Three years ago, Valve announced an ambitious plan to create a device that would bridge the gap between PC and console gaming. Dubbed Steam Machines, these devices would run SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that mimics a traditional console interface, creating an experience more suited to the living room. Created by heavy hitters in the gaming PC market, Steam Machines promised a wide choice of design, configurations and pricing, each accompanied by Valve's strange-looking controller that ditches analog sticks in favor of circular mouse pads.
While we were doubtful at how successful the device would be, we kept an open mind and waited -- and waited. Three years later, Steam Machines are finally available for pre-order (including Alienware's $449 box), but according to early reports, the devices are too little, too late -- delivering big on hardware but short on games.
MORE: What Is a Steam Machine?
What Can I Play?
According to Cnet, you'll have access to at least 1,000 of the 4,500-plus games available on Steam. You can play older games such as Bioshock Infinite, Metro: Last Light and Shadow of Mordor, but more recent titles such as the Call of Duty series and Grand Theft Auto V are nowhere to be seen. To remedy this gap, Steam Machines have the ability to stream PC games over your network or via the optional Steam Link accessory.
It's a nice touch, but if you're streaming a game from your desktop, why aren't you just playing on your regular gaming rig? Plus, Nvidia's Shield TV ($199) and Shield tablet ($299 Wi-Fi, $399 LTE) can also stream PC games and cost much less than the $499 Alienware Steam Machine. At this point, you can even stream Xbox One games to your Windows PC.
How's the Performance?
Valve has claimed that its Linux-based system will have noticeably better performance than its Windows-powered counterparts. However, early testing from Ars Technica seems to debunk the claim. Using its proprietary dual-booting system, the publication discovered that Steam OS came up short on synthetic benchmarks such as Geekbench 3. Testing the system's game performance revealed not only that SteamOS consistently delivered lower frames than Windows 10, but that there was a significant frame rate gap as well.
It should be noted that the games Ars used in their testing are ports. Perhaps games built specifically for SteamOS will perform better. However that begs the question, how many triple-A developers and publishers are going to be willing to make games just for Valve? This is an especially valid question, considering that SteamOS is a nascent platform and there are already millions of Windows and console gamers to cater to.
Valve's Wacky Controller
I've gotten a chance to get some hands-on time with Valve's innovative controller. It's definitely unique, and certainly has a learning curve. Hoping to bring the precision of a touchpad or mouse to a console controller, Valve has removed the one of the traditional two analog sticks in favor of two circular touchpads. Similar to a regular controller, the lone analog stick controls actual movement, while the right touchpad handles the camera. It took me about 10 minutes to get comfortable enough to maneuver through the level without sustaining too much damage. However, crouching, a movement that normally would have been triggered by pressing one of the analog sticks, was beyond me. Given enough time I probably would have figured it out, but I was stumped during my demo.
Cnet's Dan Ackerman found himself constantly having to adjust sensitivity settings during his review. However, when he found a game that the controls worked well with, he reported more precise movement than you'd get with a normal controller. You can also try mapping certain moves and shortcuts to the controller for a smoother experience, or take advantage of profiles created in Steam's community.
Steam Machines were an interesting idea... three years ago. Back then, there was a clear divide between the church and state of PC and console gaming. However, in the time Valve has taken to fine-tune its device, we've seen the release of devices such as the $499 Alienware Alpha: a Windows version of Alienware's Steam Machine complete with its own console-like interface. It's a true bridge between PC and console that lets you play everything in your Steam library, and its priced to compete with Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
And while the internal specs of Steam Machines might be identical to some of the Windows gaming PCs on the market, it appears that SteamOS is at a distinct disadvantage performance-wise. Not to mention SteamOS' truncated game library, which doesn't include many mainstream titles. The controller is compelling, but peripherals don't sell consoles or PCs -- performance and games do.