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Plugged In

Hands-on with Valve’s Steam Machine

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(Credit: Valve)

Consoles, beware: this year, the PC is making a push for the living room. And Valve Software is leading the charge.

Last year Valve announced the Steam Machine, a system designed to let people play games traditionally locked on PC monitors in the comfort of their living rooms. The company showed a bit more of its hand at CES 2014, announcing 13 partners who will be creating Steam Machine hardware and giving press some hands-on time with the controller.

It’s a varied list of hardware makers: Alienware, Falcon Northwest, GigaByte, iBuyPower, Materiel.net, Alternate, Next, CyberPowerPC, Origin, Digital Storm, Scan Computers, Webhallen and Zotac. Prices and launch dates weren’t announced, but there were a few hints. An Alienware representative said he expects their machine to launch in the later half of 2014 and indicated that gamers can expect to pay about the same as they would for a next-generation console. Prices will reportedly range widely, though, running anywhere from $499 to $6,000.

Valve, of course, is leveraging its Steam digital distribution service to create the Steam Machine. In addition to the hardware, it has also created a new type of controller, meant to duplicate all the functionality of a keyboard and mouse.

That’s a tall order. But is it too tall for a company with a track record as impressive as Valve? It’s far too early to say, but based on my hands-on time with the controller at CES 2014, it’s hard to imagine Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are quaking in their boots just yet.

Valve’s Doug Lombardi said changes are still being made to the controller based on partner feedback, and that’s a good thing, because as it currently stands, the curious thing could use some work.

The prototype feels a bit flimsy in your hand. The touchpads, which replace traditional thumbsticks, feel and sound a lot like the clickpad from the original iPod. There’s some fine tuning to be done as well; when you spin your thumbs quickly on the pads, momentum will take you a bit further than you planned on going.

Those are easily corrected issues, but the biggest hurdle the Steam Machine controller faces is the re-education it forces upon gamers. It’s not an intuitive piece of hardware. Figuring out which button does what can get confusing and frustrating quickly. The layout can change from game to game, too, meaning you won’t necessarily be able to rely on muscle memory when playing.

PC gamers will undoubtedly miss their keyboard and mouse setup, and console gamers will miss the familiar placement of buttons and triggers on their console of choice. It’s something that can be overcome in time, but whether or not gamers will have the patience to relearn controls is something of a wild card.

Of course, the CES prototype isn’t exactly what you’ll be holding in your hands. Partners will also have the option to make their own controllers, so there could be some divergence from one Steam Machine controller to the next.

Valve’s current gathering feedback on the system and the controller from 300 beta testers who received a Steam Machine to put through its paces as the company prepares for launch. However, said Valve founder Gabe Newell, the feedback so far hasn’t been especially helpful.

“The users have been super happy,” he said at a short press event at CES. “We kind of want them to tell us what’s wrong, so we’re poking them a bit harder.”

That’s a good idea, as Valve doesn’t really have much of a track record dealing with hardware. Speaking of which, Newell said that the company hasn’t yet decided if it will join its 13 partners and create its own in-house Steam Machine

“We view our role in this as being enabling,” he said. “We’re going to … make that decision [on whether to manufacture our own version] as we go along.”

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