CES 2014 will be the coming-out party for Steam Machines, a lineup of gaming consoles built around Valve’s SteamOS. Unlike Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One, Valve is opening up hardware development to a number of partners building and selling their own Steam Machines. The common thread will be the SteamOS, which is designed specifically to run Valve’s cloud-based DRM gaming software. Early models are priced in the $499 range to put it on par with the Xbox One, but there is nothing to stop PC manufacturers from creating tiers of Steam Machines with increasing capabilities and price tags to match.
The benefits to the Steam Machine over its competition are its direct access to the massive Steam gaming library and the ability to customize and upgrade the console to meet the needs of increasingly demanding games. But if you really want to understand Steam Machines, forget about the hardware and forget about the software.
Hardware is irrelevant because anyone will be able to build a Steam Machine with their own parts. In fact, once it’s released, go ahead and download and install SteamOS on your home PC. Voila, you have a Steam Machine.
Software is irrelevant because you are welcome to hack your Steam Machine, remove SteamOS, and install Windows 8.1. Voila, you have a PC.
What Valve is trying to do is to disrupt the console ecosystem by declaring the walls between PC and console to be artificial and outdated. They want PCs connected to the television by any means possible because that means that the Steam platform becomes a viable alternative to Sony or Microsoft.
Don’t let this dissuade you from investigating the Valve hardware more closely though, as its initial round of design is quite interesting – particularly the controller. The Steam Controller is a fusion of PC and console design, with dual trackpads, a clickable digital screen and uniquely placed buttons. The reviews are just coming in, so the best way to make up your mind is to swing by the booth and pick one up. And, in keeping with the theme, the controller itself is completely open, and Valve is encouraging hackers to customize their own.