Review

Steam Machine Review

One of our Neowin members was lucky enough to be chosen for the Steam Machine beta test, and we are also lucky in that we have been given permission to post the review in full from his personal website, which you can check out here.

Without further ado, here in full BoneyardBrew's impression of the Steam Machine. 

Over 400,000 Steam users were eligible for selection in the Steam Machine beta test. Only 300 were chosen. I never would’ve guessed I’d be one of them as the odds were certainly not in my favor. Being one of the lucky few makes it my self-proclaimed duty to share my impressions not only with Valve, but the public as well. Let’s get started, shall we?

UNBOXING

EXTERIOR

Who could’ve asked for better delivery? Each prototype Steam Machine arrived in a specially made wooden crate adorned with various Valve and Steam-related logos and markings. The top tells you exactly what to expect when you open it if you weren’t already familiar: a Steam Machine and Steam Controller. Scan the rest of the crate and you’ll spot a cute companion cube suggesting you handle this delicate package with care. I’d listen if I were you…

INTERIOR

Rather than force you to crack this crate open with a crowbar, Valve decided on a more friendly approach. Simply snip the restraints and twist and lift the latch. Inside you’ll find your Steam Machine snuggly encapsulated by styrofoam. Carefully remove it and you’ll find the controller, manuals, and cables just the same.

WHAT'S INSIDE

Here's what's included.

  • Steam Machine
  • Steam Controller
  • Quick Start Booklet
  • Important Information Booklet
  • Lengthy Micro USB Cable (For Controller)
  • HDMI Cable
  • Power Cable
  • Steam OS Recovery Drive
  • Styrofoam

QUICK START BOOKLET

As a graphic designer I can't neglect to comment on how beautiful this guide is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself. I even designed the site around it.

THE MACHINE

DESIGN

Surprisingly premium. I can’t help but compare the build quality to that of an Apple product. Looking at it isn’t enough, you just have to touch it. Running your hand across the smooth metal while admiring its visual beauty is a delight to the senses. Power up the machine and the button emits a soft, white glow. Stunning!

HARDWARE

What’s inside? I thought you’d never ask…

  • ASRock Z87E-ITX Motherboard
  • Intel® Core i5-4570 Processor
  • ZOTAC GeForce GTX 780 3GB
  • 16GB DDR3-1600 RAM
  • 1TB-8GB SSHD
  • Silverstone ST45SF-G 450W Power Supply

This particular machine is oozing with power. The motherboard has plenty of ports and is also Bluetooth and wi-fi capable, which is a nice treat.

STEAM OS

Steam OS promises to provide a comfortable living room experience in addition to also overcoming graphical and performance-related hurdles associated with other operating systems. To put it in fewer words, Steam OS is meant to be a lean gaming and media consumption OS. Sounds good, right? I think so, at least.

If you’re familiar with Steam’s Big Picture mode you’ll feel right at home with Steam OS. As of today the two are very much the same. As in currently stands, Steam OS only accepts HDMI as an audio output so I was unable to test any games on the platform. This is already on their to-do list so I expect they’ll fix it in a timely manner.

THE CONTROLLER

THE PAST

Having been a PC gamer for the majority of my life I can say with confidence that controllers aren’t my area of expertise. Do I prefer them for fighters and driving? Absolutely. Although it’s of my opinion that there are not many fighters or driving games worth playing on PC these days, but that’s a topic for another time.

ERGONOMICS

As a Playstation owner last generation I still found myself leaning towards Microsoft’s offering as my controller of choice. It fits my hands well and appears to be made of higher-quality materials than the competition. The Steam Controller seems to take more cues from the Xbox controller than it does the Playstation ergonomically, but is its own beast entirely. First and foremost, it’s quite larger than both. I don’t have big hands by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still manages to feel comfortable to me. All pads and buttons are easily accessible and exactly where my thumbs naturally lay, which is a must for a device that you could have in your hands for up to several hours per session.

