7 October 2013

Interesting steam box specs...

Ars Technica have an article on the Steam box specs (also covered over at El Reg). I think the specs show a decent range of configurations and expenses and, also, sizes of box and cooling solutions needed. An i3 coupled with a GTX660 is going to be a weak-ish system that will play the majority of games on Steam but it isn't going to break the bank or (hopefully) sound like an aeroplane during take-off. What's quite confusing is the memory configurations on these machines.

16GB of RAM for a low and mid-end machine doesn't really make any sense... for the high end, maybe... though I don't know how many games are able to fully address that much or would benefit from it over 8GB of RAM. I guess the theory is "RAM is cheap" and they're just stuffing in as much as they can comfortably afford. The video RAM is a bit of a different story. 
Apparently these are off-the-shelf parts that can be replaced by the end user if they so desire, so it's a bit weird to see outlets reporting 3GB as standard for each graphics card when the GTX660 is mostly a 2GB card (there is at least one 3GB variant from EVGA though) and the Titan is a 6GB beast that doesn't (as far as I can find) have a 3GB equivalent. I would hope that this is an error in the reporting because I can see the Titan being memory constrained and the 660 not really making the full use of the vRAM in games of the next generation that it struggles to play anyway.

Another consideration is noise levels. If these are off-the-shelf parts are they going to come with stock coolers? The reason I wonder is that stock graphics coolers are rarely very quiet - Nvidia especially in my experience. I currently run a GTX560 and, despite having massive diameter case fans that (as far as I can feel) are pulling only cool air out of the case, that thing is almost as loud as my vacuum cleaner on the lowest setting! Now, maybe that's a driver issue but I'm pretty certain that FTL isn't taxing the GPU that much. However, as a living room machine, the Steam boxes (boxen?) need to be quiet: quieter than the launch 360s with the noisy DVD drives and inefficient cooling systems.

As everyone and their dog is noting it's very interesting how the Steam box specs are entirely Intel and Nvidia whilst the next gen consoles are entirely AMD/ATI. Now, this could be just a reflection of the hardware configurations that appear in the Steam survey (though with more RAM and higher end graphics cards) or it could be that, in general, both Intel and Nvidia provide more support to their hardware implementations under Linux than AMD so presumably there'll be less effort and hassle in putting the OS with the hardware. Probably it's a mixture of both of these reasons.**

It is interesting how none of these setups will be cheap compared to the two upcoming consoles and how, perhaps, any advantage that AMD might have wrought from that console lock-down from developers coding specifically on their hardware might be mitigated by this move. I also find it strange that Valve have gone so power hungry in these configurations compared to the next gen consoles. People have said that you'll get more power from the hardware under Linux for gaming and when mostly everyone's writing games for the lowest common denominator (the consoles) then it makes me wonder what all this extra power on top of that will be aimed at.

To be fair to Valve, these are just prototype systems and the range of configurations might be just a reflection of trying to find the sweet spot but I would be surprised if they don't settle on a low-end i5 and the GTX760 for initial implementations. I'm still sceptical that they'll use 16GB of system RAM. It's not like the users will be doing video editing to upload videos and commentaries to the Steam Community... yet.

Maybe that will be what the higher end parts are all about: out competing the consoles on their "exclusive" features like the recording of gameplay and let's plays. Yes, I know you can do this on PC - but it's not that easy to set up and you need a pretty beefy rig to be able to pull it off as well... or a second PC and/or a PVR.

This is one aspect I like about gaming - there's rarely a dull moment.


Valve have confirmed that other hardware will be making an appearance in future Steam boxes so it doesn't appear to be a favoured hardware combination for these prototype batches.

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