Steam Machines: Everything You Need to Know

Clark Crisp

A complete in-depth Q&A on Steam Machine pricing, specs, release dates, and more!

Final versions of Valve ’s highly anticipated Steam OS (officially written "SteamOS") and Steam Machines that run it aren’t even out but the misinformation and the company’s legendary opaqueness have created perhaps one of the most misunderstood tech projects in recent memory. There’s simply been so much misinformation that even we can’t keep up with what’s actually fact and what’s fiction at this point. So to help you keep up on current events, we’ve tried to cull all of the relevant SteamOS and Steam Machine information into one single in-depth FAQ.

Alienware's Steam Machine is one of 13 different Steam Machines

Question: Why is Valve making Steam OS?

Answer: You can actually hear Valve’s CEO, Gabe Newell, layout the reasons here but it boils down to an increasingly closed and controlled world. Whether tablet, console, phone or—even the desktop, the open world of the PC is being stepped on by closed systems.

“Now, a couple of years ago, we started to get pretty worried that maybe that openness was going to be challenged—that there was success in proprietary platforms in the living room and in mobile, and that that was going to cause our entire industry to step away from the opportunity of openness,” Newell says. “We started to think, "What can we do? There are lots of people who can take on this challenge, but what are some of the pieces that Valve could try to help with?"

Although this is conjecture, we’d also guess that the threat of Microsoft going full iOS and mandating app installations through only the Windows store was also a big motivator.

And don’t think we’re paranoid either. Why, for example, did Microsoft only release the Windows 8.1 update through its Windows store rather than a standard Windows update?

By making Steam OS and helping vendors make Steam Machines, We think Valve ensures that it has an escape hatch should Microsoft actually go full-closed and only allow applications to be installed through the Windows Store. By using its own Linux operating system, Valve ensures it has control of the OS and that Steam has a place to exist outside of Microsoft, Apple and other large companies.

Q: I thought Xi3's Piston was the SteamBox.

A: No. Absolutely not. You can forgive yourself for thinking that as a combination of bad reporting and rumor and innuendo on the Internet had us believing the Xi3 was Valve’s “SteamBox.” And why not? The Internet said Valve had sunk money into Xi3 so it could make The Piston “The Steam Box."

Contrary to initial belief, Xi3's Piston PC is not an official Steam Machine.

It is true that the Xi3 Piston was indeed being shown in Valve’s invite-only booth on the floor of CES 2013. But it’s also a fact that other machines were there too. Valve had indeed talked to Xi3 about building a “Steam Box” sometime in 2012 but after the hype blew up and Xi3 didn’t exactly dissuade the press from believing it, the relationship seems to have cooled off. Valve spokesman Doug Lombardi confirmed to Eurogamer that “Valve began some exploratory work with Xi3 last year, but currently has no involvement in any product of theirs."

How on the outs is Xi3? When Valve unveiled 13 hardware vendors—large and small—at its 2014 CES press conference, no Xi3 Piston was present.

It’s all good, says Xi3 spokesman David Politis who told PC Gamer: “We believe, and I think the market’s very clear about this, that the biggest concentration today is in the Windows marketplace,” Politis dished to PCG. “So we’ve gone separate directions today—that doesn’t mean we’re not supporting Valve.”

The Piston will, in fact, run where the games are—on Windows for now and also run Origin too.

Q: Is it called Steam Box or Steam Machine?

A: It is officially Steam Machine and, in fact, Valve told us at last year’s CES that the whole Steam Box nomenclature wasn’t even theirs but some creation of the media which in a New York Post-manner decided to name it Steam Box. It could have been worse. The mainstream tech media could have called it the Little Bellevue Lolita or Windows Slasher. So dude, please use the proper nomenclature.

Q: What is a Steam Machine?

A: It’s basically a PC running a Linux-OS (based on the Debian distro) to let you run Steam games on your television or a monitor with an HDMI input.

Q: What are the specs of a Steam Machine?

A: There are none. Valve is trying to essentially replicate the openness of the PC but running SteamOS instead of Windows. Of the 13 Steam Machines shown at CES, they're varied in sizes from large to small. Powerful and not so powerful. Mobile and desktop parts. Discrete and higher-end integrated. Single GPU and multi-GPU. Intel and AMD. ATI and Nvidia. Basically there are no hard official specs but since the platform is meant for gaming, the GPU will be important in any Steam Machine, but Valve isn’t setting, recommending or mandating any specs.

Q: What hardware vendors are making Steam Machines and what specs do they use?

