Valve’s been busy: Steam box, controller and Link

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Valve started talking about their ambitious move into hardware two years ago at the Consumer Entertainment Show in Las Vegas when they showed off prototypes of the Steam Machine. Later that year, Valve’s wireless controller prototype was unveiled alongside some bespoke test units of their own Steam boxes and SteamOS. Many of the parts were produced using 3D printers and they were rough units.

Since then, we’ve seen various iterations of Valve’s idea of a console killer, along with a whole family of hardware. This week, Valve finally unveiled the complete Steam family, which includes Steam Machines, the controller and Steam Link, a bridge between your beast of a PC at your desk and the TV in the living room. You can now preorder them all, with a view to actual availability sometime in October/November.

Steam Controller

The Steam controller has gone through several iterations since it was first announced way back in late 2013 that Valve were going to run a closed beta for the Steam Machine and Steam OS prototype. The final version still retains the ideals of the original, but adds a few touches like an analogue thumb stick and hardware buttons rather than a touch pad. Overall, it’s a fascinating concept that seems to address some of the issues of not having the finesse of a mouse, while having the advantage of analogue movement controls. I do love the mouse and keyboard combination, but some more granular control for walking and running would be great.

Of note is Valve’s clever reimagining of the on screen keyboard, using the two touchpads on the controller to type out letters from the left and right side of the keyboard. This is a big change from the previous ‘flower’ system that, whilst elegant, wasn’t a huge improvement over accepted methods. You can see the on screen keyboard being used in the trailer below starting from 0:35.

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Valve’s unique idea for typing with a controller on SteamOS. Whilst elegant, it wasn’t much easier than the typical on screen keyboard.

Hardware Specifications

Overview

  • Dual trackpads
  • HD haptics
  • Analog stick
  • Dual-stage triggers, each with 10° of travel, a magnetic flux sensor, and a tactile switch
  • Gyroscope and accelerometer sensors enabling tilt-to-steer racing wheel functionality and other motion-controlled input
  • Configurable controls
  • Local multiplayer capability, as supported by games
  • Wired or wireless (dual mode)
  • USB 2.0 via Micro USB port (cable not included)
  • Estimated 5 meters of wireless communications range. Actual results may vary.
  • Provides up to 80 hours of standard game play using the included AA batteries during preliminary testing. Battery life will vary based on usage and other factors, such as type of batteries used. Actual results may vary.

In-box

  • Steam Controller
  • 2 AA batteries
  • USB wireless pairing dongle

Requirements

A Steam Machine or other computer capable of running Steam Big Picture Mode, in order to view, edit, save, and share Steam Controller mappings.

Steam Link

Announced only a couple months ago, Steam Link is a most intriguing bit of kit. A small box of tricks that sits under/on/behind your TV, the affordable unit hooks up via HDMI and bridges between your gaming PC and TV, either via wifi or good old fashioned wired 100 Mbit Ethernet, to stream games at 1080p/60fps. Although the Link offers both wired and wireless, I imagine you’ll be better off using wired for the best performance, unless there’s some sort of voodoo magic involved.

What will be interesting is just how plug and play the system will be, whether you’ll be able to plug in any old USB controller to play, or how it handles wireless dongles other than the Steam Controller ones. The Link has three USB ports, which is strange as four players tends to be the norm for local games. Having tried Steam’s in-home streaming with mostly reasonable results, I can see this working. I did have a few issues with it, namely with the mix of wired and wireless networking, I noticed some lag, and there was a bug where the serving machine required a mouse and keyboard plugged in to be able to control games on the client. Even so, out of all these announcements, this is the product I’m most excited about.

Hardware Specifications

Overview

  • 1080p resolution at 60 FPS
  • Wired 100 Mbit/s Fast Ethernet and Wireless 802.11ac 2×2 (MIMO) networking abilities
  • 3 USB 2.0 ports
  • Internal Wireless Steam Controller pairing capability
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • HDMI out
  • Supports Steam Controller (sold separately,) Xbox One or 360 Wired Controller, Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows, Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710, or keyboard and mouse

In-box

  • Steam Link
  • Power cable and adapter
  • HDMI 2.0 cable
  • Ethernet cable

Requirements

  • A host computer running SteamOS, or Steam Big Picture Mode on Windows Vista or newer, Mac OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) or newer, Linux Ubuntu 12.04 or newer.
  • A TV or display capable of running at 720p or 1080p resolution
  • Any of the input devices listed above
  • Home network connectivity to both Steam Link and host computer.Wired network recommended for the best experience.

Steam Machines

Steam Machines are stand-alone devices that let you enjoy the Steam gaming experience in one box, providing gamers with a host of hardware devices at a variety of price points and configurations. Customize a gaming experience that best suits your needs while choosing from Steam’s thousands of games, user-generated content, and more from any room in the home.

So far there are two official hardware partners that are on board to provide console PCs for Valve’s platform: Alienware and Syber. There’s not a huge amount that separates the two. Even the case designs are fairly similar, essentially the same black boxes the two major consoles have. Interestingly, unlike the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, both consoles feature a Intel/Nvidia combination (the consoles use the AMD Jaguar APU).

Prices start at around $450, and keep going up in spec until the near-supercomputer range. There are more Steam Machine partners on the way as well, but with PC being such an open platform, you can easily build your own machine or use the one you’ve already got! I can see the appeal of these small form factor boxes for those that just want a PC that works and fits under their TV. Having tried to build myself one, it’s very difficult to achieve!

The ultimate team

steam-lineup

With this core group of products, Valve are doing their utmost to break into the living room and release Microsoft and Sony’s steely grip on the TV audience. It’s a powerful move, but Valve can easily afford it. This is a company that can basically develop games indefinitely thanks to their huge PC gaming marketshare. Personally, I think it’s the right move, but they need to start ploughing money into 3rd party developers to get AAA titles on SteamOS. The moment Linux becomes a viable option, they will dominate the PC hardware market and start eating away at the consoles.

The Steam Link and Controller are out October 16 2015, both costing costing £39.99/$49.99. A Steam Controller and Steam Link bundle costs £79.98/$99.98. Steam Machine PCs start at around $450.

Will you be getting any of Valve’s Steam hardware. Do you think the Steam Controller and Steam Link are boom or bust?

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About Dan Morse

From the Atari 2600 right through to bleeding fast PCs, Dan's played on them all. One thing that's never changed is an unwavering passion for video games. Twitter: @happydan | Steam: happydan | GOG: happydan