Steam Machines
Type Console Hybrid Developer Valve Corporation
Release Date Jan, 2014 (Beta) Region(s) Worldwide
Initial Price $499 to $1,499 Games Released Many (Linux / Steam / Windows / OS X)
     by Marriott_Guy
In 2012, Valve Corporation formally announced that it would develop hardware to augment its wildly popular Steam digital gaming services platform.  This new computing device, codenamed 'Bigfoot', would provide existing Steam users the option to experience the openness of the PC platform in the comforts of one's living room.  Valve has decided to take the same approach as the 3DO Company back in 1993 - develop the base hardware specifications and partner with other manufacturers to produce systems to power the experience.  This series of hybrid consoles are collectively known as the Steam Machines.

The driving force behind the Steam Machine is the SteamOS, an open source Linux based operating system developed by Valve.  The primary focus of this software is to play video games, though other functions are available including web browsing, multimedia playback and video streaming (i.e. Netflix).  A desktop mode will also be available for running standard Linux applications.  Systems must meet the following minimum hardware requirements to run SteamOS:
• Intel or AMD 64-bit capable processor
• 4GB or more memory
• 500 GB or larger disk
• NVIDIA, Intel, or AMD graphics card
• USB port or DVD drive for installation
• UEFI boot support
The concept of bringing the freedom of the PC gaming experience to the Big Screen has been attempted in the past.  Many computers in the late 1970s and 1980s supported video output to a standard television, including the infamous Commodore 64, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A amongst many others.  These early ventures succeeded in delivering the audio/video experience to the television, but did not address simple plug n' play aspect of the video game console.  Tweaks to hardware settings and the like were still required, functions that could be problematic for the average living room gamer.

Other companies have attempted a like venture.  Apple gave it a go in 1995 with their multimedia appliance the Pippin, manufactured and released by Bandai and Katz Media.  DISCover technology was embedded in hybrid systems produced by Alienware in 2004, allowing true Drop 'n Play.  Though definitely advancements were achieved by alleviating the need to perform any adjustments to the system, a core problem still remained - how to incorporate the functionality of full size keyboard and mouse into a game controller.   Valve's proposed solution is the Steam Controller.

Original Design

Latest Version

Various Steam Controller Prototypes
Valve originally planned to release the final specifications, including the Steam Controller, for third party development and subsequent launch in 2014.  As of this writing, Valve has postponed full retail release until 2015 to allow time to further refine the Steam Controller and SteamOS.
     by Dark Watcher
As a console historian, we are always fascinated with how the market changes.  In previous generations when consoles were at the height of success, computer manufacturers would put their computers into console shells.  When the pendulum of success swung the other way, console makers gave their devices computer-like functionality.  The eighth generation of gaming consoles pretty much blurred the lines with both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One using the same x86 programming architecture and features found in PCs.  Not immediately impressed with either next-gen console at the time, we figured it may be time to venture into PC gaming.  We solidified the decision when we found an Alienware Alpha "Steam Machine" for at-or-around the same price as the going rate of both current next-gen consoles.
Now before we take the opportunity to provide our review, we feel we should put out some info and caveats in order for you to tweak perceptions accordingly.  Our review is based on an older Alpha model ASM100-1580.  This model has the 2.9 GHz Intel Core i3 processor, and we upgraded the hard drive to a 1GB SSHD with a bump in RAM to 8GB (up to 16GB possible) DDR3.  We did the upgrades on our own (which is VERY easy to do), but Dell also does this and have more powerful models (for a price).  We also tinkered with the idea of keeping it as a legitimate SteamOS running "Steam Machine", but eventually chose to keep it WINDOWS 10 running "Alpha" (We'll cover the why later in the review).  With the "techy" mumbo jumbo out of the way, we are going to review the Alpha as a gaming console following the established guidelines in our What Makes it a Console? article.  Let's get to it.
The Alpha comes in a sleek and compact form factor somewhere between the size of the Sega Dreamcast and the Nintendo Wii. It runs quiet and is easy to take on the road. It features LED lights at the front that can be customized into different colors using the Alpha UI settings.  There are two USB 2.0 ports in the front for controllers, mice, or keyboards.  In the back, you have HDMI ports for pass-thru (similar to the Xbox One), two USB 3.0 ports for expansion and added storage, optical audio out (Toslink) and GB Ethernet.  Of course, the Alpha also has wireless and Bluetooth 4.0 (our old model has 802.11bgn, but newer models have 802.11ac).
The Alpha is capable of producing impressive 1080p resolution graphics with good frame rates.  8th gen games such as Far Cry 4, Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 look better and run smoother then optimized versions on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.  The Alpha uses a custom NVidia Maxwell GPU that is somewhere near a GeForce GTX 860M and GTX 750 Ti, and could potentially outperform or at a minimum keep pace with current console releases (but fall short of serious computer gaming graphics performance).  The Alpha can also pass multi-channel audio via optical or HDMI, and of course pass higher-resolution audio through HDMI.  Under the Alpha and behind a trap door is a hidden USB 2.0 port.  This recessed port could be used for any small USB dongle, but the main purpose is for the Steam Controller.

