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.


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