Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In Depth: Valve Steam Box: what you need to know

In Depth: Valve Steam Box: what you need to know

Think of Valve's Steam Box as a PC. Its early prototypes might be squished into a small cuboid at the moment, they might be more at home under your television than your monitor, and - most shockingly - it might not be running Windows: but it is a PC.

The Steam Box is designed to play PC games. Specifically, it's designed to play Steam games: Steam being the developer behind Valve's proprietary game download service, blessed with a good chunk of the platform's best ever titles.

It's Valve spearheading the Steam Box concept, and Valve that showed the first mock-ups of what an eventual Steam Box would look like at CES 2013.

Steam Box
The steam box is an Xi3 mini PC

Steam Box: who's it for?

Valve's Steam Box will be a gaming machine first, optimised for Steam - and the service's recently introduced Big Picture mode that pretties up its UI for TVs - but unlike other consoles, it won't be a closed system.

Valve head Gabe Newell has confirmed that the company is indeed working on its own Steam Box - the Team Fortress 2 developer's first bit of hardware - but also that other companies will be free and welcome to produce their own offerings.

Valve Steam Box: what you need to know

Newell saw these machines coming in tiers, referred to as "good, better, and best". The first of these from outside Valve has already been spotted: high-end PC maker Xi3 has a Steam Box codenamed Piston ready to go in a brushed chrome case.

Piston price points range from $ 499 for the base unit to $ 999 for the top end, presumably comparable with a similarly priced PC in terms of graphical grunt.

Steam Box release date

Other PC manufacturers will surely follow suit, after taking the time to scrunch their components up small to fit them in an aesthetically pleasing, lounge-suiting chassis.

How the Steam Box will affect the manufacturers of those components themselves is yet to be seen, but we can extrapolate. The success of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have resulted in six years of effective gaming hardware standstill.

A modest PC bought in recent years can play most modern games on extra-high settings, and top-end, foot-long graphics cards are largely superfluous. We could see graphics card manufacturers such as AMD and Nvidia focusing on efficient, small form-factor cards to fit in a new generation of snazzier, quieter cases.

We could even lose discrete graphics altogether, if Intel's processor plans come to fruition, making the Steam Box smaller again.

Valve Steam Box: what you need to know

The Steam Box's openness means that, as with a PC, hardware can be switched out for newer bits. It also means that users won't have to contend with a locked-down front-end or network such as Xbox Live.

Newell and Valve have spen t the last year decrying the oncoming Windows 8, while singing the virtues of free, open-source Linux operating systems.

Such is their approval that they've hired Linux developers to convert Steam games over to the OS, and have confirmed that their own take on the Steam Box will use the system in place of Windows. Not that you'll be forced to use it, though: again, Newell's watchword is openness, and he stated specifically that users can "install Windows if they want."

It's hard to see a world where Linux entirely displaces Windows as the western OS of choice, but Valve's tacit support - and vocal dislike for the places Microsoft is taking its stalwart system - will make a dent in market share.

Fundamentally, it could change PC g aming from a Windows-centric model to something even more open and disparate.

Steam Box media

Just as disparate will be the Steam Box's function in your house. Recent experiments in cloud gaming haven't gone according to plan, but Valve thinks the concept has legs.

But rather than sit its servers in one central hub, it sees a more personalised future, where the Steam Box acts as a local host for games, steaming movies, music, and so on, like a developer-sanctioned media centre PC.

That future's probably a few years off - however powerful modern PCs are, they still struggle running two AAA games at once without multiple graphics cards - but it's a coherent concept that is less at the mercy of intangibles such as internet stability than a service like OnLive.

Valve Steam Box: what you need to know

It's also this future that should scare console manufacturers. PCs are able to remain further along the technological curve than consoles by virtue of a more prolific hardware release schedule.

If your Steam Box can run games at better resolutions, without restrictive proprietary networks, and for a cheaper price than a next-generation Xbox or Playstation, then the choice seems simple.

By divorcing it from the top of your desk and simplifying the game delivery mechanism through Steam, the Steam Box should also go some way to removing the remaining stigmas from PC gaming.

Don't expect the first Steam Boxes to arrive with the fanfare of a new console launch. They're a new trend, rather than a brand new machine, but they might turn out to have more of an influence on gaming than anything else over the next few years.

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//PART 2