Xi3's Piston "Steam Box" available for pre-order, but is it a good deal?

Credit: Source: Xi3

Xi3 has made their Piston computer available for pre-order. The Piston is one of the 'Steam Box' units that was being shown at CES this year.

A lot of news outlets seem really excited about this project. Ars Technica calls it "the gaming PC's next big push for living room supremacy" in a post titled The “Steam Box” era begins with the Piston, a $1,000 PC-in-a-console, The Verge refers to it as the first 'Steam Box' gaming computer and TechCrunch says The Top End Of The ‘Steam Box’ Line Goes On Sale For Just Under $1000.

Me? I have a lot of questions. First of all, what's the definition of a "Steam Box" anyway? I just thought it meant a computer with HDMI out that was designed for gaming in the living room. If that's the case, the Xi3 isn't the top end (we don't even have full specs, so how can you call it the top end?) or the first. Personally I have had an Alienware X51 running Steam's Big Picture Mode on my living room TV since Big Picture Mode debuted. How is that not a 'Steam Box' (let's not forget that 'Steam Box' is a term coined by the press, not Valve)?

TechCrunch calls it 'top end' while Ars points out that "the Linux-based Piston isn't going to come close to replacing your fully decked-out gaming rig." The Verge says it'll fit into the Best category of Steam Box (Valve's Gabe Newell casually mentioned three tiers of hardware: Good, Better and Best, without really mentioning hard specs.) It could be that TechCrunch is correct and this is the 'Steam Box' with the best specs, but if that's the case then you might want to consider building your own.

The bottom line is that we don't know nearly enough about the 'Steam Box' ecosystem to justify pre-ordering a $999 system that won't ship until the holiday, even if Piston is offering a $100 discount before March 17th. $899 (with the discount) gets you a 3.2GHz AMD processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD (which is a ridiculously small drive for a machine intended as a PC gaming rig). Ars says it has a 7000-series Radeon GPU while other sources say it has integrated graphics. Xi3 says almost nothing on their site, offering just an order page. The Piston runs Linux so unless you're going to be content with the smallish subset of PC games that run under Linux, you'll have to add the cost of a Windows license to the price, plus you're going to want additional storage.

Valve has said they're working on their own 'Steam Box' and that there are several manufacturers also bringing living room gaming PCs to market. This just feels like Xi3 trying to 'lock in' sales before the competition shows up on the playing field. My opinion is that the $100 savings doesn't justify the risk you take in pre-ordering. Let's see what happens when E3 rolls around; we might see more 'Steam Boxen' at that event and you may find that there are better options than the Piston.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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