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Why Valve's hands-off philosophy stained the Steam Machines' big launch

Brad Chacos | Jan. 16, 2014
After more than a year of whispers, job postings bemoaning the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space, and outright teasing, Valve finally-- finally!--took the wraps off its highly anticipated Steam Machine endeavor at CES 2014.

None of those "classes" were mentioned at the grand unveiling, and that's a damn shame. Valve had a golden opportunity to market the Steam Machine to the masses at CES. Rather than saying "Check out all these cool Steam Machines ranging in price from $500 to $6,000," Newell & Co. should've drawn some lines in the sand. I wanted to see Valve cast a spotlight on the affordable, capable, presumably "Better" Steam Machines competing in the console price range, such as the offerings from iBuyPower, CyberPower, Gigabyte, and Zotac: "For the same price as an Xbox One, you can play thousands of killer PC games at perfectly acceptable frame rates, not to mention scads of amazing indie games like FTL, Terraria, and Spelunky!" And I wanted to see Valve use that baseline to pimp the eyeball-bleeding capabilities of tricked-out "Best"-level Steam Machines from Alienware, Origin, Digital Storm, and Falcon Northwest.

I saw none of that. Valve didn't offer any guidance whatsoever. That leaves me worried.

More of the same
Something about the Steam Machines themselves gives me pause, too.

Yes, they all look amazing, and yes, I'm excited to see such emphasis placed on big power in small packages (I've always been a fan of potent, pint-size PCs). But a lot of them look like — well, any other small-form-factor (SFF) gaming PC.

Digital Storm's Bolt II and Falcon Northwest's Tiki Steam Machines mirror the non-SteamOS versions of the same hardware, right down to the vertical, tower-style cases — which I've never pictured when envisioning Steam Machines. Webhallen's Steam Machine sports a stock BitFenix Prodigy case — a nifty but far from sleek chassis that feels disappointingly standard. Origin's Chronos Steam Machine and's big boxes wouldn't look at home in the average entertainment center, either.

Small? Sure, kinda. Special? Not really.

Granted, all of the most notable offenders are amped-up "Best"-style mega-PCs, rather than the cheaper machines competing with consoles in the $500 range. You can't expect high-end components to fit into a pint-size case, given their size and thermal requirements.

The Steam Machines in the $500-to-$600 range sport far more interesting and console-esque designs, their appalling abundance of shiny neon lights aside. You won't mistake the iBuyPower or CyberPower Steam Machines for any SFF PC you've seen before, though you may wonder whether they aren't Xbox prototypes. The enticing aesthetics and competitive pricing of those boxes are all the more reason why Valve should have highlighted these Steam Machine paragons at the grand unveiling. Remember: Steam Machines have to compete with consoles, not gaming PCs. Alas.

Don't harsh my buzz
Don't get me wrong: I'm still wildly (crazily?) optimistic about SteamOS and what it could mean for the future of PC gaming. Valve's audacious endeavor still has a long way to go, but the mere promise was tantalizing enough to persuade more than a dozen PC builders to get involved, and component makers are already stepping up their Linux driver support to prepare for the Steam Machine onslaught.


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