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