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Steambox debuts, offers a new path to living room PC gaming

Valve's new idea of a console/PC hybrid takes aim at Xbox One, PS4.

LAS VEGAS -- After revolutionizing the distribution of PC games through its online Steam game store and app, Valve is jumping into gaming hardware with its new Steambox platform. First announced in 2013, the platform combines console-like hardware that runs Steam-based PC games and works with a Valve-designed custom controller.

At its CES 2014 press conference, Valve for the first time announced partnerships with the PC makers that will actually produce and sell Steambox hardware, and it showed off early hardware prototypes from companies including Dell, Maingear, Falcon Northwest, and Origin PC. Valve has previously produced a small number of its own Steambox machines, seeded to developers and beta testers, but the company says it remains undecided on whether it will be making its own commercially available box. The Steambox controller, however, will be available to buy separately at an unspecified time in the future.

Valve CEO Gabe Newell says that about 250 games have been ported to the Steam OS so far, and will play natively on Steambox hardware. Other games, which may include many popular mainstream PC titles, will be playable, if you stream the gameplay from a Windows gaming PC on your home network. A complicated workaround (similar to how the Nvidia Shield plays PC games), but at the very least it will let you get PC games from your current gaming rig onto your big-screen TV without having to physically connect them.

Among the Steamboxes announced at the Valve press conference were the Alienware Steam Machine from Dell, the Origin PC Chronos, and the Maingear Spark, which was a last-minute addition for which prototype hardware was not yet available. Maingear's variants are dual-boot machines that offer mainstream gaming PC components and can run both Windows 7 or 8, as well as Steam OS.

The first commercially available Steambox systems are expected in the second half of 2014 and should cost about the same as a current-gen video game console, around $400 to $500, with the more expansive dual-boot systems, such as the Origin PC Chronos, costing as much as a comparable gaming PC.