Alienware's Steam Machine is on the right track, but it's not quite there yet.
I've been playing around with Alienware's Steam Machine for the better part of a week, and I really like what it tries to do. Since time immemorial, PC gaming has been regarded as a walled garden, a tree fort palace that only those with the hottest tech toys (and a masochistic love of complication) dare infiltrate. That reputation is, of course, overblown, but a seed of truth is what allowed it to take root in the collective consciousness.
Alienware's Steam Machine took me 15 minutes to set up. I removed it from the box, plugged it in, and had it fully updated in the time it took me to think about making a sandwich but then — at the last second — reconsider. It was, frankly, a more console-like experience than modern consoles offer. I was impressed as hell.
Problem is, the experience doesn't stay that way. Alienware's Steam Machine has an clean front porch with a welcome mat that doubles as the only existent image of Gabe Newell smiling, but once you get inside things are a bit... hairier. Here are some issues I've encountered:
- The game library is limited. Remember, Steam Machines run Steam OS, which is a modified version of Linux. If the game you want to play doesn't have a Linux version, no dice. There are currently over 1,000 Linux games on Steam, but a lot of heavy hitters aren't on the list. I tried to install The Witcher 3, Grand Theft Auto V, and Metal Gear Solid V, all to no avail.
- Some games that should work with it still don't. I tried playing Trine 3, only to get stuck at the "choose resolution/graphics/etc" screen because my Steam controller didn't work with it. Even the Steam button — which should have let me exit and go back to Steam — did nothing. I ended up having to restart my entire machine.
- In-home streaming is a little laggy. The potential solution to both of the above problems is to simply stream games to your Steam Machine from a Windows-enabled PC, but I've now used the feature in two different houses with high-speed Internet, and I've still encountered noticeable framerate drops and stutters. Using Valve's Steam Link produced a noticeable improvement, but at that point why buy a Steam Machine at all?
- The interface is still kinda clunky. Valve isn't fully done giving Steam OS/Steam Big Picture Mode a makeover, but even in The Streamlined Regions there's a bit of clunk in Steam's trunk. I could see newcomers being overwhelmed, especially when it comes to finding the games they want to play, figuring out if they're Steam OS compatible, or — hell — understanding the difference between regular Steam and Steam OS. The store and library still need big improvements.
- Figuring out good controller configurations takes a lot of work. I already went into this in my piece about the Steam controller, but this is a big part of the overall Steam Machine equation. Fiddling with controller configurations is a big barrier to entry — another tedious trudge in the already (sometimes) intimidating process that is starting a new game. I'm glad the controller is so customisable, but it can be overwhelming. Until users have created a bunch of optimal settings we can all pick from (and possibly even then, since it's on a per-game basis), it will hold the Steam Machine back from being a truly plug-and-play experience.
All that said, it's still a solid mid-range gaming PC for $US450. So far, my Steam Machine hasn't had trouble with any of the games I've thrown at it, including a few on Ultra graphic settings. If you're in the market for something pre-assembled, easy (ish) to use, and basically portable, that's a tempting deal.
Frankly, though, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this thing to anybody yet. If you're a PC gaming newcomer, I'd say the barrier to entry here is still too high; in the process of trying to simplify some things (especially controls), Valve actually made them more complicated. Also, it's limited by technically being a Linux machine. On the other hand, if you've been using Steam since the service (and possibly also you) was in diapers, you're better off just grabbing a Steam Link and streaming to your living room from your PC. Unless your current computer is ancient — more hamster wheel than machine — there's just not a great reason to also own an Alienware Steam Machine.
Granted, all of this is subject to change. The Alienware Steam Machine isn't out yet, and Valve has said that some big changes are inbound before its launch in early November. I imagine the experience will evolve quite a bit after people start getting their hands on Steam Machines, too. That is, after all, The Valve Way (for better or worse).