CONTROLS

Valve has attempted to make a splash in the market by merging a traditional controller with the precision of a mouse, all while sprinkling in a few extras for good measure. You’ll find no analog sticks on this product, and quite frankly I won’t miss them. By default, the left input pad replicates your standard directional pad. You can choose to glide your thumb across it or press it to solicit a response specific to the game you’re playing. The right input pad is mapped 1:1 with your thumb movement and is similar to the functionality of a mouse. In my short time with it I can say that it seems to be both accurate and functional. Rather than finding four buttons on the right-hand side, you’ll see they’ve been split down the middle with Y and X appearing near the left input pad, and B and A near the right. The prototype controller has a centered grid of four buttons in lieu of the touch screen that will be seen on the retail model. Three buttons, two of similar width, are found directly south of the aforementioned grid. This controller has triggers and bumpers that match that of most controllers, as well as two longer triggers on the back.

PLAYING PORTAL

I found myself having quickly adapted to the controller’s unique play-style and capable of completing chambers with ease in a relatively short period of time. Perhaps coming from a mouse eased the transition as I was able to dive into it without any attachment to traditional analog sticks. I completed the campaign in its entirety with the controller and didn’t fall back to my preferred method of input even once. If I were to criticize one thing it would be the somewhat odd bindings, although that’s not a flaw of the controller, is it?

WRAP UP

Steam Machines can be seen as a peace offering to the divided PC and console gaming communities. Valve’s efforts have resulted in a product that combines the ease-of-use you expect from consoles, with the power and flexibility of a custom-built system. That’s the best of both worlds, I’d say. Avid PC gamers may give this a pass, but if you’re new to the scene a Steam Machine is surely something to consider.

...WAIT THERE'S MORE

To view the unboxing photos and a gameplay video, go here.

We would like to thank BoneyardBrew for permission to post the review here at Neowin in full if you have any questions, head to the forum thread.

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51 Comments

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Where's the mouse? Ohhh ... It's another console I see. No thanks ... (Actually, why would Steam NOT put a USB connection to hook up a mouse?)

Nice review. People asking "why not just install Windows on it" and "its too expensive" need to understand: A) This is a beta/development/prototype unit where its not really the hardware that's on test but the software and services - it would be like overreacting that a Xbox dev unit is "overpriced", B) SteamOS and Steam Machines are Valve's longterm play, they don't have delusions of overnight success against entrenched Sony&MS in the living room space.

Make no mistake, what you're seeing here is the early beginnings of the Android-ification of the living room entertainment box. When Steam first launched there was a lot of backlash and a lot of naysaying "What's the point, blah blah blah" - Valve had a vision. And now they've got one again, and within the next few years the point will become abundantly clear.

ardenx said,
Nice review. People asking "why not just install Windows on it" and "its too expensive" need to understand: A) This is a beta/development/prototype unit where its not really the hardware that's on test but the software and services - it would be like overreacting that a Xbox dev unit is "overpriced", B) SteamOS and Steam Machines are Valve's longterm play, they don't have delusions of overnight success against entrenched Sony&MS in the living room space.

Make no mistake, what you're seeing here is the early beginnings of the Android-ification of the living room entertainment box. When Steam first launched there was a lot of backlash and a lot of naysaying "What's the point, blah blah blah" - Valve had a vision. And now they've got one again, and within the next few years the point will become abundantly clear.

This thing isn't going to androidify any living rooms not running Linux and not without selling at 300-400 max, making it useless. And as it is, virtually no devs are on board.

"THE CONTROLLER" has no written review but only show the controller itself lol. "CONTROLS" should have been the explanation for "The Controller" section. "UNBOXING" and "THE MACHINE" also shows only image of the system but no written review to the topics.

I'm not sure I follow. The formatting is a bit different than on my site, but it should still be clear. The controller is the parent topic. I go into my past with other controllers, the ergonomics of the Steam Controller, how Valve designed it/the layout, and my impressions of it while playing a game.

The other two topics were done the same way. Unboxing has impressions of the exterior/package, the way Valve packed it, and the contents.

The Machine has my opinion on the case and the hardware inside. Not much to go over as it's essentially a PC in a custom case.

I recommend taking a peek at the site to make it a bit easier to follow. I also have unboxing pictures there. http://metroforsteam.com/steammachine/

Nice interface, and good hardware - although I wish NVidia would catch up on GPU features.

Stepping away from the technical aspects of the OS, the problem I see gamers having is that too many titles don't play directly on the console. This gets more confusing as the 'Steam' interface will show all the 'owned' titles, even if they will never play on SteamOS/Linux.

It will gear users to buy Linux versions of the games as they are available, and developers may start making more available, but that doesn't help the current generation of titles that will never play on Linux/SteamOS at all or even respectably.

