This is the second article in the Steam Machines series. A couple of days back I pointed out the hurdles Steam Machines will be facing as they enter the market, and how they will encounter similar issues as the former 3DO standard. This time, I wanted to come back on the Steam Machines that were formerly announced earlier this year at the CES 2014, and what they have since then become. In many ways, as you will see, manufacturers have gone ahead with their plans no matter Valve’s decision to delay SteamOS and its related Steam controller. Some still prominently figure Steam while running on a Windows OS, others simply present their product as a smaller, lighter PC that can be used for many tasks, including Gaming.
Console-like Steam Machines
Let’s kick the obvious out of the way first. The Alienware Alpha (from Dell) should now be shipping in various configurations (not sure it was such a good idea to make different models for something that looks like a console…), and as you should know by now, it runs Windows and can launch Steam through a custom interface they prepared following the lack of a stable SteamOS version at the time of launch. This being said, Alienware has announced that SteamOS will be released for the Alpha when it is released and available, while I’m not sure anyone would want to go back to SteamOS with fewer games once they have tasted the full Windows catalog on Steam.
It is shipping with a Xbox 360 controller and therefore will only work well with gamepad compatible games, requiring a separate mouse/keyboard control scheme. Hardly ideal, but Dell decided to move ahead with it anyway. We will see how they fare on the market. I am not too optimistic, but at least this is something we will be able to look at as a benchmark for future Steam-based Machines. If it fails, and fails bad, I hope Valve and their partners will learn their lesson as they move forward. Hardware wise, you get some good selection, from a i3 (549 USD) to an i7 (900 USD), and while the GPU is so-called “latest nVidia generation”, do not let the Marketing goons fool you, it’s a GTX860M that’s running at its core, while it has been overclocked. I will make myself clear, it’s a discrete GPU chipset, so you can forget about upgrading anything in it, while it’s decent enough for gaming.
Then there’s CyberPowerPc – they had a very console looking like machine as well, and decided to move ahead during the year through their subsidiary Syber.
It’s called the Vapor (LOL, I guess they wanted to keep it like Steam somehow) with 3 models, A, I and Xtreme, because you know, it’s for 1337 people bro! The I and the A remain at a comparable price as the Alienware Alpha, but the Xtreme is way more expensive ($1499.99). The A uses a Radeon card while the other models are nVidia-based. It looks pretty nice, design wise – it certainly has some style. They boot right into Steam’s Big Picture mode, again on Windows. They also mention that “Customers can change the CPU and the graphics card, add memory”, which make it more like an open device somehow.
Gigabyte also moved ahead with their BRIX model, focused on gaming with a specific BRIX GAMING version (what an appropriate name!). It’s made to be small (and cute) and it reminds me of a small Gamecube somehow.
They have a version including Intel Iris Pro, but for gaming you get three models. They are sold as barebones PC (no harddrives, no RAM, you have to insert that yourself, and you have to setup the OS yourself as well – that’s barebone for you), but including reasonable discrete GPUs for some serious fun, such as NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 GPU for the i5/i7 version and the AMD Radeon R9 M275X for the AMD Richland APU A8-5557M version. With the GTX760 GPU (which is actually a rebranded GTX 870M), you can run Bioshock Infinite in Full HD, full details at 30FPS. Pretty decent for this kind of form factor. DIRT Showdown gets about 40 FPS in Full HD, Full details as well. But while it’s pretty, pretty good, it’s also very expensive. At the time of writing, 750 USD on Amazon for a barebone version. If you see it as a portable gaming system, there’s nothing much like it out there. A great option to travel with.
iBuyPower has also moved on without Valve, with their SBX model. It looks a bit boring honestly, like someone took a shoebox and made it into a Steam Machine. Yawn. They go beyond just Steam by the way, and say it supports Origin, and many other applications as well.
They sell the same model basically with or without controller (Xbox360) and more disk space and RAM or not. They are very light on details on their product page, and it seems like they are including some really cheap AMD GPU inside, so you may want to listen to what Forbes had to say about it before considering a purchase. The only positive aspect is that they don’t force Windows down your throat as you can buy the system without OS as well.
ZOTAC has jumped since late summer in the lot with its EN760 Plus gaming mini-PC. It’s basically playing in the same field as the BRIX GAMING from Gigabyte, with similar specs : i5, GTX 860M, 8GB RAM and 1TB HDD (while the Gigabyte did not have any). It comes with Windows pre-installed as well.
Another EN760 DIY model does not include the hard drive and RAM and is probably cheaper all things considered. I have seen a review and it seems to perform very much in the same manner as the Gigabyte BRIX GAMING, so for the price it’s a pretty good deal (670 USD at the time of writing for the Plus version, I could not find where to buy the DIY one which should be at 540 USD or so). The only drawback: it’s not great looking and it’s actually specifically made to be hidden behind a TV or monitor. Which could be an advantage as well, depending on how you look at things.
