back to article Full Steam Ahead: Valve unwraps plans for gaming hardware

We are halfway through a promised week of announcements from games publisher Valve, and so far it's looking interesting. On Monday the company announced its own flavor of Linux and on Wednesday it confirmed rumors that it is getting into the console industry with its own hardware. "We have designed a high-performance prototype …

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Facepalm

Watching with interest

I'm curious about the fact they're planning to make their hardware 'upgradeable' and it's obviously far to early to call it but I'm wondering if they actually 'get' the console market. As an avid console gamer myself, one of the biggest advantages - if not THE biggest - is that I don't have to fuck about with it. I know that I can go and buy any PS3 game today and it will work perfectly with the almost seven year old hardware I have. I don't have to worry about adjusting settings to get the right performance, making sure I have the latest drivers, etc., etc. - I just download, install and play. I don't care about the fact the graphics and performance aren't cutting edge.

If I wanted a console that I could upgrade to get the latest performance, and spend time tweaking settings to get everything just right, but then not know if that lastest game that's just been released will actually run well on my particular hardware, then I'd have a PC.

That kind of techy tinkering is my day job and the reason I (and other console fans I know) like consoles is because we want to get away from it (and don't have the time for it), not spend our leisure time doing the same crap we do at work.

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Re: Watching with interest

That is a valid point, and one that I'm sure Valve will be trying to address.

I assume there will be some kind of certification process, which results in each different off the shelf Steambox being given a grade. You then only buy games that will run on certified machines of your grade, and game creators will have a much better idea of the range of machines they need to target. That will remove any risk that a given game might not run on your machine, while allowing you to upgrade your machine later with more powerful components, should you wish.

A winning combination of it just works with I can make my machine more powerful as technology evolves and components become cheaper.

The use of a dedicated OS potentially allows for graphics drivers and possibly even scheduling algorithms that are fine tuned for game playing, an advantage that standard Windows machines do not offer.

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Re: Watching with interest

"I know that I can go and buy any PS3 game today and it will work perfectly with the almost seven year old hardware I have."

And consoles like that are the reason that modern games have to be deliberately dumbed down. PC game development is stagnating because of the constant need to make them run on outdated hardware.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Watching with interest

Could kill the stand alone console.....

Bye bye Xbox

Bye bye PS4

All it needs is simplicity

Modular design for upgradability

Instant on

Instant connection

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Re: Watching with interest

Go cry some more!

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Happy

Re: Watching with interest

Or you miss the point?

You know you "Can" go and play it but perhaps they are adding for those that "want" to go and upgrade.

Also the OS is upgraded on xbox about every week, judging by my constant waiting for M$ to install updates.

Also bear in mind each release of the Xbox 360 is not the same, my first one had no HDMI, the new one does etc. Hard drives have improved etc. It might act and look the same, but the insides aren't as the shape changes as well.

So upgrades in the current console market isn't that unknown.

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MJI
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Re: Watching with interest Re : Oliver Mayes

I am going to comment on this.

Ok we have a number of consoles including a current generation one. We have 3 PCs. I see a game we want on Steam.

Main PC is a quad core with reasonable graphics and a Steam account

Child PC is a wound up P4 dual boot Steam on Windows, still trying to get TF2 working on Mint

Laptop is dual core, owner will not let Steam near it as they are not PC literate.

Said game requires lots of graphic card ram. Possible to run lower resolution, so Laptop out

Requires DX, dual boot P4 Mint boot removed

Requires latest DX other boot removed, main PC removed (XP - need XP for full screen DOS applications)

Check other stores, not on PSN

So 3 PCs, 2 capable of gaming, none can run a quite simple game. Whereas both proper PCs can handle the HL2 engine fine, Portal, Portal 2, Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2 all run brilliantly. Mass Effect runs fine on the quad core.

Game creators not interested, MS paid for exclusivity on consoles.

But what happens next?

Similar game released free as part of PS+ that will do.

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Holmes

Re: Watching with interest

"And consoles like that are the reason that modern games have to be deliberately dumbed down. PC game development is stagnating because of the constant need to make them run on outdated hardware."

This is no doubt true (although I would take issue with the phrase 'dumbed down' - requiring lower spec equipment doesn't affect the cerebral content of a game), but it makes no difference at all to the point I was making, which is that I can't see this development from Valve attracting console gamers. Console gamers don't care that PC game development is stagnating. Production studios don't care that PC game development is stagnating - because consoles are by far the bigger market. The only people who actually care that PC game development is stagnating are PC gamers. So if anything, this comment strengthens my opinion that the people who will be most interested in this SteamBox are actually those who are already PC gamers.

