Last week Valve posted the specs for their prototype Steam Machines, and we noted at the time that all of the prototypes were using Intel CPUs with NVIDIA GPUs. The general consensus has been that NVIDIA has better drivers than AMD on Linux, and Intel CPUs have been leading AMD in both performance and reducing power use for the past several years, so going with Intel and NVIDIA hardware on a prototype system isn’t particularly shocking.

NVIDIA likes to help their partners by actually providing on-site engineering resources to a variety of companies – we know they have helped (and continue to help) numerous game developers, along with companies like Adobe (with both Flash and CUDA support for their Creative Suite), etc. There are NVIDIA engineers at Valve right now helping with the Steam Machines, and likely with other projects as well. We don’t know whether AMD is doing anything similar, but presumably NVIDIA has been putting more effort into SteamOS and thus their use in the prototype machines is logical.

But the lack of AMD hardware, combined with OriginPC announcing that they were completely dropping AMD GPUs, lead many to question whether Valve would be supporting AMD hardware at all. However, in a statement to Forbes yesterday, Valve confirmed that some retail Steam Machines shipping in 2014 will use AMD GPUs, and presumably we’ll see AMD CPUs used as well.

Valve’s Doug Lombardi states, “Last week, we posted some technical specs of our first wave of Steam Machine prototypes. Although the graphics hardware that we’ve selected for the first wave of prototypes is a variety of NVIDIA cards, that is not an indication that Steam Machines are NVIDIA-only. In 2014, there will be Steam Machines commercially available with graphics hardware made by AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel. Valve has worked closely together with all three of these companies on optimizing their hardware for SteamOS, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.”

So not only will we see Steam Machines with AMD and NVIDIA GPUs, but we’ll also get models from some vendors that skip out on discrete GPUs entirely and use Intel iGPUs. Considering that Steam Machines will likely have to stream all the Windows-only titles from a running Windows PC, it’s been speculated that some SteamOS systems will simply be tiny mITX (or smaller) cases with only a small amount of storage and a moderate CPU and will basically act as glorified media streamers. After all, NVIDIA’s SHIELD is essentially doing the same thing when streaming Windows games to the portable gaming controller, so why not do something similar for the living room?

Forbes speculates that we may see Intel’s Iris and Iris Pro iGPUs in Steam Machines, and it’s certainly possible, but I suspect plain old HD 4400/4600 will be far more common in the short-term. It’s just as likely that we’ll see Steam Machines powered by even low-end x86 processors like AMD’s Kabini or Intel’s Silvermont, but those would clearly be for streaming duties as opposed to running complex games natively. AMD’s Trinity/Richland as well as the upcoming Kaveri also seem like good candidates for budget Steam Machines, depending on what you want to do with the hardware.

Related to the above statement by Valve, AMD’s PR team also appears to have responded to various media outlet inquiries: “You’ve asked questions around Valve’s recent announcement of SteamOS and Steam Machines – and were wondering if AMD was ‘left out’ from their prototype program. This couldn’t be further from the truth – AMD is very actively engaged with Valve on these products and campaigns. But since we’d like you to hear this from Valve directly, please email Doug Lombardi, who is the Vice President of Marketing at Valve for their official statement on AMD’s involvement in the Steam Machine prototype program.”

It’s a nice way of dodging the question, but effectively it means that yes, AMD hardware was left out of the prototypes, but 300 prototype devices doesn’t exactly qualify as a huge win anyway; it’s the shipping hardware that will actually matter. Which is true at face value, but it neglects to deal with the fact that in the beta phase of the Steam Machine prototypes, all the bugs that exist with the NVIDIA and Intel platform will be directly tested by users. If I were planning on selling or buying a Steam Machine any time near launch, I would want to use the hardware that has received the most testing, and that’s clearly going to be hardware that’s similar to the prototypes. Then again, AMD is already in the PS4 and Xbox One, so maybe Steam Machines are being pushed as much by NVIDIA as they are by Valve?

None of the above should be surprising to most of our readers, but when we consider the larger context of SteamOS and Steam Machines, it does keep bringing us back to the big question: what is Valve really planning to do with these systems? If all of the Steam Machines that ship next year were to use discrete GPUs – AMD or NVIDIA, it doesn’t really matter – then we can reasonably conclude that Valve has hopes of spurring development for native Linux games. When they start talking about Intel graphics, however, even the fastest iGPUs (Iris Pro 5200) are still only providing roughly the same level of performance as NVIDIA’s GT 640 – or about one third the performance of the slowest prototype machine’s GTX 660! And to get that, you have to buy a quad-core Intel Haswell chip that isn’t exactly a budget part. Broadwell will make Intel iGPUs faster, but iGPUs will always be significantly slower than dGPUs that have several times more power available (e.g. GTX 780 is rated at up to 250W, whereas the highest performance CPUs are less than half that).

So on the one hand, Valve appears to be pursuing the living room more as a streaming platform than as a native Linux gaming platform. And that’s really weird, because Steam is already running natively on Windows with a vast library of games, and it’s really easy to connect a modern Windows PC to your home theater. Streaming will introduce at least some lag, never mind the potential for issues with less than stellar WiFi connections. Okay, you do get to put the noisy gaming PC in another room and still play games with a gamepad on the HDTV, but if that’s all you want then perhaps a GPU-agnostic equivalent to NVIDIA’s SHIELD (minus the integrated display) would be a better solution. On the other hand, we have prototype systems that pack more performance potential than either of the upcoming gaming consoles. Those are clearly designed to be powerful gaming systems, and the fact that they can do other stuff is a bonus.

