Red vs. Green part 2: Steam Machines

Posted: January 27, 2014 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

I love it when a new challenger comes along in the video game console wars.  The last two top-tier new consoles have come from large technology companies successful in similar fields as well, so Valve joining the fight isn’t totally unexpected.  I did an article a while back on what are now officially called Steam Machines (https://bleedingedgegaming.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/a-world-powered-by-steam/), so I’ll try not to just repeat too much of it.  A Steam Machine is a home console powered by off-the-shelf PC components, running a custom Linux based OS and it has a crazy futuristic controller I really want to try.  The really interesting part I want to go back to is how important this launch is to nVidia and Intel.

While Intel and nVidia make excellent products that often out-perform AMD parts, the new Sony and Microsoft consoles are a game changer.  In the last console generation, both PCs and consoles ran on a mishmash of Intel, AMD, nVidia and IBM parts.  So developers had no choice but to focus on widespread support if they wanted to sell on multiple platforms.  The most successful engines like Unreal 3 were able to run on everything from Macs to smartphones.  Now we find ourselves in a console generation where AMD makes the entire internals of Sony and Microsoft’s boxes, while also making about half of Nintendo’s.  So basically AMD makes the graphics card that is inside every major console and a large percentage of gaming PCs.  AMD has also made large gains in the low-mid range PC market where most new games will want to set their minimum requirements.  To any developer going into this gaming generation, it makes the most sense to optimize your game engine for AMD’s hardware and drivers.

The early prototype Steam Machines featured Intel CPUs and nVidia GPUs.  This lead a lot of us to assume that all of the official ones would be similar and the new Steam OS would be optimized for Intel and nVidia parts.  I personally believed this because I assumed that Intel and nVidia would realize the position they are in and make it very profitable for manufacturers to use their parts.  With the announcement of the upcoming Steam Machines, we now know that a Steam Machine is just a gaming pc in a cool box that is guaranteed to support Steam OS.  A Steam Machine can have any parts a PC can.  In fact you can just install Steam OS on your already existing gaming computer for similar or better results.  Besides the classy form factor (which already exists in many HTPC cases), there is nothing to separate Steam Machines from any other gaming computer.

So the release of Valve’s box in no way changes Intel and nVidia’s market position.  In fact it’s even worse than that because AMD based Steam Machines will be similar in design to Microsoft and Sony’s consoles.  For a couple hundred more than a PS4, you can get an AMD Steam Machine with the upgrade-ability of a Gaming PC, combined with the living room manners of a console.  For many, this may be the perfect balance.  Even if Steam Machines don’t take off, it’s still an area where Intel and nVidia could have found exclusivity to balance against AMD’s growing share of what people play games on.

I’ve said this over and over, for which I apologize, but AMD making the entire internals of both major game consoles is a huge deal.  AMD has been making a lot of little steps over the last 5 years to make a big move upwards.  It all started with the acquisition of ATi, continued with the APU and culminated with the new game consoles.  AMD has very subtly maneuvered on multiple indirect tracks to take over not just a huge chunk of the computing market, but the entire gaming market as well.  The only part of the PC market that AMD has no traction in is the high-end CPU market.  While AMD GPUs often hold the highest rankings in game benchmarks, AMD CPUs seldom do.  This is also true of price though.  AMD’s most expensive CPUs are only as pricey as Intel’s midrange ones.  If AMD released a core design that outperforms Intel per core, that would be pretty much the final step that AMD could take to position themselves for the number one spot.

Personally I use both an Intel/nVidia system and an AMD based system on a regular basis.  I switch back and forth as they are both similar in midrange performance and different games run better on each.  If AMD’s designs dominate the next generation of gaming as I think they will, I’m going to design my next PC as a replacement of both of those as well as my consoles.

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