The lines are blurring between gaming PCs and traditional consoles. Valve’s Steam Machines, gaming PCs designed to express the best of both worlds, are ostensibly the prototype for this awesome future, and they’re now available for preorder. Too bad they’re not something you should buy — yet.
Valve is a juggernaut in gaming thanks to Steam, the dominant online marketplace for PC games, and we’ve been excited to see the result of its hardware efforts since we first caught wind of its mythical PC console back in 2012. When we eventually sat down with CEO Gabe Newell, he outlined an exciting vision for the future: a gaming PC with all of Steam’s killer features that would be as convenient and comfortable to use on the couch as a console.
The company got off to a fine start. Big Picture mode makes the PC more television-friendly with large text and easy-to-navigate menus. And its unique controller, coming in October, merges the traditional video game controller with the precision of a mouse. Those two things with a little polish might be enough — but Valve’s long-term vision is a PC gaming world without Windows, and that makes things complicated.
Valve's long-term vision is a PC gaming world without Windows
The official Steam Machines run SteamOS, which is basically Linux with Steam’s Big Picture Mode. Even though Valve is working to bring more games to Linux, most popular titles aren’t available for it yet, and there’s really no reliable way to predict which games will be supported in the future. Of the top 10 games you can buy on Steam right now, only one, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. There’s no Grand Theft Auto 5, or Skyrim, or DayZ. Hell, you can’t even play games that are compatible with Linux but aren’t on Steam, which includes Blizzard’s popular catalog. If you care about playing anything relatively new and popular, the Xbox One, PS4, Wii, and Windows-based PCs are all clearly superior options. And games aren’t the only compatibility problem. If Valve and HTC’s virtual reality headset is anything like the Oculus Rift, it’ll need powerful hardware, and it’s possible lower-end Steam Machines won’t support it.
One of the reasons consoles are so compelling is that everything just works out of the box. You can buy hardware that’s as powerful as what everyone else has and expect that games will meet a minimum quality standard for years to come. The current spread of Steam Machine hardware is a confusing mess, and betrays the promise of console convenience.
Even though Alienware and Syber are now offering flagship devices, the "Steam Machine" is really just a blueprint for a console-like gaming PC that encourages manufacturers to focus on things like form, size, and noise. That has resulted in way too many options, which actually contradicts the vision of simplicity Valve is working toward. Even the "official" offerings from Alienware and Syber range in price from $449 all the way up to $1,419 — at which point you have to ask, how is this different from shopping for a regular gaming PC? To add insult, Valve is offering Steam Machine preorders through the strangest of bedfellows: Gamestop.
There’s no clear reason for anyone to buy into Valve’s platform right now. The audience that might be most sympathetic to the idea, devoted PC gamers, are far better off just buying or building a Windows-based machine so they can take advantage of everything Steam and PC gaming has to offer. And there’s a lot to offer! The idea of the Steam Machine is actually really compelling, provided it brings everything that’s great about PC gaming to the couch. PC gaming has long had a leg-up over consoles in important areas: the games are usually cheaper, there’s a lot more indie stuff to play, the graphics are better, you can upgrade the hardware over time, and there’s a whole world of game modification that unlocks and transforms popular titles in weird and surprising ways. Instead of offering the best of both worlds, Steam Machines sit in a strange middle ground that’s too confusing and too compromised to make sense for anyone.
The Steam Machine is an exciting idea, but that’s all it is. Don’t pay for mere potential.
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Verge Video: Hands-on with Valve's Steam controller