Will Valve's Steam Box be a bargain or a blow out?

24th Mar 2013 | 13:00

Will Valve's Steam Box be a bargain or a blow out?

Valve's PC-based games console may struggle to compete

Is or isn't Xi3's Piston an official Steam Box? I don't know and, frankly, I don't care. Because the Piston's specifications guarantee it's going to be at best mediocre at its primary function. Which is gaming.

But even if Piston does turn out to be an official Steam Box, it won't be the official Steam Box. It'll be one of many, some of which will be produced by Valve.

And it's doesn't get us any closer to understanding what the Steam Box's prospects are for success. Or whether it will be able to compete with those evil corporate consoles on price.

For the uninitiated, the Steam Box is heavyweight game developer Valve's take on a console-esque, living room-friendly PC. Its name, of course, is a nod towards Valve's game delivery and management platform, known as Steam.

Piston poor

As for Piston, that's an upcoming pint-sized PC from start-up Xi3 that's had an on-again, off-again career as the first official Steam Box. When it was shown off at CES, the scuttlebutt was that this was the first official Steam Box. As far as I can tell, its current status is, "I'm not an official Steam Box".

But what I can say for sure it that I don't much look the like of the spec list. Not for a device with a primary function of gaming. It's powered by AMD's A10 CPU-GPU fusion chips, otherwise known as an APU.

It's not a bad chip, as APUs go. It might actually be the best strictly-compatible APU you can buy. But by discrete graphics card standards, it's got feeble graphics. That true in raw graphics processing terms. Its got about one third the shaders of a mid-range graphics card like an AMD Radeon HD 7850.

The bandwidth bomb

But the real killer is memory bandwidth. The interesting comparison here is the upcoming Sony PlayStation 4. That's also power by an AMD APU and it has in excess of 10 times the memory bandwidth of the AMD A10 chip.

If you're wondering, the answer's no, you can't drop the PS4 into a PC. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that.

Anyway, the A10 ain't good enough for proper PC gaming, making a mockery of the Piston's $899 / £595 base price. But if Piston is so pricey, what hope for the more powerful Steam Boxes Valve is plotting.

The detailed specs haven't been revealed. But Valve's hirsute head honcho, Gabe Newell, has outlined plans for a multi-tiered good-better-best offering. The 'good' might involve game streaming and that's a whole separate topic for another day.

But the better and best had, well, better be a lot better than Piston. But if they are, what on earth will they cost?

Homebrew hottie

It is actually possible to build a home brew small-form-factor PC based on an ITX board that matches the PS4 on raw specs for about £500, which puts Piston into context.

But if that's all Steam Box is, a collection of off-the-shelf parts, what's the point? I think it needs to be a bit more radical than that in terms of form factor. But that will almost definitely require at least some custom parts.

And that will likely mean two things. Problems for user upgrades. And a higher price. If any company is capable of jumping these hurdles, it's probably Valve. But Newell and his henchmen at Valve had better be serious athletes. It'll be one hell of a leap.

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