Xi3’s Piston: A Steam Box Emerges, Sort Of

One of the great tech news stripteases in recent memory is the supposed development of a "Steam Box," a home gaming system based on Valve's beloved PC gaming service.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

One of the great tech news stripteases in recent memory is the supposed development of a “Steam Box,” a home gaming system based on Valve’s beloved PC gaming service. Although Valve recently fessed up to its plans after months of rumors, the company has avoided talking specifics.

That hasn’t changed. But at the Consumer Electronics Show, Valve has at least thrown us another bone: It’s worked together with Xi3, a maker of modular computers, on a “development stage computer game system optimized for Steam gameplay in Big Picture Mode.” In other words, it’s a prototype device that plays PC games on television screens. Valve will also be investing in Xi3, but the companies didn’t say how much or for what purpose.

In a press release, Valve and Xi3 made a point to say that they’re not releasing any more details. They’re not talking prices, release dates, tech specs or other features. We don’t know if this is the Steam Box, or one of many (though the latter scenario seems more likely based on Valve’s previous comments).

But at a press event on Monday, I did get a few non-specific answers from Dave Politis, Xi3’s chief marketing officer.

The development-stage system in question is known as “Piston,” and it’s based on Xi3’s X7A modular system. That system has a quad-core processor, up to 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, up to a terabyte of solid state storage and support for three monitors. The starting price for the X7A is $999. Again, those specs don’t necessarily reflect what’s inside of Piston, or what the price would be if it hit the market.

xi3pistonback

Jared Newman / TIME.com

Beyond the tech specs, there are two noteworthy things about Xi3’s machines: First, they’re tiny. Xi3 breaks the motherboards of its machines into three parts and arranges the pieces into a cube-like shape. That means the entire system can fit in your hand. Second, Xi3’s modular computers are meant to be upgraded over time.

Politis said the process is easier than upgrading the individual components of a standard desktop PC. He noted that with most PCs, people have to think about what they’ll need four or five years from now, because upgrading is too difficult. “We say buy what you need today, and then upgrade down the road,” he said.

That’s where things could get really interesting. One of the big issues with modern game systems is that their hardware is locked into long life cycles, unable to take advantage of faster processors or more memory. As a result, if you play a PC game now and then play the same game on a console, the difference in smoothness and graphics quality can be shocking.

This lock-in would pose an even bigger problem for PC-based game consoles, because PC games are constantly being developed with the latest hardware in mind. Modular systems, like the ones Xi3 creates, would allow users to easily upgrade their hardware over time, so they could keep playing the latest games as they were meant to be played. I’m speculating here, but it’s not hard to imagine Valve offering hardware upgrades to players who want a performance boost on their home gaming systems.

I’ve already written about why a Steam Box would be a big deal, and now it sounds like modular computing could be another reason. The striptease continues.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show

7 comments
callum.suttle
callum.suttle

So is it x7a or is that different? Very confused

MarkFronstin
MarkFronstin

I'll try it. I love PC gaming over consoles any day. The sheer degree of freedom is astounding for PC games compared to consoles. Ummm unless you do UT III UDK.  

DylanDerungs
DylanDerungs

"PC games are constantly being developed with the latest hardware in mind". That line is utter BS. Not one pc game makes the high end graphics cards like the gtx 680 or 7970 even falter. most games dont even challenge my gtx 560 SOC edition. only a few games even go into tesselation or many of the other dx11 features. The one game series that even challenges the high settings on my pc is probably the total war series because of the sheer mass of men


perry1mm
perry1mm

@DylanDerungs I guess it depends what aspects you're considering a challenge to your GPU. If you have higher resolution (I play at 2560x1440 on an overclocked Catleap monitor running at 120+Hz...google it if you're not familiar) and high settings in many games, even with a GTX 680 or 7970, can not hit the max frames my monitor is currently outputting at. That's ignoring multiple monitor setups and/or even higher resolutions (2560x1600 for example).

Maybe if you only game at 1080p with high settings at max 60 frames you can run games fine, but not the top games developed for PC...and that's WITH a GTX 680 or Radeon 7970, not even getting into other cards.

rob.waterman
rob.waterman

@DylanDerungs "The one game series that even challenges the high settings on my pc is probably the total war series because of the sheer mass of men" 

if only we all could be so lucky



Mark-Evans
Mark-Evans

Very interesting news, indeed! A modular, updateable, hardware system is a clever way of getting around the physical constrictions set by a regular console configuration. I can see there would be some confusion with availability of games that only work on the user's current Piston configuration, but that could be sorted by only offering suitable titles at any one time. Internet connection means no physical software on disc to load up. No scratches! Xbox live has similar systems already, but the main focus is on the purchase of a disc-in-box over a counter somewhere. The actual hardware looks very workman-like, too. Get the thing able to run HD media files from flash sticks and other beefier external USB storage divices and this little peach will be irresistable.

JamesFattorini
JamesFattorini

Outstanding news. If they build them to work in SLI or Crossfire, they should be able to scale them in the future. There should also be browser / Windows Blue OS that allows a real desktop environment from the couch.