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Why Early Steam Machines Need To Be Upgradable

The Alienware Problem

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Steam Machines might be Valve’s answer to consoles, but that doesn’t mean they play by the same rules as Sony and Microsoft’s increasingly indistinguishable boxes. Linux is an open platform and Steam is constantly evolving. I do not think it’s unreasonable, then, to expect elements of PC gaming to creep into Steam Machine hardware as well. Just, uh, maybe don’t get your hopes up for Alienware to kick off that trend. The intergalactic planetary PC supplier has decided that upgrading its Steam Machines won’t be a modular process. If you want shiny new CPUs, graphics cards, or even memory, you’ll have to pick up a whole new box. While SteamOS can change conveniently and for free, hardware, as ever, comes at a price. And that’s a problem – one that hardware manufacturers should consider remedying if they want us to be at all interested in their first round of Steam Machines.

Dell’s sentient E.T. mask outlined its plans in an interview with Trusted Reviews, noting that it will release a new hardware revision every 12 months.

“Lifecycle wise, consoles update every five, six, seven years. We will be updating our Steam Machines every year.”

“There will be no customisation options, you can’t really update it. The platform will continue to evolve as the games become more resource intensive.”

General manager Frank Azor noted that we might be able to select, say, a faster CPU when we first purchase a box, but otherwise Alienware’s boxes will die the way we all hope to live: with the same innards. He went on to advise purchasing a form-fitting X51 if upgrading is your game. Makes sense, but doesn’t exactly bode well for this first run of Steam Machines, especially since Alienware is aiming to match “next-gen” consoles on price (and presumably hardware specs) initially. I get a sneaking suspicion that many early adopters will want to upgrade sooner rather than later.

Which is all well and good for Alienware’s bottom line (in a kind of gross but totally-not-unexpected-from-a-business sort of way), but it makes this particular Steam Machine even more unappealing to the crowd that Valve claims SteamOS and Steam Machines are currently aimed at: diehard PC gamers. People who are used to having options and building onto the same piece of hardware for as long as we can. That’s especially troubling given that Valve itself is hedging extra bets on Alienware’s as-of-yet unidentified gaming object. “This machine is the one that we think is actually going to serve the most customers and make the most Steam users happy,” said Valve product designer Greg Coomer. So it’s the standard-bearer, in a manner of speaking.

This puts everyone involved in a something of a strange position. Valve and Alienware know who they think early Steam Machines are for, but they haven’t really answered the question of why we should want one. The ability to evolve substantially over relatively short periods of time is doubtless one of Steam’s greatest assets in the Living Room Wars, but it’s not really being leveraged on the hardware side – at least, not in this particular instance. And yet the truth is, the ability to upgrade could very well make or break the first run of Steam Machines if they really are “for” people like us.

When new controllers and boxes start flying every which way, things will almost certainly get tricky – not to mention pricey – especially straight out the gate. We’re looking at a whole host of different form factors and release dates, and now Valve’s announced that third-parties can make their own controllers as well. Oh, and let’s not forget that Valve’s controller will probably also exist in a state of some flux for at least a little while. Hardware manufacturers will then iterate and iterate and iterate on top of all that. Price and convolution, ahoy!

If we could upgrade incrementally during what will no doubt be a period of rapid change, evolution, and (hopefully) innovation, wouldn’t that make everything so much easier? If my mind fails me and I decide I absolutely cannot live without an early Steam Machine, I know I’ll be on the lookout for the most modifiable, adaptable box. Not the least. It’s far too early in this race for anyone to be settling down and getting comfortable. The starting gun has barely even sounded.

That in mind, Alienware’s statement is almost comical. On one hand, it’s espousing its Steam Machine’s convenience and affordability, but in the same breath it essentially says, “Well, the X51 is probably a better choice for both those things in the long run.” And factoring in the price of smaller, more targeted upgrades versus picking out and purchasing a whole new box, yeah, I’m inclined to agree. I’m not saying an X51 is ideal, but something that’s more versatile than Alienware’s Steam Machine is. So why should we, longtime PC gamers, be interested in non-upgradable Steam Machines again? Is there something I’m missing?

When Steam first launched in a dismal state, it was able to mutate into the glistening overlord we all know and love today for free. While SteamOS might have a similar luxury, Steam Machines don’t. Hardware manufacturers’ best bet is to soften the blow. Make rolling with the punches easier and more affordable for us, or else we’ll just stick with our faithful old PCs, growing them into monstrous towers that drool cooling flood every time a tasty little Steam Machine whimpers by. We’re not going to become faithful Steam Machine ambassadors just because. If Alienware and Valve want Steam Machines to make it over their early hurdles and into Gabe Newell’s perfect living room promised land, this isn’t the way to do it.

Alienware’s first Steam Machine will be out in September. Are you at all interested? Do you think Alienware is on the right track after all? Or are you hoping other hardware manufacturers will pick up the slack?

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Nathan Grayson

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