With the imminent launch of a variety of Steam Boxes, the question has to be asked: Are these machines going to fulfill the needs of the console users and become a viable alternative to Sony's and Microsoft's dominant consoles? First, it's important to come to a decision as to whether or not Valve is positioning the Steam Box to be a console alternative or if they are simply aiming to bring computer gaming-in terms of graphics, game libraries, and capabilities-to the living room.
For instance, iBuyPower is working on a Steam Box that is said to feature a multi-core AMD processor and an AMD R9-270 GPU. The cost is said to be $499, and that price includes the new Steam controller. If other companies continue to come out with Steam Boxes around that price point-or lower-the price is right to compete with the console alternatives. Even more interesting is the fact that the above referenced Steam Box will feature quite a bit more graphical prowess than the integrated AMD APUs used in both Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One.
But let's start talking features. The Xbox One features the ability to control your TV; play music and videos; and live stream your games to the Internet. But one of the most important features of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4-and this is where I think Steam Boxes might have a problem-is their ability to utilize more than one controller and do split-screen multiplayer.
All of the information that I have seen regarding SteamOS and Steam Boxes hasn't had anything to say about split-screen multiplayer. And this is where a dedicated console really wins out. My childhood was spent going over to friends' houses to play the latest and greatest games with my friends. Playing Mario Kart and racing against three other friends or playing Super Smash Bros.
If Valve wants the Steam Box to be a viable console alternative, they'll need to find a way to accept input from at least two controllers and display split-screen graphics (or output to two separate monitors....that could be cool to prevent screen watching). Without this, there will always be a need for consoles to enable that spur-the-moment multiplayer experience. However, if Valve is simply trying to bring higher-powered graphics and a larger game library to the living room (a computer gaming experience), then the Steam Box does seem like it could be just the thing.
Another great feature of at least some of the Steam Boxes that have been announced is the ability to upgrade components as newer, better components come out. Instead of having to wait for the Xbox Two or PlayStation 5 to come out to get better graphics or play the latest titles, a user could simply switch out the GPU for a newer one or higher performing one. This would be cheaper than buying a whole new console. Or if you want to get better graphics than your current Steam Box supports on a current game, you can easily upgrade the required component.
And here again, Valve and Steam are in a unique position to offer advice to potential upgraders. Steam's hardware survey will allow SteamOS to easily configure the best settings for a game based upon the hardware in your Steam Box. And if you were to want to step up the settings, SteamOS could theoretically tell you exactly what hardware you need to achieve the settings you want.
A lot of the SteamOS's viability will come down to the game library. If Valve and Steam are able to get developers on board, then SteamOS has a chance. If not, it could be DOA. Ultimately, if Valve wants its Steam Boxes to be viable alternatives to consoles, it needs to enable the ability to use multiple controllers for local multiplayer. If it's just looking to bring PC gaming to the living room, then I believe it has achieved that goal, though I'll hold off judgment until I get a chance to check out a Steam Box in person.