Still don’t understand Valve’s Steam Machines? Don’t worry, neither does Valve

Steam Machines

I don’t know about these Steam Machines. And after attending Valve’s CES 2014 press event, I’m not entirely sure the Steam gatekeeper does either. Moreover, I think that’s the whole point right now. We’re all asking the same question: What exactly is a Steam Machine? I think Valve is too. 

Let’s look at what we know: There are two defining features for every Steam Machine, two elements that elevate it beyond a mere gaming PC: SteamOS and the Steam Controller. Take those away, and you’ve just got a computer capable of playing video games. Even the Steam branding that adorns many of the third-party boxes we’ve seen so far appears to be entirely optional. 

We’re all asking the same question: What exactly is a Steam Machine? I think Valve is too.

Here’s the thing: Even these essential puzzle pieces aren’t finalized at this time. The Steam Controller is a bit of a mess right now. Sure, there’s a lot of possibility inherent to this entirely new control interface – and a steep learning curve to go with all those new buttons – but the hardware is still in its earliest stages of development. Some of the ones I tried at the event weren’t mapped right for the game in question, and some appeared to simply not be 100-percent functional. 

SteamOS is in slightly better shape. Slightly. The core framework that resembles Steam’s long-since-released Big Picture mode is there, but it immediately feels only halfway baked when you use it. SteamOS – which was released as a free download in December 2013 – is still in beta, with Valve recommending that only the Linux-proficient make use of it for now. It’s got a ways to go. 

Even the boxes themselves aren’t fully realized yet. The third-party Steam Machines on display at Valve’s CES event were largely just empty shells. Alienware’s sleek, compact box was nothing more than a housing for colored lights. Digital Storm’s Bolt II is supposed to be out later this month, but the core components that make it a Steam Machine – the controller and the operating system – are still in development. The boxes that do work are gaming PCs with the potential to be Steam Machines; be very clear on that before you consider purchasing one that may be coming in the near future.

I look at all of this, and I can’t help but think it’s part of a longer-term plan that people aren’t seeing right now. Valve is angling to establish a presence in the living room by proxy through third-party manufacturers, and perhaps with its own, internally developed hardware further down the road. But the Steam Machine as we currently understand it doesn’t really seem to be successfully targeting any specific audience. 

The majority of hardcore PC gamers aren’t going to rush to embrace SteamOS, or even try it in a dual-boot environment, when roughly 90 percent of what’s available for Steam via Windows isn’t yet supported by SteamOS. That’s hundreds of titles. How many can realistically be ported over to Linux by the end of 2014?

Steam newbies and entrenched console gamers are also left out. The diminished library compared to Windows and even Mac is a concern for those people too. There’s nothing to sell a newcomer on PC gaming, especially not now with stuff like Sony’s game-streaming PlayStation Now on the horizon. You don’t even need a console for that.

The boxes that do work are gaming PCs with the potential to be Steam Machines.

That leaves the Steam diehards. The tech-savvy fanfolk that don’t mind messing with incomplete tech if it means they can be among the trailblazing first adopters. They’re the beta testers. Even if they’re not among Valve’s lucky 300 first-party Steam Machine users, they’re the people that will help shape whatever form the finished product will take.

The question remains though: What is the desired goal here? What is Valve’s long game? Will these third-party partnerships help the company to crystallize its own nascent development of first-party Steam Machine hardware? Or can we chalk this entire initiative up to the outspoken Gabe Newell’s resistance to Windows’ closed garden by pushing Steam and its 65 million users towards Linux? 

The ultimate answer may lie at the $500 price point, in the hardware that competes directly with the dominant consoles in dollar value. It’s hard to envision $500 worth of gaming PC directly challenging the capabilities of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One in January 2014, but what about January 2015? Consoles are always restricted by the limits of their unchanging hardware over the course of a generation. PCs aren’t.


