The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Valve’s Steam Box

CES 2013 was all abuzz this year over the Steam Box, and for good reason: the opportunity to have a seamless interface that finally takes advantage of Steam’s Big Picture platform is enough to pique the interest of even the stalwarts of PC gaming. Add to that a small and sleek form factor that made a splash at last year’s event, and it’s difficult not to hop on the nearest waiting list.

But, it’s still unclear what Valve’s own and third-party Steam Box incarnations will look like, how they will run, and (perhaps most importantly) what they will cost. Still, Valve’s Gabe Newell has offered some salient points amidst the chatter and rumors, so we can piece together a more stable picture.

Here’s the breakdown of what to expect with the Steam Box, what features are worth their hype, and how it risks leaving some of its biggest promises unfulfilled.

Reasons to Be Excited

More than Just a Box

Out of all of the buzzy features Newell and company teased throughout CES, perhaps the one that is most intriguing is that the Steam Box isn’t just a single device. Rather, it’s a Linux-based OS all its own, powering a range of tiered gaming computers, from low-cost streaming devices to high-end rigs. While Valve hasn’t explicitly said, it seems likely that each will be required to meet a minimum level performance and boot directly into the Steam Box OS right out of the box — a feat currently impossible with Windows and Microsoft’s licensing requirements.

Other companies are also getting in on the action already, most notably Xi3′s Piston console, a CES darling that promoted its function on the Steam platform with backing from Valve. While Xi3 reps were cautious about promoting the Piston as an out and out Steam Box, there’s a possibility that the Piston is a landmark of the first wave of Steam Boxes. But there are also other devices seemingly waiting in the wings, some of which that may already be on the market. Take the Alienware X51, for example. Last year, we reported that the Dell-owned company’s compact PC was originally intended to be a Steam Box device, and when Valve formally launches Steam Box, is likely to be offered in Linux configurations to be compatible.

Steam Games on Any Screen

Another thrill-inducing feature that has many excited about the Steam Box platform is its purported versatility. Newell promised that the Steam Box wouldn’t behave as just a console version of Steam with the added benefit of a shop. Instead, it’s touted as an all-in-one streaming, gaming, and browsing server that travels to multiple gaming displays. Eventually, Newell hints that the Steam Box will be able to juggle up to eight different games simultaneously. As Nvidia demonstrated with Project Shield, Valve is experimenting with remote access to Steam through Android clients custom-tailored for mobile devices, suggesting that the Steam Box platform could bring full-fledged PC titles to tablets and smartphones as well.

If true, you have to give Valve points just for effort  — a totally open and flexible hardware option is a true step towards gaming of the future, and it shows that Valve is conscientiously steering the Steam Box towards an inclusive gaming experience that isn’t tied to one method or hardware.

Making PC Gaming Mainstream

Cost and technical savvy, whether real or perceived, have always been a barrier between PC gaming and mainstream audiences. With a unified platform and cheap, easy to use hardware, Steam Box could be the key to bringing PC gaming to the masses. Of course, it’ll be an uphill battle dependent on influencer adoption and an aggressive marketing effort, but it could move the needle. And while it may not be able to replicate the commercial success of PlayStation or Xbox products, Steam Box should make Microsoft and Sony sweat a little.

Why Steam Box May Not Matter

But for all of its promise, the Steam Box concept could have an equal share of drawbacks.

Keeping Costs Down without Sacrificing Performance

The core group of consumers that use Steam are, unsurprisingly, PC gamers who are particular about their systems’ performance, and it’s disconcerting that Valve is not making promises in the nuts and bolts department. Aside from rough estimates tiered in “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” it’s unclear what minimum level of PC experience Valve hopes to offer. In order to keep costs low and accessible for a wider array of consumers, there’s a chance that entry-level Steam Box devices will be weak and underpowered, turning off Valve’s existing fanbase by forcing them to buy the top of the line or forget it entirely.

The Steam Box also could hit a snag when it comes down to the MSRP. If Xi3′s Piston has slightly higher specs than the company’s lower-market X3A (not a stretch, considering the folks at CES swore that the Piston had 1TB of memory, more than three times that of the X3A), then the price is already shaping up to be above the $500 line. Factor in the Piston’s relation to the higher-market X7A, the price could creep up to almost $1000. That’s a lot to shell out to play in your living room.

