Steam Box: Problems and Solutions

Since the first beta availability of Steam’s Big Picture mode, people have become seemingly obsessed with hooking PCs up to their HDTVs. A lot of PC games have native controller support and many others can be rendered playable, albeit with custom control schemes and third-party software. Modern PCs are leaps and bounds beyond console graphics technology and Steam’s frequent sales blow even used-game prices out of the water.

What do people want in a living room computer? What they don’t want is a computer. If they did, WebTV and Google TV wouldn’t have been abysmal commercial failures. Home-theater PCs (HTPCs) have existed for many years as a niche market but the recent resurgence in living room PCs is almost entirely focused on them as gaming machines. This is partly because Steam and its competitors form a very competitively priced marketplace, but mainly because PC technology is so far beyond console tech that it’s worth putting up with a little additional fuss.

Dell’s Alienware division has produced arguably the most console-like gaming PC with its X51. The original Xbox was produced with more-or-less off the shelf PC components, and this hits a very similar size. It’s a nifty piece of engineering, but the price-performance ratio was questionable at launch and revisions haven’t changed the problem. Still, it’s the best option consumers have at the moment.

The other problem with living room PC gaming is an interface issue. Yes, many games are controller-enabled but Windows is anything but. Steam Big Picture’s appearance was a revelation to many: every function from purchasing, installing, to launching games could be done with a controller. As long as you self-limit to games which also have full controller support (and are available on Steam without third-party DRM), a turnkey gaming PC for the living room is within reach.

The Xi3 Piston

Valve invested a lot of man-hours in designing and coding the new UI and they began to drop hints at an interest in producing branded hardware as well. Gamers went nuts.

No one knows what the mythical “Steam Box” will look like, and the company plans its hardware launch – if at all – to be in 2014 at the earliest. Existing HTPCs range in size from the X51 to full ATX-spec chassis similar to home theater receivers. If you include more limited platforms under the HTPC umbrella, they can be as small as an Apple TV or Roku box.

A poorly handled CES press release, however, gave us the first of what will be many “Steam” boxes. Xi3, a company behind at least two failed Kickstarter campaigns, announced that they received a “significant investment” from Valve and will be producing a Steam Box. Many sites ran the story, displaying the diminutive box as the Steam Box.

Valve and Gabe Newell eventually clarified that Xi3’s design is not the Steam Box, but a Steam Box. Until details unfold further, the best way to understand the term “Steam Box”, then, is making it analogous to Intel’s “Ultrabook” specification. If the point was producing a simple, turnkey gaming PC, this is a bad move. Ultrabook is at-best a nebulous marketing term, and this is from a deep-pocketed company with massive influence over the computing market. Throw in Valve’s unique management style and it’s hard to see how “Steam Box” fares any better.

Many hardware vendors at CES displayed an obsession with diminutive PCs akin to this Xi3 design, but if we are evaluating this as a gaming machine first and a PC last, if at all, it’s easy to dismiss it out of hand. Exact specs have yet to be confirmed, but the heart of it is likely AMD’s AMD A10-4600M Trinity APU  and a 40W overall Thermal Design Power (TDP). Translation: a device planned to cost 3 times the WiiU with subjectively little graphical power advantage, if at all.

Look at the size of the thing. Really look at it. It’s a toy. People think they want this but if they really think about it, they don’t. The Xi3 design can’t get around physics. The X51 has roughly double the volume and it’s still a compromised platform. In my experience, a system powerful enough to make a noticeable visual difference from current consoles at couch distance has a TDP of 250W. I think buyers will be really disappointed when their shiny new machine barely outclasses current consoles – if at all.

It’s revealing that Valve’s own prototype at their CES booth, distant hardware launch or not, looks like a cross between the X51 and a WiiU.

If I Were a Valve Partner

The first thing I’d do is ditch the cube. A living room PC should blend in, not stand out, and non-standard A/V boxes are a pain to organize. A determined company could potentially capture the market with a two to three-pronged design just by looking at our existing home theater components.

A hypothetical low-power system could be designed in a chassis similar in dimension to a Bluray player with a few extra millimeters of z-height. Take a modified laptop motherboard and drop it into the box and you’ve got a potential powerhouse that still doesn’t take up much space in my home theater. There’s no battery, keyboard, or screen to design around, lowering component cost. Wheedle a partial return to the MXM specification from NVIDIA or AMD and you’ve at least got a graphics card that can be upgraded down the road, even if the CPU would have to be soldered down to save height.

The X51 already provides a halfway point in size. A new design could go the custom ITX route, or simply use Intel’s new Thin-ITX specification moving into the market to keep z-height down while offering future upgradeability based on standard desktop components. Depending on the chassis design, you could step into mid-range TDP desktop parts without being ridiculously large. I fondly remember the easy modability of the original Xbox hardware and smart industrial design could make this form factor a real winner.

Being the enthusiast I am, though, the design I’d buy would be the high-end chassis. Take a gander at any of the HTPC cases on the market designed to ape the size and shape of a A/V receiver. A smart company could design a case with custom wiring to dramatically improve airflow and making aftermarket upgrades dead-simple. ITX board with push-pin coolers so CPUs drop right in. Standard RAM slots. Hotswap HDD wiring so storage upgrades are accessible from the front of the case – and don’t even require opening it up. Fully standard PCIe graphics cards. Depending on just how clean the wiring got (something cases targeting the DIY market sorely lack), a smart airflow channel could let this chassis support high-end PC parts without ungodly noise levels.

Valve has confirmed their first-party solution will ship with Linux, though “Windows can be installed later”. It’ll be more than just a gaming machine, but a server capable of powering up to 8 screens through GPU virtualization. Apparently it will be powered by pixie dust. Living room PCs are attractive for their massive computational advantage; small boxes like this will struggle to wow a single user, let alone multiple users.

Controller-enabled games already fracture the PC gaming market; Linux gaming has improved in recent years from “God awful” to merely “nightmare of compatibility modes”. This isn’t a turnkey solution. The easy counterargument is that this is a chicken-egg problem: Linux gaming support is such a mixed bag because no major hardware platform exists for it. Since Steam Box is an open-ended marketing term, no single hardware platform will ever exist for it and console-level software optimization will never materialize.

I welcome being proven wrong, but even if Valve gathers developers and hardware vendors together to sing kumbaya, the brick wall of physics is waiting.

About David Hughes

David Hughes is an Editor for Splitkick. PC gamer, mod lover, screenarcher, and Elder Scrolls fanboy.
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