What is a Steam Machine?
In 2013 Valve, the makers of the game distribution platform Steam, announced its plans to bring the iconic PC gaming experience into the living room by way of their own Linux-based operating system, a unique controller that can emulate mouse and keyboard in-game, and a co-operation with several hardware manufacturers to market custom PCs that are small in form factor but big in performance and power.
So a Steam Machine is, in essence, a combination of all 3, although you're perfectly able to assemble your own PC, run SteamOS, hook up a Steam Controller and get the same PC Console couch experience. Odds are though that your own build, although probably more cost effective, won't look as sleek and console-esque when parked underneath your TV.
The Steam Machine from Alienware is one of around thirteen wildly different offerings from official hardware manufacturers announced by Valve, and the unit supplied for this review was the top model on offer from Alienware both in terms of specs and price.
It comes bundled with the Steam Controller (which we won't spend much time on in this review, please head here for our full review), plus full versions of Payday 2 (the GOTY Edition), Screencheat, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball and additional DLC & exclusive items for free-to-play titles Brawlhalla and War Thunder.
One of the focusses of the Steam Machines is to rival the consoles in terms of size and aesthetic design, and there is a reason Valve has chosen this iconic looking machine as it's flagship offering because in this regard, Alienware has knocked it out of the park.
While in essence it's a glossy black rectangle with some LED-lit buttons on the front, it's also smaller and quieter when running compared to its counterparts from Sony and Microsoft. It's only 20cm by 20cm in size and once hooked up and sat in its rightful place under your TV, it looks right at home. And at only 2 kg it's also great to take over to a friend's place for some LAN action.
Connection wise it's basic, featuring two USB 2.0 slots on the front, and two USB 3.0 at the back. There you'll also find a 1.4a HDMI out, a HDMI input for straight throughput from another source such as DVR, a Bluray player or a console (if you wanna be a bit cheeky).
The RJ45 GbE Ethernet port supplies internet to the machine via a LAN cable, or you can use the built in WiFi card. For audiophiles there is a Toslink Optical audio out, and lastly DC in to supply power via a moderately-sized laptop style powerbrick. Additionally there is a hatch on the bottom with an extra USB 2.0 connection that is very handy for the small bluetooth dongle required for the Steam controller.
When considering the overall experience of the machine one must fully take into account what Valve and Alienware are trying to achieve and the market they are going after. The goal here is to take the performance and variety from the PC space and marry it with the accessibility and the ease of use one has come to expect from consoles. That means the direct competition here is consoles and that determines the scale we're judging this by, yet we can not ignore the platform it spawned from and still occupies; the PC.
The setup is very easy and you can be up and in a game within minutes, depending on your internet speed and the size of the game you want to play. When booted up we are introduced to SteamOS which, for all intents and purposes, looks and feels the same as Steam's Big Picture mode that many Steam users may already be familiar with. There is never the need for a keyboard and the whole user interface is large, easily understandable and simple to navigate with the use of the Steam Controller. In essence, it's a console experience.
However, it's not without issues. A simplified store with larger icons and various filters makes it easier to navigate via a controller, but it lacks the detailed functions one has come to expect from Steam. Sure it's great to be able to find featured games, popular releases, specific recommendations, or games within a certain price range, but where is the "all games" function?
Going over to the library is also a bit of an eye opener. Consoles have for years seen their sales directly tied to their exclusives, while PC has appealed due to the sheer amount of games available: the Steam Machine falls a bit flat in both aspects.
Since SteamOS is Linux-based it doesn't support Windows titles (except through streaming, more on that later) so our library of 612 games was cut down to 240. A lot of recent AAA games such as GTA 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt simply don't work with Linux. Furthermore, games from companies such as EA or Blizzard won't be available on the Steam Machine regardless of Linux availability due to them using services other than Steam.
Steam currently has about 1500+ linux games, stating that about 100 titles are being added monthly, so that is still a considerably larger library than you will find on any current console, but that is still omitting those large new releases and our experience with some of the Linux ports has been less than stellar. This, however, is an issue of commitment from game developers and with Valve's full support and the potential success of Steam Machines, the focus on Linux versions can only increase.
Another small detail that isn't the same as on consoles and draws away from the living room experience is the fact that you can't turn the hardware on by turning on the controller and neither does the controller have audio output for headphones, something we've grown accustomed to with consoles.
