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Why the biggest problem with Steam Machines are the Steam Machines themselves

Brad Chacos | June 2, 2014
The mere concept of Valve's Steam Machines are enough to excite me in ways that few technology teases can, setting my jaded heart aflutter. When most technological progress these days essentially means faster speeds and feeds or a few fractions of an inch shaved off a laptop silhouette, Steam Machines stand out as being ambitious in ways that would've made Gordon Moore proud. Valve's diminutive gaming PCs have vision.

The mere concept of Valve's Steam Machines are enough to excite me in ways that few technology teases can, setting my jaded heart aflutter. When most technological progress these days essentially means faster speeds and feeds or a few fractions of an inch shaved off a laptop silhouette, Steam Machines stand out as being ambitious in ways that would've made Gordon Moore proud. Valve's diminutive gaming PCs have vision.

Where most gaming PCs are hulking, heat-spewing behemoths, Steam Machines will be tiny — and for good reason. While PC gaming has long played second fiddle to consoles in the mainstream mindshare, Steam Machines are built for living rooms, entertainment centers and TVs. Yes, Valve is taking on Xbox and PlayStation. Valve is taking on Microsoft, too, tossing off the shackles of Windows 8's walled garden (in Valve boss Gabe Newell's words) and powering Steam Machines with a custom SteamOS operating system built around — wait for it — Linux. Yes, Linux. Worried about the keyboard-centric design of most PC games? Fear not: Valve's crafting a revolutionary gamepad for that.

It's all so ambitious, so audacious — at least on paper.

But reality has had trouble matching that vision. Deep trouble. This week, Valve pushed the expected Steam Machine launch date all the way back into 2015, and even that may not be enough to right Valve's increasingly wobbly Steam-powered ship. A delay? Bah. If Valve doesn't assume more forceful control over the Steam Machine ecosystem, it may be better to cut losses and scrap the plan altogether.

The invisible hand

The delay is ostensibly tied to giving Valve's Steam Controller more time to gestate. If our hands-on impressions of the gamepad are any indication, that's a very welcome decision indeed. The thing's uncomfortably giant, and the circular, haptic-enabled trackpads central to the experience are jarring to use. All in all, "it's neither as precise as a mouse nor as easy as an Xbox 360 controller," writes Hayden Dingman, and that's a problem considering the Steam Controller is central to the entire Steam Machine experience.

But even if Valve manages to fine-tune the Steam Controller, the biggest problem with Steam Machines still lingers, because the biggest problems with Steam Machines are the Steam Machines themselves.

Read: How to try SteamOS in a virtual machine

Steam Machines are confronting powerful incumbents in the Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Two of the key selling points of those consoles are price and simplicity — two distinct weak points for traditional gaming PCs. That is the bar Steam Machines have to match to succeed. Period.

Early indications suggested Valve is certainly aware of it. Shortly after the Steam Machine concept was announced, Gabe Newell told the Verge that the itty-bitty boxes were being built around a "good, better, best" ethos: "Good" machines are affordable and more of a low-spec receiver for Steam's in-home game streaming, "Better" systems pack dedicated CPUs and GPUs for traditional gaming, and "Best" machines... well, there are no-holds-barred on Best machines. Newell said Valve would provide baseline requirements for "Better" PCs for the good of the greater Steam Machine ecosystem.

 

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