Valve's Steam Machine platform, which promises to combine console simplicity with PC game depth, could have a huge impact when it kicks off later in 2015. The first Steam Machine devices are officially coming in November, with some early access hardware going out to pre-sale customers in October.
The biggest name to support the platform, which melds console-like controls and user interfaces with PC hardware and a custom operating system, is Dell. The company's Alienware Steam Machine is coming on November 10. But systems preordered through retailer GameStop and Vale's Steam online store may arrive as early as October 16.
The original Alienware Steam Machine was first seen at CES 2014, but following a series of delays to the entire Steam OS platform, it was put on the back burner, along with other announced Steam OS systems. These Steam Machines all boot into a living-room-friendly version of the existing Steam storefront, called Big Picture mode, and allow you to purchase, manage and play PC games from Steam's vast library.
While Steam Machines can come in many shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of components, the Alienware version is a console-like black box, powered by Intel and Nvidia components.
While we've previewed something close to this exact hardware going all the way back to late 2013, E3 2015 is our first chance to get our hands on something close to the final version of the Alienware Steam Machine.
The look and feel is very familiar, and that's because we've tested, reviewed and extensively used nearly the same components and chassis in a different Alienware system released in late 2014. It turns out this unit is so PC-like that during the repeated Steam Machine delays, Dell released the same hardware as the Windows-powered Alienware Alpha.
The resurrected Alienware Steam Machine here at E3 is essentially the same device, starting with an Intel Core i3 processor, 500GB of storage and a custom Nvidia graphics chip based on the mainstream GeForce 860M card, all for $449. For the Steam Machine version, the machine is getting an improved hard drive, running at a faster 7,200rpm speed, but it otherwise unchanged.
A series of upgraded configurations will also be available. For $549, you'll double the RAM to 8GB and the hard drive to 1TB. For $649 and up, you can step up to an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. All configurations include one Steam Controller, Valve's own stickless game pad. (UK and Australian prices were not announced, but those prices convert to £285-410 or AU$585-845. The similar Alienware Alpha starts at AU$699.)
And it's that Steam Controller that really makes this version of the hardware stand out from the previous Windows-based Alpha version. Getting the controller right was apparently one of the major reasons the Steam Machine platform is more than a year behind its original release window. Just as the idea of Steam OS is to provide a console-like feel to PC gaming, the Steam Controller hopes to add PC-like precision to a 10-foot console experience.
Hands-on, the new controller takes some getting used to, and there's a clear reason the Xbox-style gamepad is such a universal choice, even for PC gaming. The usual sticks are replaced with touchpads that give you the thumb-control of a gamepad with a level of precise control it's hard to get outside of using a mouse. There's a definite learning curve, and some games will simply always be better with a gamepad.
There's a deep series of settings menus that allow you to change the behavior of the various buttons and pads on the controller, and the gaming community will no doubt come up with a consensus on what's best for specific games. For those that crave the familiar, a standard Xbox controller can be used instead.
If you've used the Steam Big Picture mode before, the interface on the Alienware Steam Machine will be easy to pick up -- it's essentially the same thing. A big portion of the existing Steam library is natively compatible with Steam OS and will play automatically, but games that are not supported will only work if you bounce a feed from a separate gaming PC through your home network to the Steam Machine. (Of course, if you already have a gaming PC you like, you may not need a Steam Machine.)
A year or so ago, the Steam Machine platform seemed revolutionary. But now, so much time has passed that the current living room consoles are much less expensive, and new Windows PC gaming hardware is so good that the potential audience for the Steam Machine may be smaller now. That said, what we've seen from the low-end Intel Core i3 version of the similar Alienware Alpha has been impressive. That entry level hardware easily plays challenging games such as The Witcher 3, so the Steam machine version should be more than powerful enough to out-class your Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in graphical detail.