January 07, 2014, 6:00 AM —
Last night at CES Valve Software held a brief press conference to talk about Steam Machines. This was the moment we'd all been waiting for, but in some ways it seems to have been a bit of a bust. I'm not at CES but according to Ars Technica Valve's Gabe Newell talked for just 10 minutes before setting the press loose on hardware manufacturers. The only new info from Valve I spotted is that there will be Steam Controllers manufactured by third parties (prior to last night Valve had said they're be manufacturing all the controllers themselves).
All told Valve announced 13 manufacturing partners. Some of them announced pricing and specs, others were more coy. Engadget has a great round-up of what we know so far, and we're seeing prices starting at $500 and running into the thousands. Several manufacturers are hedging their bets and shipping machines set up to dual boot between Steam OS and Windows. Most of these machines are looking at ship dates in the second half of the year, but one (Digital Extreme's Bolt 2 which starts at $1,899) ships later this month, presumably with a very early beta version of Steam OS.
I know that gamers who identify so strongly with PC gaming that they call themselves "the master race" are ga-ga over these Steam Machines but I still am not sold. One of the strengths of consoles is that they're simple. You decide if you want an Xbox, a Playstation or a Wii U and you buy one knowing that every title that comes out for that platform will be optimized to work on your hardware.
Steam Machines, on the other hand...well I'm already confused and nothing has shipped yet. I'm back to looking up benchmark tests on various video cards and cpus as I try to determine which Steam Machine gives the best bang for its buck, while still being able to run the games I want to play well (though since, for now, most of us have TVs that top out at 1080P that shouldn't be a major problem). I fear I'll be back to compatibility issues, where from time to time you'll wind up with a game that crashes a lot on AMD GPUs but runs fine on Nvidia, or vice versa. In other words, buying a Steam Machine will be just like buying any other PC.
I'm still most excited about the Steam Controller, and I'm somewhat tempted by a low-end Steam Machine that I can use to stream PC games from my office gaming PC to the TV in the living room, but I was hoping for something in the $200-$300 range for that. We still may get such a thing, I suppose. And I also suppose Steam Machines won't be loaded down with crapware like most Windows machines we buy are, and that should help side-step a lot of problems that we encounter with 'out of the box' Windows PCs.
But I still can't help think that most PC gamers would be better served by a Windows or Linux PC connected to their TV, running Steam in Big Picture mode when it's time for gaming (assuming you want to play a game offered on Steam; let's remember that there are great games that are not).
I realize I'm sounding like a broken record at this point, and I fully expect you all to make me eat crow when these Steam Machines start to launch and they offer amazing experiences that you can't get elsewhere. Until then I'm sticking to my curiosity about the Steam Controller and near-complete apathy towards Steam Machine hardware.
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.