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When Valve first announced the Steam Machine back in September of 2013, there was plenty to get excited about. Gaming on Linux? Living-room PC gaming? Custom controller? Sign me up. It’s been a long and complicated road since then, with plenty of delays and setbacks, but the day has finally come: the first true Steam Machines are now available for pre-order, and you can have one in your hands as early as October.
Should you pre-order now? Well, there are three important things you need to know first.
1: Good Hardware is Still Pricey
One of the selling points for the new Steam Machines is that they’re cost-competitive with consoles. The two companies with Steam Machines ready for launch start at $499 and $449 respectively. Both machines run an i3 CPU, and four gigs of RAM. The Syber machine packs a relatively wimpy GTX 750, and Alienware doesn’t even specify which card is going to be used (just that it’s a 2GB GeForce GTX card), which is not a good sign. It’s likely that Alienware is using the same card their Alpha series, the GTX 680M, which barely edges out Syber’s 750. Unfortunately, if they follow the trend of the Alpha series, their higher-end machines also run the same low-end video card. These machines can probably handle older games, but these specs are a little underpowered for next-gen titles.
At the higher end of the Syber machines, things start to get a little more interesting. For $729, you can get eight gigs of RAM, an i5, and a GTX 960 – a respectable gaming machine that beats the pants off of a PS4. However, you’re paying a ~$300 premium for the extra horsepower, which can be a pretty tough sell.
2: The Controller Is The Real Star
When the steam controller was first announced, it was downright enigmatic. The symmetric black design, with no thumb sticks or obvious buttons, looked completely unlike any controller currently on the market. Since then, Valve has compromised a little, adding a more traditional set of buttons, as well as a single thumbstick.
However, the controller still has the big thing that made it unique: two high-precision touchpads, one under each thumb. These offer a much higher degree of precision than is possible with analog sticks. This added accuracy has the potential to open up new genres to couch play, like RTSs and precision shooters. I haven’t used the controller myself, but the reviews so far are largely positive. The controllers are available for pre-order for $50.00, starting today.
3. Not All Games Support It
One of the weirdest aspects of the Steam Machines is that they run a specialized version of Linux under the hood – not Windows. This is a tactical play by Valve, who have expressed concern over the restrictions being placed on the Windows operating system. Unfortunately, it also creates a new problem — compatibility. Valve’s made a lot of progress on this front, by creating tools to port existing titles to Linux, and encouraging developers to use them. Gaming on Linux is not the joke that it once was. If you go through the list of Steam titles that support Linux, you see a lot of classic titles: the Half Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead franchises, Civ 5, Borderlands 2, and an army of indie titles like Kerbal Space Program.
There are, however, major and notable omissions. Titles like Bioshock Infinite, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect still lack Linux support. This will get better over time, as Valve pushes more publishers into supporting Linux, but it’ll never be perfect. In particular, studios like EA are in no hurry to help one of their competitors build a platform that might eventually pose a threat to the console ecosystems they monopolize.
On the upside, Valve has reported that Left 4 Dead 2 runs about 16% faster on Linux than Windows, due to the lower level access to optimization that’s possible on Linux. It’s also possible to provide a more seamless experience on Steam OS – the machine can boot directly into Big Picture Mode, and the games won’t routinely break in a way that needs a mouse to fix. That by itself solves one of the major annoyances with Big Picture Mode as it currently exists. It remains to be seen whether these advantages will be worth the reduced compatibility.
Is it worth picking up a Steam Machine? Right now, that’s a really tough question to answer. The hardware isn’t bad for the price, and I dearly want one of the controllers, so the only real drawback is the compatibility. Unfortunately, it’s a doozy. Personally, I love the Mass Effect franchise, and it’d be a shame to buy a new PC and not be able to play it. Whether or not it’s worth it for you depends on what you want to play, and how much you think Linux support is going to improve in the near future.
Pre-ordering gets you the machine about a month early – October, instead of November. Personally, I’d say wait until the early reviews are in. If you’re on the fence, Valve, Syber, and Alienware have a few more months to sell you on the idea. If they don’t, you can always buy a similar piece of hardware, put windows on it, and pick up a fancy Steam Controller when they hit shelves. Personally, that seems like the best of both worlds. There’s also the option of getting the Valve Steam Link and using that to stream games from an existing PC in your home with a new Steam controller.
Will you be picking up a Steam Box? If so, which one? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.