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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.

It sure sounded like a smart way to bring order to the chaotic world of PC gaming while maintaining its vaunted open architecture!

But since then, there has been nary another whisper about the "Good-better-best" system. Since then, a slew of PC makers unveiled their versions of the Steam Machine vision at CES 2014. Those boxes were cute, and there were a few truly console-like models, but for the most part, the horde looked to be a repeat of the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mish-mosh so prevalent in mainstream PCs, rather than a cohesive vision for Steam Machines. A wide array of PCs with various shapes and sizes and components and prices and designs, and some are upgradeable, and how do you know which is right for you, and oh-geez, why would a casual gamer pick this over an Xbox?

Heck, some Steam Machines aren't even that small.

I won't digress too far, because I complained about the state of Steam Machines shortly after their launch. But recently, Valve's own Steam Machine launch partners have started griping about the mess.

Confusion reigns

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, iBuyPower's Tuan Nguyen expressed concern about the wide range of varied Steam Machines soon to be on offer. "It's like the Android phone marketplace," he said, "You have phones all over the place with wild specs and pricing." Would-be customers will wind up confused, Nguyen said — and iBuyPower's $500 SBX Steam Machine is one of the most console-like models of the first wave.

Trying to make money on pint-sized PCs ain't easy either, especially with so many Steam Machines slated to launch in short order, and all without the ability to load up the SteamOS-based machines with revenue-generating bloatware, per the norm with Windows PCs. Alienware's Frank Azor said its Steam Machine "will absolutely be the least profitable system we ever sell" — no doubt a necessary move when competing with $400-$500 consoles.

If even Steam Machine manufacturers are calling the frenzy of disparate hardware confusing, do Valve's living-room PCs really stand a chance of going mainstream as-is?

Read: How to build your own Steam Machine today for $560

Steam Machines need to go at least moderately mainstream to succeed. Sure, Steam is huge in PC gaming, but SteamOS is nowhere near as entrenched as Windows. PC makers need to sell those "least profitable" systems to justify their efforts in the endeavor, and Steam Machines need to sell to convince game developers to make native Linux ports for SteamOS — but there's a solid chance Steam Machines won't sell well if there are no native games to play first. It's the classic vicious circle. (Steam for Linux grew fast in its first year, but it's still woefully understocked compared to the deep selection of Windows games available.)

 

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