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Re: Watching with interest

One of the main points of console gaming is surely that you know everyone is using the same hardware. I'm too old to involve myself in arms races any more, I just want to play when it's playtime.

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JDX
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Re: Watching with interest

"And consoles like that are the reason that modern games have to be deliberately dumbed down. PC game development is stagnating because of the constant need to make them run on outdated hardware."

That's totally untrue. For a start 90% of the extra power is used for prettier graphics only, which doesn't make the game less dumb.

Then, PC games have to support a range of hardware. This means it has to be as 'dumb' as the minimum spec allows. You don't get games which have better AI on faster machines, or gameplay features.

A fixed spec forces developers to work to get the most out of the hardware. This takes time... on a PC you don't get time to fine-tune to your hardware because it keeps changing. Take a release title from PS2/3 and the most recent games and compare them.

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Re: Watching with interest

I could buy a PS3 without having to worry about drivers?

What planet are you on?

I remember a very embarassing xmas when my nephews got a PS3 from mom and dad, and mad uncle Boris bought the games.

Cue 90 mins of the PS3 needing to 'update' its OS in order to run said games and thats before they got installed

What fun that was with 2 hyper active boys waiting to blast zombies/race cars/beat each other up....

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Re: Old consoles mean games must be dumbed down

Another way of looking at it is that older consoles are the reason that programmers working in game dev have to learn to optimise for their hardware rather than working with the constant assumption that the hardware will be able to handle it by the time they go to release.

Working within constraints often inspires originality and results in interesting work.

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Re: Watching with interest

The dumbing down happens not because of the platform but because of the market economics. It costs a shed load to get a game certified by Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo and you have to jump through many hoops every time you do an update.

In contrast anyone can write and distribute a PC game. This means that it is commercially viable to make "Hammond Organ Simulator 2013" on PC as you can make a profit on 1000 sales but for a console game to even break even against the costs of certification and dev kit you need an established market.

Comparing consoles to PC's in terms of intelligence is like comparing film to a book. Any wingnut with a pen and paper can write a book but you need more kit to make a film. Now the intelligence of the average user on the other hand is a completely different matter.

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Re: Watching with interest

Drivers for PC games are a lot less of a problem now than they were 10 years ago. As a geek, I tend to make sure I'm running the latest drivers, but generally Windows has working 3D drivers for AMD and nVidia cards built in (and for nVidia at least, semi regular updates on Windows Update).

If you're put off PC gaming because you remember the days of having to find the right drivers to run a new game then don't worry, it's pretty much a solved problem now.

Cue comment from someone who is in driver hell right now, I'm sure it still happens from time to time.

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Re: Watching with interest

What piqued my interest was nVidia's announcement that they are working with Valve on SteamOS. Now Gabe has been talking about the Steambox for about a year and a half now and the one thing that stood out to me was that Gabe said he was advising against including optical drives because they generated too much heat and noise and that Gabe envisaged these Steamboxes as something small enough to fit in with your other AV equipment under the TV.

Now how does nVidia fit into that? For the PC market all they are making are graphic cards with their main focus being on large twin slot cooler GPUs such as the Titan, nVidia don't make anything that will aid a PC's energy efficiency, thermals or noise, especially in the budget range.

Now what nVidia do do that is low power, quiet, has low thermals while still being powerful is the Tegra 4 and nVidia are releasing the shield, their ARM based handheld console. The Shield plays android games and streams PC games which is pretty much what SteamOS does (of course it plays Linux games not Android games).

Could we be seeing SteamOS being ARM compatible much like what Microsoft attempted with Windows RT (and without backwards compatibility hanging like an albatross around their neck)? And nVidia bringing out a Shield running SteamOS? Unless the other option is nVidia taking another crack at the nForce chipset I don't see why they would be so heavily involved in a project where invariably the biggest number of consoles sold will be iGPU based (for cost and size reasons) whiter nVidia have no products.

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Re: Watching with interest

The answer is a simple hardware assessment, like Windows does. The game can then choose settings appropriate for your hardware - in reality the only relevant things are the speed of the CPU, Graphics card & to a less extent the RAM. So SteamOS assesses them and tells the game what to do.

The only fly in that ointment (I can immediately think of) is what version of pixel shader you have. Some games are fussy in a way they really don't need to be.

PC gaming is already a big market because, as a lot of gamers mature, they want to get more out of their games than the vanilla game / consoles can offer - hi-res textures, features mods etc. So they turn to PC gaming, but some people are put off by the perceived complexity - the SteamBox is an attempt to address that and so broaden the appeal of choice that PC style gaming has to offer.