A competitive landscape for Steam Machines will drive the price of the hardware down to some extent, but Valve’s staunchest ally is simply the passage of time. The PS4 and Xbox One are fitted with cutting-edge tech right now as they stack up against currently available PC hardware. By 2015, that sense of parity will shift to give PCs the advantage. By 2016, it will have shifted even further. It’s the nature of a console generation. 

Yes, Steam Controllers and SteamOS need plenty of work before they’re ready, but that $500 price point is going to get you a whole lot more gaming power by the time they are. It’ll be enough by 2015 certainly to exceed the capabilities of our freshly released consoles. 

Make no mistake, the pretty boxes on display at CES are meant to distract you. We may well have gotten our first glimpse at the lineup of Valve-approved Steam Machines, but it’s important to remember that Steam’s sleek living room future isn’t as close at hand as it seems.


These are the best video games you shouldn't leave 2018 without

Developers showed up with a number of amazing games this year. Each capitalized on something unique but there's always one that outdoes them all. Here are our picks for the best video games of 2018 and game of the year.

New ‘Battlefield V’ patch gives Nvidia’s ray tracing support a chance to shine

‘Battlefield V’ is the first game to use Nvidia’s ray tracing support, now available with the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti graphics cards. The feature can, in an ideal scenario, make the game look better, but the performance hit may not be…
Home Theater

Looking to cut cable? Here’s everything you need to know about Pluto TV

Pluto TV offers plenty of entertainment in a fashion similar to live internet TV services, only at no cost — you don’t even need to register. Too good to be true? Here’s everything you need to know.

An inside look at Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx, a revolutionary laptop processor

Six years after Microsoft’s failed foray into ARM computing with Windows RT, its second effort with Always-Connected PC is now showing early signs of success. Microsoft partner Qualcomm told us how the Snapdragon 8cx might revolutionize…

Still trying to unlock your main in 'Super Smash Bros. Ultimate'? Try these tips

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is Nintendo’s biggest entry in the series to date with over 70 characters to unlock, but the process can feel tiresome. Here are our tips to unlock your roster as quickly as possible.

How to make a clan in ‘Destiny 2’ and where to go from there

Want to know how to make a clan in 'Destiny 2'? Here's everything you need to know, including how to design your clan's banner, earn extra loot, and help other players with guided games.

Ditch the meditation app. 'Katamari Damacy Reroll' is pure gaming zen

Katamari Damacy Reroll brings the magic of the PS2 classic to Nintendo Switch and PC. With updated visuals and the same great, singular loop, Reroll stands the test of time. Katamari Damacy is the ultimate relaxation game.

Put down the controller and pick up the best phones for gaming on the go

Which phones are the best if all you want to do is play some mobile games? We've done the hard work and put together a list of the best gaming phones on Android and iOS, so you can keep playing and winning.

Need help getting the Sleeper Simulant in 'Destiny 2'? We’ve got you covered

The Sleeper Simulant is one of the coolest new Exotic weapons you can unlock in the Warmind expansion of Destiny 2, but it's an involved process that will take awhile. Here's everything you need to know.

Xbox One S vs. PlayStation 4 Slim: Which console is worth your money?

Microsoft's new Xbox One S and Sony's PlayStation 4 "Slim" have bucked the generational gaming console trend. But which of these stopgap systems is worth spending your paycheck on?

Check out the best Xbox One deals and bundles for December 2018

Microsoft's consoles are just as capable of streaming movies as they are of playing the latest games. Check out our top Xbox One deals and bundles, which include new and upcoming triple-A games like Battlefield V and Fallout 76.

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…

The NES Classic is back in stock just in time for the holidays

The NES Classic is back in stock at multiple outlets at its original launch price of $60 in time for Christmas. Retailers offering it online are Walmart, GameStop, Target, and Best Buy -- if you're looking for the perfect holiday gift for…

Some ‘Fortnite’ players aren’t too happy with the new Infinity Blade weapon

The most recent update for Fortnite added the Infinity Blade melee weapon to battle royale, and some players aren't happy with how much it has changed the game during competitions.