What Are Steam Machines?

If the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have left you wanting more power or customizability, it may be time to enter the wide world of PC gaming. Later this year, a number of PC manufacturers will release a line of Steam Machines, specialized gaming PCs that run on a version of the Linux operating system.

Prebuilt Steam Machines may be just the thing for gamers making the console-to-PC jump for the first time, although experienced users may find it more advantageous to build their own rigs. Read on to find out if a Steam Machine has a place in your living room.

Q.: What are Steam Machines?

A.: Steam Machines are specialized gaming PCs made by a variety of manufacturers. They run on SteamOS, a unique operating system based on Ubuntu Linux and produced by game developer Valve. Steam Machines are generally optimized as living-room entertainment centers rather than comprehensive gaming rigs.

Q.: What does a Steam Machine do?

A.: Steam Machines will exist primarily to download and play Linux games through Valve's digital download platform, Steam. However, they will also be able to stream Windows and Mac games running on Steam through other computers, and run a variety of streaming video and music apps. Additionally, SteamOS will have many of the same customization features as other Linux systems, meaning users will be able to install productivity software — or anything else — with a little tweaking.

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Q.: What is SteamOS?

A.: SteamOS is a version of Linux produced by Valve and designed specifically to power Steam Machines. The OS will be free and available for anyone to download. The prototype is currently available for download via Valve's website, and Tom's Guide has written a more comprehensive FAQ about it.

Q.: Why would I want a Steam Machine?

A.: Steam Machines are, in some ways, a bridge between console gaming and PC gaming. They offer the simplicity and (relative) portability of a console with some of the customization options of a PC. If you find the Xbox One and PS4 restrictive and want to choose a system with different specifications, a Steam Machine could be a good choice. Likewise, gamers who already own a gaming PC but want to stream the experience into their living room could get some use out of a Steam Machine.

Q.: Why wouldn't I want a Steam Machine?

A.: Steam Machines don't do anything unique. SteamOS is free, and just about any gaming PC will support it. For the kind of hardware they boast, the Steam Machines are also rather expensive. Since most Steam games are not compatible with Linux, SteamOS will have a limited library (unless you stream content from another computer). Furthermore, if you get most of your games from services other than Steam (Origin, GOG or even installing from DVDs), a Steam Machine may be of very limited utility.

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Q.: How many Steam Machines are there?

A.: Various hardware manufacturers, ranging from iBuyPower to Alienware, have announced 14 different Steam Machines. Valve also has its own Steam Machine but produced only 300 models exclusively for its SteamOS beta testers and has no plans to sell more. If the initial run of Steam Machines proves successful, Valve may contract additional hardware companies. Furthermore, because SteamOS is freely available, other PC companies could produce Steam Machines without Valve's endorsement.

Q.: How do the different Steam Machines vary?

A.: The Steam Machines vary in power and price. The cheaper ones are similar to the Xbox One and PS4 in terms of both cost and specs, but the more expensive ones can cost up to $6,000 and run any game at maximum settings for years to come. Check our guide to the Most Anticipated Steam Boxes for more information.

Q.: When will Steam Machines be released?

A.: Valve's 300 beta testers have already received their Steam Machines. The hoi polloi will have to wait until this fall to purchase theirs from other manufacturers, although at the time of this writing, no machine has a hard release date.

Q.: Is a Steam Machine better than a traditional console/gaming PC?

A.: "Better" is a subjective term, but based on the evidence currently available, Steam Machines appear to have many limitations in comparison to a player-built PC, or even a console. Although SteamOS may add support for additional games, Steam's offerings on Linux are incomplete, and accessing Steam's complete library requires a second PC to stream content. Regular PCs and consoles also offer entertainment apps, and programming new features into SteamOS will require a good working knowledge of Linux. Steam Machines seem to offer the most value to existing PC gamers who are looking for a secondary system; new users may find it more enabling and cost-efficient to buy a console or build their own PCs.

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Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.