Valve has finally unveiled most of the remaining details on their Steam Machines at this year’s GDC and included specifications, pricing and dates. You can check them out here on their website. If you’re not aware, Steam Machines are Valve’s idea to take over the living room (and computer desk) and provide a machine with its own native Steam operating system and as a result time spent in the Steam software ecosystem. After all the more ‘Steam’ enabled gadgets available in your home, the more likely you’ll spend money on them. And while Steam Machines at its core is a great idea and who doesn’t want cheap discounted digital software, the more details I hear about the Steam Machines, the less I like about the whole concept.
The problems I find are thus
1. There are too many choices
2. They are essentially PCs
3. They don’t offer anything different
Drowning in choices
The first issue is that there are way too many choices, and its the PC problem over and over again. It’s true, most casual consumers don’t care about specs, just look at the droves of people that buy Apple products. Yet they are not stupid. If given lots of choices, then people are going to start comparing to see which one offers the best value. Look at the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5s for example.
So in total 15 manufacturers are listed on Steam’s hardware website and many include multiple builds of Steam Machines with prices ranging from $479 all the way up to $4999. There is an overwhelming number of machines and builds, all looking slightly different, all with small differences in hardware and pricing. The thing is none of the machines is likely to offer EXACTLY what you want. 4 HDMI ports? I only want two. Overlocking? I don’t need it.
Is this what casual users really want? My guess is they just want to play Plants vs Zombies and Call of Duty with decent hardware that doesn’t cost the world. And similarly then, is that what hardcore PC gamers want? Most of this audience will probably build their own PC. It’s a confusing setup.
Steam Machines are essentially PCs
With so many builds, most people are going to compare the specifications of these machines to see what they are buying. And when they do, they are going to realise that these machines all use regular PC parts that anybody can pick up at their local PC store and even use PC cases that PC stores stock.
This Zotac machine will use the new Intel Skylake processor due out late this year (pricing unknown), GTX 970m, 8GB DDR3 Ram, a 64gb SSD, 1TB HDD. At $999 its reasonably priced for now, but its likely that average Joe could shop around and find cheaper parts (like comparing on PCpartpicker) and looking for 15 minutes. Yes this Zotac has a pretty case, kind of similar to the Apple Mac Mini, but aside from that the internal hardware is available in PC shops. Once they do a bit of research they could also take out parts they are not interested in, or put in parts they prefer. With Steam Machines, it looks there won’t be customisation or that it will be severely restricted. So who is this product for?
Steam Machines don’t offer anything different
Given that its called a ‘Steam Machine’ and not a PC, one would expect some special features, like a console perhaps, but you can buy a regular PC, install Steam OS (or Windows and Steam software, your choice) and the only thing missing would be a steam badge on your PC box. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the Steam Machine did something that your regular PC could not. Like having a version of the OS that is suited for TVs for example. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling incentive to buy this over a regular PC.
What the Steam Machine should have been
Quite simply, cheap and simplistic.
1. Rather than so many builds, have two models, budget and premium. The budget build could be for casuals and priced similarly to consoles at around $399-$499. It should be able to play most games on Steam on medium settings and have similar performance to the PS4, Xbox One, products at the same price range. The premium build could be around $699-799 and should really play everything at higher performance level than regular consoles.
2. Update the two machines yearly ala Apple. Bring out a new premium model every year and bump the old one down.
And that’s pretty much all they had to do.
Instead, Valve and its partners are basically making pre-made PC desktops, an industry that has always had difficulty competing against custom built PCs, because that has always been the most effective way to buy a desktop. A desktop that has all the features you want and none that you don’t. Something a Steam Machine is unlikely to give you.