Playing video games on Xi3's Piston living room PC  game console

The long-running distinction between dedicated game consoles and gaming PCs is disappearing with Valve's announcement of its own operating system, SteamOS. The hardware is changing too, with next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony offering much more than the ability to play disc-based games, not to mention both being built on PC architecture (x86). And PC gaming has never been more friendly in the living room, between Steam's Big Picture Mode and solid gamepad support for many games.

With one of Valve's other announcements last week, Steam Machines finally put a name to the living room PC gaming initiative we've long heard about (what the press dubbed "Steambox"). Though we heard about Xi3's Piston back at CES, and we knew about the company's financial ties to Valve, it was unclear how tied its little modular gaming PC was to the initiative. Now, however, it's more clear than ever: Xi3's release date press release repeatedly describes the Piston as "the Piston Console," meant to push up against the big three game console manufacturers. Sure, it costs $1,000 (and up), but it promises to handle modern PC games with aplomb. And it's a tiny little box!

We caught up with Xi3 this week for a second look at the Piston game "console" -- a custom version, for the game Loadout -- and its first-party wireless controller. We also got a chance to actually play some games on the little box: the first time anyone outside of the company did as much, we're told. Head past the break for our impressions.

Xi3 Piston (Interop 2013)

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Right off the bat, running games on the Piston -- like with all PCs -- is a varying experience. Lighter games, resource-wise, don't encounter any real issues. The heavier it gets, though, the more the seams show. The first seams I saw on Piston were in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. After some healthy graphics tweaking, the game ran full screen at just below 30 fps. While assuredly playable, and likely a touch more impressive looking than its console cousin, Black Ops 2 seemed to test the machine's limits. The gentleman hosting the demo actually stopped running it in favor of other games that were more show-ready (notably, the previous year's Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3). We were then asked to come back a few hours later, after a handful of games were tuned with the 70-inch Sharp HDTV being used -- not the kind of thing that bodes well for ease of use in living room settings.

Playing video games on Xi3's Piston living room PC  game console

When we next saw the box, it was running Tribes: Ascend. While Tribes is pretty, and relatively new, it's not exactly a graphics monster. With settings tuned to medium, the fast-paced, framerate-dependent gameplay more than held up, and the Piston didn't stutter. While After Earth (the movie) played in the background, Tribes ran smoothly on the big screen, as did MW3. The only issue gameplay-wise that we encountered actually came from the Logitech wireless mouse and keyboard being used in the demo -- latency was explicit, yet another barrier to accessibility for living room-based PC gaming, and the Piston in-turn.

The other main barrier? The Piston is still very much a computer. While the (still unseen) custom GUI might fix that issue, you are currently logging in and launching both games and applications -- as well as media streaming -- like you normally would on a PC, which is to say, "Not very comfortably on a television." Xi3 promised us easier accessibility in its GUI, but the company's not showing that off just yet.

We'd love to tell you that Xi3's custom gamepad cuts the aforementioned latency, but we've yet to actually go hands-on with it. Xi3 brought one along, but wouldn't allow any hands-on. We also didn't get a look at that promised custom GUI shipping with the Piston this November, but apparently it'll go beyond the options available in Steam's Big Picture Mode. "You should be able to access any type of content you already have ownership of or licensing rights to from inside of the GUI," marketing chief David Politis told Engadget. We'll assuredly find out what exactly that means as we get closer to the Piston's November 29th launch at retail.

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Playing video games on Xi3's Piston living room PC / game console