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Steam Machines game consoles to take many forms

Sep 26, 2013  |  Eric Brown

Valve announced that in 2014 multiple vendors will offer a variety of Steam Machines — living room devices that will play Valve’s Steam game library, and also stream multimedia content, on its newly announced open source Linux SteamOS gaming distribution. Meanwhile, developers can apply for a chance to receive one of 300 Steam Machines prototypes to be sent out later this year.

The much anticipated unveiling of Valve’s Steam Box game console turned out to be more of a tease. Yet the overall announcement, starting with the SteamOS unveiling earlier this week, and continuing tomorrow with what is predicted to be the unveiling of a game controller for Steam Machines, should have major ramifications for Steam players, Linux, and the gaming industry in general.



Valve’s Steam living room environment
(click image to enlarge)

 

In 2014, multiple Steam Machines will launch from different manufacturers, all running SteamOS, says Valve, known for games like Half-Life, as well as its Steam game distribution platform. Meanwhile, as the company confirmed back in January, Valve has been building its own developer machine, previously tipped as a “Steam Box.” This Steam Machines developer system will be given away free to 300 of the most dedicated Steam developers.

“The specific machine we’re testing is designed for users who want the most control possible over their hardware,” says the announcement. “Other boxes will optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors.”

Previously, Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell said that while Valve’s own first Steam Box would run Linux, other licensees could run Windows instead. As it turns out, however, Microsoft has been shut out entirely. All the Steam Machines will run SteamOS, an open source Linux distribution that spans desktop and console devices (see farther below).

The developer prototype will ship this year, says Valve. We should know more when the 300 beta participants receive their devices, as they won’t be sworn to secrecy. Instead: “input from testers should come in many forms: bug reports, forum posts, concept art, 3D prints, haikus, and also very publicly stated opinions,” says Valve.

Both hardware and software is open source, so developers can also use Steam Universe Group to start building their own unique SteamOS-based devices. The device will run over 3,000 Steam platform games, and support keyboard and mouse set-ups as well as gamepads.

The beta users will be chosen “based on their past community contributions and beta participation,” says Valve. Any remaining spot will be selected randomly. A short application form, due Oct. 25, is available to those who join the Steam Universe community group and have a public steam profile. They must also be able to list at least 10 “Steam friends,” and have experience playing a game using a gamepad in Big Picture mode.

Big Picture mode was a major breakthrough from Valve last year. It enables a computer to act as a server to mirror games from Valveā€™s Steam distribution service to multiple screens in the house simultaneously, including TVs. The Android-based Nvidia Shield portable gaming device supports the technology.


Xi3 Piston Console
(click to enlarge)

It’s unclear whether the initial Steam Machines prototype will be based on the developer-focused Piston Console mini-PC from Xi3 (shown on the right). This was supposed to act as sort of a preview developer device prior to the Steam Box. Based on Xi3’s quad-core AMD-based X7A Modular Computer, the $999 Piston Console is available for pre-order, with shipments due in time for the holidays. The Steam-optimized, Big Picture capable computer was expected to ship with Valve’s Steam platform pre-installed with Windows, and with Linux available as an option.
 

Nvidia collaboration runs deep

According to The Verge, Valve has already commissioned 15 to 20 hardware partners to create prototypes. The previously rumored specs of an Intel Core i7 matched with an Nvidia GPU seem to be fluid, now that Valve has promised multiple tiers of devices. Yet, Nvidia graphics are a lock, judging from this Sept. 25 blog post from Nvidia’s senior technical evangelist Mark Smith praising SteamOS.

According to Smith, Valve and Nvidia have “spent a lot of time collaborating” on SteamOS. In fact, Nvidia engineers have been embedded at Valve helping to improve driver performance for OpenGL, optimizing Nvidia GPU performance, and “tuning SteamOS to lower latency, or lag, between the controller and onscreen action,” writes Smith. They’ve also helped to port Valve’s Steam content to SteamOS. So far, only a few hundred of the 3,000 Steam games are available on Linux.

Nvidia’s backing of the project shows the company has come a long way from being an open source pariah, writes Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on ZDNet. Linus Torvalds once called Nvidia the “worst company” the Linux community had even dealt with.
 

SteamOS

Earlier this week, Valve pleased FOSS advocates by announcing that its new Steam devices would run a new open source Linux distribution called SteamOS. Designed for “living room machines,” the distro will provide new features that will also be available on the cross-platform Steam Client.

Few details have been announced except that it’s fully open source. In addition, users of Windows and Mac PCs will be able to stream their games via the SteamOS device to play games on a TV. SteamOS will also provide family sharing features, such as saving game progress to the cloud for later retrieval. Parental controls will also be available, says Valve.

The service will offer access to Steam community features including game groups, clans, chat, and game hubs. Even more significantly, multimedia services will be made available via SteamOS, making it a potential competitor to general purpose media player devices. Valve hints that it will announce media partnerships soon. Vaughan-Nichols, meanwhile, suggests that SteamOS is likely based on Ubuntu 12.04.

More information and sign-up for a chance at beta participation may be found at the Steam Machines site. More on SteamOS may be found at the SteamOS site.
 

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