Alienware did not want to delay their launch since the Steam Controller was not initially ready for prime time.  So our model came with an Xbox 360 controller and USB receiver (may not come with newer models).  Most games on Steam work natively with the XB360 controller and technically the Alpha can use any USB controller.  We did eventually purchase the Steam Controller and we have to say this sucker is a beast all unto itself. 
The Steam Controller is a wild technical experiment meant to bridge the gap between standard console controllers and KEYB / Mouse PC gamers.  Imagine the standard 7th / 8th generation 16-button controller with your bumper shoulder buttons, dual-stage triggers, analog pressure, etc.  Now invert the ergonomic design, add two high resolution trackpads with haptic feedback, two paddle buttons in the back and a high accuracy and low latency gyroscope for motion control.  Now make everything customizable, to include virtual buttons on the trackpads and you have one foreign beast as pictured above.  Like many of the early adopters, we were at a loss as to how utilize the controller.  We imagine it was akin to handing a modern Dual-Shock controller to someone of the Atari 2600 generation.  However, thanks to user-generated per game controller configurations, we are slowly beginning to enjoy the Steam Controller.  Once you are in Steam Big Picture, the controller receives firmware updates, custom start-up sounds and downloadable configurations based on the game being played.  You can tweak your own controls or adopt top rated configurations.  The controller can last 80 hours on two AA batteries.  The downside is that these controller configurations only work on games or programs launched from Steam (although users have found some work arounds).
Regarding software, the console boots straight into Steam Big Picture mode, which is a clean interface where all purchased Steam games are available.  However, we kept it Alpha.  In 'Console Mode', the Alpha boots right into the Hivemind user interface (displayed above) similar to Playstation's XMB™ (XrossMediaBar).  Alienware built their Alpha UI Hivemind using the Open Source Kodi (XBMC) code, which retains many customizations (and compatibility with all Kodi add-ons) and makes navigating menus very user friendly.  From the UI, you can select music, pictures, settings, videos, programs and of course games. You can simply navigate to your game of choice using your controller and the games boots right up similar to a game downloaded onto your Xbox or Playstation.  You can also still boot into Steam Big Picture mode straight from the Alpha UI.  Between the interface, the Steam launcher, an add-on for NVidia's GeForce Experience and other apps that run silent in the background, the Alpha does a good job of keeping a console-like venture.  You just connect to your television via HDMI and you're on to playing games.

Our initial draw to the idea of a 'Steam Machine' was the ability to play modern games without having to choose between a particular console platform.  Ole DW also has a great fondness for Indie games.  SteamOS would give us access to over 1500+ games and the ability to stream other games.  However with the Alpha UI WIN10 config, we have full access to the over 6500+ game Steam Library (damn Steam sales…but much love from DW to Humble Bundle and the charities they support!).  Alpha Hivemind also allowed us to add games from other sources and has program launchers for EA’s Origin, GOG and more. This alone gives the Alpha tremendous gamer value, but the media center capabilities also make it an impressive home theater PC (HTPC).  See below for the updated Hivemind interface.
The Alienware Alpha has quickly become one of our favorite consoles…er…computer…er...HTPC.  It successfully allowed us to bridge the worlds between console and PC gaming.  It may not please hardcore console / PC enthusiasts, but it pleases us as a gamer.  As a console historian, we feel it is the best example of a true game console-like experience.  Kudos to both Alienware and Valve…
     Officially licensed releases
Valve Steam Box Prototype (300 Released to existing Stream users for Beta Testing)

Third Party Steam Machines with Specs and Pricing as released by Valve at CES 2014
     Non-licensed hardware releases
This system will be an open-source machine, with many third party developers.

     by Dark Watcher
Consoles are rated based upon the available technology at the time of its release.  A 10 point scale is utilized, with 10 being excellent.

