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The rise of the Steam Machines: Inside Valve's deep, varied living room PC lineup

Gordon Mah Ung | March 9, 2015
Charlie Brown never kicked that damned football clear to the moon and, well, after Steam Machines never materialized last summer as expected, we all started to wonder if Gabe Newell wasn't playing mean old Lucy.

As Steam Machines are intended to go into the living room, most were far smaller with the diminutive Gigabyte Brix Pro. The box, surprisingly, isn't the Brix Gaming rig its discrete graphics but a quad-core Brix Pro with a Core i7-4770R CPU and Intel Iris Pro graphics. In pure performance, it'll probably be the weakest in graphics grunt.

The most powerful of the truly small boxes may be Zotac's mini Steam Machine with a GeForce 970M inside and, the company said, a 6th gen Intel CPU. That's basically code words for Intel's upcoming Skylake CPU. Zotac said since the launch is down the road, it expects to have Intel's next-gen available to use.

Even if it shipped with today's Haswell quad-core core though, it's a nicely outfitted with two Gigabit ports and four HDMI 2.0 ports. Although the demo unit had a miniDisplayPort on back, the final unit will not, Zotac said. This much hardware isn't cheap though. Though small, the Zotac is $1,000 so it won't be for someone who is merely SteamOS-curious.

That's ultimately one of the roadblocks for Steam Machines. Even at $500 for the lower-cost Steam Machines, it's an expensive experiment. Sure, there's an argument that the dirt-cheap games found in Steam Sales offset the hardware price pretty fast, but the native Linux games compatible with SteamOS are still far out numbered by games for Windows — and Steam Sales also apply to Windows games.

Cut off at the knee

The other problem for Steam Machines may be from Valve itself. The company dropped a little surprise this week when it announced the Steam Link, a tiny little streaming box that uses Steam in-home streaming to send games from your gaming PC to your TV over your home network, for just $50. In a short demo with Valve, we tried the Steam Link and found it surprisingly effective, and perhaps one of the better streaming boxes we've used so far. Was it as good as a real PC under your TV? No. But, hell, it's $50.

That may ultimately rub Steam Machine vendors the wrong way. Who is going to drop $500 to $2,000 for a Steam Machine when he or she can just stream their Windows game library from an existing PC to the TV? This band-aid to get around the limited Steam for Linux library may create wider ecosystem issues.

Steam officials I talked to brushed aside concerns about the Link potentially clock-blocking its hardware partners. Instead, Valve is offering options. Some will want a Steam Link, while others will want the better experience of a real Steam Machine. Valve also points out that any Steam Machine can act as the host and stream games.

 

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