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    A Steam Machine without Valve: life with the iBuyPower SBX

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    It was gaming's hot topic for 2013: Steam Machines. Otherwise known as Valve's plan to take on the living room. The project had my attention for months, with Valve teasing a revolutionary controller, a custom operating system and even an army of hardware partners at CES 2014. Now, almost a year later, those PC manufacturers are ready to unleash their products on the world, with or without Valve. But what happens when you launch a Steam Machine without the project's progenitor? You get the iBuyPower SBX: a $549 Windows 8 desktop ($399 without the OS or accessories) designed to be an entertainment hub. So can Steam's Big Picture mode survive without the backbone of Steam OS or the company's oddball touch controller? Let's find out.

    Gallery: iBuyPower SBX review | 19 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Attractive custom chassis
    • Enormous PC game library
    • Easy to set up
    Cons
    • Console mode is easily broken by pop-ups and Windows errors
    • Many games run better on traditional consoles
    • Some issues with crashing and freezing

    Summary

    The iBuyPower SBX will look at home in your entertainment center, but it won’t survive there without a mouse and keyboard.

    Hardware

    Let's set aside all the PC parts used inside the SBX, and instead take in the machine's facade: a thick, stylized box that looks a lot like a modern video game console. It's a visual marriage of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, combining the bold size and hard corners of the former with the split-level chassis of the latter. A multicolored LED strip pulses around the device's perimeter, too -- a design flourish often found in PC gaming peripherals. It's a clean, simple design, but it's also symbolic of everything the product wants to be: a media center that bridges the gap between consoles and PC games.

    Overall, the SBX errs on the console side, with very few bells and whistles. The front of the device features just two buttons: power and an LED control that cycles through an assortment of animated, static, rotating or pulsating colors (including a "rainbow dance party" mode, my personal favorite). The LED strip can also be disabled if you find it distracting. Two USB (2.0) ports live on the machine's right side, but most of the action is on the SBX's back: two more USB (3.0) ports, HDMI, DVI, VGA, Ethernet, a power supply and a small collection of analog audio plugs.

    Although there are four USB ports on the chassis, one is already spoken for: The SBX ships with an Xbox 360 controller and an Xbox 360 controller wireless adapter. Installing it is as easy as plugging it in and starting up the system (iBuyPower has preinstalled the dongle's drivers). When you do turn the SBX on, it automatically boots into Steam Big Picture mode too, completing the illusion that iBuyPower's new media center PC is really a game console. Unfortunately, that illusion isn't perfect.

    The 'console' problem

    For all of its efforts to look like a modern game console, it's hard to forget that the SBX is a PC -- one that was never intended to reach the market in its current state. That isn't to say it's half-baked or poorly made, but the product was designed to coincide with Valve's Steam Machine Initiative, a program that would have equipped the SBX with a dual-touchpad game controller and a special build of Linux designed specifically for televisions. Despite making quite a lot of noise at CES 2014, the program hasn't launched, which means the SBX (and every other pre-Steam Machine) has to make do without it.

    This leaves us with Windows 8 and the aforementioned Xbox 360 gamepad: both great options for PC gamers, but neither suited to a "PC console" wedged into your entertainment center. It's not that the setup can't work; it's just that it doesn't always work. The console-like illusion of Steam's Big Picture mode is easily broken by game launchers, Windows errors or games that aren't configured to launch in full-screen mode by default. It's true that some games (like Borderlands 2 and The Witcher 2) feature some rudimentary gamepad support in their launchers, but most titles with pre-game prompts will break the experience.

    A careful user can attempt to avoid these kinds of situations by choosing to play games that feature a solid controller icon -- Steam's indication that a title features full gamepad support. Most of the time, this works, but it's not always accurate: Final Fantasy IV, for instance, claims to be 100 percent controller compatible, but still brings Big Picture mode to a screeching halt with an obtrusive, mouse-only launcher. All you have to do is click "play" to load a full, controller-friendly experience, but this seemingly simple task is impossible without a mouse.

    This isn't a new problem (anyone who's ever tried to use Steam on a TV has faced it), but it's particularly nagging on a PC that wants to be seen as a game console. The SBX boots up in the vain hope that its user will only ever need the Xbox 360 gamepad that ships with it, and that just isn't the case.

