From subtle to shocking, Origin & Alienware are creating two very different Steam Machines

By Phil Owen, Wednesday, 8 January 2014 15:38 GMT

Phil Owen meets Steam Machine makers at CES and asks, “is The Cult of Steam ready to start a hardware movement?”

You’ll find Phil’s hands-on impressions of the Steam Machines and Steam Controller through the link.

Our editor Matt Martin has also posted an opinion blog on the Steam Machines product line, dubbing it overhyped, overpriced and over-complicated.

On Monday night I found myself standing atop the 55-storey Palms Hotel & Casino in a reasonable (read: not enormous) space known as Ghostbar. Waiters with finger foods, sliders and cocktails roamed, and two of the three bars were manned. The view was spectacular, at least if you looked outward.

For a spot in which a gaggle of tech journalists were gathered to gawk at a bunch of computers, it was decidedly classy. Not that Ghostbar isn’t literally classy in the modern sense – it does, after all, require “stylish nightlife attire” for entry during regular business hours – but the setting didn’t exactly gel with the reason for being there, at least in theory, and it definitely clashed with the regular Joe appearance of the attendees.

“Valve’s purpose in partnering with so many manufacturers is to provide a range of options that it hopes will hit every type of person interested in gaming hardware.”

When Gabe Newell demanded our attention and had a member of the Valve Army pull the sheet off the Steam Machines to reveal display models from his company’s numerous hardware partners, however, the situation made a bit more sense.

A PC tower isn’t sexy. Sure, you may put lights and artwork on its shell, but if it’s powerful enough it’s going to take up some legitimate space. It has all those wires, and it won’t fit into a stock entertainment center. It belongs in its own room, away from where, you know, the normal people will gather.

“You can’t put a tower in your living room and have your wife look at it every day and go, ‘I like that. I like that a lot,’” Alienware’s Joe Olmsted told me as we stood in Ghostbar’s VIP room. “You don’t have wires strung across the living room. If you’re 22 and living with two roommates, sure, no problem. But once you get to that next stage, no.”

Alienware’s Steam Machine is a reflection of the above sentiment. Based on the model units displayed in a row for us to examine, the Alienware box seems to be one of the smallest, and judging from the target prices listed in the digital brochure we were provided with, will also be one of the most affordable. Without giving a specific number, Olmsted said they’re aiming to be competitive in pricing with the new generation consoles – the Alienware model box was significantly smaller than Sony’s PlayStation 4, I should note – with performance he promised would be “surprising” for a device that size.

In short, Alienware is making a Steam Machine it deems suitable for the traditional domestic setting (“looks like it belongs there,” to quote Olmsted), with form factor taking priority. It’s classy and responsible, rather than indulgent and gluttonous. It’s outside the traditional nerd expectation and desire that instead prioritizes utility above all else.

While my description of Alienware’s aim may paint it as unpalatable to some readers, when put in more basic terms it really doesn’t sound unreasonable at all.

“What we have spent all of our time and energy on is building something that’s small, and fits [next to] your TV and that’s quiet,” Olmsted said. “That’s been the hardest part about making this box, making it so small, with the performance we’re going to put into it, and have it be quiet. And hit the price points we want to hit.”

But with four USB ports, HDMI, digital audio, wired and wireless ethernet and bluetooth connectivity along with Windows-like device support, Alienware’s Steam Machine is perfectly prepared to spread wires around the living room, despite what Olmsted says.

At first glance, Alienware’s philosophy in this instance may seem to be the overriding theme of the entire Steam Machine concept, and without physically seeing the boxes next to each other for scale it can be easy to make that mistake. There is no real size or aesthetic standard for these things, with the stark variety of physical design being almost comical. One would assume Valve’s purpose in partnering with so many manufacturers is to provide a range of options that it hopes will hit every type of person interested in gaming hardware.

The Origin PC box on display, for example, was a large cube thing that would never blend in with the short and wide blu-ray players and cable boxes that populate the stereotypical middle class entertainment center. That box is not the box Origin will be selling, though, as the company’s CEO Kevin Wasielewski was quick to point out.

“We offer our customers total customization,” Wasielewski said. “We don’t say, ‘This is our Steam box, and this is the price point, and take it or leave it.’ We say, ‘We’re offering a Steam box. There’s a base configuration, which is still to be determined and then the customer can configure it from there.”

In other words, the Steam Machine concept is essentially just a new brand offering that will go into the Origin line-up, and it isn’t even really an unprecedented form factor as these new boxes will fit right into the small form Chronos collection of gaming PCs they already offer.

“Our goal with the Steam box is to offer the highest performance, and the most customization options, with the best support, which is our same goal with every gaming PC that we sell,” Wasielewski said. That customization extends optional paint jobs on the exterior, but he said the cases they’re currently planning to use don’t have window panels and so lighting options are out.

“You can’t put a PC tower in your living room and have your wife look at it every day and go, ‘I like that. I like that a lot.'”

Aside from being intended for the living room, the other aspects that delineate the Steam Machines from regular desktop PCs are the SteamOS and Steam Controller, both of which will be bundled with every unit. Valve’s Greg Coomer said SteamOS does at present provide a performance boost in some games over Windows, including Valve’s own titles and some others, like Metro: Last Light.

But from my brief chat with Coomer, I got the impression that SteamOS will never be something that regular PC owners will be able to easily dual-boot alongside Windows, which will remain a necessity for gamers for a long time despite this initiative from Valve. Perhaps the performance increase will at some point be significant enough to warrant that action regardless of the headache it may cause, but for now it seems Valve is positioning this Linux OS as being for these new boxes, one would assume because it wants you to buy one, either to run games or stream them to the TV from another machine over a home network.

When Gabe took the metaphorical stage on Monday to reveal the physical shapes of the various Steam Machines, he seemed quite gung-ho about the affair, emphasizing the 65 million Steam accounts that have been established so far. The Cult of Steam does exist – it isn’t difficult to find people who won’t buy any game that runs outside the Steam client – but is that crowd ready to jump-start a hardware movement?

I’m not sure that anything I saw or heard in Las Vegas came close to convincing me these boxes, as scatterbrained as they collectively are, provide the necessary catalyst.

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