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HTG Explains: What Exactly is a Steam Machine and Do I Want One?

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Steam Machines, also known as Steamboxes, are Valve’s attempt at bringing PC gaming to the living room. In a way, they’ll compete with game consoles like the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U.

These PCs will be made by a wide variety of manufacturers, just like gaming PCs are. You’ll also be able to build your own PC and install Valve’s SteamOS operating system on it.

PC Gaming in the Living Room

Valve’s Steam service is in the lead when it comes to PC gaming. It’s a storefront, social network, and all-around service that makes purchasing, downloading, installing, and updating PC games easy.

It’s currently possible to bring your gaming PC to the living room. All you have to do is plug it into your TV via an HDMI port. You can easily connect one or more Xbox controllers to that gaming PC and use it as a game console to play controller-enabled games on your TV, just as you’d play console games. Steam provides a “Big Picture” interface intended for use with controllers on televisions, ensuring you won’t have to navigate the Windows desktop to launch games.

Valve wants to make this easier. Steam Machines will be tailor-made for this living room scenario. You’d buy a Steam Machine, plug it into your TV with an HDMI cable, and use the controller to log in with your Steam account, play games, and use media services. Everything would just work on a TV out of the box, so there’s no Windows desktop, Windows updates, or other complexity involved. To this end, Valve is also creating their own operating system — known as SteamOS — and game controller.

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SteamOS

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SteamOS is a big part of Valve’s vision. It’s an operating system intended for the living room. SteamOS is actually a custom Linux distribution built on top of Debian Linux, just as ChromeOS, Android, and many other widely used operating systems are built on top of Linux.

Any game that currently works on Linux will work on SteamOS. This means that Valve will have to convince developers to release their games for Linux and not just Windows. If few games are released for Linux, SteamOS will have a rocky road ahead. A big success would mean that Linux would become a more competitive PC gaming operating system outside of the living room, too.

At the moment, a search of the Steam store reveals 758 games that support Linux and 9397 games that support Windows. This isn’t a completely accurate estimate, as both counts will also include downloadable content packs (DLC) for games. However, this gives us some idea of how many Steam games support Linux. Valve says they have commitments from major game companies to support SteamOS for future games, and more and more indie games are supporting Linux.

SteamOS is also a bit of a reaction to Windows 8. Microsoft’s controversial operating system introduced an entirely new interface that only runs apps from the Windows Store, and Windows RT can’t install any desktop apps at all. Valve can’t release Steam as a Windows 8 app because Windows 8 apps are so limited and Microsoft controls the storefront. By building SteamOS and porting more games to Linux, the PC gaming industry gains an escape valve if Microsoft ever decides to remove the desktop from Windows or restrict it to only programs from the Windows Store. Valve can also customize the entire Steam Machine experience and release SteamOS for free without having to pay Microsoft licensing fees.

While most Steam Machines will come with SteamOS, some may come with Windows. There’s also nothing stopping you from installing Windows on a Steambox. But Valve is betting on their own operating system.

SteamOS does have a plan for compatibility with Windows games. Valve will allow you to run games on a Windows gaming PC in your house and stream them to a Steambox, allowing you to play Windows games on your TV without having to install Windows on the Steam Machine itself. As Steam Machines are currently targeted at PC gamers, Valve is betting its target audience will already have a Windows gaming PC somewhere in the house.

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The Steam Controller

Valve has also developed their own controller. This controller won’t be mandatory, of course — you could plug an Xbox controller into a Steam Machine or use a mouse and keyboard. You could also connect the Steam controller to a typical Windows PC.

Rather than copy other existing controller, Valve has designed their own controller complete with two touchpads with haptic feedback and a touch screen in the middle of the controller. The controller is designed to bring existing PC games to the television. In theory, the touchpads will provide the precision of a mouse with the analog movement of a joystick. First-person shooter games or games that require fine cursor movement will be playable on a television with the Steam controller. Even if a game requires a mouse and wouldn’t work well with an Xbox controller, it should work decently with the controller.

Valve will also provide “profiles” that map functions on the controller to keyboard events, allowing the controller to be used for existing games that were never designed with the Steam controller in mind. You’ll be able to create your own profiles and Steam will automatically download the most popular profile for a game when you play it. Currently, if a game doesn’t support your controller, you have to manually configure button mappings with a program like Xpadder or JoyToKey to get it working — not a convenient experience.

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Are You Valve’s Target Audience?

If you don’t want a Steam machine, you may not be a part of Valve’s target audience. Valve is taking it a bit slow, and they’re not positioning Steam Machines as a competitor to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. For the moment, Valve says Steam Machines are targeted at existing Steam users who want to play their PC games in the living room. Rather than build your own PC, deal with the Windows desktop on your TV, and use existing controllers that aren’t even supported by many PC games, Valve is creating their own type of PC, operating system, and controller to bring the PC gaming experience to the living room.

Steam Machines are basically just another type of PC, so it’s not surprising that Valve was showing off a line of Steam Machines developed by gaming PC manufacturers like iBuyPower, Falcon Northwest, Alienware, and Gigabyte. These are more like PCs than consoles, offering a wide variety of hardware specifications — all the way from a $499 PC meant to compete with game consoles on price to Steam Machines packed with high-end gaming PC hardware for $2500 or more. There’s no standard Steam Machine hardware like a console offers. Instead, you’ll find a wide range of hardware like you would on a PC.

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Of course, you’ll also be able to create your own Steam Machine by building a PC and installing Valve’s free SteamOS operating system on it. SteamOS is free for a reason — Valve makes money when you buy games on Steam, so they don’t need to sell you an operating system or even a piece of hardware.

If you’re someone who’s happy with your Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii and you’ve never used Steam and don’t care about PC gaming, Valve isn’t targeting Steam Machines at you yet.

On the other hand, if you use Steam and you’re into PC gaming, Valve wants to sell you a Steam Machine so you can take that PC gaming experience into the living room. You’ll be able to play your entire library of Steam games — at least the ones that support Linux, with in-home streaming available for the Windows-only games. Valve’s trying to sell you a convenient package, complete with an operating system and controller tailor-made for the living room.

One big problem Valve faces is that they’re trying to sell a premade solution to a PC gaming community that often builds their own PCs. Why should a PC gamer buy a premade Steam Machine instead of building their own living-room gaming PC, which they can even install SteamOS on for free? Valve’s answer here seems to be convenience, and if Steam Machines are competitively priced when they’re released, they may be compelling.

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So, do you want a Steam Machine? If you’ve never heard of Steam, you probably don’t. If you’re Steam user who wants a convenient way to take your Steam library to the living room, you just might.

Image Credits: Steam controller image via Valve

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/17/14

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