Valve's Steam Machines are reinventing the game console by transforming daunting PCs into friendly boxes for the living room. But rather than make the machines all by itself, Valve has turned to hardware partners to create a whole lineup of them, from basic consoles priced like an Xbox all the way up to towers that just barely veil their gaming PC roots.
Yesterday we got a peek at what 13 of the very first of those Steam Machines will look like. Their prices range from $499 all the way up to $6,000, putting Valve's goal of a diverse ecosystem on the right track. But there's still the question of what that will get you. We're taking a look across the broad spectrum of Steam Machines to see if there's a legitimate alternative to the Xbox and PlayStation, and what you'll get for buying something that costs well over twice their price.
There's plenty of power to be had even at $499
Most of Valve's hardware partners are making lower-cost machines that are designed to compete with Microsoft's and Sony's game consoles on price. That includes machines from CyberPowerPC, iBuyPower, Next Spa, Zotac, and likely Gigabyte as well. In general, those machines include Intel Core i5 processors, 8GB of RAM, and a midrange, desktop-class GPU like Nvidia's GeForce GTX 760. None of the manufacturers have fully detailed their specs yet, but from what they've shown, the machines' internals appear to be on par with — if not slightly better than — the graphical power we've come to expect from the latest generation of game consoles.
Buying a sub-$500 Steam Machine will still be a bit more complicated than picking up an Xbox or a PlayStation, though. While you can easily buy a box that's ready to go from a manufacturer, you'll have to choose which manufacturer's hardware you want. That's particularly tricky in many situations, as they each make different tradeoffs to get their prices so low.
One tradeoff is in how these machines focus their power: most machines at this price range use a fairly capable discrete graphics card, while others choose to eschew that and place their money in a faster CPU with a built-in graphics solution. Those integrated graphics have gotten surprisingly powerful in recent years, but they're rarely a match for a standalone card. Choosing discrete graphics may be the safe solution, but gamers who want to buy in at this level will have to make a choice between those philosophies.
Stepping up to just above $1,000, there are even more decisions to be made. While all of these machines should be able to run modern games at 1080p, you'll have to select between different form factors and different components within them. Steam Machines from Material.net and Alternate paint the picture clearly: they come in nearly identical bodies, yet they offer different internals. It's not immediately obvious how much better Alternate's $1,399 Steam Machine will be than Materiel.net's $1,098 machine either, and you'll probably want to decide how much their different components will do for you before spending more or less money than you should.
Options open up at $1,000 and above
The $1,000 range also sees differences in form factor. While those two machines are industrial-style cubes that'll likely take up some real space on your desk, Scan's NC10 uses mobile components to create a sleek and low-lying option. Mobile components usually don't perform as well as comparably priced desktop components, which may give buyers looking at the NC10 pause. But once again, the choice isn't so simple. As we've seen multiple times the NC10's GPU, the GeForce GTX 765M, isn't just capable — it's downright powerful for its class.
As boutique gaming PCs tend to, Steam Machines get vastly more complicated as their prices rise toward $2,000 and beyond. These are imposing machines reaching toward the heights of performance, and with SteamOS installed, they could end up giving enthusiast gamers who were never quite ready to dive into PCs a way to start playing on a high-end machine. At this point, you aren't just choosing between components anymore — you're choosing between elaborate options like ventilation systems, which keep the machine running quietly, and custom finishes on the case.
What will a $2,000 Steam Machine do with all of its power?
Of course, you could just build your own gaming PC and probably save good money in the process, but when you're looking for a premium machine, price isn't always the first priority. These high-end boxes from Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm, Webhallen, and Origin PC could also be the perfect match for a high-end living room setup. If you're looking to pump out content in 4K, you'll want a machine like this to do it.
But whether you'll actually want to dedicate so much power to a Steam Machine is another question. There aren't any games on SteamOS that are demanding enough to really take advantage of this level of performance just yet. Valve is certainly confident that they'll come, but it's a gamble that could be worth waiting on.
Even with their limited game library and unproven OS, Steam Machines are already looking enticing. By taking after their Windows gaming counterparts, manufacturers have been able to quickly turn around great-looking machines and offer plenty of options. But while there was never much doubt that manufacturers could find existing PC gamers to look over their higher-end machines, we now know that some manufactures think more casual gamers could be interested in their hardware too — and that low-cost hardware might just cut it for SteamOS gaming.