This is what we get for depending on Valve to release a product on schedule.
First announced back in September of last year, Steam OS was on track to take the console industry by storm, closing the gulf that has existed between mid-range gaming PCs and their living room equivalents for too long.
In the fervor of excitement over the possibility of big profits dozens of custom PC manufacturers rushed to get their machines ready for the incoming onslaught of the Steam faithful. Since then, however, Valve has continually disappointed us with a slew of buggy updates, a mediocre game library and a UI that still feels months, if not years away from its full release.
The idea behind these new boxes is (supposed to be) simple; reduce the cost of entry to PC gaming and reward the customer’s desire to shift away from traditional consoles in a way that feels familiar, yet new.
The iBuyPower SBX is just the latest machine to attempt that elusive ideal. It packs an AMD quad-core processor and a Radeon R7 250X, a pair of components that theoretically might be on par with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Does the SBX make consoles obsolete, or is it just another in a long line of mediocre PC/console hybrids?
If there’s anywhere the SBX undeniably shines it’s from the vibrant, multi-colored LEDs that split the box right down the middle from nose to aft. Built to satiate the desires of both the basement-bound gamer and the rest of their family upstairs, the machine oozes a sense of style that pulsates from its core in a vibrant display of playful rainbow patterns which, according to iBuyPower, will be fully programmable once they release a companion app sometime later this month.
The machine oozes a sense of style that pulsates from its core in the form of vibrant LEDs.
One problem we noticed during initial setup is that the computer couldn’t be used while standing in an upright position. The company’s copy claims the SBX can handle vertical use without issue, but we encountered a terrifying noise when the machine was turned to any position other than horizontal. This may have been due to components being dislodged in shipping, but it was disconcerting.
When left on its side, though, the SBX feels solid. Its sandblasted shell has a gritty but satisfying veneer across the system’s entire matte black surface. The box itself measures 12” across, 12” long, and 3” deep. That’s slightly bigger than a PlayStation 4 and about the same size as the Xbox One.
The Xbox of input options
The SBX does a good job of scraping together the ports it needs but doesn’t go above and beyond. Video output is handled by the R7 250 and includes the typical VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs. These sit atop two USB 3.0 ports and an Ethernet jack in case the Wi-Fi in your house (or the machine itself, as we later discovered) is not reliable enough for intense multiplayer gaming.
Two more USB ports are located on the right side of the SBX for easy access, and although you’ll find the standard red/green/pink outlets are present for any of your usual audio needs we preferred the fiber optic connection, which provided a rich blend of texture in 5.1 surround sound through our audio receiver.
However, things became worse when we attempted to take the computer online for a little multiplayer mayhem. Despite three different driver rollbacks, updates, and reinstallations, the included Wi-Fi card could never hold its connection for more than five minutes without a tidal wave of lag pouring in, which at best would cost us a lost life or two, and at worst (and much more frequently) cause us to get booted from the game altogether. This, like the noise we encountered during setup, is likely not a widespread issue, but it’s disconcerting to see such problems arise.
Why customize when you can conform?
To sum up what I felt while opening up the SBX I’m going to fall back on an analogy of the car I got when I turned 18, an Audi A4. Sleek on the outside and respectably powerful to boot, the A4 was sold as something both enthusiasts and the average consumer would be able to enjoy with equal abandon. Audi was so confident in the car it encased the entire engine in a solid piece of plastic, a physical barrier to entry do-it-yourself mechanics found difficult to crack.
This is not a computer you can easily customize.
Upon removing the shell from the SBX we were greeted with a similar cover, one that takes an additional three screws to remove. Once that’s off it becomes apparent that the hardware fits to exact specifications. The video card is just the right dimensions for its mount, the hard drive is perched on the only shelf available for something its size, and the motherboard is wedged into a spot that’s difficult to access with even the skinniest or nimblest of index fingers.
This is not a computer you can customize, and even if you did, most of the extras you buy wouldn’t fit without some very careful measuring and finagling beforehand. Want to upgrade your PC in the future? Buy something else.
Six years too late
The SBX comes in five different flavors that cater to every part of the market, from the barebones $399 version with no OS installed up to the $699 SBX Plus stocked with eight gigabytes of RAM, a Xbox 360 wireless controller, Windows 8.1, and a terabyte of available hard drive space.
We tested a unit one step down from the top-of-the-line model with an AMD Athlon X4 840 quad-core processor, four gigabytes of RAM, a Radeon R7 250X with one gigabyte of GDDR5 memory, and 500GB of storage. This model will set you back about $550.
The system’s Geekbench results weren’t great, ranking so low we couldn’t even prop the SBX up against bottom-end gaming rigs without feeling sorry for it.
The computer barely eked out a spot next to the HP Envy Beats All-In-One, which should tell you all you need to know about how important the relationship between hardware and software is whenever a computer is built for one purpose and ends up serving another. Alienware’s Alpha, meanwhile, does better in the single-core test but worse in the multi-core bench. This is because the Alpha has an Intel dual-core instead of the AMD quad found in the SBX.
The hard drive is a standard mechanical unit built for capacity more than speed. It scored 91.44 megabytes per second in sequential reads and 90.84 in writes. Both figures are mediocre for a hard disk and certainly far behind solid state drives, which often hit several hundred Mbps each way.
Alienware’s Alpha is the only machine we’ve tested recently with a similar purpose and hardware. It was released last month and is designed to fill essentially the same role as the SBX. The Geekbench test showed no clear victory between it and the SBX, but what about graphics?