Once you've played in 1080p & hi-res textures you'll never go back.

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Re: Watching with interest

"Once you've played in 1080p & hi-res textures you'll never go back."

Funny you should say that, this year I've finally got around to playing (and completing - yah me!) Hitman 2 and both True Crime games on the original XBox.

Especially True Crimes: NYC - I was amazed at how good the graphics where and New York really came alive for me. And that's on last generation consoles.

Good story and gameplay trump resolution and textures everytime. What can I say, GTA:V is game of the year!

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Re: Watching with interest

The problem isn't that the spec might be upgraded occasionally, the problem is that there might be many kinds of different spec from different OEMs.

Also, things like HDMI and hard drives aren't anywhere remotely near the same kind of hassle (for users and developers) that things like CPU and GPU are.

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Re: Watching with interest

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that even Intel HD graphics, albeit slow, seems to have much better driver support (the older GMA wasn't just ridiculously slow, but also had problems that certain things were buggy, especially with OpenGL).

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Linux

Re: Watching with interest

> That's totally untrue. For a start 90% of the extra power is used for prettier graphics only,

Nope. The extra CPU can also be used for more interesting AI. This means larger maps and more sophisticated NPCs and more NPCs. So even a low horsepower type strategy game will get dumbed down on a console.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Watching with interest

@Fletchulance

Yup, my thoughts too.

Going back to a "can my box play this game" situation is a huge step backwards. If it means a return to the "Must-have-new-game" is out but we need 4GB more ram and a new graphics card/module/thing, then i'm out.

They appear to be trying to invent.... the gaming PC. Albeit on Linux.

Upgradable, choice of operating systems,plays games.

Quacks like a duck...

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Re: Watching with interest

"modern games have to be deliberately dumbed down"

I'm glad someone else has raised this point. When a company writes and released a multi-platform title is has to work on the lowest common demoninator, ie the controller with the least number of buttons. Add to this the need to ensure that the title reaches the widest audience possible because the company is beholden to the shareholders.

The Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is a fine and fun game but the reward and interaction systems have been toned down in order to a) be multi-platform portable and b) reach an audience that may not have played RPGs before.

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Go

@Shugyosha

Console gamers can be easily impressed by shiny-shiny - if the Steam console launches with some very shiny titles (GTA6, or whatever will be popular next year), it will pique the interest of console gamers, who will buy it in the same way that they buy their XBox/Playstation: to get at the shiny.

When the new XBox/Playstation is due, they will look at replacing, but might then find that, for the cost of a small upgrade, the latest shiny-shiny will be available for their Steam console, which will be cheaper than a new XBox/Playstation. In the process, they may even learn something about what goes on inside their PC/Console hybrid.

I can't help but see this as a good thing - even if it ultimately fails, it's worth a try.

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Thumb Up

This is the most exciting thing to happen to Linux and gaming in, well, forever.

Hopefully, behind the scenes there is a lot of Linux porting going on that we don't know about. There will need to be for this to take off.

I've still got a bunch of AAA Windows titles in Steam which I bought for peanuts and I am working my way through them but ever since Steam launched on Linux I have had a policy that I won't buy a game that does not support Linux unless it is insanely good value (Hitman Absolution is currently on special for <$10 which is sorely tempting me).

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This is really stupid

So Valve have decided to bring out a Linux microconsole. Except that there won't even be a standard hardware spec.

Shugyosha is completely correct in that one of the big selling points of consoles is that they just work with no messing about. Trying to judge weather your hardware can run a new game in a decent state because everyone has different hardware is just a headache.

What value does a linux console offer over the PS4 or Xbox One that the PC doesn't already offer?

I can sympathize with Valve's dilemma in that every operating system is now shipping with it's own app store that cuts Steam out of the picture.

But to beat the incumbents they are going to have to do something radical. Apple did it to the smartphone market with the fully touchscreen iPhone and Nintendo did it to Sony's Playstation with the Wii motion controller. A simple 'me too' console product will wither and die.

The only radical things I can think of (which are probably rubbish ideas when you dig into them) are to cool the console with mineral oil rather than air allowing massive overclocking of the current chips, or to somehow keep the simplicity of the console but make it upgradeable once or twice in it's lifecycle like Nintendo tried to do with the memory clip in module for the N64. Perhaps with a plug in memory module and second processor to be released in 2 years time.

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Re: This is really stupid

"Except that there won't even be a standard hardware spec."

I'm guessing there will be a certification process (see my earlier post, above).

The model Valve is proposing is similar to the Android model, and that appears to have had some success.