    It may be impossible to forget that the SBX is a PC that merely masquerades as a game console, but that doesn't mean it isn't still pretty darn fun. Despite needing occasional prodding from a mouse cursor, Steam's Big Picture mode does a good job of translating the PC's basic functions into a gamepad-manageable format. I integrated it into my normal gaming setup for several weeks, and thoroughly enjoyed having easy, lazy access to my favorite PC games from my couch. In fact, if I didn't see the Windows desktop pop up during the SBX boot sequence, I'd almost be ready to believe that the SBX is a real console, at least initially.

    The 10-foot interface not only offers simple, clear menus for navigating the Steam store, buying and installing games and managing basic social functions, but it also provides access to basic settings: screen resolution, microphone audio settings and even the ability to restart, sleep or shut down the machine without touching Windows. If all you want to do with your PC console is play controller-compatible Steam games, it's perfect. Want to do more? Be prepared to run into some more "mouse and keyboard" problems.

    Steam's TV interface has menus that allow you to add non-Steam programs to the 10-foot-display, but it doesn't do anything to help you navigate those programs once they've launched. This is problematic because Steam isn't the only PC game marketplace out there, and it doesn't have everything. Want to play popular shooters like Titanfall or anything from the Battlefield series? You need to download EA's Origin -- a desktop content-delivery platform without controller support. In theory, you could use a mouse and keyboard to download games on other platforms, set them up to launch through Steam and never worry about it again, but this breaks down on a game-to-game basis. Battlefield 3 and 4, for instance, launch through a clunky web-browser interface. No mouse input, no game.

    Although the SBX is built with gaming in mind, it does take up residence in your entertainment center. Can it be used as a media player? Sort of. Steam has a built-in music player, but you'll still need a mouse and keyboard to load the PC up with your files. The interface's web browser seems to play nice with most video-streaming services (YouTube, Hulu and network sites like ABC all worked fine), but Netflix's website asked me to download the Windows 8 app, forcing me to reach for traditional computer peripherals yet again.

    Can it be fixed?

    Okay, you probably get it by now: the iBuypower SBX isn't a Steam Machine, and it suffers for it. But what if it were? By borrowing a first-generation Steam Controller from an industry friend, I was able to find out. The truth is, using the SBX as a "real" Steam Machine is kind of a mixed bag, but that isn't iBuyPower's fault.

    Without a doubt, Valve's dual-touch gamepad is a much better way to handle Windows 8 from a couch. In the Steam Interface, it acts a lot like the Xbox 360 controller, navigating the menu with basic up, down, left and right directions and selecting items with the buttons -- but as soon as a Windows 8 element pops up, things change. The right touchpad immediately becomes a sort of emulated trackball, "rolling" under the thumb with a (surprisingly loud) haptic vibration. It feels familiar and almost natural. With few exceptions, I failed to find a single hiccup that couldn't be dealt with using the Steam Controller's mouse mode. I could even use it to call up the Windows 8 virtual keyboard, which allowed me to enter text and manage passwords in programs outside the influence of Steam's gamepad interface.

    The Steam UI changed as soon as I plugged the controller in, too -- new icons representative of the prototype's odd button layout appeared on the screen, and a new option for tweaking the controller's configuration showed up in Steam's in-game overlay menu. Having an option to customize the controller's output on a game-by-game basis was nice, but usually I didn't have to use it: Most games seemed to already have default Steam Controller layouts assigned to them. Some of these layouts are sourced from the community, while others simply emulate the Xbox 360 gamepad. Either way, it almost always worked.

    While the Steam Controller was clearly superior for piloting a PC from my couch, it wasn't always the better gamepad. Some games (like FPS and action titles) just didn't feel right under the prototype's pressure pads, and not all of the controller-customization options in the Steam interface worked correctly. There were also times when I wanted to switch the controller from gamepad to "mouse mode," and wasn't able to. That's all fine -- the Steam Controller is a prototype and it's not under review here -- but the fact that I preferred to use it as a companion device for navigating Windows over an all-in-one gamepad shows that Valve's Steam Machine project just isn't ready to launch. Which is probably why it hasn't.

