Steam is a massive online gaming platform that reaches 100 million players worldwide. Now, Valve, the company behind Steam, along with a litany of hardware makers (in this case Dell/Alienware) wants to go head-to-head with Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.
This home console is its new contender. It's got a controller that makes PC games feel like they were actually made for consoles, hardware that's nearly as customisable as a desktop, and an OS that, while clunky, keeps you connected to the entire Steam community and Internet with a simple tap of a button. It's a solid first step, but one that might need a little more time until it's ripe for the purchasing.
What Is It?
Valve wants to bring a PC gaming experience — more specifically, the Steam gaming experience — to your living room.
It's easy to forget that only a few years ago, downloadable games were scraping by compered to physical games, but thanks to Steam — as well as downloadable content on mobile devices like phones and tablets and other web clients like Origin — the digital marketplace has really taken off. So much so, those consoles that once relied on hard copies of games now sport digital libraries of their own.
Steam has emerged as an incredibly formidable force within the industry in just the 12 years it's been around. This console is one of Valve's many living room PC throw-downs into the heart of gaming culture, designed by the well-known gaming icon Alienware.
Who's It For?
Gamers, though the target group is more focused on serious players than people who don't know Mario from Master Chief. Valve is zeroing in on its already huge 100 million user base and following them from their PCs to more comfy living room couches.
Using the Steam Machine isn't as intuitive and accessible as something like Wii Tennis, where someone with zero gaming knowledge can just pick up a motion-sensing remote, fling it about, and figure it out from there. The Steam Machine pretty much assumes you're a hardcore player, and that specifically, you're a hardcore player on a PC.
If you spend a decent amount of your dispensable income and time on gaming, and if you already have a bloated Steam account especially, then this console is something to consider.
First, Alienware's Steam Machine does look great in any entertainment center, sandwiched among your TV, DVR, Roku, and PS4. Compact and discreet, it's about the same size as an original Wii, and weighs just over 4 pounds. It looks slick and is super quiet and keeps cool as well. No droning fans or skin-scalding temperatures.
Next, the controller. It feels pretty good in your hands and clearly takes cues from Xbox and PlayStation. You'll also notice standard ABXY buttons and two sets of top triggers on each side and another behind the handle grips, a small joystick, and two large track pads that are the most prominent feature.
Finally, you'll find an HDMI port and two LAN ports at the back of the device. Steam's familiar alien logo graces the front, whose backlight colour you can switch to a rainbow of choices in settings.
Here's how it works: Set up the unit, which only takes about 10 minutes, then link your Steam account, if you have one already. You'll have full access to all the games in your library, and you can browse new games to buy, just as you could on the desktop app. SteamOS should look pretty familiar as it's basically just Big Picture Mode that many Steam acolytes will be familiar with.
Valve offers over 6,000 games on Steam, and not all of them are controller compatible — meaning, you can only play them on a keyboard and mouse. But not anymore. Like any great home video game console, a great controller must come with it, and the Steam Machine controller fits the description. The controller can be re-mapped, so you can assign any keyboard command to whatever buttons.
On the controller, the two track pads basically act like computer mice. The cursor (or, in some situations, cursors) move about the screen as your thumbs glide across the surface. This is how you'll type on the controller, as well: The left pad lets you select keys on the left section of the keyboard, and you can hold the left trigger underneath to act as your shift key. The same applies for the right pad. This typing system is a bit wonky at first, but you do get used to it pretty quickly.
Next comes the configuration. The customisation options are nearly endless, so to make it easier on you, Steam lets you pick configurations that other Steam users have set up. The most popular configurations among the Steam community are given priority.
I played Cave Story, an indie, old-school side-scrolling platformer that helped put Steam on the map back in 2011. Configuring the controller was easy, as I just picked one of the popular user-generated ones. I had a blast playing it on my TV — in fact, I liked it even better than playing it on my computer. On a keyboard, the game uses letter keys like Z and X for your character to jump or fire a weapon, but it felt so much more natural using your thumbs on a proper controller and watching it on a big TV, that made me feel like I was playing Metroid on an original NES.
And as more games are developed specifically for the Steam Machine platform, there will be more games that will take advantage of the controller, as is. I played Screencheat, one of the four new games the Steam Machine comes bundled with — a cartoony first-person shooter that pits you against online challengers on Steam. Using the joystick to walk around while running your right thumb over the right trackpad to adjust your aim was a totally intuitive combo, and felt nicer than the dual joysticks you see on Microsoft and Sony consoles.
