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Dear Valve and Steam Machines OEMs, you have it all wrong

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Most of us reading this site want Steam Machines to do well. Not all of us will be interested in buying the hardware, but we're aware that its success is also tied to the success of Linux as a gaming platform, which is why I'm pretty miffed that the OEMs and Valve have messed it up.

Valve have done well with the controller and with making SteamOS pretty coherent and user-friendly, but messed it up when it came to defining what a Steam Machine actually is, leaving it open to interpretation. I've said this time and time again, but the original Steam Machines line-up was a complete mess. We had everything from $1500 PCs to ludicrously overpriced machines which didn't even have discreet graphics cards.

Even the best offerings fall short. Alienware's cheapest offering comes in at $450 (this should be the ideal price point in my opinion), but offers a mere 4GB RAM. If you want to scale this up to 8GB, you have to pay $750 since it also means upping the CPU to an i5. Does a GTX 960 need an i5 to do its thing? No, not really. You might get a few extra frames or do better in a more CPU-intensive game, but if one tries to step outside the worldview of a PC gamer and into one of a console gamer, then it doesn't take long to realise that those $200 aren't worth it, but $20 for an extra stick of 4GB RAM would be worth it.

This is perhaps the most frustrating thing. Most of the time, the specs are completely wrong, but when they're not then the price is a serious problem. An Intel i3 and Nvidia 960/1060 series (or AMD equivalent) are the perfect mass market specs for a sofa 1080p gamer just coming off a console. Someone with more needs than that will know how to build a PC and will do it cheaper and better than an OEM.

With the GTX1060 coming out, estimated to have a performance somewhere between a 970 and 980 (probably more on the side of a 980, but I like being conservative) at $250, and if AMD's Zen architecture lives up to the hype and delivers the same price/performance ratio benefits that the Piledriver architecture did, then we could be looking at a new era for the Steam Machine if things are done right this time round.

So what should be done right? First and foremost, deliver the best performance at the lowest cost possible. There is absolutely no room for diminishing returns here, which is why I can't advocate i7s or even i5s. Upgradability would also be a nice plus and a huge selling point if it's approached in a way where a non-technically minded user can get an upgrade easily through using modular designs (there's a lot of possibilities here, but too much to go into for this article). This has the potential to be a massive selling point over this last console generation, which was underpowered on release.

The second, and perhaps more controversial, point is that Valve should really take a few lessons from the console world. By this I mean manufacturing their own machine (which doesn't mean exclusivity). While the idea of everyone building their own box is amicable, the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits. This is what makes consoles so competitive, gives them (historically, not this last generation) great performance compared to PCs on launch at a much better price, with a considerable lifespan.

There's a few reasons for this. Firstly, there's economies of scale, with a single manufacturer pumping out tonnes of machines, the production costs are lower for a number of reasons which this article won't touch upon. Secondly, the benefits of optimisation are tremendous. If everyone is developing for the same hardware, it's easy to accommodate for and optimise a game to get the most out of that hardware - this is one of the main reasons why consoles have such a long lifespan, considering this optimisation also gets better with time. The third reason is simply a retail one, since a high street vendor is far more likely to stock Steam Machines if there's only one option, again for a number of reasons. There's probably more, such as the ability to sell hardware at a loss or a significantly lower profit margin (since that money is made back through game sales), but those are the main ones.

In essence, for Steam Machines to succeed, I would like to see something priced at just over $400 (might be a bit optimistic, but possible with lower profit margins) made by Valve and at those sweet spot specs I mentioned earlier. The original launch was very underwhelming, but there's still a lot of potential to turn things around significantly if Valve come to their senses. Even without them making their own hardware, there's still room for OEMs to improve a lot.
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Comments on this article are now closed.
0aTT 11 July 2016 at 1:37 pm UTC
DELL simply sold its hardware with SteamOS. Just as they offer Ubuntu as an alternative for PCs and Laptops. There is no big plan behind. But that is the strength of the concept. The first Android smartphones were not particularly useful and much too expensive. This will get better with time, as more and more Steam Machines appear. Valve makes it for the manufacturers as easy as possible. Just like Google they do not burden them with too many requirements. With smartphones indeed nobody says that you can not buy because there are too many different models.

Just my opinion.
dmantione 11 July 2016 at 1:39 pm UTC
I agree with a lot in your story, but one thing: Remeber that in a box like the Alienware Steam Machine you are extremely thermally constrained. A GTX1060 with its 120W in a Steam Machine might be well out of scope, allthough we haven't seen the final price yet, what I did see about the price is that such a GPU will kill the economic viability of such a card too.

That both Alienware and Zotac went with the GTX960 OEM is likely no accident: It is probably the best GPU to choose in the current market.