This is where I see Valve/Steam getting caught up in the 'anything but Microsoft' mindset that is hurting them from day one. If they were to ship these units with Windows that used SteamOS as the primary launch shell for the OS, they would be able to offer ALL titles to their users.

Which begs the question, why are they intentionally limiting this console when there is no reason to do so. Even if you factor in the cost of Windows at OEM prices, most gamers would pay an $70 to have access to their entire gaming library and not a fragmented selection that sort of runs on SteamOS/Linux.

Gabe and Steam's argument against Windows 8 was the Store, and they would be allowed to completely bypass the ModernUI and Store if they wanted and use the Steam interface for the console. Microsoft has no restrictions against this even at the OEM level.

Going even further, Steam could use the Embedded version of Windows, and not include anything but the SteamOS UI, and pick out what features of Windows they want to allow or expose to their customers. Then gamers would still be able to play 100% of their library, and the embedded price could be even less than generic OEM costs.

If they provide these consoles at a 'good' price, I can see people throwing Windows on them anyway, and running the Windows version of Steam.

The other issue is when a company 'profits' or sells 'services' on a Linux OS. Crossing the 'profit' line is where Microsoft HAS to enforce its patents to keep them legally. This means that there will very likely be a Microsoft licensing fee that Steam will have to pay out for each unit sold anyway. Again, which begs the question, why not just throw on a tightly controlled Embedded version of Windows running their SteamUI that allows ALL games to work?

If you don't like it, don't buy it. You're free to use Steam on Windows, or your windows htpc with big picture mode, they're not stopping you. Valve is flexible like that. Here they're trying a complementary strategy that they can control from top to bottom, a sensible choice I'd say. They could have even gone with BSD like Sony and not have given back to the community at all, but chose a GPL solution which lends them some good faith; even if their project fails, their progress will not be squandered and the community will benefit. Quite good PR all around.

Edited by Geezy, Dec 26 2013, 7:40pm :

Valve did a great job with the packaging and such, but I still can't see the point in Steam OS. Why not have it come with Windows and just have it boot into Big Picture mode. Suddenly you are running ALL steam games and not the limited subset that Linux supports. Instead you are limited to a small % of the library forever unless you have another PC already. Its pointless.

Good review btw, not too wordy, right to the point, I like!

I agree! Well, the nice part is that you always have the option to install Windows on a Steam Machine. They're not playing any games by forcing you to use Steam OS, and Steam OS alone.

Thank you, that's what I was striving for!

Because Steam/Valve aren't the biggest fans of Windows, especially 8/8.1. Gaben said himself that he doesn't like it. They want to move away from it as much as possible. Linux is the perfect choice for them. The relatively small amount of native Linux games is exactly the problem that Valve is trying to fix with their SteamOS.

Plus, using Windows would just add to the price of any system. As some people already mentioned here, pricing is key.

Well it's a conflict of interest, the steam box may compete with the Xbox One, do they want to be beholden to their competitor for such a product? It doesn't make sense.

Too expensive for the console market. Too restrictive for the PC market. Too DRM infested after the ps4 vs xb1 drama. Epic fail

This is just the prototype machine made by Valve themselves. It's meant to be higher-specced to avoid confusion between OS issues and hardware issues (ie Game runs slow, OS is bad!).

Other manufacturers are already working on lower and mid-range configurations that rival consoles in performance and price. They're fully configurable like a normal PC, so you're free to upgrade whatever you'd like. The only real limitation being the motherboard form-factor that each manufacturer goes for.

Lastly, you could always install Windows on it if you'd like!

Mr. Hand said,
DRM and games have gone together since the beginning of home computers. There's nothing different here compared to running on a Windows PC.
This

This sounds like a press release and not a review. No real photos? Do you have to sign some limitation on what you're allowed to say and show?

I'm kind of curious what that this means: "overcoming graphical and performance-related hurdles associated with other operating systems" This seems to be the only justification for Steam OS listed, and I'm not aware of it being a real problem.

Mr. Hand said,
This sounds like a press release and not a review. No real photos? Do you have to sign some limitation on what you're allowed to say and show?


Agreed. While I liked the Specs overview, there is little personal impressions here.
Especially missing are review pictures!