Scan, a British manufacturer, has the NC10 in the works – and it’s pretty much “console-like”* at least it’s thin and long, just like a VCR, with a design reminiscent of the Macs.
That’s one of the few Steam machines that did not make it to the market yet, while it is still being listed for pre-order when SteamOS will be ready. The current config sports an i5, 8GB RAM, a GTX860M, and a 120 GB Sata drive – this config can be customized, while the current price is expected around 623 pounds, so about 980 USD at the time of writing. Pretty expensive for such limited hardware – at this price I would rather consider the BRIX Gaming or the Alienware Alpha, honestly.
Fat Ass Tower PCs Steam Machines
Most of the other companies at the CES 2014 had some so-called Steam Machines but looked very much like regular PCs. Falcon Northwest had its Tiki series that you configure by yourself as well (you decide the internals). Like the others, it’s already available now, but anyway it does not look like a console, so it’s not really the same market as the above mentioned ones. Materiel.net (a French hardware shop) did not move ahead with their Steam machine (only available as pre-order currently) and once again it’s far from being small and compact despite what they say (25 cm * 21 cm height). It costs 800 euros, and its specs are not fixed until SteamOS is made available. As far as I can tell, Origin PC’s Chronos gaming desktops are also available, and customizable.
Here again, while it’s slightly less massive than Materiel.net’s machine, it’s still bigger than a regular console size, and its price starts at 1200 USD (and goes much higher than that). The case that was used at the CES 2014 is now known under the reference Silverstone SG08. It does not have any Steam branding, however. Let’s not forget the other options, such as Webhallen‘s monstrous version of a Steam Machine. While it is still listed on their website if you have the link, it does not appear in their product list at the moment, so I am guessing they are not releasing it at this stage. Finally, Digital Storm has released its Bolt 2 series of mini-tower PCs, and while I’m not sure they could fit in the “console” category, they seem to be very decently constructed, while pricey. The base config packs an i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, a real GTX760 nVidia card (not discrete, so quite powerful), 1 SSD (120 GB) + 1 HDD (1 TB) and comes with Microsoft Windows pre-installed. Keep in mind this is basically upgrade-friendly, but the starting price is painful: 1600 USD. Yup, that hurts.
So what to make of all of this ?
If you are looking for a console-like Steam Machine (for Windows Steam or Linux SteamOS’s Beta) at a reasonable price, the main candidates are Zotac, Gigabyte and Alienware. That’s it, since iBuyPower‘s hardware seems pretty much limited and the Syber Vapor low cost model is not as good as the rest. Everything above that is either prohibitive or too large, and you could probably get a better deal by building a mini-PC from a barebone box on your own. Now, between the Zotac EN760, the Gigabyte BRIX Gaming and the Alienware Alpha, do I have any preference ? The Zotac is a pretty good deal, at the same price as the Alienware i5 version with pretty much the same specs at 760 USD. If you want something cheaper, the i3 Alienware version is unbeatable, since there’s no machine in the same price range at this point at the same kind of performance. I have a soft spot for the Gigabyte BRIX Gaming version because of the form factor, but it’s certainly more expensive than the other two competitors. The Alienware models also come with Steam pre-loaded and pre-configured, so that’s another thing you do not have to worry about. Convenient, to say the least.
While these three machines are definitely superior to current consoles (XboxOne, PS4), they are still relatively underpowered to run upcoming 2015 PC games in full resolution and full details at good framerates. And the fact that they do not have upgradable GPUs is a serious issue, too. That’s one of the key differentiators of a Steam Machine versus a regular console, so why kill that upgrade path ? I recognize that tight integration of GPUs is an issue, but manufacturers have to think of a model for smaller, console-like PCs in order to make the standard evolve and keep the flexibility in its core design while enabling more integrated designs.
Net, I am starting to think it’s a good thing that Valve did not release the SteamOS in this year. The current hardware offering is decent but not spectacular, even from Alienware, and on the Linux side there are so few AAA games at this stage it is kind of pointless to have anything with a strong GPU under the hood. Using a Windows Steam install is a good backup solution right now if you really cannot wait, but without the Steam Controller the appeal remains limited and its Steam Big Picture Mode remains far from perfect. It will take a while, no matter if you use Windows or Linux as a base OS, to get a flawless console-like experience with the Steam Machines. By 2015, Valve will have probably progressed on the OS front, and we should get much better hardware even in the discrete GPUs range. I would recommend to wait, even if Christmas is just around the corner.
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