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Analysis: what’s in the Piston Steam Box, and why does it matter?


For something as much anticipated as a new games console designed by Valve, you’d think the announcement would feature fireworks, stages and a stadium sized crowd able to fly Gabe Newell to the moon by the power of cheer alone. Plus maybe a free pair of Steampunk goggles for anyone who turned up. Instead, this week we’ve had two separate pieces of news which we can piece together to make an educated guess as to what the Steam Box will eventually look like.

And for your benefit, that’s exactly what will happen over the next few paragraphs. 

So here’s what we know for sure. Valve has invested ‘heavily’ into a company called Xi3, which has been touting its low energy micro-PCs to businesses and homes for a while now. To date, Xi3’s main innovations have been around miniaturising motherboards for low power AMD Athlon processors, and developing what it calls a ‘southbridge agnostic’ design. That basically means the motherboard is split in two, with a CPU and memory on one half, and a plug-in PCB that sits perpendicularly to the main board which has all the USB ports, audio codec, display and ethernet connectors on.
This has meant that Xi3 can squeeze a full PC system into a small palm sized cuboid that’s just 10.16cm in its longest dimension with a 9.1cm square face. To get around the limitations of storage in mSATA formats, current Xi3s also have an optional module that takes a hybrid hard drive and docks underneath one apex of the distinctive X-shape of the all metal chassis.
It also seems likely that Valve came across Xi3 when it made headlines last year by trying to crowdsource funding for a high performance version of its machine, called the X7A. That failed, and it looks like Valve stepped in.
The Valve-backed mini-PC has been dubbed – rather brilliantly – the Piston (Valve, Steam, Piston, geddit?) and will certainly use the design principles so far worked up by Xi3, and the Piston prototype looks identical to current models.
Other than that, there’s no word on price, availability or specifications. Just yesterday, however, Valve employee Ben Krasnow seemingly confirmed that there would be a Linux-powered Steam box in 2013, so adding two and four together we foresee a version of Piston that will arrive running an Ubuntu-based OS that boots straight into Steam’s Big Picturemode. The best analogy would be the way that the Linux media centre XBMC is distributed as a standalone application.
Piston, then, will almost certainly behave like a console in that it will appear – at first glance – to only be able to run Steam by default. It will be a PC because you’ll be able to hack your way back to the desktop with relative ease.
Naming conventions for Ubuntu respins could mean this ends up being called Stubuntu or Vubuntu or something like that. There’s also an option to buy a current Xi3 machine with Windows pre-installed – our hunch would be that this choice will be the same for Piston, because while Steam for Linux is one of the most important software developments ever, it would be foolhardy to think a big enough library of Linux-native games will be ready for the console’s launch.
While Xi3 has certainly come up with a cute chassis, in its current incarnation there’s three big problems with the Xi3 which Valve will have to help address.
The first is performance. Right now, Xi3s are only available with dual core AMD Athlon processors. Fine for watching videos and surfing the web, but little else. There’s no room inside for a discrete graphics processor, which means Piston will have to use either an Intel Core processor with integrated graphics or one of AMD’s APU hybrid processors, the current fastest of which is the A10 range.
So issue one, then. Neither of those chips are any good for gaming without a discrete graphics card, especially not at the 1920×1080 resolution they have to aim for if it’s going to be sold as a set-top box.
Maybe they’re betting on next gen chips? We know that AMD has already shipped out an update to its A10 range to manufacturers which has a quad core CPU, but we’re not expecting great things from that as it still uses a very old graphics processor design. For a hybrid APU with the modern, Graphics Core Next architecture for pixel pushing we have to wait until another revision, codenamed Kaveri, which isn’t due until the second half of the year.
We’re betting on the 28nm Kaveri being the first AMD APU that can realistically be used for high def gaming.
Perhaps Xi3 is adjusting its innovative split motherboard design to accommodate an Intel CPU? Word is that the next Intel graphics core won’t suck. The HD4600 is claimed to be 40% faster than the existing HD4000, but that’s barely enough to catch up with current AMD offerings, let alone compete with Kaveri. It’ll arrive with the ‘Haswell’ fourth generation of Core processors in a couple of months, however, so the timing could be right for Piston.
Of course, whatever hybrid CPU/GPU does go into Piston, something running at gaming speed is going to generate a lot of heat – making it more likely a mobile rather than desktop chip will be used too. Does that matter in these days of vast CPU surplus cycles? Probably not. It seems safe to give Valve and Xi3 the benefit of the doubt and assume that heat issues have been thought through properly, but a high speed fan inside the Xi3 would be terrifically noisy and something to look out for in early reviews.
So onto problem two: storage. Steam is fast becoming the number one hard drive hog on a desktop PC. Music and movies all live in the cloud now, but you need game data to be stored locally (unless there’s another big innovation coming from Valve?). Xi3 boss Jason Sullivan says that you’ll be able to have up to a terabyte of internal storage, but in mSATA format that’s going to cost a fortune.
Prices for SSDs have fallen, yes, but you can’t even buy 512GB mSATA drives yet, let alone affordable terabyte ones. External storage is an option… but gaming off a USB 3.0 drive isn’t ideal, and even if it’s an Intel processor and therefore Thunderbolt compatible, superfast drives are still prohibitively costly for a games console.
Which brings us smartly on to problem three, which is arguably the biggest of the lot: price. The reason you probably haven’t heard of Xi3 before is because while the company makes beautiful little PCs, they’re ludicrously expensive for what they are. The basic model, at $499, sounds like it’s not too bad, but with a 32GB hard drive and a processor that is better suited to a pocket calculator, there’s no compelling reason to buy one over a bargain basement laptop. Hell, a Mac mini is only $100 more for a huge amount more of storage and processing power in a package that’s every bit as attractive and almost as small.
In its Kickstarter pitch, Xi3 was aiming to sell the X7A – upon which Piston is based – for around $1000. Is a Steam box really 10 Ouyas, four Xbox 360s or three Wii U’s worth of gaming? Even if if you allow for the fact that Valve has the ability to sell and launch non-gaming apps through Steam now too?
Not really, no.
So here’s what we’re betting on. Valve, the gaming company with its own in-house economist and a vast amount of data about what people will pay for stuff gleaned over the years of running a massive shop, knows the answer to that before we’ve even asked the question. But for the time being, they’re not answering questions. So we’ll just keep on guessing.