Why I’m Skeptical About Xi3’s Piston (No, It’s Not Valve’s Brush-Off)

Isn't it cute: a tiny black box with sleek, chrome-grille sides that looks a little like Apple's Mac Mini, you know, if you pinch out the corners and squint.

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Isn’t it cute: a tiny black box with sleek, chrome-grille sides that looks a little like Apple’s Mac Mini, you know, if you pinch out the corners and squint. Xi3 wants to charge $1,000 ($900 if you pre-order by March 17) for its fledgling game box, which it’s calling the Piston: a micro-PC harboring a 3.2 GHz AMD quad-core A10 with integrated Radeon 7000-series GPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB solid state hard drive. It’s all about getting into your living room and celebrating the bazillions of games playable on the world’s most resilient gaming platform. What’s not to like?

The Piston’s modest laptop-caliber specs for one. The SSD aside, they’re just not that impressive — probably well short of whatever’s inside the PS4 and Microsoft’s next Xbox — but then the Piston’s allure lies more in its size, power efficiency and modularity: about four inches per side, sipping 40 watts of power, with the option to upgrade the hard drive (albeit not cheaply: $340 for a 256GB SSD or $750 for a 512GB SSD) and, presumably, the CPU/GPU down the road. Xi3 basically split the Piston’s internal mainboard into three tiny ones, such that you’ll theoretically be able to swap out subsidiary sections rolling forward. But what that means isn’t clear, which is itself cause for pause: Without an identifiable flight path forward, this sort of space-constrained approach to modularity, at least as a selling point, is relatively high risk.

But wait, isn’t Valve behind this thing? Didn’t Xi3 say as much at CES by linking the Piston to Valve’s Steam distribution platform and “Big Picture” mode for living room play? It did, then allowed the media to hype the Piston as a sort of unofficial “Steam Box” — the enigmatic system Valve CEO Gabe Newell keeps alluding to that’d let you fiddle with Steam PC games on your living room’s big-screen.

Except not so fast: According to Valve, the Xi3 is just another PC — neither officially nor unofficially linked to Valve. “Valve began some exploratory work with Xi3 last year, but currently has no involvement in any product of theirs,” Valve’s Doug Lombardi told Eurogamer on Tuesday.

That prompted Xi3 founder and CEO Jason Sullivan to fire back with a press release this morning, reminding the world that his company “received an investment from Valve Corporation … and we did so with Valve’s written permission.” What’s more, Sullivan claims Valve asked Xi3 “to build a product specifically for Valve” and notes that both Xi3 and Valve were showing off the Piston at their CES 2013 booths.


Then it gets awkward: Sullivan claims that at CES, Valve’s Newell asked him not to divulge “additional information” about Xi3’s relationship with Valve (the first rule of Valve Club: You don’t talk about Valve Club!). Apparently there’s more to the relationship than we’ve yet surmised, which is itself a kind of disclosure, no?

Sullivan’s also concerned that “many” in the press assumed the Piston was the official Steam Box. I must have missed those stories, because everything I read involved writers at worst speculating the Piston might eventually receive Valve’s imprimatur, not that it had — a reasonable supposition given Xi3’s own insinuations.

But then Sullivan backpedals, writing that “just because Valve may not ‘currently’ have any ‘involvement with any product of (ours)’ doesn’t mean that such involvement won’t exist in the future.” It reads like someone trying to play both sides of the court, someone who realizes much of the attention the Piston received in the press was perception-driven, i.e. the perception that Xi3 was in bed with Valve.

In all, a bit of a public relations mess. Rule of thumb: If you’re working behind the scenes to bring off a deal or clinch a partnership or even just to open up a line of communication, less is more. Sullivan would have been wiser to simply note that Piston isn’t an official Valve product, that it’ll run Windows and play Steam games as well as others, and leave it there. This business at the end where he’s addressing Newell directly — “So Gabe, it’s up to you. The ball is in your court” — is just weird.

If Xi3 does wind up going its own way apart from Valve’s endorsement, the Piston’s viability is going to hinge on the company’s ability to deliver a product unique enough and cheap enough to stand apart from homebrew PC gaming solutions. I’m not frankly seeing that in the Piston at this point. There’s nothing mind-blowingly unique about Xi3’s idea: The Piston is a “console” only in a semantic sense, like calling a pen a pen when you use it to write but a weapon when you’re employing it to threaten someone.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been plugging gaming laptops into TVs for over a decade and prefer that sort of consolidation-based approach, where my sometime game machine isn’t merely a game machine stuck in my entertainment cabinet. If I didn’t have a powerful laptop, I’d still be more inclined to spend $1,000 on a more flexible homebrew PC where I’d have better control over component costs. Just look at Xi3’s SSD upgrade prices (see above). I suspect that’s a taste of what’s coming. By contrast, you can buy a 2.5-inch 128GB SSD drive through Amazon for a little over $100, a 256GB model for less than $200 and a 512GB model for under $400.

PCs aren’t proprietary, locked-down platforms like Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation. This, among other things, is why we love PCs, and also why a device like Xi3’s Piston needs to be more than just a marginally upgradeable laptop-in-a-box. My existing desktop PC with its much more capable (and overclockable) Intel Core i5 processor and discrete Nvidia GTX 670 GPU is far more “modular” than something the size of Xi3’s Piston could ever hope to be.