Gaining Developer Support

There’s also the potential for a stalemate between Valve and developers due to the Steam Box’s Linux-based OS. While Steam’s catalog of Linux-compatible games has been slowly growing with the Steam for Linux beta, wider adoption could take time. To convince developers to offer their games on Linux, Valve needs to prove there’s a significant audience for it. But in order to be successful, the Steam Box needs a robust library of titles released alongside their Windows and console equivalents. While Newell has largely explained away this problem by offering the possibility for users to install Windows OS onto the device, it’s setting up for a chicken-or-egg scenario. If this issue isn’t solved, customers may be frustrated with facing a work-around at unboxing.

Open-Source Competition and Brand Identity

Another big concern is oversaturation. 2013 is already shaping up to be the dawn of the open-source console, with the Ouya, Project Shield, and GameStick gaining traction for their Android-powered gaming systems. If the Steam Box — full of possible options that come in all shapes, sizes, specs, and prices — enters the market without a cohesive strategy it could confuse or intimidate consumers. In absence of a single device, Valve is accepting a mountain of risk by diluting the concept with products of varying performance from multiple vendors. To appeal to a more mainstream audience, Valve will need to take great strides toward educating consumers about the benefits, utility, and differences of each, or face the same pitfalls of traditional PC gaming.

What’s Next?

While Valve has been dropping tidbits about the Steam Box concept for months, we’re still no closer to knowing when we’ll see the culmination of their work out in the open. With Valve panels planned for GDC in March, it’s possible we could learn more then, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Scott Lowe contributed to this report.

By Lauren Hockenson

CES: Samsung Shows Off Smart TV Functionality

At CES today, Samsung announced a new line of Smart features for its televisions. The features are headlined by the Smart Hub, which adds five panels and allows the user to use “a light hand gesture (flipping)” in order to navigate through different types of content. According to Samsung, “you can discover five totally different experiences in Smart Hub, as if you have five new TV sets.” The panels include:

  • On TV – shows the channel that is currently playing as well as the most relevant, personalized suggestions that may be airing shortly based on consumer viewing habits 
  • Movies & TV Shows – an easy view of movies and TV services and over-the-top content that are available from various content providers. Content is recommended based on the consumer’s viewing habits
  • Photos, Videos & Music – allows consumers to organize personal content and files on Samsung Smart TVs and other linked devices 
  • Social – highlights user-created content from friends and family, popular videos from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and video call services 
  • Apps – organizes downloaded Samsung Apps and recommendations for easy access

Samsung also revealed S-recommendation, which offers customized content as well as a way for users to search for new shows, as well as Advanced Smart Interaction, which lets you “use everyday language and casual gestures to find content or command and control the TV.”

Samsung will also offer an Evolution Kit that will allow users to update their TVs with Smart TV features without having to buy a new device. As explained by Samsung, “each flagship Samsung Smart TV comes with a Smart Evolution slot at the back of the TV that allows consumers to easily update the hardware and software on their TVs so that they can stay up-to-date with the latest innovations. By adding the Evolution Kit to their 2012 Smart TVs, consumers can enjoy a redesigned Smart Hub, enhanced Voice Interaction and Motion Control, as well as a quad-core chipset for increased processing power. Flagship 2013 Smart TVs will also be equipped with slots for future Smart Evolution kits.”

“As the plethora of apps and content grow, consumers are faced with the overwhelming challenge of discovering quality content that appeals to their interests. They are looking for ways to experience converged content, and they want to do it easily,” said Samsung executive vice president Kim Hyun-Suk. “We have simplified the process with TVs that offer more intuitive features, endless connectivity and content options, and larger screen sizes with true-to-life picture quality. Consumers can now enjoy the ultimate lean back experience, which is richer and easier than ever before.”

Smart features will be included in Samsung’s “floating” 85-inch Ultra High-Definition TV, which was also announced today.

Andrew Goldfarb is IGN’s associate news editor. Keep up with pictures of the latest food he’s been eating by following @garfep on Twitter or garfep on IGN.

By Andrew Goldfarb

Leaked Image of HTC M7 Bears a Striking Resemblance to iPhone 5

If mimicry is to be considered the highest form of flattery, then HTC is sending a hefty compliment Apple’s way if the first leaked images of HTC’s M7 are to be believed. Thanks to an unnamed source, Unwired View was able to snag a glimpse at an early version of the M7, which bears a noticeable resemblance to Apple’s iPhone 5. According to Unwired View’s source:

“The render is apparently part of a short animation clip instructing new owners on first-time SIM card installation. However, the lack of branding and other details (distinct screen borders, for instance) suggest that this is not the exact design HTC is expected to debut at next month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.”