Whether or not this will succeed will hinge on the certification process, but it is worth keeping in mind that Steam has 55 million users, with a peak of more than 5 million online at once each day.

That is a powerful bargaining chip to force acceptance of a certification process, so it is possible for them to make this work. Only time will tell whether or not they succeed.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is really stupid

A lot of speculation going on there.

The bottomline is that if you don't like it you don't have to buy it and honestly, there's no need to be upset over it either. If anything you should be happy that we have choices. Personally I like the idea of having an upgradable console depending on how many years I can continue to upgrade a base model. Also it'll be open so you can design your own interface... they're basically giving us the creativity to make our own consoles while they provide the gaming platform. Thanks! I think this is a good added innovation to the console game world.

Also, what if your PS4 breaks? You have to send it in right? What if you're serving overseas? Longer turn around. It'd be nice if I could run to the store to replace the broken part myself. I don't whine about a little work. I too work in IT but it's so simple so why waste time complaining like I'm entitled to a perfect world where everyone's choice has to match my choice. If you don't like it, don't buy it.

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Re: This is really stupid

But the first iphone couldn't even run apps (nor was it a smartphone), and by the time it did, other platforms like Symbian were full touchscreen (not to mention the other phones like from LG that were full touchscreen and with apps before 2007). Maybe it helped putting an applications downloader on the phones, but then even with every other platform doing that, Apple still is often catered for first for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was that they made it so that you could only release through their store - an insidious business move that thankfully most other platforms haven't followed.

Indeed, the iphone platform is a perfect example of how it could still work for Valve, even without beating the incumbents - the early iphones sold poorly, and Apple have never beaten Nokia and Samsung, but they've still had sales grow over the years, and made plenty of profit from them. Similarly Valve don't need to have an overnight success (which the iphone wasn't, despite what the history revisionists claim), or beat Sony/MS - as long as they have sales which grow over time, they can make money. They can also make money from their store - Google now leads in number of applications, but Apple will still make money.

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Linux

Re: This is really stupid

> So Valve have decided to bring out a Linux microconsole. Except that there won't even be a standard hardware spec.

If this is running on Linux then this hardware will likely be driven to a pretty predictable configuration actually.

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Linux

I think there may well be a market for it and it may be successful, but at this stage it seems like it's more likely to appeal to people who are currently PC gamers than it is to attract console gamers. Maybe that's Valve's intention.

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Why not also market it as a OS for PC's too? I wouldn't mind dual booting SteamOS and Windows on my gaming PC and Laptop.

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Are you daft? Linux = x86(-64) SO IT WILL RUN QUITE HAPPILY ON ANY PC. EVEN MAC! 'Cause its a x86-64! Distribution!

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"it's more likely to appeal to people who are currently PC gamers than it is to attract console gamers"

Not quite. If you're a PC gamer you've probably got a decent PC, so why not move your PC to the TV rather than buy a new machine? On the other hand, a hardcore console gamer is probably going to avoid this in favour of an XBox One or PS4. I expect this to find a market in middle ground: people who own a fairly rubbish laptop and maybe a XBox 360 or PS3 (with no intention of upgrading), i.e. casual gamers.

...of course success in that market relies somewhat on the price.

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MJI
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Errmmmm

Actually I am thinking of trying the OS on the quad core and making it dual boot, But next purchase is PS4.

We are allowed multiple game devices.

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> Not quite. If you're a PC gamer you've probably got a decent PC, so why not move your PC to the TV rather than buy a new machine?

PC gamers probably use their PCs for more than just games. Even if they don't, not all games are best played on the living-room TV with a gamepad. Do you really think people will be willing to move their PC to a different room, every time they want to play one of a certain subset of their games? That'll get old, fast.

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Not quite. If you're a PC gamer you've probably got a decent PC, so why not move your PC to the TV rather than buy a new machine?

'Cause I'd prefer to have something that ate less Juice then my PC. Depending on how big the Steam Box is, and how much Power it eats up (i.e. Watts Per Hour). This will be some of my deciding factors.

Personally I love how S0NY are supposed to have given us information on this topic. (i.e. Power Consumption for the PS4), and basically stated that the "Power consumption will vary greatly depending on the performance of the game played." Whatever the hell that means. Guess I'll find out once the Numbers hit the PS4Devwiki then...

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it will dual-bot - no problems

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The features of SteamOS may well wind up in the Steam client, if that happens the dual booting becomes less of a thing, yes you won't get the better performance but is the hassle worth it?