A: At the moment, there are 13 official hardware partners which include: Alienware , Alternate, CyberPowerPC , Digital Storm (Bolt II) , Falcon Northwest (Tiki), Gigabyte (Brix Pro ), iBuyPower , Material.Net, Next Spa, Origins PC (Chronos), Scan (NC10), Webhallen, Zotac , and Maingear .

In terms of pricing, we’re seeing systems that range from $500 (CyberPower, iBuyPower) to PCs that cost upwards of $6,000 (Falcon Northwest Tiki). For Steam Machine specs, see image below:

Click the image above for a larger view of the Steam Machine specs and pricing

Q: Is Valve making its own Steam Machines that it will sell?

A: That is unclear at this point. It’s a fact that Valve has made 300 prototype Steam Machines that it gave to 300 very lucky Steam users. The prototypes Valve sent came in a variety of different configurations that included everything from an Nvidia GTX 660 to a GeForce Titan. Will Valve sell the hardware eventually? Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell said that’s undecided at this point. “We're going to continue to make that decision as we go along. We've been happy with results during the hardware development. We have plans to build more machines as our customers demand. We also expect people to be really happy with the range of offerings coming from these hardware manufacturers,” Newell said (thanks to youtube user Dietrich Ginocchio for transcribing our video of the press conference and Q&A.)

Our take is that Valve has the money and capability to contract out with vendors to build machines if it wanted to sell them but ultimately won’t. Remember: Valve is trying to replicate the PC’s openness. If it’s trying to do that, why would it get into competition with its hardware partners? We saw how happy Microsoft made its hardware partners with Surface RT and Surface Pro so we believe Valve won’t get into the hardware game unless it’s forced to.

Click the next page to read more about the Steam Machine controller, to find out when SteamOS will release, and more.

Q: What would force Valve to sell the Steam Machine?

A: This is conjecture, but we believe if PC OEMs decide that consumer demand for Steam Machines isn’t there, the profit margins aren’t enough or “intervention” by Microsoft forces them to abandon support for SteamOS, Valve would have an out by making and selling its own boxes. We think the company is pretty serious about that too because the prototype/beta machines it used to demonstrate SteamOS to the press all had full on FCC certifications (include pic). We’re told while it’s not too difficult to get FCC certs for hardware, why would Valve bother to get them certified if it didn’t think it might have to sell them one day?

Notice the FCC sticker on the back of Valve's official, internal Steam Machine.

Q: What do you mean by "intervention?"

A: Again, pure conjecture on our part but Microsoft didn’t exactly get the full force of the Federal government to jump on its head by handing out fuzzy sweaters and hugs to everyone. Microsoft is unlikely to take yet another assault on its home turn without reacting. That reaction could be simple as talking to key players or even Valve and pledging to keep the PC the open paradise as it is right now. By the time SteamOS starts rolling out, the next version of Windows ( possibly Windows 9 ) would address all the hate that Windows 8 recieved. While it may sound crazy, we did see that with Windows Vista to Windows 7. It’s also quite possible Microsoft doesn’t even care about SteamOS as it has other fires to put out with assaults from Apple and Google. A bunch of nerds trying to play PC games in the living room just may not bug the OS giant.

Q: I want that Steam Machine chassis (pictured). I heard Silverstone built it.

Silverstone denies creating the chassis for Valve's official prototype Steam Machines.

A: Apparently not. Silverstone has denied to us that it is the company that built the beta/prototype Steam Machine chassis although its PSU does appear in it. We say apparently because for all we know, Silverstone is making them but is bound by Valve not to admit it. At this point, we’ll take Silverstone at its word.

Here’s an excellent tear down of one of Valve’s prototype Steam Machine from iFixit.

Q: When will Steam OS be available?

A: A beta of it is actually available now for free here . We’ve put together a how-to-install SteamOS guide here . It’s not for the everybody to do and it’s still very early but if you think of it as Valve’s Big Picture mode running on Linux, you’d have a good idea of what it’s capable of right now. As to when final software will be available? That’s not really known exactly but sometime this year is the latest information known.

Click here for our guide on how to install SteamOS.

Q: How beta is it?

A: Pretty beta. Initially, there was only support for Nvidia GPUs. AMD cards have since been added but a lot of things don’t work. Audio, for example, is only through HDMI and not all USB devices work. Right now, it’s practically a science experiment.

Q: When will Steam Machines be available? When is the official release date?

