After months of speculation, additional details of Valve’s supposed Steam “console” have begun to emerge and it looks like Xi3 will be producing it.
In a press release sent to journalists late yesterday, Valve and compact PC manufacturer Xi3 announced the Piston, a first-stage development computer that’s been optimized for Steam. At this point, both Valve and Xi3 are keeping a whole lot of information close to their chests but some additional details have begun to emerge. What we do know is that Valve has made a substantial investment in Xi3 for the continued development of Piston and whatever mass market implementations may follow.
Piston is based off of Xi3’s compact X7A modular system. When bought directly through Xi3, the X7A typically comes equipped with a custom mini ITX motherboard, AMD’s embedded R-Series APUs, an integrated 384-core 7660G graphics processor and 8GB of memory. It only requires about 40W while in operation. These certainly aren’t high end specs but the actual hardware configuration within Valve’s Piston could very well be quite different. In addition, the Piston in no way represents final hardware. Rather, it is a beta dev platform that will likely be used for compatibility testing, viability research and other high level pre-release duties.
Xi3 specializes in squeezing a good amount of performance into a compact chassis, which bodes well for any Steam Box. The Piston (and its X7A sibling) measure just 4.27” x 3.66” x 3.66” but such a small area does tend to put some major restrictions upon possible gaming-grade hardware. With the motherboard, storage and heatsinks all vying for space (presumably the power supply is an external design), desktop discrete graphics cards simply won’t fit into this equation. The smaller and more efficient notebook GPUs are a possibility but they cost a fortune relative to their desktop counterparts.
One option for Valve and Xi3 is to leverage AMD’s Dual Graphics technology which allows a low power discrete card and the integrated graphcis controller within a Trinity APU to work in tandem, allowing for higher performance without drastically increasing cost, power consumption or thermal output.
While the operating system wasn’t discussed, it looks as though Piston comes equipped with Steam’s Big Picture mode directly integrated into its software stack. How this is achieved is anyone’s guess but Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell has continually lambasted Microsoft’s Windows 8 so it is possible that a custom Linux kernel will be used. If this direction is taken, Valve may be in an unenviable position where the vast majority of their library won’t be compatible with the Piston or Steam Box as most games require the DirectX API housed within Microsoft’s products. Valve has made some efforts to move games towards OpenGL-based rendering but titles which support that standard are still a drop of water within an ocean of games.
Regardless of how this turns out, it will certainly be interesting to see how Valve continues to approach their vision of providing inexpensive, easy access to Steam’s library.