It’s been two years since gaming Valve first announced its assault on the living room with its Steam Machine console concept and we are finally about to get the first wave of devices after a stop-start journey.
Alienware will be one of the first out of the blocks when it releases its first Steam Machine on 10 November in the UK and we got to play with one, Steam Controller included, ahead of the street date in order to gain an insight into its abilities. And, on first impressions, we feel it could be a valid competitor to conventional consoles.
For a start, it certainly comes in a living room friendly box. The case has actually been in circulation before, appearing in the guise of the Windows 8.1 Alienware Alpha, which the Dell-run company is upgrading and refocusing as a desktop PC. The Steam Machine, however, features different inner components and, most important, Steam OS as the operating system rather than Windows.
It’s significantly smaller than an Xbox One or PS4, but during our 15 minutes or so of gaming with one there’s no audible fan noise. It runs about as quietly as you would need if you are about to plonk it under a TV. In fact, it’s quieter than our PS4 or Xbox One units.
The colour of the LEDs on the front can be changed through settings, and there are four external USB sockets – two on the front, two on the back. There’s also a hidden one for the Steam Controller dongle which can be hidden in a secret compartment under a flap.
There is the obligatory HDMI output but also an input. We’re not sure on its use at present, but that will become apparent once we’ve spent more time with the box. Other connections include Ethernet and an optical audio output.
The Steam Machine comes with a Steam Controller in the box and that’s perhaps the biggest element that turns the kit into a console. Steam OS is designed to work like a simple user interface with which to access PC games on a Steam account and play them on a big screen, but the controller is the element that brings the whole unit into the same space as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s rivals.
Having not used one before, it took us a few plays to get used to the Steam Controller as although there are some similarities between it and, say, the Xbox One equivalent, the thumb pads are another thing altogether.
You can adjust just about everything on the controller through the Steam OS settings and even per game, and that includes haptic feedback on the thumb pads and their sensitivity. And it is by doing the latter that you realise how useful they will be in first-person shooters, where you need to spin around quickly to face foes, or in games that usually require mouse control.
The right pad, for example, can be generally set to act as the mouse cursor would. It feels more akin to a trackball, but gives precise control over an on-screen pointer or look mechanics in action games. It’s weird if you are used to conventional controllers, but offers far greater options.
And it allows many Steam PC titles to be played that would otherwise be fiddly or even impossible to interact with on a normal console.
Not all games on Steam work with Steam OS yet. There are about 1,500 already converted, however, with 100 more coming each month. And that doesn’t include new games that will have compatibility from the off. That’s a mighty library of games and they are all able to be controlled with the Steam Controller.
Steam OS is also growing and will add new features over time. You can already play games, browse the internet and play media files stored locally, but we understand that it could get app support too in order to turn a Steam Machine into a fully-fledged entertainment device.
As it stands it, and the Alienware box specifically, is a valid games-playing console competitor. It’s capable of playing titles in 1080p up to 60 frames per second, with the entry level version (which comes with an Intel Core i3processor) able to maintain that at mid-to-high graphics levels. You can also specify better, faster components and there will be several options at different price points. We’ll explore the tech in more depth when we review one in the coming couple of weeks.
For now, the main consumer-friendly version, at £449/$674, seems an interesting way to get PC gaming into the main living area and certainly the Steam Controller has the potential of changing gaming habits for good.