So, What’s A Steam Box?

There have been a few announcements over the past couple of weeks about Valve’s upcoming Steam Box, but I’m still utterly clueless as to what it is or why it’s important. I’m not sure whether this is intentional on Valve’s part as a sort of intrigue-generating PR strategy or whether it’s just the result of poor communication. I’m not even sure what the Steam Box (or Steam Machine?) actually is. Is it a console? A PC? A concept? I’ve read this article from January, in which ‘Gabe Newell lays out Valve’s Steam Box plans’, twice now and I still don’t have a clue what it’s going on about.

An artist's impression of what an army of Steam Boxes will look like under your TV. Probably. I really don't know what's going on here.

An artist’s impression of what an army of Steam Boxes will look like under your TV. Probably. I really don’t know what’s going on here.

My best guess is that it’s a sort of PC where Valve makes the operating system but other companies manufacture the hardware – a bit like the 3DO, perhaps? Let’s hope it’s not too much like the 3DO for Valve’s sake, we all know what happened to that. Last week Valve revealed the specs of its Steam Machine (is this what we’re calling it now?), but they may as well have written the press release in binary for all the sense it made to me – just tell me whether it’s more powerful than a PS4 and I’ll willingly believe you.

If I’m understanding the idea correctly, it’s intriguing – that Valve are making an easy-to-use, open-source PC that sits under your TV and lets you download games easily and cheaply from Steam. I’ve never really been much of a PC gamer – some dreadful experiences with crashy games and recalcitrant hardware in the early days put me off PC gaming for life – but the recent resurgence of the PC gaming scene has made me interested in getting back into it. The idea of a PC-type box that sits under the telly and plays games without me having to do anything too technical to it sounds like a great idea. But I’ve got a couple of reservations: namely, how much is this going to cost, and what happens when the hardware goes out of date?

The major trouble with PC gaming as far as I see it is that graphics cards are constantly evolving, which means that your machine becomes outdated much more quickly than a console would. Does this mean I’ll have to buy a new Steam Box every two years? And how will they compare to consoles in terms of price?

Despite my confusion, I’m quietly hopeful for the Steam Box, whatever it is, simply because Valve are making it and they’ve generally done GOOD THINGS in past. One of the things I did understand was the release of images of the new controller. Well, I sort of understood it… but why are the buttons tucked in the corners like that? Isn’t that going to make things a bit difficult?

Is it an owl? Darth Vader? No, it's the Steam Controller, with its fancy haptic feedback trackpads.

Is it an owl? Darth Vader? No, it’s the Steam Controller, with its fancy haptic feedback trackpads.

Still, I’m all for innovation in gaming, and it’ll be interesting to see how developers use those weird, vibratey trackpads…

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5 Comments

Filed under Opinions and Hearsay

5 responses to “So, What’s A Steam Box?

  1. Hello! I think it might be easier to quote some of your questions and then reply to them with why I think the Steam Box could be very important for gaming ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m not sure how to lay this out neatly, so if you have tips, let me know and I can edit my comment!

    Firstly, just to clarify, I am both a huge PC fan and a huge PlayStation fan. My knowledge is weaker when it comes to the Xbox. Therefore most of views come from the PC/PS point of view.

    “Is it a console? A PC?” – A PC, but one where the initial specs and operating system are catered for games, rather than multi-tasking. Basically, better performance than another PC with the same spec that’s built for Windows and multi-tasking. This is what consoles do, though the key difference here is that it’s open-sourced (Which I will describe more later)

    “My best guess is that itโ€™s a sort of PC where Valve makes the operating system but other companies manufacture the hardware โ€“ a bit like the 3DO, perhaps?” – The first part of your comment is spot-on. Valve’s focus here is actually the operating system. Other companies create the hardware, but that is nothing new and is how PCs have always been due to it’s open nature. Therefore the SteamBox/Steam Machine isn’t actually the key thing. That’s more of an option for people who don’t want to build their own PC to run Steam’s new OS. It feels like the SteamBox’s main goal is to entice console gamers over to the world of PC gaming by giving them a familiar starting point, if that makes sense.

    “just tell me whether itโ€™s more powerful than a PS4 and Iโ€™ll willingly believe you.” – This will always be a tough one to answer. Because ‘power’ can come from anything. The graphics card, how fast it manages data, or even just how well the Operating System is written. For example, I have a three year old PC in my cupboard that can’t run Skyrim as smooth as an Xbox because it has an old graphics card, but because of it’s data management performance, has nearly no loading times when changing area. Another reason why it’s hard to answer is that most PC gamers will create their own box for Steam’s new OS, and those boxes will definitely be more powerful than a PS4. Dedicated PC gamers now are already beyond the PS4. I had a look at the specs of the SteamBox prototype, and it looks like they’re releasing three different sets. The highest of which will best the PS4, while the lower specs look inbetween PS3 and PS4. The key thing about PC gaming, is it will be as powerful as the money you want to put into it.