Above images courtesy of CNET

Above images courtesy of Toms Hardware
Console Design 09 Sleek and compact form factor with colorful and configurable LED lighting.  Numerous ports for expansion.
Console Durability 08 Smooth durable exterior that is easy to keep clean.  The console also runs quiet.
Controllers 09 Can use any corded console and some Bluetooth compliant controller.  The Steam Controller is a unique technical marvel.
Graphics 08 Alpha is capable of full 1080p resolution.  Graphics and frame rate quality match or outperform 8th generation systems like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Audio 07 Alpha is capable of multi-channel audio via optical or HDMI with higher-resolution audio through HDMI.  No 3.5mm analog though.
Media N/A Only uses downloadable media.
Game Library 10 Enormous game libraries from Steam, Origin, GOG, etc.
Gamer Value 08 Good value at $350 but ranging up to $699.99.  Value increased for modders, those who want a small PC and media center enthusiasts, with growing game library, but no console platform exclusives
Collector Value N/A Difficult to discern at this point, especially with other similar devices springing up within the market.

     For the hardware enthusiasts out there - all the detail you\we love.
Unlike traditional gaming systems, Steam Machines will come in a variety of configurations.  The only requirement will be meeting minimum specifications to support the SteamOS operating system.  The machines are designed to be upgradable, allowing the individual the opportunity to customize their unit as they see fit.

The following are the base specifications for the prototype Steam Box released to 300 lucky Beta Testers.  Valve purposely varied the configuration to gain user insight for both high-end units in addition those with less than start-of-the-art hardware.  The data below has been confirmed via the teardown performed by iFixit.
Processor Type  Processor Speed  Other Processor Information RAM \ Video RAM
Intel Core i7-4770
Intel Core i5-4570
Intel Core i3 (i3-4130?)
3.9 GHz
3.6 GHz
3.4 GHz
GeForce GTX Titan
GeForce GTX 780
GeForce GTX 760
GeForce GTX 660
16 GB DDR3-1600 (Main)
3 GB GDDR5 (Graphics)
Screen Resolution Color Palette Polygons \ Sprites Audio
720p, 1080p, 2160P (4K UHDTV) 32-bit Unknown Unknown
Media Format Media Capacity Games Released Other Supported Formats
Digital (optical drive is not included with the prototype system) Varied 3,000+ (Steam)
PC / Linux/  OS X compatible
Many (Linux-based machine), Windows and OS X (via streaming)
Internal Storage External \ Removable Storage Game Controllers Other Game \ Peripheral Devices
1 TB HDD / 8 GB SSHD Cloud based storage Hybrid controller with Dual Trackpads, Center Touch Screen, 4 Primary Action buttons, 3 System Buttons, 4 Shoulder Triggers Mouse, keyboard, etc.
Controller Ports Network Ports Other Ports Audio \ Video
Two (2) USB 3.0 ports (wired)
RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet
Port for External Wi-Fi Antenna
PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, Two USB 2.0 and four USB 3.0 ports, eSATA port, Mic port HDMI, Dual-link DVI, DisplayPort, S-PDIF (digital optical audio out)
Power Supply - Internal Other Outputs  Other Details \ Notes
SilverStone SST-ST45SF-G 450W SFX12V SLI Ready CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS GOLD 450W 80 Plus Gold 3.5 MM Audio I/O, C/Sub,
Rear Speaker Jack
NXP LPC11U24F 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller, SteamOS
Alienware Alpha Service Manual (PDF) - 8.69 MB
Alienware Alpha Quick Start Guide (PDF) - 0.23 MB
     Peripherals, Promotions, Commercials, Brochures, Etc.
Steam Machine Presentation Videos by Valve and Development Partners
     Visitor insights and feedback
Please be respectful and abide by our Terms of Use & Policies prior to posting.  Basically be nice, keep it clean and don't spam or be a troll.  Thanks!

comments powered by Disqus