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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  • nafhan - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    ...right now. If a free OS would run the games you wanted to play, why would you spend $100+ on Windows?

    Plus, Steam OS makes better general Linux game and GPU driver support likely. That does help break the Windows desktop OS monopoly.
  • inighthawki - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Please don't misuse the word monopoly. Neither Microsoft nor Windows are a monopoly. Windows simply has a large marketshare.

    "...right now. If a free OS would run the games you wanted to play, why would you spend $100+ on Windows?"
    Ever think that some people actually like Windows? I for one happen to like the Windows environment. I do heavy amounts of C/C++ programming and I've never once enjoyed my experience programming in Linux (it's a nightmare and I cannot stand the APIs) and I've never once enjoyed using Linux anytime I've ever had to. To be quite frank, you couldn't pay *me* to use Linux.
  • BMNify - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    why would you spend $100+ on Windows?

    So that i can use a proper OS with all the paid-for programs and games, not to forget MS Office which is the Gold standard in the industry and proper support for all the 3rd party peripherals.

    Besides, Windows 8 upgrade cost was just $40, students get it for free and even the price of $100 for a OS which will be useful for many years is not significant.

    Also, I can use the steam client on windows which has all the AAA games, Origin, Amazon Digital and GOG digital publishing services with no vendor-lock unlike the proprietary steamOS.
  • EnzoFX - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Then it's not for you lol. Doesn't mean people couldn't make do without Windows.

    Why are people so threatened by what is supposed to be an expansion of a platform. You that insist on Windows will always have your Windows, MS isn't going anywhere. Keep building your Win PC's, SteamOS isn't yet for you, move along.
  • errorr - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    I always wondered what it would take engineering wise to have an enthusiast grade igpu from amd. Perhaps we would have to wait until we have truly heterogeneous compute in a single package, but a super beefed up version of what is in the ps4 would always seem interesting.

    Of course rhe rub is delivering that much power to a socket and then dissipating all that heat. I wonder if the engineering for the 5ghz chips that pump 200+ watts into a chip is some kind of prep for seeing what is available. I know that needs water cooling but you could get some fairly small form factors if it is all in a single die.
  • HisDivineOrder - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    It's quite simple what Valve is doing.

    They're setting themselves (and others) to have an OS that won't abandon the user-installed application model that Windows 8 seems to suggest is on the way out. Microsoft seems less vested in continuing the current application model Windows (and even OSX) is known for and instead focused on mimicking the app store in the long run.

    Valve knows this will shut them out of the digital marketplace at MS's leisure, which is encouraging them to get Linux up to par immediately. They tried just integrating Steam into Linux, but that's just not enough to compel publishers to see Linux as a viable alternative.

    But the time is right. If AMD is to be believed and middleware (engines) are the future of interoperability, then getting the Steam Machine in the heads of developers of those engines right now is key because right now is the shift from console to console for the next gen. Right now is the key moment for the next 5-10 years before another such cycle happens.

    If developers are already going to be coding OpenGL for PS4, OpenGL for PS3, OpenGL for Android, OpenGL for Apple anything, then they might as well code OpenGL for Linux/SteamOS. That's what they're trying to make obvious. Look at the Steam controller. It has nearly every feature of a PS4 controller (including the d-pad when used for weapon swapping, etc, if you count the four buttons around the touchscreen) excluding the gyros and PS move functionality. That is, it has all the essentials.

    I see SteamOS and Steam Machines as Valve's attempt to legitimize Linux as a gaming platform ahead of MS actually killing application support in favor of apps only purchased through their app store. If you think they wouldn't do that, look at how much they LOVE Xbox and remember that's precisely what that platform is. Locked in purchases that don't even transfer from generation to generation, compelling you to buy the same games again and again.

    Valve's trying to get Linux up to par BEFORE Microsoft might make such a transition. Why? Because if Microsoft is eventually going to make the argument, "Well, so what if you can't run your applications and are going to an all new platform? You'll have all the apps you ever want on the new platform!"

    To which, Valve wants to reply, "Well, if you're going to switch platforms anyway, you might as well switch to SteamOS since you're losing all your old applications regardless, but at least with Steam you'll have all your old licenses for Linux-versions of many of your games."

    That's what SteamOS is really doing. Backing MS into a corner where if they try to do a platform lockdown, they'll suffer a huge amount of attrition for doing it. Even if SteamOS doesn't destroy Windows (and it probably won't especially at first), it could serve as a "Google Chrome" for the OS market. Pushing a certain amount of performance and feature parity to keep things moving at a pace more conducive to active progression.

    Google doesn't care if Chrome wins the browser wars. They just want it to be enough of a player to compel the other guys to keep moving and improving. Same goes for SteamOS and the Steam Machines that will legitimize it.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    If you can only play most Steam games via streaming from a Windows PC running Steam, then how does any of this remove Windows from the equation? Oops.
  • jtd871 - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    Jarred, I belive the argument is that current Windows versions (Vista, 7, 8) are not currently walled gardens. Given how popular legacy versions of windows (XP probably the best example) were/still are, it's going to take a great deal of time to convince the majority of users to upgrade anytime soon - especially as the price for Win8.1 is now essentially full-price for an OEM license (I know that Win7Prox64 works just fine for me - both at home and the office).

    Gabe has publicly voiced his concern that Win will go to a curated walled garden model on numerous soap boxes, which is the stated reason for pushing a Linux-oriented strategy.

    My biggest head-scratcher about the Steam Machines initiative is that the prototypes, if in a case as small as has been bandied about (12x12x3), could generate amounts of heat that would be problematic at best to cool or keep to an acceptable living room degree of quiet. Falcon charges a huge premium for the Tiki and that thing only has watercooling for the CPU. Put a Titan in a Steam Machine and you'll have to underclock or undervolt the thing to keep the thermals manageable in that SFF chassis. Oh and how do you fit an effective cooling solution in there with that small a volume of case?! Even if you somehow managed to watercool the GPU, you would still need a respectable amount of airflow for the radiator. Thoughts?
  • framspl33n - Saturday, October 12, 2013 - link

    The PC platform is dying out and will be replaced by Gaming Consoles and Laptops/Tablets.
    It only makes sense if you see these beta machines as an advertising ploy to get peoples' attention and introduce the Nvidia fanboys to the adaptability of SteamOS. After the public is introduced to the OS and decide they want to install it on their gaming machine and hook it up to their TV (or build a second machine for their kids, or buy a pre-built Steam Box) they will decide that Linux is a more friendly alternative to gaming than Windows (due to the gaming-specific optimizations) and will leave Windows to the realm of Office PCs, Laptops and Tablets, which is where Windows is headed anyways.
  • Ktracho - Friday, October 11, 2013 - link

    A Steam Machine with two graphics cards, one of them AMD, would be the best of both worlds - use one graphics card for Linux, and the other for Windows running in a virtual machine via VGA passthrough, which many AMD cards allow. Then, you can switch between Linux and Windows games just by choosing a different HDMI input on your receiver or TV - no streaming or rebooting necessary.

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