    “But Iโ€™ve got a couple of reservations: namely, how much is this going to cost, and what happens when the hardware goes out of date?

    The major trouble with PC gaming as far as I see it is that graphics cards are constantly evolving, which means that your machine becomes outdated much more quickly than a console would. Does this mean Iโ€™ll have to buy a new Steam Box every two years? And how will they compare to consoles in terms of price?” – These are good questions, because it is the root of our decisions on which to go for. I like to argue that we need both a PC/Xbox and a PS in our lives as one focuses on Western releases, while the other offers more access to Eastern titles, but that’s besides the point ๐Ÿ™‚ So let me actually answer your questions…

    You describe constantly evolving components as the major trouble with PC gaming, when in fact it is the opposite. If you want your PC or SteamBox to compete with the current generation of consoles, then you only need to upgrade it once per generation. The main reason people think you have to keep upgrading is that PC games often let you set the graphics ridiculously high, and people think that because their PC can’t run the highest settings then their PC is out of date. This isn’t true because the highest settings on a PC game are often beyond that of the console release. Therefore, if you want the highest and best experience in a game then, yes, you WILL need to constantly upgrade and it IS expensive (Forget what other PC elitists say, I agree that it is expensive). But if you want to enjoy your games at a constant level that’s still above the current console generation, then it is a single upgrade that will last you as long as you want and can be either cheaper than the consoles (if you want similar performance), or the same price (or more), if you want to go beyond console performance.

    Bottom line is – If you’re comparing against console performance, then you only need to upgrade for each new console generation. But If you compare against the very latest in graphical performance, then 2 years is about right in how often you will upgrade. (Technically, the PS3 and Xbox 360 are way out of date in comparison to current PC titles) I go in-between and do it every 4 years. The big advantage? You never ever lose your back catalog ๐Ÿ™‚ When the PS3 and Xbox 360 came out, gamers would have to keep the older consoles in order to play the games that weren’t selected to be supported by the newer consoles. In PC gaming, not only do all your older titles still work, but they work even better. No need to buy HD-versions ๐Ÿ™‚ I played Tomb Raider 3 from 1998 on 1080p long before the PS3 came out, for example. And I remember when I first Oblivion, I had to play it at console graphical level and it looked great. But after upgrading my PC, I went back to the game and pushed it to the point where you never saw a single object pop in as the draw distance was so high.

    But here’s the big crux: Which the press never mention. Let’s say you build a PC that’s $100 more expensive than a console. PC games don’t have to be published through Sony or Microsoft, so PC games are normally $10 cheaper or more. Meaning that after buying ten games, you have already recouped your money. The more games you tend to buy, the more money you end up saving.

    Woah, I typed a lot more than I thought I would, but I guess the main reason why it can be difficult to get to grips with PC gaming is because it is so open, but that is an extremely beautiful thing and puts the choice in your hand. It’s just a different way of thinking. So instead of big costs buying a new machine every console generation, most PC gamers do regular smaller costs and the concept of ‘generation’ is thrown out the window. Valve want to bring that to the living room. And they have already saved the PC gaming industry through their company alone, so I have every faith that they’ve done a lot of research into whether the idea will work or not.

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    • lewispackwood

      Wow, thanks for the comprehensive response! That certainly clears a few things up. It certainly sounds like an interesting concept – I like the idea of a fuss-free way to play PC games, with the added option of scaling the graphics power up if you want to. It’s an idea that Valve could certainly sell to a lot of console gamers like me – but I think they need to work on getting their message across in plain English!

      I’ll be keeping an eye on the Steam Box – sounds like it might be a good alternative to an Xbox One or PS4, as long as they can keep the price reasonable.

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  2. “My best guess is that itโ€™s a sort of PC where Valve makes the operating system but other companies manufacture the hardware”

    Sort of. Valve is making the interface, but the operating system is Linux (tweaked for gaming rather than general computing, but this is something you can already do on your own Linux box today). Valve has been pushing for Linux compatibility for a long time, and there are already a lot of games on Steam that have native Linux versions. And if it doesn’t, you can always run it on your Windows box and play it on the TV through the Steam box…

    Here’s the real selling point for me though: it uses your existing Steam library. That is to say, I have 510 games in my Steam library. If I somehow got a Steam box today, I would already have 510 games for it.

    (Now, not every game is controller-ready, but that’s something else Valve has been pushing for for a long time. Games in the Steam marketplace already list if they have full or partial controller support, something which is needed for Big Picture Mode…)

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    • lewispackwood

      I like the way they’ve kept it easy to use and backwards compatible – it seems like a good idea. Now they just need yo employ someone who can communicate all this!

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  3. Pingback: Cliff B. Says Oculus & Steam Box Will Define Next Gen. - Lez Get Real | Lez Get Real

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