Now if these features don't get added to the Steam client then I could see myself dual booting alongside Windows for a HTPC purely for the streaming aspect. Regardless of what Valve say Steam's never been open and just because its on Linux I don't envisage it being modifiable in any true way as it is a store and Valve will be wanting you to do everything through that store I wouldn't want to use it for media consumption.

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Re: Errmmmm

NO! No you are not! You must plant your flag in the sand and declare allegiance to ONE console. Being open minded and not treating your console like a religion is heresy and you shall be burned at the stake, such are the laws of the internet!

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Re: @Richard81

"I expect this to find a market in middle ground: people who own a fairly rubbish laptop and maybe a XBox 360 or PS3 (with no intention of upgrading), i.e. casual gamers."

DINGDINGDINGDING! Winner! I am a former PC gamer, currently a casual XB360 gamer, in my fifties. I am VERY interested in the Steam offering because this bridges the gap and will allow a bit of "the best of both worlds." Certain PC titles previously unavailable* on a console would now be available to me. I have no desire to rejoin, as a prior poster put it, "the [PC hardware spec] arms race." I, too, "just want to play when it's playtime" without faffing about. In all likelihood, I will have a Steam box alongside an Xbox/PS# in the family room and the (somewhat outdated) gaming PC will remain in the seldom used upstairs command center

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Re: @Richard81 part 2

(forgot to add before hitting "submit"...)

* For example, one really cool feature which SHOULD be possible with a Steam device is to answer the question "do I prefer this game on a console or a PC?" without having to buy the game twice. I purchased and played through Diablo III on PC. I tried the demo on XBox360. I found that I prefer that particular game on PC, but had to wait over a year for the console version to be available to know this. If I had preferred the console version, I would have had to shell out another $60 over and above the $60 already spent for the PC version. With Steam and the Steam device, I can theoretically have my cake AND eat it, too. One title, one purchase, playable either way. In theory (and someone will, no doubt, be quick to correct if I'm wrong).

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Linux

> 'Cause I'd prefer to have something that ate less Juice then my PC.

Chances are this will be something that any one of us could build for ourselves. It will be made out of industry standard PC parts that can be replicated at Frys or your regional equivalent. It will be very much like a Mac in this respect. The only real difference will be the bundled combination and the size of the package.

I would be surprised if it's very far off from being a smaller version of the Zareason Mediabox I already have.

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Anonymous Coward

I don't think the 5% of users who will purchase random hardware and try to make it work care about these problems most will purchase SteamBox units or parts for SteamBox and use them.

I wold then think that the system has a rating generated using a benchmark like Windows does on Vista and newer and you buy games at or below your rating.

Yes it is not a easy as a normal console but you could just buy the SteamBox and use it for 4 years and then replace it with a new one.

What I am interested in is seeing if the changes to make games run well on Linux will make it back up stream to the kernel and various projects it pulls from. As this wold be a huge gain for Linux.

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The only way an upgradeable console would work is if the games are coded well enough to determine the 'rating' of the console and then adapt as required in order to run the game within the limits of the hardware (e.g. lower resolution etc).

If you get in to a scenario where not all games run on the console because X needs upgrading etc then that will spell the end of the steam console.

Consoles are popular because they just work. No drivers, no hardware upgrades & no faffing about. Parents can buy the kids a game and as long as it has the correct console name on the box they know it'll work.

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Good points, Shasta.

PC games tend to come with all sort of configuration options (mostly to do with dialling back the graphical effects for older hardware), but I can't see that it would be beyond the wit of Valve to assign the SteamBox a rating for the relevant components, then have preset settings within the games to pick the most optimal configuration for that hardware. If the hardware doesn't make the grade, the Steam won't let the user purchase, but can also advise what upgrades would be required.

Hmm, having types that out, I'm beginning to appreciate all the skepticism, but I'll still look upon this as a worthwhile project.

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console advantage

I also think one of the advantages of consoles is that the hardware is fixed and the programmers can write the most efficient code for that hardware.

If there are different kinds of steamboxes that advantage is also lost.

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Re: console advantage

> If there are different kinds of steamboxes that advantage is also lost.

You really have to look at it from Valve's point of view: The steam box provides them with a steady state of architecture that can incrementally improve and develop over time.

I dare say that the total revolutions in hardware design that MS and Sony throw at them every year or 6 would be a monumental pain in the rectum for very little return for Valve.

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Re: console advantage

Gabe has said they are going for tiers with the hardware, his example was good, better, best. Good would likely run software 720p at medium settings, better would be 1080p at medium settings and best would be 1080p at maximum settings. As it's meant to be a console there's no reason for devs to go above 1080p.

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