Who will be playing the Steam Machines?
In terms of specs for $500 CyberPowerPC will give you an AMD A6 3.9GHz, Radeon R9 270 2GB video card and a 500GB hard drive -- all packed into a pretty sleek case that should slot in nicely in your home theater cabinet. On the flip side of this you have the Falcon Northwest Tiki PC starting at $1800 and going up to $6000; however what you get is 6TB of storage, 16GB of RAM and NVIDIA's GTX Titan video card.
What is interesting about the price is that they either come in right at or much much higher than home consoles. This is a very interesting approach when you consider that Valve wanted SteamOS and Steam Machines to compete with home consoles (www.engadget.com/2013/09/23/valve-steambox-officia...). Further in an interview Alienware stated "We consider this to be a PC gaming console ... this isn't really designed to compete with the consoles". (www.theverge.com/2014/1/6/5281824/steam-machines-a...).
Certainly, the boxes coming in around $500 can compete but I don't think they will be able to run AAA tiles the way a console can. They will likely be able to run at minimum to medium settings, but that may not come close to current next-gen consoles. Lets take a look at Bioshock Infinite, Battlefield 4, and Assassin's Creed IV for minimum (top) and recommended (bottom) requirements***.
Assassin's Creed IV:
So then just who are the consoles for? On one hand Valve wants them to compete with home consoles and on the other Alienware doesn't consider them to be there, yet. To me Steam Machines are not for Joe Consumer just yet. Consider the companies involved and their target demographic, you don't see advertisements for Falcon Northwest or Zotac during the playoffs or Breaking Bad. These feel like devices intended to show off SteamOS and the Steam Controller as a way to bring over fringe PC Gamers. This feels especially true with the OS and controller being available separately from the hardware.
While some of these still have prices TBD, can you find yourself buying one? Do you think Steam Machines and Steam OS have a chance to disrupt home consoles?
***Requirements found at www.systemrequirementslab.com
Given that quality "settings" on consoles are obfuscated and not accessible to users, trying to compare the two (a Steam Machine and a next-gen console) is unfair. In fact, in the same Verge article you link, this sentence appears: "And yet this box [the Alienware Steam Machine] will deliver full PC games at 1080p resolution to your TV set, something even the latest game consoles still struggle to manage." The last clause hyperlinks to this story: www.theverge.com/2013/11/29/5127344/do-next-gen-ga....
If the metric for this generation is 1080p, 60 frames per second, I have no doubt even the $500 boxes will be capable of this. In the same vein, I fully believe they will be capable of offering graphical quality on par with that of the PS4 or Xbox One, despite adaptable graphics settings.
However, to answer your question, I doubt I will purchase one of these pre-fab boxes (the only one that tempts me is Digital Storm's Bolt II, but I have no desire to spend $2,000 right now). However, I am tempted by Steam's OS, and will very likely dual boot it on my PC once it gets to more releasable state.
Is the minimum/recommended system requirement windows specific? I haven't deeply researched Steam OS yet, but I imagine it must provide less overhead in terms of memory and processor usage. This would allow it to allocate maximum power to processing the game. Thus, Steam OS would potentially be able to run games better than windows on the same hardware.
The argument was raised to me by someone, why have an OS dedicated to steam when you can just install steam in a full featured OS? My prior theory is the only reason I see people wanting to dualboot
As far as I know SteamOS I was under the impression it's very much like ChromeOS: Barebones linux distro running one piece of software. In theory that would mean less requirements but I'm even less versed in Linux gaming than I am in PC gaming.
SteamOS is another question -- if I built a machine entirely for games, running an OS that is tuned for gaming sounds interesting. I could see going halfway to the Steam Machine concept by building my own hardware and using their software.
The ones I feel most successful are iBuypower, cyberpower alienware and possibly zotac & scan's options. They generally feel like they've achieved the console scope(nice custom cases, console footprint, matching console hardware) and arrived at the relatively aggressive price point similar to the PS4/Xbone.
Regarding playability, stating they might achieve minimum to medium settings seems unfair; to my knowledge, Cyberpower/ibuypower are expecting to ship their devices with a R9-270 at the most basic level. This means 1280 stream processors @925mhz, vs 1152@800mhz for the PS4. Obviously consoles will be able to be optimised, but its a fairly healthy advantage at the hardware level.
I certainly feel that the R9-270 (essentially a HD7870) should be able to handle 60fps 1080p at high settings, ultra in a few, and medium-high in some of the heavy-weights (metro I'm looking at you).
But overall, certainly shouldn't be a disappointing gaming outing for somebody hoping to make a steambox a new addition to their living room. If anything, CPU power may be what holds them back. Certainly an interesting experiment, and some of the more console-type machines do appeal to me. And, I suppose one of the benefits of this system, is you can imagine how a steambox in 4 years time, may compare to a PS4 which would presumably still utilise the same hardware.
On another note: Gigabyte Brix...seriously. Iris 5200; that's no console, that's not even HD-7750 performance, that's not a scratch on an xbox/playstation. I'm not expert (truly!) but I honestly don't feel pairing a highend processor with meagre graphics is what makes a good console.
Still, if the companies aren't demanding too much of a premium then I am very tempted to get one, as I got really sick of the uncompetitive game and DLC pricing on my XBox 360, as well as the hardware lock-in (it's why I never upgraded the 20gb hard drive mine came with). Plus there are so many extra options with a PC as a console that I find very attractive, such as total freedom in where I get games from, what other services I install, as well as full access to mods (Skyrim on XBox 360 just doesn't compare to the PC version's high-res texture packs and other important mods). In fact, Steam and GoG sales are so competitive I'd happily spend $800-900 on a better Steam Machine and still expect to spend less over its lifetime than I would for an XBox One/PS4.
So yeah, a good overall package like the Alienware Alpha is very appealing to me. The only issue is the non-upgradable graphics, but at the same time I'm not clear on why that is; some rumours suggest it may be an MXM board, in which case you could actually upgrade it (though getting worthy upgrade in the MXM form factor is a tricky proposition). But so long as the graphics are markedly better than my 360, and close(-ish) to the XBox One/PS4 then it will suit me fine for years, as there are still a ton of older games I've yet to play, so I'm not too bothered about the latest titles ;)
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