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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  • inighthawki - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    The difference is that they're "optimized for gaming" and Valve is pushing support for them. Otherwise, they are just Linux PCs.
  • EnzoFX - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Some people can't see past hardware. Maybe these are the ones that praise Samsung, because all they can see is specs =P, and can't see it's on a crappy body with a crappy touchwiz? =P

    Anyways, the big deal about SteamOS is that it's a platform, it isn't really about the hardware. It's promised to be a flexible one, and open one, and should have features to compete with consoles, and pc's. Anand himself has said MS could have turned Xbox into a platform, not made a console... etc. The space needs to evolve. We should all welcome such changes.
  • djc208 - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Isn't the PS4 going to be running a Linux based OS? If so then AMD will probably have already helped develop better Linux drivers, and more then likely some version of the Mantel API for it as well. Which may give them the same benefit it does on the Windows side, where developers using Mantel to develop for the XBO can push the same benefits to a PC game. Developers writing for PS4 would have an easier time moving it to a Steambox with a similar OS that could potentially use the same rendering path for AMD hardware.
  • phoenix_rizzen - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Most information shows it running a custom OS based on FreeBSD.
  • Da W - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    I see not point, i repeat, NO POINT, in building such a rig with such powerful hardware and NOT installing Windows on it. You'll save what, 100$ With 600$+ worth of GPU alone?

    And i see a point not to encourage too much Steam and promoting some competition into game e-retaillers. Right now steam is basically alone. So the argument to kill the windows monopoly to promote the steam monopoly doesn't hold.

    Microsoft should have tried a similar route. An XBOX certification program that would make a PC strong enough to play XBONE games with a Xbox mode incorporated into windows. (AMD should make 8 core jaguar available to the PC). Or simply an Xbox app in windows 8. You could still use you steam app too with big screen mode. Best of both world.
  • JeffFlanagan - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Promoting competition in game retailers would only be necessary if Steam started over-charging. As it is, I resent if I have to install crap like Origin (all hail the Ori) on my PC, when Steam works so well.
  • inighthawki - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    "Promoting competition in game retailers would only be necessary if Steam started over-charging"

    How about those people who feel they are overcharging now? Competition is ALWAYS good, and with good alternatives, you will see lower prices and better features and support. Valve is doing nothing more than trying to take a foothold of the market by exploiting steam's popularity. The real fix is to come up with a viable alternative to the way steam works now. My proposal is to have digital distribution models based on protocols that can be implemented and shipped with a third party client, very similar to how third party IM clients work today. This way, Valve, EA, Ubisoft etc can all have their own stores, own method of managing digital distribution under a single standardized model with no intrusion on the end user other than entering account information for each separate account. After that, you will see more games and better prices as publishers open their doors to better rates for people like indie developers. Don't like that Valve takes a 30% cut of your profit? Go to competitor A or B who only takes 20%. Each publisher can get an equal share at distributing games while saving money on their end and offering end users better value.
  • BMNify - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    once a Steam monopoly is established you will start giving a crap, i use Steam and origin too specially after that last Origin Humble-Bundle deal, even use GOG sometimes, more competition in Digital distribution sector is good.
  • BwwwJ1st - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    crap like Origin (all hail the Ori) +1
  • risa2000 - Saturday, October 12, 2013 - link

    They started overcharging when they put in place regions and 1$ = 1€ rate several years ago. In Europe games on steam are usually up to 30% more expensive than in retail (e-shop), sometimes even two times more expensive.

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