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Valve, Xi3 and the Steam Box: should consoles be scared?

Piston, the Valve-funded gaming PC from Xi3, could be the big Steam Box-style break that the Big Picture was designed for.

Piston, the Valve-funded gaming PC from Xi3, could be the big Steam Box-style break that the Big Picture was designed for.

(Credit: Rich Brown/CNET)

Xi3 is the designer of small form-factor "modular PCs" with a distinctive shape. And by small form factor, we mean it; the Xi3 basic chassis can be quite happily held in the palm of one hand.

Valve, on the other hand, is the creator of Steam, the digital distribution platform for gaming that looks hell bent on world domination. It recently launched Big Picture, a version of Steam designed specifically for TV sets, working with a console-style controller as adeptly as a keyboard and mouse. It came out of beta recently.

If there was only some way of bringing them together...

Hinting back in December last year that PC hardware purpose built for Steam wasn't too far away, the deal was pretty much sealed at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) when Xi3 showed off the Piston.

The Piston is a Valve-funded project, a PC built specifically for Steam and Big Picture, all inside what Xi3 bizarrely calls a "grapefruit-sized" case.

In the press release boilerplate, Jason A Sullivan, founder, president and CEO of Xi3, said:

This new development stage product will allow users to take full advantage of their large high-definition TV displays for an amazing computer game experience. As a result, this new system could provide access to thousands of gaming titles through an integrated system that exceeds the capabilities of leading game consoles, but can fit in the palm of your hand.

Other than that, the company is being tight lipped about the specs and details, telling reporters only that it is based somewhat on its existing 7 Series. For the record, the 7 Series is based on AMD's R-Series APUs — quad-core processors up to 3.2GHz. It also has AMD's 384 core Radeon HD 7660G graphics core built in. But those specs won't necessarily reflect the Piston.

It's also worth noting that this collaboration between Valve and Xi3 isn't exclusive — they're still free to see other manufacturers, and they'll still respect each other the next morning.

So, with even money suggesting that at least one new-generation console might be unveiled this year, should Sony and Microsoft be worried about Piston?

It's a tricky question. Consoles and PCs have traditionally filled different gaming niches, with consoles having an additional emphasis on entertainment, with music and movie offerings and much more.

But the Piston — and any other Steam Box that gets developed — is aimed at the lounge room, and that puts it firmly in competition with any console device.

While hardcore PC enthusiasts are always going to be reluctant to swap a keyboard for a controller, console gamers (with the emphasis on the gaming, rather than the entertainment) must be looking at their ageing hardware and wondering why they're putting up with it.

In the end, a couple of key factors will help determine the success of the Piston against the likes of the PS3 and Xbox. One is how long gamers will need to wait for the next-generation consoles. While Microsoft may announce a new Xbox at E3, that doesn't mean it'll be available soon after. The second, as always, is the price. The Xi3 7 series can sell for up to US$999, which is a little higher than we anticipate consumers would be willing to pay.

Either way, we're watching this with interest.