It's the combination of high-end offerings along with budget systems that makes it hard to figure out Steam Machines; the mixutre means you lose the appeal of designing for a closed platform. We already have complex PCs with widely ranging performance capabilities, so unless there’s something more SteamOS just offers a new take on the same old hardware. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out, but the more I hear about SteamOS and the Steam Machines, the less I see it succeeding as a major gaming platform.

Source: Forbes

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  • anubis44 - Sunday, October 20, 2013 - link

    So we're going from a start menu with a alphabetized listing of installed programmes, and graphical icon shortcuts whereever you want them on the desktop, to... a bunch of radomly placed icons that don't fit on one desktop... and THAT'S an improvement?
  • Bob Todd - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    There are a very large number of things keeping Linux from killing off Windows on the desktop, and I say this as a former Linux zealot. The "year of Linux" on the desktop is never coming, unless one or multiple large (well funded) companies takes the kernel, the GNU tools, and puts a hell of a lot of polish on it (similar to what Apple did with the Mach kernel and some BSD bits). Grandma isn't going to be able to get her new printer from Best Buy set up with CUPS. It's still an OS for people who like to tinker, and that rules out almost the entirety of the home desktop market.
  • quagga - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Yeah, if only there was a large company invested in Linux. Perhaps in Mountain View, California which could take Linux and have a version of it pre-loaded on laptops which boot quickly and hypothetically launch a fast web browser. The next thing you'd know they'd have it on SmartPhones and tablets.
  • Bob Todd - Saturday, October 12, 2013 - link

    Your attempt at sarcasm isn't what I was referring to. The always online, cheap (minus the Pixel), your world is a web browser Chrome OS isn't my ideal situation. And it's not really what the person I responded to was talking about. I mean this fool's dream of 'Linux on the desktop' where distros like Ubuntu/Fedora/Suse "kill off Windows". There isn't remotely enough cohesion or polish in those experiences for that to happen. Chrome OS has a future, but it isn't pushing high-end gaming or becoming the OS the majority of the people use at home or work. The pricing of those devices make them ideal for developing markets, but those are the same markets that have the hardest time dealing with an OS designed around the fact that you've almost always got a good internet connection. And we're less than a week away from a world where Chromebooks will have to compete with sub $300 quad core Bay Trail Windows 8.1 tablets with full copies of Office (Home & Student). At that point price is almost gone from the equation and Chrome OS has to grow on its even simpler UX and security.

    What I meant was something much more akin to OS X than Chrome OS. Perhaps some tie-up from someone like Intel and another company that takes the kernel, GNU tools, Wayland, picks one damn UI framework for all of the core apps (e.g. QT), and actually builds a compelling user experience. The trick is, who will sink all of that money in and how do they monetize their effort? Google's is easy, close ties to all of the Google services and corresponding ads. But will we see anyone build a great "full" (non-mobile only) OS based on Linux that ends up ruling the desktop?
  • gochichi - Thursday, November 7, 2013 - link

    I completely disagree with you on this. What rock have you been living in that Windows doesn't ever have driver issues? I have found that, on the contrary, Linux (let's call it Ubuntu really) is incredibly plug and play friendly. I can name example after example of real world things I've seen with my own eyes ... where, for example, my HP 1320 laserjet sometimes was difficult to install on Windows (although not recently, it's very "plug and play" lately) and just worked on Linux. Likewise for a scanner that I just gave up trying to use under Windows.

    I will say this about Linux, the very latest and very greatest usually don't work super fantastic. However, grandma isn't buying a super modern machine.

    I've put grandma on Linux and BECAUSE there was no built-in expertise/intuition on Windows anyway, she had a slightly easier time.

    Another example: You can open all documents you want to open with Ubuntu. Unlike Windows where you can't open anything by default and have to get external sources to handle that software. Be it MS Office or not, my point is that it's very much not built in which is incredibly confusing to Grandma.

    The card games, majong and all that stuff that older people absolutely love are also part of the appeal with Linux. Harder for them to get viruses and end up with weird toolbars and stuff.

    Anyhow, I don't buy this premise as to why Windows "has a monopoly", I think Windows is just better and proprietary and Windows + Office = pretty functional for most people. I would argue that the monopoly time is already over though, you can absolutely find and acquire Linux for free right now. You can absolutely find and acquire a Mac right now.
  • jwcalla - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    The rationale is probably exactly what Gabe has said on numerous occasions: they want to get an open entertainment platform into the living room before Apple establishes their closed platform there.
  • MySchizoBuddy - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Oh yes an open platform playing a proprietary game is so much better than a proprietary platform playing a proprietary game.
  • HisDivineOrder - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Actually... it is? Hm. I mean, it really is better.
  • BMNify - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Gabe wants to further establish his Steam monopoly on the PC-gaming market, nothing else!! I like steam as just one client to get games, just like origin and other options available on Windows instead of supporting a proprietary DRM-induced closed platform like steam.
  • kyuu - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    I have to agree with Mr. Walton's assessment; these are just PCs in custom cases. I really don't see how they're supposed to be some kind of paradigm shift in gaming. They offer nothing that I can't already do on my gaming rig -- in fact, they offer less since there's a large catalog of games I wouldn't be able to play on it. Unless I was streaming... but I could do that with a laptop doing double-duty as an HTPC.

    Even if you really hate Microsoft and/or Windows 8, you can already make a PC and install a Linux distro on it. What's the big deal with these things?

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