In­dus­trial revo­lu­tion

EDGE - - KNOWLEDGE STEAM MACHINES -

ASteam Ma­chines are now with testers. What do they make of Valve’s dis­rup­tion tac­tics?

nnounced in Septem­ber 2013, Steam Ma­chines are the cor­ner­stone of what’s per­haps Valve’s most am­bi­tious en­deav­our to date. Not con­tent with dom­i­nat­ing dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion via the Steam store and client, Valve is now hop­ing to stretch into the liv­ing room with an al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional desk­top PCs, a new con­troller and its own OS.

The twist is, it’s not go­ing to be the only com­pany mak­ing Steam Ma­chines. Valve man­u­fac­tured 300 pro­to­types to test specs and gather feed­back, which were sent out on De­cem­ber 15, 2013. In the longterm, how­ever, Valve plans to work with nu­mer­ous part­ners to pro­duce dif­fer­ent types of Steam Ma­chine. Some will be low-power, low­cost boxes. Oth­ers, like Valve’s own de­sign, will break the bank.

“The build qual­ity is amaz­ing,” says one tester, Col­behr (who prefers to be known by this han­dle), of his Steam Ma­chine. Var­i­ous spec­i­fi­ca­tions were shipped to testers, since the sys­tem is de­signed to be as mod­i­fi­able as a reg­u­lar desk­top PC, but Col­behr’s ma­chine con­tains Nvidia’s GTX 780, a £400 graph­ics card, along­side a quad­core Core i5-4570 and 16GB of RAM – pow­er­ful enough to run de­mand­ing games such as Metro: Last Light at their high­est qual­ity set­tings.

While all the com­po­nents in­side Steam Ma­chines are off-the-shelf, Valve has de­signed the cases and built them to make the pack­age sim­pler than a stan­dard PC. “It’s very easy to use,” says Col­behr. “Plug ev­ery­thing in and you’re good to go.” It looks a lot nicer than a desk­top un­der­neath a TV, too.

The sec­ond part of the Steam Ma­chine de­signed and pro­duced by Valve is the con­troller. It’s by far the bold­est and most un­usual part of the sys­tem, re­plac­ing the stan­dard dual ana­logue sticks with two con­cave touch­pads, each of which pro­vides pre­cise hap­tic feed­back to your thumbs as you run them across its sur­face. The goal is to cre­ate a com­fort­able con­trol sys­tem that can match the pre­ci­sion of a mouse. In fact, as far as games are con­cerned, it is a mouse, mean­ing it has in­stant na­tive sup­port in all PC games. The re­sponse from beta testers has been es­pe­cially pos­i­tive for FPSes.

But Col­behr isn’t with­out crit­i­cism. “There have been a few bugs with the con­troller. It may just be mine, but the plug doesn’t al­low the cord to travel far enough into the port. I’m sure that can be fixed, but the pads have been bug­ging a lit­tle bit too, and I can’t re­ally ex­plain that.”

The con­troller is the only part of the hard­ware that Valve will man­u­fac­ture and sell with­out en­cour­ag­ing part­ners to pro­duce their own vari­ants. The first tests by de­vel­op­ers sug­gested the Steam Ma­chine con­troller takes learn­ing time akin to the N64 pad, but the curve re­ported by testers is steeper.

While the hard­ware was sent to just 300 testers, the fi­nal piece of the puzzle was re­leased more broadly. SteamOS is a Linux-pow­ered op­er­at­ing sys­tem that ex­tends the trend be­gun in Steam’s Big Pic­ture mode. It’s the most

Bar bug re­ports, the pub­lic com­ments from the first group of testers are in­evitably pos­i­tive

im­por­tant part of Valve’s move for the liv­ing room. Any­one can cur­rently down­load and in­stall the SteamOS beta, ef­fec­tively turn­ing any PC into a Steam Ma­chine, al­though Valve states that the OS is only for “in­trepid Linux hack­ers” at the mo­ment. It’s right to do so: there are more lim­i­ta­tions than fea­tures at­tached to the cur­rent ver­sion.

If you down­load the ap­prox­i­mately 2.5GB of SteamOS in­stall files and fol­low the in­struc­tions, the process will delete all ex­ist­ing files on your PC, in­clud­ing all hard drive par­ti­tions. There is no op­tion to in­stall the OS on a sec­ondary hard drive and, at the time of writ­ing, no method by which to dual boot SteamOS on top of an ex­ist­ing Win­dowsin­dows in­stall. If you have an ATI

SteamOS hews closely to Big Pic­ture mode at the mo­ment, but its ex­pected stream­ing up­date looks set to dras­ti­cally broaden its func­tion­al­ity Valve’s Steam Ma­chine pro­to­type case is space ef­fi­cient, be­ing able to ac­com­mo­date the GTX Ti­tan. Part­ners will field their own de­signs

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