,300. That's a lot more than either a PS4 or an Xbox One.

At its recent Consumer Electronics Show presentation, Steam unveiled its first raft of manufacturer licensees/partners and these offered a range of retail price points between $500 and $2,000; that looks more viable. Indeed, even if the cost of a Steam Machine exceeds that of more traditional titles, some consumers may be tempted by the prospect of saving against the cost of the titles themselves over the life of the console.

Of course, as an even more upgradeable box than the PS4 ''which limits you to the hard disk only - Steam Machines may'be able to make greater claims of being future proof. Mind you, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will have an awful lot of marketing dollars still to spend.

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