The Taiwanese manufacturer has been struggling to keep up with its competitors in a saturated smartphone market and considering Apple’s unprecedented success with its latest iPhone model, they might be looking for their salvation in a product design that has already proven to be wildly popular. In addition to the slick, iPhone-esque design, the HTC M7 is rumored to boast a generous 4.7-inch HD display, a 1.7GHz Snapdragon quad-core processor, a 13-megapixel camera, 2GB of RAM, and a whopping 32GB of storage, while running Android 4.1.2.

If the final version of the HTC M7’s firmware closely resembles the iPhone 5, it might lead to speculation as to the limits of the company’s recent agreement with Apple that settled their existing patent disputes and established a 10-year cross-licensing deal for future patents. The settlement’s exact details remain a mystery to the public as they were kept confidential but time will tell if Apple, no stranger to a good patent dispute, sees fit to go hunting for legal wiggle room should the design be considered entirely too familiar.

Melissa Grey is a lover of all things cats, comics, and tech nerditry. She can be found on MyIGN at MelissaGrey or lurking on Twitter @meligrey.

By Melissa Grey

Before Apple, Siri Was Destined for Droid

Before Steve Jobs swooped in like a conquering crusader, Siri was very nearly a flagship feature of Verizon’s Droid smartphones. In a recent feature for The Huffington Post, Bianca Bosker reveals the winding path Siri took before it became one of Apple’s defining iPhone features and the story is juicier than you might expect.

Prior to Apple’s buyout of the startup that developed Siri, Verizon had drawn up a contract with the company to incorporate the assistant into its line of Droid phones. In order to make Siri palatable to an international consumer base as wide as Apple’s, a few of the cheekier components of the voice-activated assistant had to be toned down. There was once a time when Siri evoked the homicidal computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and cheerfully bandied about a choice selection of four-letter expletives. In an earlier, sassier, pop-culture savvier version of Siri, when a user asked what happened to HAL, the assistant responded, “Everyone knows what happened to HAL. I’d rather not talk about it.” The Siri of old also had a few solid suggestions on where to hide a dead body.

The voice assistant’s origins began with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense for research into developing an adaptable artificial intelligence. The original plan was less Siri and more SkyNet, as the DoD wanted to develop an AI with the capacity to learn and adapt to its user’s demands. Siri retained some of that functionality when the company was still in talks to partner with Verizon, but its affiliation with Apple has seen its wings clipped for the sake of mass consumer appeal. Likewise, Siri’s capabilities initially offered wider potential than the current iOS implementation allows.

According to Gary Morgenthaler, a partner of one of the first venture capital firms to back Siri, Apple has explored only a fraction of Siri’s true potential:

“The Siri team saw the future, defined the future and built the first working version of the future. So, it’s disappointing to those of us that were part of the original team to see how slowly that’s progressed out of the acquired company into the marketplace.”

Had Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus not met with Steve Jobs and Siri had been incorporated into Droid, it’s entirely possible that the assistant’s functionality could have encompassed a wider range of user options, though that is, of course, entirely speculative. But one can no doubt appreciate the potentiality of a Siri capable of intuitively scouring sources from all over the web to deliver a tailor made response to users’ needs. Time will tell if Apple chooses to unleash Siri’s inner HAL – with fewer terrifying tendencies – to exploit the full range of possibilities offered by the voice activated AI.

Melissa Grey is a lover of all things cats, comics, and tech nerditry. She can be found on MyIGN at MelissaGrey or lurking on Twitter @meligrey.

By Melissa Grey

Facebook Simplifies Stalking with Graph Search

Facebook has announced an overhaul to its local search, and it’s called Graph Search. The feature, which is currently in beta, allows users to set a series of filters ranging from gender and relationship status to current city and age. The company demonstrated Graph Search today at a press event, showcasing a number of practical applications for the feature, like searching for single friends of friends, finding possible job candidates, or even rounding up photos from multiple friends that meet a certain criteria or were tagged in a certain location. But the feature extends far beyond your closest friend circle.

Facebook says that Graph Search mines over a billion users and a trillion connections, allowing you to see results from users that share only the loosest affiliation with your network, such as a common interest or location. For results beyond Facebook, the company has partnered with Bing to provide web links from right within Graph Search.

While Graph Search’s utility for active users is undeniable, it’s hardly the landmark announcement many were expecting. Rumors began circulating earlier this week that Facebook would finally introduce its long-fabled phone, but nary a word was uttered about new mobile hardware partnerships at today’s event.

Graph Search is in limited beta for English-speaking users. To learn more, visit Facebook’s Graph Search page.

