Steam Gamer Boxes Pit Linux Against Windows

Valve’s Steam Controller and a selection of first-generation SteamOS Machines.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there are plenty of tablets with detachable keyboards, PCs with detachable-everything, and a few dual-boot machines running both Windows and Android.

Online game-maker Valve Corp. seems to have launched a whole new class of desktop hardware, however, by private-labeling a version of Linux and adding a game- and user-friendly interface (called the SteamOS) and convincing major systems vendors there would be a market for machines running alternative operating systems.

Valve discussed plans for Steam Machines last year, but didn’t announce details on plans, production schedules, or other details.

At this year’s show, the online game giant announced a dozen basic Steam Machine designs from 14 vendors, for prices starting as low as $499.

The boxes range from tiny Spark units from Maingear that are closer to a DVD drive than to a PC in size; a coffee-table-book-sized bargain version from Cyberpower; and a superpowered, $2,584 Bolt II from Digital Storm, which packs in a Core i7 processor, Nvidia GTX 780 TI graphics card, 16GB of memory, 1TB hard drive and 128GB SSD, according to a story in DigitalTrends.

(Valve offers a PDF brochure with photos and specs on each of the “first generation” machines.)

Each runs a version of the Debian distribution of Linux, with Valve’s SteamOS providing the interface, game support and links to various Websites. The machines are designed initially as game consoles rather than proper PCs, so the first versions can game and browse and little else, though they can stream games running on Windows from other machines.

Games and much of the browsing is directed by the Steam Controller – a game-console-like controller with thumbpads and control buttons in configurations, the performance of which got mixed reviews. (SteamOS got its own mixed reviews, especially for the unexpectedly difficult process of installing it on anything but a preconfigured Steam Machine.)

Linux.com labeled DIY installation as a to-do for experts only due to the bare-bones, configure-everything requirements common to many Linux distributions and almost unheard-of among other OSes. Even the step-by-step photo-illustrated how-to from DIY-championing MaximumPC was filled with warnings about possible missteps that could nuke both the SteamOS installation and sometimes the non-Steam-Machine hardware as well.

Steam Machines are very unlikely to show up inside the firewalls of even those companies with liberal BYOD policies. In a relatively stable hardware market, Steam Machines would compete with other game consoles and a few smart-TV or streaming-media boxes that might suddenly find the living room a little more crowded.

As focused as they are on gaming and living-room entertainment, however, Steam Machines are still fully functioning Linux-based PCs being manufactured in a variety of user-convenient form factors by manufacturers who may never have sold Linux boxes before.

Those vendors aren’t likely to waste the effort on single-function game machines. Digital Storm’s Bolt II, broke the market-barrier already by offering a dual-boot version that gives customers both dedicated gaming and a Windows PC with high-end performance.

Dell’s Alienware Steam Machine comes with the option to dual-boot Windows, as does the Chronos Steam Machine from Origin.

The big revolution Valve is trying to foment with Steam Machines is to introduce open architecture to the closed world of console gaming, but manufacturers don’t see that as a limitation. “We consider this to be a PC gaming console,” Alienware product manager Marc Diana told The Verge. “We don’t see this product as competing against a PlayStation4 or competing against an Xbox One.”

A few years ago, that might not have constituted a threat against Windows as well. Now, when tablets are the hot commodity and Android is the fast-growing operating system, that may no longer be true.

Windows is still the dominant PC operating system, but its market share has dropped steadily for the past five years and is due to drop another 4.3 percent for 2013, according to Gartner projections in October.

The rush of introductions of PCs that give users the option to boot Android or Windows amounts to more than just a convenience to consumers. But it’s more like a rebellion of hardware vendors against Microsoft, according to Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin.

The DIYness of Linux may mean it will never be a direct competitor to Windows in the way Android has become. Slipping it into living rooms disguised as a Steam game machine, with the option of accessing a full-function Linux and/or Windows PC under the hood may change that, however, or at least complicate the competitive picture enough to make Windows even less of the default-choice operating system on PCs as well as phones and tablets.

 

Image: Valve