I fully agree about CPU: An i3 fine. The i5 should be used for a top-end Steam Machine and an i7 in a Steam Machine is pure nonsense. It basically shows that Dell are a PC manufacturer and not very experienced in the game business.

Long story short: We need AMD. That don't have the fastest CPU is no concern, because they can offer a good enough CPU and GPU within the required budget.
Beamboom 11 July 2016 at 1:45 pm UTC
Totally, 100% agree with everything that's said here. IMO this is all just common sense, logic.

It seems they have no plan for this. It's really frustrating to sit still and watch.
rustybroomhandle 11 July 2016 at 2:00 pm UTC
In order for lower price points on the hardware, Valve will need to give OEMs a cut of software sold through a Steam Machine much like how other console-vendors make their money.

SteamOS/Linux needs more AAA titles though. The big failing point right now from a consumer pov is lack of games, even with the many games available already.
dmantione 11 July 2016 at 2:04 pm UTC
Lack of games is mostly a perceived problem. In fact, for a console gamer, a Steam Machine has a wealth of games available never seen before. Therefore reducing this perception, for example by hiding Windows-only games, might be just as important as well as getting more games available. You could also think of targeted advertising pointing to games that are on SteamOS, but not (yet) on consoles.
Mblackwell 11 July 2016 at 2:05 pm UTC
An i7 is somewhat useful since it is powerful enough to cut through the translation overhead of any wrappers... however the return diminishes vastly when there's no way to upgrade the GPU. If you had the i3 model and no GPU upgrade-ability it might be cost effective every few years to drop say $300 on the next Steam Machine iteration (esp if they had a "step up" program so you kept being able to buy the next one at a steep discount). However most of the time when you buy an i7 you will not need to upgrade your PC other than the GPU for quite a long time. People with PC's they built nearly 10 years ago with the first iterations of i7 processors are still finding them usable for basically everything as long as they have a newish GPU.
Segata Sanshiro 11 July 2016 at 2:08 pm UTC
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dmantioneRemeber that in a box like the Alienware Steam Machine you are extremely thermally constrained.

Yeah, you're right. It's something I was going to mention, but the article was long enough already. It's one of the advantages of the newer generations of hardware that they have less power draw and temperatures, but if they're making something really small then they would need some sort of custom heatsink for something like a 1060 I assume, probably with a blower design so the inside of the case doesn't get too hot.

Apparently, underclocking even slightly improves temperatures a lot, so that might be a good option as well.
Muffinman 11 July 2016 at 2:15 pm UTC
People are buying Android phones for $450 and up. People are spending as much for doggy daycare as a car payment. Our backgrounds as PC enthusiasts probably contaminate our objectivity to an extent. What we know, and what we value, differs from others. To a strictly console person, they might just see it as a box. What Steam Machines really need is a marketing campaign that tells the people that this is the new and next big thing. Valve/Alienware/etc. needs to sponsor the professional gamers and provide steam machines for the pros to use and promote. Some big entity needs to award - provide incentive - pressure developers to port to Linux. How do we get a Blizzard to publish on Steam? Where we split hairs over hardware, maybe the console gamer splits hairs over titles?
frcaton 11 July 2016 at 2:16 pm UTC
You're making really good points here that I haven't read in other places. Furturhing your point, and seeing as the vast majority of games available for steamOS/Linux are not very hardware demaning, you could build a very entry level steam machine for less than 200 dollars or so. Heck, I even built a pentium dual core + 3gb + 80gb + geforce 9600gt steam machine with spare parts that I weren't using and It plays almost every game in the steamOS catalog, at least all the indy ones. With such a low price point they would really be competitive, specially for people that want to try PC gaiming for the first time.

Also, I think making a few exclusives good be very helpfull. Although I'm against them, they are what the customers want and maybe valve could reach a middle point were this exclusives come to the other platforms later on (like a year or so). Just as we are treated today with linux ports. At least until the steam machines gain some traction.

Besides all this, I'm starting to think that Valve is not fully invested in the steam machine project. Come on, they know better, they are Valve. Maybe, just maybe, all they want is just to scare windows to not try to steal they business.

Last edited by frcaton at 11 July 2016 at 2:30 pm UTC
tmtvl 11 July 2016 at 2:31 pm UTC
dmantioneLack of games is mostly a perceived problem. In fact, for a console gamer, a Steam Machine has a wealth of games available never seen before. Therefore reducing this perception, for example by hiding Windows-only games, might be just as important as well as getting more games available. You could also think of targeted advertising pointing to games that are on SteamOS, but not (yet) on consoles.

The arguments about lack of games is a combination of quantity and quality. Don't get me wrong, it's neat for there to be hundreds or thousands of small indie games on Linux. However, when AAA titles are basically not being released for SteamOS (not to mention the absolute lack of any console sellers, which also killed the PS Vita), you have to realize that many gamers just aren't interested.
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