Finally, a multiple choice answer
Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world. We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014, all of them running SteamOS.
Well, almost. The self-proclaimed PC master race still looks on at the console battle with great disdain. "Our glorious gaming machines are already far more powerful" they cry. "The next-gen consoles are already outdated" they'll tell you. "Join us" they'll chant…
The thing is, they're not wrong. Both on paper and on-screen, a PC that's marginally higher in price than the Xbox One will walk over both consoles, pumping out shinier graphics at higher resolutions. Sounds good, right?
The trouble is, many mainstream console gamers see PCs as big, loud, scary machines which only veteran geeks with soldering irons are able to put together and use.
In essence, though, the PS4 and Xbox One are PCs themselves. Processors, RAM, graphics cards, floating points, power supply – they have the whole lot.
Despite that though, the confusion around PC gaming remains – but Valve hopes to rectify the situation with its upcoming Steam Machine and Steam OS. And here's how…
WHAT EXACTLY IS A STEAM MACHINE?
A Steam Machine is a PC with components that meet Valve's minimal performance requirements to run Steam OS – Valve's open source Linux-based operating system that's designed and optimised for gaming.
In essence, there's nothing separating a Steam Machine from a regular PC; you could install Windows on it if you wanted to and still access Valve's packed games library on the excellent Steam store. Valve has already released an update which optimises Steam for the big screen, and Steam OS will take this experience much further.
The only thing that makes a Steam Machine a Steam Machine, then, is the sticker of approval that Valve slaps on it – indicating that it meets their minimum requirements.
While those exact requirements remain a mystery, Valve has released the specs of various low, mid and high-range Steam Machines, which it will send out to 300 lucky beta testers.
The full specs below feature processors and graphics cards which vary in power, and the price and performance differences between them can be massive.
The least powerful graphics card – the GTX 660 – will set you back £160 and is a close equivalent to the graphics cards found within the next-gen consoles.
Compare that to the Nvidia GTX Titan with its £770 price tag and ability to play games at above-full HD resolutions on multiple monitors, and you begin to get an idea of the degree of variation and power that PC gaming (and therefore, Steam Machines) have to offer.
The Verge spent some time with Valve's own Steam Machine prototype, and despite it being only slightly larger than an Xbox 360, it still manages to cram in a massive Nvidia GTX Titan graphics card - an impressive feat indeed. Not only that, but the components are seperated into seperate compartments for improved cooling and air flow.
Unlike the PS4 and Xbox One, Steam Machines will vary in appearance, as manufacturers will naturally imbue their machines with their own design preferences.
Valve's own reference Steam Machine lacks an optical drive, for example, but there's nothing stopping another manufacturer from installing an optical drive into its own Steam Machine, or swapping out a hard drive for a faster SSD.
Valve will even release CAD files for its Steam Machine cases, just in case you want to make your own from scratch.
Update: Valve has spoken with Forbes and has confirmed that AMD and Intel will also be providing graphics hardware for Steam Machines next year.
Update 26/11/13: iBuyPower has revealed a prototype of its very own steam machine. The white rectangular device comes complete with an ominous red glow (though the colour is cusotmisable) and sits between the size of a PS4 and an Xbox One.
Update 05/12/13 Pixxl has revealed the Jetpack, a SteamOS gaming PC that fits onto the back of your TV. Designed for TVs between 32in and 70in, the Jetpack packs in Core i7 processors and an Nvidia Titan graphics card, along with 1TB of SSD storage. It's available from 1st January, priced £612.
Specs-wise it offers a multicore AMD CPU and a dedicated AMD Radeon R9270 graphics card (which is worth US$180 on its own), along with a 500GB hard drive and Steam OS pre-installed. All that for US$500.
The lack of Windows means that you'll be limited to Linux-compatible games only, but there's no reason why you couldn't install it yourself for full compatibility with all PC games.
A CLOSER LOOK
Images of the Steam Machine console have trickled out online from some of the 300 lucky beta testers who have received their units.
Reddit user colbehr has kindly shared shots of everything from the packaging and instruction leaflet to the Steam Machine itself, and it's looking very sexy indeed.
Smaller than a hulking gaming rig and littered with connections, this particular Steam Machine packs quite the gaming punch, with an Intel i5-4570 processor, 16GB of RAM and a beastly Nvidia GTX 780 graphics card with 3GB of video memory. Take that, next-gen consoles.
Sadly there's no pricing information available for this setup, but seeing as the GTX 780 wil run you back £400 alone, it'll be well outside the console price territory.
