Steam Machines are finally coming out. Valve has told PC World that the console-like PCs will be launching on November 10, 2015. The company will also be releasing the Steam Link streaming box, SteamOS, and the Steam Controller around the same time. The initial Steam Machines concept was announced at the beginning of 2014, but Valve delayed the project as it revamped the unique Steam controller and worked further with hardware partners. Today, pre-orders for these devices are going live.
Actually, the November 10 date isn't quite right. You can pick up a Steam Machine as early as October 16 if you're willing to stick with one manufacturer. GameStop will be offering pre-orders for Alienware's Steam Machine, which comes in four configurations starting at $450. The entry-level box's specs look like slight bumps over the Alienware Alpha, a console-like PC the company released a year ago as "Steam Machine Ready". Here's the full specs:
- Processor: Intel Core i3 – 4130T DC
- Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX GPU w/ 2GB GDDR5
- Memory: 4GB DDR3
- Storage: 500GB 7200RPM HDD
- Internet: 1x1 802.11 Wireless Card
- Steam Controller
The company will also offer an model with more RAM and Storage at $529, an Intel Core i5 model at $649, and an Intel Core i7 model at $749. For all intents and purposes, it looks like Valve considers these models to be the flagship Steam Machines, as they're featured on the Steam Universe page. The Steam store page also shows Steam Machines from Zotac, Gigabyte, Origin, Falcon Northwest, and more. Most are in the $650-1000 range, with Falcon Northwest essentially charging its high-end PC prices.
The Steam Link device will stream games from your beefy desktop PC to your HDTV, almost like the PlayStation 4 streaming available to the PlayStation Vita TV. Of course, we have no clue what the latency will be like with the device, but you can pre-order one for a cool $50.
The final version of the Steam Controller will also be retailing for $50. The controller features dual trackpad inputs, an analog stick, dual-stage triggers, haptic feedback, gyroscope and accelerometer sensors for tilt control, and wired (USB 2.0, micro-UCB cable) or wireless operation. It runs on 2 AA batteries and Valve reports 80 hours of gameplay on a single set of batteries.
I'm still wondering who the Steam Machine project is for. On the high-end, you're basically getting a small-form factor desktop PC with a Valve logo. Most enthusiast-level buyers would be better off sourcing and building their own desktop rig part-by-part. There is room for high-end Steam Machines for older enthusiast PC players, who have the money to buy pre-built systems and lack the time to build one on their own. The thing is, those pre-built systems can come from anywhere and SteamOS is free, so you can simply install it on any desktop.
On the low-end, we're talking console-level prices for PC gear that will be outdated in a few years. Will current consoles be outdated in comparison to the PC within that same time period? Of course. The difference is if a game comes out on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in 2017, I know it's optimized to run on those platforms. With a low-end, i3-based Steam Machine, I don't have the same guarantee, especially since PC-specific developers prize themselves on being able to wring everything out of enthusiast rigs. Add in the lack of upgradability on many of these Steam Machines - some, like the Origin Steam Machine, allow it - and you're looking at systems that have the drawbacks of consoles, but lack the benefits of a PC.
I'm still waiting for Valve to add Steam store features that could help the non-enthusiast. For example, if you're already pulling PC specs in the Steam client, why not have store pages outright tell consumers if a game will run well on their system? Perhaps a color-coded system from red to green, with green meaning "runs at recommended levels"? Then a user could simply click, "Show me green-only games available for purchase" and be secure in their purchasing decision. Things like that help de-mystify the PC gaming scene for the mainstream consumer. Steam Machines? Not as much.
Valve has the clout to push the all-new Steam Empire forward, but things have changed since the idea was first floated. Windows 8 is giving way to Windows 10, an operating system that takes a few steps back and tries to please old Windows owners. It's not as much of a boogeyman as it was before.
Essentially, Steam Machines are closer to reality now, but there are still more questions than answers. I'll be picking up the Steam Controller to see if it'll be my standard PC gaming controller from now on, but that's the extent of my Steam purchases. (I currently alternate between a USB-connected Xbox One controller or Dual Shock 4, depending on what's immediately at hand. Usually the Xbox One controller.) Everything else is still a question mark, a vision of the future that has yet to meet consumer reality. Then again, everyone thought Steam itself would bomb when it first launched, and here we are.