Last week, Valve officially announced more information on both the Steam Machine and SteamOS. Eligible Steam users can sign up to be one of the 300 randomly selected members to receive a Steam Machine prototype, which will ship later this year. And now Valve has released details and specs of the prototypes.
Before jumping into the specs in the blog post, Valve was sure to reaffirm that the press and fanboy-created term "Steam Box" be clarified yet again, by explaining that the "Steam Machine" idea is more than just a piece of hardware made by Valve; it's a certification that other hardware manufacturers can slap on their boxes, assuming those companies would even want to include a Linux-based operating system on a machine being sold to consumers.
Valve didn't set out to create our own prototype hardware just for the sake of going it alone - we wanted to accomplish some specific design goals that in the past others weren't yet tackling. One of them was to combine high-end power with a living-room-friendly form factor. Another was to help us test living-room scenarios on a box that's as open as possible.
Then, Valve explained that the prototype is a very high-end machine, that can also be purchased in-store and pieced together, should a customer want to do that. This confused me and several other Steam users and journalists alike, as it seemingly eliminates the need to have Valve or any other PC builder pre-manufacture something that enthusiasts can build themselves.
The prototype machine is a high-end, high-performance box, built out of off-the-shelf PC parts. It is also fully upgradable, allowing any user to swap out the GPU, hard drive, CPU, even the motherboard if you really want to. Apart from the custom enclosure, anyone can go and build exactly the same machine by shopping for components and assembling it themselves. And we expect that at least a few people will do just that.
And to be clear, this design is not meant to serve the needs of all of the tens of millions of Steam users. It may, however, be the kind of machine that a significant percentage of Steam users would actually want to purchase - those who want plenty of performance in a high-end living room package. Many others would opt for machines that have been more carefully designed to cost less, or to be tiny, or super quiet, and there will be Steam Machines that fit those descriptions.
That being said, even though we still don't have pictures, here's the specs for the 300 prototypes:
CPU: some boxes with Intel i7-4770, some i5-4570, and some i3
RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3GB GDDR5 (GPU)
Storage: 1TB/8GB Hybrid SSHD
Power Supply: Internal 450w 80Plus Gold
Dimensions: approx. 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 in high
These specs are interesting for several reasons. First, Valve's idea of Big Picture Mode, along with Steam OS and the Steam Machine was to put "more flexibility" to the end-user. This allows them to pick and choose what operating system and other features they would want in a PC that would go into a living room. The key to this, however, is ease of use and affordability. Considering that the NVIDIA Titan cards run in the price range of $700-$1000 alone, this drives the Steam prototype, if it ever makes it to market, well out of the $200-$300 "open source, free-for-everyone" marketspace of the OUYA and Project SHIELD, their relative competitors for living room entertainment.
Secondly, even though Valve says that this prototype is "not meant to replace the great gaming hardware" many casual Steam users already have, so far the company has made no efforts to appeal to that very large userbase. Going back again to my original article about the Steam Box and its improbable fit in the living room, the enthusiast sees less of a need to put one of these pre-made boxes into their living room. Instead, the middle- and low-tier users are who Valve should be screaming at and the company has seemed to push them off to the side, at least for now. And, it really doesn't make sense for Valve to further limit an already limited Linux environment, considering that less than 10 percent of Steam games run stable on the platform.
Looking at the big picture here (no pun intended), it feels like Valve is more stability testing these monster specifications and will be less an indication of the final retail product from Valve than what most people are thinking right now. With as many combinations that could be made from the above specs, it would be more fitting for the gaming company to be trying out different options that could be receive a Steam Machine certification for third party manufacturers.
Still, if all of this has been made with parts that can be bought separately, is there really a market or a need for a Steam Machine or certification? Couldn't the "everything should be free" group be satiated simply with SteamOS? Or, could it be that Gabe hates Microsoft enough to still think that Steam won't run on Windows 8?