I didn't run into any issues with frame rate, connectivity, or anything like that, either. The colours looked different on my TV than they did on my computer monitor, but that can be chalked more up to a sub par TV set than to the Steam Machine.
Speaking of the Steam community, it's a huge part of the Steam experience. The message boards, the user reviews, the screenshot galleries, the Twitch-like player broadcasts, friends, chat system, achievements, and more. Can you access it while playing on a Steam Machine? Of course you can.
Just like the Sony button on a PlayStation controller or the Home button on a Wii remote, the Steam button takes you back to Steam OS, where you can access the entirety of Steam, just as you would if you were using it on your computer. Bouncing back and forth between the game and the OS is a breeze and feels totally seamless.
Finally, if you have a Windows PC, you can stream your games that run on SteamOS to your TV. Valve says Mac support is coming "soon" for streaming. That gives you nearly 6,000 games to buy and play right off the bat — you're only limited to the amount of games in your Steam library...and your bandwidth.
Despite playing on a console, it never feels like you are doing something separate or different from the Steam experience you know and love. Tapping that Steam button zips you to the familiar SteamOS, where you can do lots of stuff on the fly within the game you're currently playing. Tweak controller configurations, jump on the game's Steam community message board, read news posts from the developer, and more. It really does feel like you're on Steam, on your computer, except in a more console-like setting. That's one of Valve's biggest successes here.
I also want to emphasise again how much I liked the controller. It succeeds on a couple different levels. First, it really helps in making games developed for PC feel like they were actually developed for consoles. Second, it takes cues from existing console controllers, and improves upon them, like swapping out those dual joysticks for dual trackpads, and allowing for unprecedented customisation, from button commands to the degree of rumbling haptic action.
I also like how customisable the Steam Machine itself is as a piece of hardware — hands down, a decisive advantage it has over its competitors. You can open up the Steam Machine at any time and upgrade with compatible CPUs, memory, or HDDs. That level of tinkering is why a lot of PC gamers are attracted to PCs, and the Steam Machine definitely delivers in that area. Actually, it's so much like a PC, you could...you know...buy a PC and an HDMI cable, but if that setup doesn't work for you, Alienware's the other option.
I'm not crazy about the SteamOS UI — sometimes it feels a little too much like a PC, and not in a good way. There's a lot of clutter and a lot of text. You're not sitting a foot way from your laptop anymore, but the Steam Machine kind of treats you like you are. It's the same reason I don't love using an Internet browser on a PlayStation 3 or 4, for example. I'd almost just open my laptop on the couch next to me.
One of the reasons why console gamers love consoles is because they're simple. You boot up the game and go. But with SteamOS, things get confusing and overwhelming fast, and that could be a barrier for some people, especially people not firmly initiated into the fellowship of gaming.
Another thing I found disappointing was having to re-install all the old Steam games from my library onto to Steam Machine. That means that, if it's a game you've long owned and put 200 hours on it on your computer, you have to start over from scratch on the console. This is a huge negative. I mean, it makes sense — it's a new device, so duh, you have to put the old game on the new machine. But since the console is selling itself so hard on the notion of playing Steam games on your proper TV, it's pretty frustrating that you can't transfer your hours of gameplay from your PC onto your television or vice versa. (Weirdly enough, my achievements and play time carried over, but none of my save files were. Valve confirmed with me that saved games aren't brought over.)
Finally, while there are over 6,000 games on Steam, there are only 1,500 games on SteamOS — meaning, you can only download and install 1,500 on the Steam Machine. I mean, 1,500 is still a lot, but it was kind of disappointing when I tried to play Undertale, my favourite new Steam game, on the Machine, but was greeted with "NOT ON SteamOS." (You can, however, stream those 4,500 games from that Windows PC of yours over a wired network onto your TV — but you can't download and install it on Steam Machine.)
Should You Buy It?
If you love PC gaming, and are specifically a long-time Steam user who loves PC gaming, then you owe it to yourself to give this puppy a go. If you're a gamer who's lukewarm on PC gaming — especially if you don't use Steam — don't do it.
Especially given the price. With the cheapest version set at $US450, that's a hundred bucks more than a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and a hefty price of admission for a ride you might not enjoy.