No NDA whatsoever. I haven't had the opportunity to delve into the OS because of the sound issue I mentioned, so I was only able to basically rephrase what is on the official Steam OS website. They mention input latency and performance, but don't go into incredible detail there either.

My unboxing pictures and a gameplay video of Portal 2 are on the media page of the website!

Nice review!
If its true that the machine in the US would cost about 1K, I think alot of people will feel the price will be too much. The only way they could market this would be to sell it as a PC-Console. That may work - long as its easy to install/buy/play Linux based games.
*disclaimer - I know nothing bout Linux today, but I would think there is a lot of coding differences between PC and that OS.

Thanks!

Third-party manufacturers are working on mid-range configurations, so the projected price of this machine shouldn't be too much of a worry.

Sounds like they got the hardware right, which goes a long way in justifying a high price, just ask Apple how successful that can be. I'm more interested in the controller...hope a good clone comes out for windows!

Definitely. There will be plenty of configurations to choose from once they're released officially, though. This is just Valve's prototype model.

The controller works with Windows! That's where I recorded my Portal 2 gameplay on the media page.

Are there any actual games to play other than portal and such type of games?
If there won't be any big shooter or racing game available it will never gain any succes I think >.>

Too positive IMHO (sorry to be the downer on Christmas). The high price will be what kills this and SteamOS thus far has more cons than pros.

And exactly what are the cons (compared to other Linux distributions)? Unless you choose a distribution with XBMC as a front-end, there's little actual competition for that small niche that SteamOS fits in (and XBMC can be added via the Debian repos, which SteamOS is fully-compatible with). In addition to Big Picture, SteamOS includes a full desktop UI (GNOME 3.x, to be precise) - like ModernUI, GNOME 3.x is a solid ten-foot UI/UX without being hostile to pointing devices. I even get the reliance on HDMI - after all, most modern desktop GPUs include full-sized HDMI as a standard feature; further, HDMI carries both video AND audio via a single cord. (Most STBs, and all consoles use HDMI to connect to TVs as a standard feature.) The only real area where SteamOS falls down is using it outside of its niche - however, that is to be expected. Despite that, SteamOS is actually usable as more than just a gaming-focussed Linux distribution.

Sounds awesome. So when does Microsoft start suing over those "235 patents"? lol *popcorn gif*

Really though, this does sound awesome to me! I already use Linux on my htpc and desktop and am excited that Valve is supporting it.

Valve's prototype machine is specced higher than your average Steam Machine will be. Manufacturers are already working on mid-range alternatives, so don't let the $1,200 projected price of this particular device confuse you.

The OS sounds great in theory but has typical beta-related problems as it stands. Mostly growing pains, so they'll be ironed out with time I'm sure.

Nice review. I didn't know they packed a GeForce GTX 780. Any word on pricing? I can't imagine this configuration being cheaper than $1K.

Yusuf M. said,
Nice review. I didn't know they packed a GeForce GTX 780. Any word on pricing? I can't imagine this configuration being cheaper than $1K.

The 780 is about $500 alone. Would be around $800 at the most if they want people to buy it. $1k is too much for people to put down on. Too many were complaining about Xbone being $500.

Rumor has it that this "gaming console" will be $1200 - 1400. Not your usual consumers system. On top of that you can build your own Steam OS based gaming system. I simply don't see why they even release that. Just give some instructions and suggestions on building your own Steam Machine.

ACTIONpack said,

The 780 is about $500 alone. Would be around $800 at the most if they want people to buy it. $1k is too much for people to put down on. Too many were complaining about Xbone being $500.

I doubt the rest of the components would amount to an additional $300. The motherboard and CPU alone would cost that much which doesn't include the price of a hard drive, case, controller, RAM, and PSU.

Yeah, it's incredible.

Steam Machines aren't meant to solely be high-end gaming devices. Third-party manufacturers are already working on lower-cost alternatives comparable to mid-range PCs. Those will be more in-line with the cost of your typical gaming console.

Yusuf M. said,
Nice review. I didn't know they packed a GeForce GTX 780. Any word on pricing? I can't imagine this configuration being cheaper than $1K.

The thing is, you don't NEED a 780. I have a $180 (Radeon 7850) video card with an i5 and run any games that I've tried on Ultra at 1920x1080. Consoles have ALWAYS been a step behind in graphics anyway. You could easily get down in the $600-$700 range and possibly less for OEMs.