THE STEAM CONTROLLER
Valve's new controller is a mix between a traditional console gamepad and a laptop trackpad.
It has two large clickable circular trackpads which Valve believes offers greater fidelity than traditional joysticks. There's also a clickable touchscreen nestled in the centre which can also display actions and additional controls.
With 16 buttons in total, as well as the ability to reconfigure controls (useful for lefties), the open sourced hackable controller has certainly sparked our curiosity, and compatibility with existing Windows PCs is a plus too.
UPDATE: Valve has released a video showing the Steam controller in action, with first person shooters and a real time strategy game being used to demonstrate the level of control offered by both trackpads.
The Steam Machine could, at some point, also support virtual reality hardware similar to that of the Oculus Rift headset pictured above.
While it sounds like a rumour fuelled by the wishful thinking of gamers, Valve itselfhas fanned the flames by announcing that it will show off a prototype of what it thinks affordable virtual reality hardware will be capable of at its Developer Days conference next January
Two virtual reality sessions called "What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be within Two Years" and "Virtual Reality and Steam" have been scheduled for the conference, which strongly suggests that virtual reality is, at the very least an area which Valve is dipping its toes in, if it hasn't already changed into its trunks and jumped in behind closed doors already.
Valve also stated that it will demonstrate Steam VR overlay software alongside its prototype, as well as specific changes to the Steam store to accommodate the new VR interface.
Will the Steam Machine launch with a VR headset? It's too early to say, but it's definitely more than just wishful thinking at this stage. We guess the Oculus Rift will have to keep us buys until we find out more info next year.
PRICE AND RELEASE DATE
Valve is a notoriously secretive company (just try asking them when Half-Life 3 will be out), and it's keeping its lips tightly sealed regarding release dates and prices for the various Steam Machines. We'll be updating this preview with new information as and when we get it, so stay tuned.
Update 12/12/13: Valve has announced that gamers will be able to download Steam OS from 13 December. That's also the date when 300 lucky US beta testers will be receiving their Steam Machines ahead of the general 2014 launch, which still hasn't received a solid date. We're expecting to hear much more at International CES 2014.
When can I buy one?!
Beginning in 2014, there will be multiple SteamOS machines to choose from, made by different manufacturers.
I’m pretty happy with my PC Gaming setup, do I have to buy a new piece of hardware now?
No. Everything that we’ve been doing on Steam for the last 10 years will continue to move forward.
If you guys are delivering an OS to hardware manufacturers, why is Valve also making its own box?
We're conducting a beta of the overall Steam living-room experience, so we needed to build prototype hardware on which to run tests. At Valve we always rely on real-world testing as part of our design process. The specific machine we're testing is designed for users who want the most control possible over their hardware. Other boxes will optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors.
How will you choose the 300 beta participants?
A small number of users (30 or less) will be chosen based on their past community contributions and beta participation. The remainder will be chosen at random from the eligible pool.
Should I create lots of Steam accounts to increase my chances of getting selected?
No, that won’t work.What are the specs of the Valve prototype?We'll tell you more about it soon. Remember, there will ultimately be several boxes to choose from, with an array of specifications, price, and performance.
Where’s a picture of it? How big is it?We promise we'll tell you more about it soon.When will the prototypes ship?
Will beta testers be allowed to share info about their experience and post pictures and opinions online?
Yes, that really is the whole point. The input from testers should come in many forms: bug reports, forum posts, concept art, 3D prints, haikus, and also very publicly stated opinions.
Will I be able to build my own box to run SteamOS?
Can I hack this box? Run another OS? Change the hardware? Install my own software? Use it to build a robot?
Can I download the OS to try it out?
You will be able to download it (including the source code, if you're into that) but not yet.
If I’m not in the beta, how can I help and contribute feedback?
The Steam Universe Group is where feedback is being collected. Most areas of the group will remain open for participation by all Steam users. Some may be limited to beta participants only, but there will be plenty of ways to contribute feedback for everyone.
What games will be available during the beta?
The nearly 3,000 games on Steam. Hundreds already running natively on the SteamOS, with more to come. The rest will work seamlessly via in-home streaming.
What is SteamOS? What’s included?
Here's a link to what we said earlier about SteamOS. We'll have more details to tell you, soon.
Am I going to be using a mouse and a keyboard in the living-room?
If you want. But Steam and SteamOS work well with gamepads, too. Stay tuned, though - we have some more to say very soon on the topic of input.
You're welcome : ) (just ask the girl in my sig)