The unit we were supplied with comes with an Intel Core i7-4785T Quad-Core Processor (the older Haswell chip, rather than either of the newer Broadwell of Skylake chips) 8GB Ram, a 2GB custom NVIDIA GTX GPU roughly corresponding to a GTX 860M and a 1TB hard drive. For the uninitiated, those are some pretty decent specs when compared to the current-gen consoles, especially when crammed into a box the size of a Nintendo Wii.
When compared to PC, however, they are mid tier and the big problem for Alienware is that they were forced to delay the release of the machine for a year while Valve took extra time to refine their controller and operating system. Alienware originally got around this issue by releasing this same hardware as the Alienware Alpha, then bundled with an Xbox 360 controller and running Windows 8.1 (currently shipping with Windows 10).
A year for hardware in the PC space simply isn't the same as for consoles and although this Machine could run just about everything we threw at it in 1080p and 30-80fps on medium to high graphics settings, prepare to see that go down for newer titles in only a year or two. To get around this, Alienware has promised the customisability of a PC by letting you switch out hardware components. The processor, RAM and hard drive are all interchangeable up to a point, but the one thing you can't change also happens to be arguably the most important, as the customised graphics chip is soldered to the motherboard.
We played about thirty games on the Steam Machine and were generally happy with performance. As we said before, games run in full 1080p and with satisfactory frame-rates.
We did have some issues, like Bioshock: Infinite - even though it looked just about as good as we've ever seen it, every once in a while (usually around the point where it quicksaves) the game would stutter momentarily.
Most of the time games start up with optimal settings applied but as with any PC system you can tinker around in the settings to get the games to run as smoothly as possible, although when viewed as a console experience this can get complicated for those used to the "insert disc and play" functionality usually associated with hardware from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. For example; Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor booted up in a sub-HD resolution with all settings on low and it took us a bit of time to figure out what combination of texture settings, AA and draw distance would get the smoothest gameplay experience.
Valve has also introduced In-home streaming which works marvellously on the Steam Machine. So if you already have a beefy Windows PC set up, that will open up your entire Steam library to the Steam Machine through the use of your home network, provided you have a fast enough router. Just know that while you're streaming a game that second PC will be occupied as the game is actually being run on it and if you've already spent a considerable amount of money on a nice custom gaming PC then the Steam Link might make more sense financially to take care of your in-home streaming needs.
In some respects we've been absolutely delighted with the performance of the Steam Machine; it's a capable device that looks great and comes ready with a sizeable library of games. At the same time, we're finding it hard to wholeheartedly recommend it as a universal solution for PC gamers and bonafide alternative to the existing consoles.
Valve and their machines are aiming firmly at the middle ground, the place where their new console competition and their own ambition intersects; the living room. And while their new hardware sits comfortably in that space, the compromises made to put it there are, in our opinion, too high.
Although SteamOS boasts a considerable library, it doesn't come with many of the big hitters, and any game that doesn't run in Steam is ruled out from the start, and even then we're going to be left waiting on SteamOS versions of many titles before they'll run on the hardware. This ensures that the numbers flatter to deceive, and while there's plenty to play, the PC experience doesn't translate all that well. There's no Origin, no Battle.net, and none of the other smaller platforms that make up the complicated but ultimately unique and tempting ecosystem that you get with a Window's-based rig.
Then there's the hardware. While it currently does fine when compared to similar mid-tier PC setups, the integrated graphics chip and the mix of desktop and laptop components means it's only a matter of time before the system is going to struggle to deliver a decent experience and those sliders are going to have to come down to medium (and eventually low) settings. This particular Steam Machine is comparable to a gaming laptop in terms of upgradeability, but given that the price isn't that much different, it's hard to recommend this over its more mobile counterpart, especially when you consider the increased library you get on a Windows-based system. The real nail in the coffin is the availability of the Alienware Alpha, the same hardware but windows based and therefore compatible with more games in the Steam library.
There's a lot to like about Alienware's Steam Machine; it looks the business and it performs admirably. However, in challenging the consoles for a place in the living room it tries to be jack of all trades, unfortunately, and as the saying goes, it ends up being a master of none. The flexibility of the PC platform and the vastness of the potential library is lost due to limited upgradeability and the shift to SteamOS, and when compared to the consoles it's just too expensive to compete on a level playing field.
We wanted to wholeheartedly recommend this Steam Machine, but at this point in time we simply can't. There's hurdles to overcome and a long way to go before Valve takes over the living room.