Cloud Gate/Fire Strike score – Higher is better
As you can see, the SBX doesn’t hold up well. That’s a bit surprising because the Alienware uses a mobile GPU while the iBuyPower has a full-blown desktop card, but its Radeon R7 250X is very inexpensive. It can’t keep up with the 860M in the Alpha. ASUS’ latest gaming laptop destroys them both though, to be fair, it’s four times more expensive.
We put the SBX through or usual test suite of Diablo 3, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Battlefield 4 and Shadows of Mordor. All games were tested at 1080p resolution.
Diablo ran much like we expected, ranking the smoothest game in all of our tests. Blizzard’s title cruised along at a maximum of 64 frames per second on high settings, 78 at low, with posted averages of 60 and 66, respectively.
Civilization: Beyond Earth
Things continued to stay perky in Civilization: Beyond Earth, which posted a playable average of 27 FPS at medium detail. That may not sound great, but any fan of the series knows it’s a turn-based game that doesn’t demand extreme framerates.
Things slowed to a crawl once we bumped graphics up to ultra, though, slowing the average to a paltry 14 FPS. That misstep aside, the results from Beyond Earth were reasonable, exceeding our expectations (the game can be a resource hog) to provide a decent experience at the medium detail preset.
While Battlefield 4 averaged around 57 FPS at medium detail, performance crashed when everything was cranked up to ultra, topping out at just 32 FPS during our test scenes taken from the crest of a hill overlooking a field.
Granted, these figures fall in line with the kind of performance you’d expect from a mid-range PC like the SBX, and are generally respectable considering the video card inside sells for only $99 on its own.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Shadow of Mordor is where we saw the SBX fall down hard. The SBX struggled through with noticeable hitches and hesitations during normal gameplay.
At medium detail we saw a playable average of 37 FPS. On ultra, though, everything went out the window, figuratively and literally. The game crashed to desktop the first two times we tried to run it, and barely made it alive through the third with a max of 28 FPS, a minimum of one (yes, one) and an average of just 15.
Overall, the SBX was able to achieve moderate performance in titles like Shadow of Mordor after kicking detail down to medium. Unfortunately, both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One are able to handle the same games in glorious 1080p (or close to it, in the Xbox’s case) while maintaining a more consistent experience.
Big Picture for the big screen
Our test system came preloaded with a standard version of Windows 8.1, and though the company says the SBX should boot straight into “Big Picture” mode on Steam, we had to manually install the software from the web before we could get our tests up and running smoothly.
Ultimately this isn’t a console, but instead a family entertainment device.
Of course, this all depends on your definition of the word “smooth.” Big Picture is an adequate interface for jumping into games but it’s still not perfect. The main issue is its failure to negate the need for a keyboard and mouse. Dialog boxes and error messages often won’t respond to controller input, and that means you’re going to need a mouse beside your couch.
Big Picture can launch some streaming applications through its in-house web browser, but not major media brands such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. Each of these required us to exit out of Steam’s interface, and use a standard keyboard and mouse in order to gain access to their respective video libraries.
This culmination of minor slips makes the experience iBuyPower is trying to achieve seem more like a pipe dream than a feasible reality. None of this is really its fault, but that doesn’t make the SBX easier to use. It’s a shame, really; who knows what the machine could have become had Steam OS been running at the helm in Windows’ stead?
Small noise in a tiny package
The SBX doesn’t kick up too much of a storm at idle, registering a quiet 36.8dB on average with no applications running. That’s on par with many laptops and several decibels left than an average gaming desktop.
During our 7-Zip compression test we saw a major increase in noise, jumping from 36.8dB up to about 45dB. This too drops it in line with its console counterparts. Most tower desktops make more noise though a few, like the AVADirect Z97 Quiet Gaming and the Falcon Mach V, are quieter.
Our wattmeter detected 45 watts of draw at idle and no more than 145 watts at load. Both figures are roughly half the AVADirect Z97 Quiet Gaming, the least powerful tower desktop we’ve recently tested. The SBX’s power draw is actually more in line with gaming notebooks like the Alienware 17, which drew 156 watts at full load.
The SBX’s limited warranty offers a one-year parts guarantee to cover the cost of any defective components inside the desktop along with a three-year labor clause that supplements any required repairs that might pop up as a result of normal use.
iBuyPower also offers a four-year/two-year extension for $199 extra, and a five year/three year option for $399.
The iBuyPower’s SBX is a capable computer that falls short of the goal it set out for itself because it’s missing the operating system it was originally designed to run.
It’s a machine that will make sense to any PC gamer who has already spent most of his or her life playing games on one version of Windows or another. The average console aficionado, however, will feel that iBuyPower tried something bold – and couldn’t quite pull it off.
There are other companies that sell similar solutions already (the Alienware Alpha comes to mind), most of which have fewer issues utilizing Windows 8 as the portal through which users can watch their favorite movies, binge on the latest TV shows, and blast away as many baddies as possible. The SBX doesn’t have a price advantage, either. Its $400 headline price is only applicable without an operating system, which is not useful for most buyers. Adding Windows 8.1 raises the MSRP to $550, the same as the Alpha.
Without the support of Steam OS this rig falls short of the “plug and pwn” experience its inventors were shooting for and doesn’t prove a viable contender to cheaper, more reliable game consoles. The SBX may be attractive to PC gamers on a very tight budget, but it’s not the living room wonder we hoped it might be.
- Beautiful design, LED strip mesmerizes
- Good warranty
- Could still shine with release of SteamOS
- Gaming at 1080p chugs
- Internal Wi-Fi dropped connection every five minutes
- Still requires a mouse and keyboard for most tasks