Valve Announce The Steam Machine Prototype Specs: Good News For Intel And NVIDIA

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅05.10.2013 18:26:27

Valve have made good on their word and posted the specs of their prototype Steam Machines - PC gaming systems which they believe will form the backbone of PC gaming in the living room of the future. In an announcement to the Steam Universe community group Gregori AKA Valve designer Greg Coomer shed some light their decisions, and why they're in the main composed of off-the-shelf PC parts.

As we know from the earlier announcements Valve are building three hundred prototypes to go out to beta testers, along with an equal number of Steam Controllers. Crucially Valve have revealed that the prototypes won't be a fixed spec, instead ranging the gamut of 'gaming system' performance specs you'd expect to see in 2014. Without further ado, lets take a look at them:

The 300 prototype units will ship with the following components:

GPU: some units with NVidia Titan, some GTX780, some GTX760, and some GTX660
CPU: some boxes with Intel i7-4770, some i5-4570, and some i3
RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3GB GDDR5 (GPU)
Storage: 1TB/8GB Hybrid SSHD
Power Supply: Internal 450w 80Plus Gold
Dimensions: approx. 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 in high

From a quick glance at that parts list assembling a Steam Machine of your own should be a trivial matter, whilst 3rd Party systems built under the Steam Machine ethos will have plenty of flexibility in their design. The chassis itself is the one major restricting feature; given the specified dimensions, including a height of only 2.9 inches, active cooling is going to be significantly restricted. Valve are obviously ignoring large and elaborate tower cooling solutions or radiators for their preferred designs, instead opting for low-profile CPU coolers and GFX cards mounted parallel to the motherboard via a riser. Although MATX motherboards could fit in such a case, feature-rich mini-ITX is much more likely.

These cooling limitations have really impacted the CPU choices, pretty much mandating an Intel 22nm solution. The range of speeds - from Core i3 through to quad-core hyperthreaded Haswell Core i7 4770K - will be enough to assess performance at a wide range PC specs. Although Trinity APUs as part of extremely small HTPC systems may relevant for game streaming - an announced feature of the SteamOS - AMD FX CPUs are currently unsuitable. Yes, in many cases they can equal Intel's CPU performance, but this is only possible at a vastly higher power budget.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX cards are central to the Steam Machine prototype spec

Reasons for choosing NVIDIA hardware could be a little more complicated. Without a doubt the GTX TITAN is the fastest single-GPU solution currently available (at least until the R9 290X, and who knows when mature Linux drivers will appear for that SKU) and that has to have figured into Valve's calculations. Keeping the underlying architecture consistent throughout the range of prototypes is important from a driver and capability perspective, and NVIDIA Kepler cards all have very similar features. There is however a wildcard feature: gameplay streaming.

NVIDIA have gone some distance down the gameplay streaming rabbit hole, especially with respect to Project SHIELD. As we noted in the original announcement the game streaming capability of SteamOS is remarkably similar in scope, although SteamOS will be streaming to an x86 rather than ARM device. With Kepler, NVIDIA have a proven platform for 720p local wireless game streaming and capability for 1080p. By contrast, AMD's VCE module in the GCN architecture has been underexploited in terms of workable consumer software. We expect the latter to be a major part of next generation console gameplay recording, but for the PC NVIDIA appear to ready, willing and with a mature API to back it up.

As far as memory goes, 16GB is today's definition of plenty; this is after all a performance gaming rig. The norm is 8GB, as much down to cost as actual need, whilst allocating more has a certain eye to the future. It also allows Valve to be a little more flexible in their rigour when developing SteamOS; over-speccing a test system is fairly common in platform development to account for numerous issues which may arise such as non-critical memory leaks and testing the interactions of multiple memory intensive programs.

A hybrid mechanical/solid state drive is the ideal compromise of capacity, performance and price. High capacity SSDs are an option, but likely not representative of the vast majority of Steam Machines. If, as suspected, chassis space issues make a single 2.5" drive the norm then a single hybrid drive will be the obvious choice for the future.


For true low-profile Steam Machines Noctua coolers may be just the ticket.

So, all the parts seem realistic, although there may be a few question marks about any graphics card or performance CPU running cool and quiet without a significant amount of ventilation, such that the chassis resembles a sieve rather than high-grade technology. A compatible CPU cooler may need a little more work to acquire than some parts *cough* Noctua *cough*, but only the chassis itself is exotic and Valve will make the CAD drawings for available. If the scheme takes off one should expect the likes of Silverstone to release their own mITX case adhering to Steam Machine specification, perhaps even of superior quality.

These systems are not the thin clients one may have expected when SteamOS was first announced. They are fully fledged gaming specs, for a variety of budgets to be sure, but still game systems capable of 1080p gaming on any title currently playable. Although they can all be streamed to, Valve want systems from which games are capable of being streamed, hence the choice of NVIDIA specifically.

Is the Steam Machine principle feasible? Certainly, the lucky 300 who get their hands on a prototype system will be receiving a gaming PC to be reckoned with. On the other hand, with these specs the Steam Machine will do nothing to drive down the cost of PC gaming for the living room. You're still going to be hard pressed to bring these systems in under the cost of an XBox One or PS4 even assuming a free Operating System, and that's without factoring in the so-far unknown cost of the wireless Steam Controller. Living room game streaming may change the game, but that will only be resolved when these high performance systems are paired with low-performance HPTCs. It is in this arena where AMD are positioned to make out like bandits because of their affordable APUs, but only if they are in a position to play ball with optimised Linux drivers, SteamOS and game streaming from NVIDIA Kepler devices.

The most damaging outcome from AMD's perspective would be if Steam Machines become an adopted standard from which they are tacitly excluded, reinforcing any abiding sense that hardcore gaming on PC is synonymous with Intel CPUs and NVIDIA GPUs.

Now that you know the specs, what are your thoughts? A good day for NVIDIA, bad news for Microsoft and AMD? Let us know.

For more information on the Steam Machine keep an eye on the Steam Universe community group and other news channels.

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