Steam Machine roundup: Challenging consoles for living room supremacy

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Steam's Big Picture Mode

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This week saw the release of Alienware's first Steam Machine, making parent company Dell the first of the major computer manufacturers to enter the market. A customizable, console-sized gaming PC is an attractive proposition, but how do the current range of Steam Machines stack up against consoles, and each other?

Steam, and PC gaming in general, has traditionally been reliant on a Windows machine as the underlying platform. Gaming on Mac or Linux has always been an option, but they have traditionally seen less support as platforms. Even now, after a massive upsurge in popularity, there are still only 2,560 games available for Mac OS X and 1,622 for Linux on the Steam Store, compared with nearly 7,000 available for Windows.

In September, 2013 Valve signaled its support for open source operating systems (like Linux) with the announcement of SteamOS, a Unix-like custom implementation of the GNU operating system that runs on standard commodity PC hardware.

The first release of SteamOS followed in Dec. 2013, initially allowing end-users to side-step the license cost of a Windows operating system (US$119.99) by running the Steam Client natively, but Valve's ultimate aim for the project was to challenge the dominance of traditional games consoles in the living room space.

Enter the Steam Machines.

Alienware Steam Machine

The Alienware Steam Machine is a real looker and is based on the same chassis as the Alienware Alpha, a near-identically spec'd (and priced) small form factor machine that runs Windows instead of proprietary SteamOS. The Steam Machine does light up blue though (instead of the stock red) and has the iconic Steam logo baked into its asymmetric, angular corner, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Alienware's offering is a diminutive creature and is roughly a third the size of an Xbox One by volume. The Alienware Steam Machine stands 20 cm wide, 20 cm deep, and 5.5 cm tall (7.87 in x 7.87 in x 2.17 in) compared to the Xbox One's behemoth-like dimensions of 33.3 cm wide, 27.4 cm deep and 7.9 cm tall (13.1 in x 10.8 in x 3.1 in).

Unfortunately the smaller chassis size of the Alienware Steam Machine does come at the expense of component choice and, ultimately, performance. While you can still fill it with a quad-core Intel processor and a respectable amount of RAM at purchase, the graphics card is a fixed entity in the Alienware: a custom-built Nvidia GeForce GTX with 2 GB RAM.

The lack of a discrete model number associated with a graphics card is instantly a little suspicious (similar to what Microsoft is doing with the higher-end Surface Books), and makes it difficult to equate the performance proposition with other GPUs. We may also not see a full suite of benchmark scores for this mystery card given the proprietary operating system.

Syber Steam Machine

Produced by custom PC builder Cyberpower, the Syber Steam Machine is the largest of the three currently on the market. The company tells us that it's 36 cm wide, 33.5 cm deep and 10 cm tall (14 in x 13 in x 3.9 in). That actually makes it larger than the PS4 and even the massive Xbox One – no wonder they're not shouting about it on their website – but does carry with it certain advantages.

Built in a custom chassis that supports enthusiast-level features like color-changing light accents (think neon strips under a car, and you wouldn't be far wrong) the extra heft of this case is beneficial for two key reasons: it is comprised entirely of off-the-shelf parts so it's fully end-user upgradable, including a full-size desktop graphics card (up to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980); plus the extra breathing space in the case should allow for improved cooling, so long as you don't cram it to the gills with ridiculous hardware.

For these reasons the Syber Steam Machine will offer the closest analog to the traditional PC gaming experience. The combination of virtually limitless upgradability – so long as you respect the limitations of the form factor and its power supply – will see you running absolute rings around the PS4 and Xbox One in terms of visual performance; we're talking 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, at the extreme high-end.

This level of performance doesn't come cheap, though. The modestly spec'd Syber Steam Machine I starts at around US$499 – including a bog-standard Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB RAM and 1 GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 GPU – but it will set you back $1,449 if you want to stretch the configuration to the Steam Machine X, which includes a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM and a top-of-the-range 4 GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980.

Zotac NEN Steam Machine

You may not be familiar with Zotac as a manufacturer but its pedigree is in graphics cards, with a sideline in ultra-small form factor computers; making Steam Machines seems like an obvious next step. Its small form factor machines have traditionally been of the low-power variety (what were once known as "Nettops", as opposed to Netbooks) but like the other vendors on offer here, Zotac has recently begun offering gaming-equipped units running Windows.

The Zotac NEN Steam Machine is a shade larger than the Alienware offering in all dimensions, being 21 cm wide, 20.3 cm deep and 6.2 cm tall (8.3 in x 8 in x 2.4 in). It crams in a largely similar specification of hardware too, including 6th Generation Intel Skylake processors and 8GB of RAM. The Zotac NEN is currently only listed with one available configuration.

Interestingly the Zotac NEN specifies that it contains an Nvidia Geforce GTX 960 graphics card, which places it above the Alienware and below the higher-end Syber units in terms of overall performance. The Zotac NEN is currently listed on Amazon for around $899, down from a recommended price of $999, so it sits squarely in the middle in terms of price too.

Wrap-up

So, are the first raft of Steam Machines worth your money? They certainly make a compelling case. They look great under a TV, are (generally speaking) smaller than the traditional consoles, and should offer increased performance to account for their higher price point.

In practical terms the SteamOS and its native Big Picture mode, designed for use with a controller rather than keyboard and mouse (including Steam's lovely new controller, which comes bundled with all the machines listed here) is a slick and accomplished way to play; it's just unfortunate that the supported library of games for SteamOS is significantly smaller than on Windows.

If we consider it purely as a "launch line-up" then the 1,600+ titles available on SteamOS right now makes a mockery of the twenty or so that launched with the PS4 and Xbox One back in 2013, but for a mature ecosystem it's something of a problem; particularly when major titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Fallout 4 aren't available for SteamOS yet. If you want to make the most of Steam's extensive collection and don't already own a gaming PC, then one of the Windows-equivalents of these Steam Machines might be the smarter purchase.

However, if you do already own a decent-spec gaming PC then a Steam Link device, priced at $49.99, allows you to stream your entire library from your PC to another room in the house. This means you can break your gaming away from the desk and into the living room – and from the tiny monitor the giant TV – at a fraction of the price of a Steam Machine.

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