A: There’s two things holding back sales of Steam Machines. The first is the fact that the OS still needs to be finished and the second is the Valve Controller. Assuming the OS is done this year, the Valve Controller will also have to come in and on budget for Steam Machines to happen. Interestingly, we asked multiple hardware partners of Valve when they expect to be able to sell Steam Machines and most of them gave us the we-have-no-idea shoulder shrug.  This is such a fast changing topic that we originally wrote here that Alienware was pretty sure it would have a box in the second quarter of 2014 last week. We saved the Word doc and woke up to find out that Dell/Alienware is now telling the press September is the target date for the Alienware Steam Machine.

Q: Can I sell Steam Machine?

A: Apparently not. One of the things Valve wants to do is prevent joe blow from getting into Steam Machine business without some kind of minimal blessing. The company says it may be able to do that by controlling sales of the Valve controllers to only companies that it deems worthy of not screwing it all up.

Q: Will Valve controllers be sold at retail?

A: Valves says that yes, controllers will be sold but in a bit of new information at its press conference, Valve also said third party makers will also be able to sell Valve Controllers.  This raises a big question for us. If the controllers are sold retail and by third-parties, there’s not much Valve can do to prevent people from selling “Steam Machines” by just buying the controllers. It’s a bit like the motion picture studios trying to stop Netflix from renting DVDs and Blu-rays from day one because Netflix can buy the discs retail. There’s still a lot of questions about this.

Q: How much will the Valve controllers cost?

A: That’s unknown. We quizzed hardware partners and no one really knew. We heard guesses from as low as $30 to as high as $90. We do know cost is likely to be an issue with the controller. In fact, again, we went to sleep last night believing that there would be a touch-screen version of the controller (with rumors of one without the touch screen as an option.) Very recently, however, as developers started spilling details from its Valve’s Steam Dev Days , it turns out Valve is pulling the plug on the touch screen in favor of one with console-like A/B/X/Y buttons.

Check out our in-depth hands-on of Valve's Steam Controller here .

Q: How will the controller work with games?

A: We’ve used early prototypes of the controller and were surprised to learn that it works fairly well for first person shooters. You can read our in-depth hands-on experience with the controller here . In short, it's certainly better than any console controller for shooters.  We could, for example, actually circle strafe with the Valve Controller. It didn’t work so great for RTS games for us but it’s still early hardware. We do know that Valve plans to “crowd source” the mapping and setup of the profiles for certain games. Wireless is also a bit of an issue as the latency in a wireless controller isn’t something Valve is quite happy with yet. In fact, the company had to tweak the existing Bluetooth stacks just to get it more acceptable as the wireless simply adds too much latency. Right now, the controllers are only wired but Valve knows it needs a wireless version for this machine to fly.

Q: What's the deal with PC streaming through Steam Machines?

A: Valve knows that with its Linux library being really small, it’ll need a way to let people play its Windows Steam games from the living room so it will let people stream games from their desktop machine that’s hard wired to the router to the living room. It’s not something we’ve experienced first hand ourselves nor are any hardware vendors commenting on the feature. One thing we do know is that it will be a challenge. Streaming Netflix is one thing but streaming a first person shooter without massive latency and lag hurting the game play is not an easy equation to solve. In fact, Nvidia’s Shield ran into issues streaming games because most of the routers on the market couldn’t handle the task very well. With interactive game streaming, latency is more of an issue rather than streaming video to distant parts of your house. Valve recently announced that it had added streaming support to its SteamOS beta. Reports are that it's still wonky, so try it at your own risk.

Q: Can I run more than one OS on my Steam Machine?

A: Yes. Valve has even recently updated the beta version of SteamOS to include dual-booting support although it is reportedly still very wonky. Valve expects and hopes that hardware partners will go with just SteamOS, but it’s not preventing companies from dual booting configurations. Several of the partners we spoke to expect to dual-boot the OS as the game library for SteamOS is still pretty small at 250 (with many of them being uninteresting titles). The Windows version has more than 3,000 as of October. This is probably the most pragmatic approach to getting Steam Machines to work in the living room with Windows Steam games at the moment. There’s no network or latency issues and the power is right under the television. Initially, we’d expect this to be the most popular configuration for those who have massive Steam libraries. Interestingly, hardware partners we’ve spoken to said they don’t believe their licenses with Microsoft prevent dual-booting the machines.

Q: Why would I even want a Steam Machine or SteamOS PC in my living room - I'm a PC gamer.

A: That, frankly, can’t be answered by us at this juncture. We’ll have to wait until the OS and hardware are released before we can even attempt to answer that one for you.

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