Scott Lowe is IGN’s guru of Tech. He enjoys coffee, burritos, and moonlit walks. You can follow him on MyIGN Scott-IGN and on Twitter @ScottLowe. For more of the latest and greatest in technology, follow @IGNTech.

By Scott Lowe

Samsung’s ‘Floating’ 4K Ultra HD TV to Cost $37,900

Samsung has announced a price for its 85-inch ‘floating’ 4K Ultra HD TV that was introduced last week at CES and received our Best of CES award. According to The Verge, the company will sell a limited quantity of the new display in Korea for a price of 40 million won, roughly $37,900. As we saw with LG’s 55-inch OLED display, which was priced around $10,000 in Korea and $12,000 in the U.S., Samsung’s new 4K Ultra HD TV could cost even more when it finally arrives in North America. Only 77 units were available for pre-order and initial shipments are expected to begin in March. There’s no word on when the company will start offering the 95-inch and 110-inch versions of the design, or, what’s more, when any of the models will be available in the U.S.

Scott Lowe is IGN’s guru of Tech. He enjoys coffee, burritos, and moonlit walks. You can follow him on MyIGN Scott-IGN and on Twitter @ScottLowe. For more of the latest and greatest in technology, follow @IGNTech.

By Scott Lowe

Tim Cook on Apple HDTV: “There’s A Lot We Can Do In This Space”

During today’s Q1 quarterly earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook commented on the company’s efforts in the TV space, including sales of its Apple TV set-top box and rumors of a forthcoming HDTV.

Cook said the company has seen significant growth in sales of its “hobby project,” the Apple TV. In Q1, the company sold 2 million units of the compact set-top box, up from 1.3 million in Q4. While this a marked sales rate increase over the device’s more formative years, it pales in comparison to the iPhone and iPad, which accounted for more than 69 million units in Q1 alone. But Cook suggests Apple’s stake in the home entertainment business is still burgeoning.

“There’s a lot we can do in this space,” Cook said. “So we continue to pull the string to see where it leads us.”

Rumors of an Apple-branded HDTV have been circulating for years, but the project has reportedly been marred by failed content partnership negotiations. However, sources have provided both supportive and contrarian claims that 2013 could be the year Apple’s iHDTV will make its grand debut.

Scott Lowe is IGN’s resident tech expert and Executive Editor of IGN Tech. You can follow him on Twitter at @ScottLowe and on MyIGN at Scott-IGN.

By Scott Lowe

AT&T Expands FaceTime Over Cellular

After months of only allowing customers with certain shared data LTE plans to access FaceTime video conferencing over its cellular network, AT&T is opening up to the feature to practically all subscribers, including owners of the iPhone 4S and 3G-enabled iPads, TechCrunch reports. Starting today, any subscriber with a tiered data plan in the U.S. can make FaceTime video calls over 3G or 4G LTE.

The revision is sure to be a welcomed change for many subscribers and puts AT&T more competitive with its rivals Sprint and Verizon, which have offered unhindered FaceTime over cellular access since launch. Unfortunately, those subscribers still clinging to an unlimited data plan on AT&T are out of luck.

Scott Lowe is IGN’s guru of Tech. He enjoys coffee, burritos, and moonlit walks. You can follow him on MyIGN Scott-IGN and on Twitter @ScottLowe. For more of the latest and greatest in technology, follow @IGNTech.

By Scott Lowe

CES: LG’s 55-Inch OLED TV to Cost $12,000

Following details of its Korean Launch, LG has announced that its 55-Inch OLED HDTV will be available in the U.S. in March for a cool $12,000. This is more expensive than the international pricing, which is set at 11 million won (just over $10,000) in South Korea, and also a bit later. The HDTV is set to arrive at Korean retailers in February.

The OLED TV itself, official model number 55EM9700, is just 4 millimeters thick and weighs just 22 pounds, thanks to the new OLED technology. Short for organic light-emitting diode, OLED displays are comprised of a layer of organic matter that emits light when charged with electricity. This eliminates the need for a backlight, allowing for deeper black levels and thinner, lighter displays.

OLED displays are relatively common in smaller sizes, perhaps most notably in the Playstation Vita’s 5-inch OLED screen. They are only now becoming commercially available in larger HDTV-standard form factors.

For the the latest news on HDTVs and all the hottest CES tech and gadgets, don’t miss IGN’s CES hub.

Source: The Verge

Justin is Editor of IGN Wireless. He has been reviewing mobile games since the dark days of Java flip phones. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErrorJustin and on IGN.

By Justin Davis

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