    Using both the Steam Controller and Xbox 360 gamepad simultaneously worked out as the best compromise for me, but that's not an option for general consumers. The folks at iBuyPower tell me that an app is coming that will allow users to control the mouse and keyboard from their smartphone, but it won't be available until early December -- and the first version will only be able to tweak the SBX's LED lightshow. Peripheral emulation won't come until later. This could conceivably be a tolerable solution to the machine's mouse and keyboard woes, but launching without the functionality feels like a misstep.

    Gameplay

    Let's assume you've worked out how to handle pop-up game launchers, Windows errors and any other half-measure the SBX can throw at you, and you're ready to play some games. How do they run? That depends on your perspective. As a PC, the SBX performs on par with what you'd expect from its spec list: With a 3.1GHz AMD Athlon X4 840 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a Radeon R7 250X GPU, the SBX is a haven for middling graphics settings.

    I found most games ran best on their respective "medium" graphics presets, and indeed, this is what most games defaulted to as their "optimal configurations." Battlefield 4, for instance, averaged 48 frames per second on medium, with Crysis 3 and Titanfall clocking in at 35 and 30 fps, respectively. Some games did a little better, of course: Tomb Raider ran at 66 fps on medium settings, and sustained a cool 45 fps on high. Other titles could even manage Ultra configurations: both BioShock Infinite and Alien: Isolation maintained a respectable 34 fps on maximum settings -- but this was typically the exception, not the rule.

    Objectively, I didn't expect anything more from the SBX -- I knew its technical specifications going in, and I knew it wasn't designed as a graphical powerhouse. Still, the machine falls into a category of media PCs that competes directly with contemporary game consoles, and that forces me to think about its performance in a completely different way. Pitted against the same games on a console, the SBX usually fared worse. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for instance, ran noticeably smoother on my PlayStation 4 than it did on the SBX, featuring higher-resolution textures (vs. the "optimal" settings on the SBX) and faster loading times. Ryse, a game that debuted on the Xbox One, stuttered heavily on the SBX, and failed to break 30 fps even on its lowest settings.

    While that assessment might not be completely fair (after all, consoles often run games at a lower resolution than their PC counterparts), it's still important. By and large, I tried to treat the SBX as the kind of device it's being marketed as: a game console. This means I accepted the default resolution and graphics settings it gave me when I first started a game, and in the above cases, it was a notably worse experience than I found on consoles. That said, a savvy user can easily trade frame rate and texture quality for resolution and indeed, I was able to score higher frame rates and better texture resolution by running games below my TV's native 1080p resolution.

    Even if you discard the above direct comparison to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, be warned that the SBX still isn't a game console. It's a weird PC. That's okay, but that classification comes with a lot of caveats. In addition to constantly needing to tweak settings, grab keyboards and wrestle with game launchers, I had the SBX freeze up on me multiple times in games, forcing me to manually reset the device using the power button. This didn't happen frequently, but even one total system lockup is too many.

    Even with all of these problems, however, I have to admit that I had genuine fun playing with the SBX. It couldn't keep pace with my current-gen consoles, but it did outclass my Xbox 360's older games. It's also a window to the wonderful world of Steam sales and the general trend of PC games simply costing less than their console counterparts. If you're willing to juggle a mouse and keyboard, hurdle a few errors and occasionally mutter frustrated profanities at your television, the SBX can still be a worthwhile addition to your entertainment center -- but its joys will often be hard won.

    Wrap-up

    In many ways, the iBuyPower SBX is a product ahead of its time -- but not in a revolutionary way. Behind its attractive custom case, colorful lights and the facade of Steam's Big Picture mode, the SBX is still just a desktop PC in a living room-friendly chassis. At $549, it's not a bad value for what it is (I parted-out a similar system to the tune of $553), but it feels like an incomplete package: Valve's 10-foot interface isn't enough to take on the living room by itself, and iBuyPower offers nothing to bridge the gap between Steam and Windows 8. If so-called Steam Machines are going to succeed without Valve, they need to offer more than just Big Picture mode.

    The SBX is trying to take on a market that hasn't emerged yet, and it feels woefully unprepared for the task. It's a shame, too: The potential of a home theater gaming PC shines behind the SBX's faults, but not brightly enough to make up for them. At the end of my time with the SBX, I was left wishing it was just a little better, and I'm genuinely sad that it isn't.

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