This week, Valve, the maker of the Steam gaming service for PCs, says it will make a series of three announcements that will outline how it plans to expand aggressively from the computer room to the living room in 2014. Today, it revealed the first piece of the puzzle: a new operating system.
SteamOS, based around Linux, will be an operating system for PCs that will be focused entirely around playing games via Steam. By cutting out the middleman, Valve hopes to increase the efficiency gap between dedicated gaming consoles and multi-functional PCs.
“In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level,” Valve wrote on the project’s announcement page. “Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.”
Besides letting game developers get more power out of PCs, SteamOS will let players share games between the members of their family, with each account able to “take turns” playing single downloaded copies of games. It will also allow you to stream games from your Windows or Mac computers over your home network and play them through the SteamOS — in effect, giving you “backward compatibility” with your current library of PC games.
Since SteamOS is built around Linux, game developers will have to release SteamOS-specific versions of their games to get them to play natively on the new operating system. This is the biggest challenge for Valve now that it has announced its intention to split Steam off from Windows and Mac — can it attract enough developer support to make people install a new OS?
Some clues to Valve’s next two announcements can be found on the teaser page. The three announcements are represented as a circle (which we now understand to represent SteamOS), a circle in brackets and two circles together in the brackets. Since Valve has already said multiple times that it will do something with gaming hardware, Wednesday’s announcement is most likely a low-cost PC-type machine to be sold at retail that runs SteamOS. And if that’s true, then Friday’s announcement will be some other piece of software (the second circle) paired with SteamOS. You may start your Half-Life 3 predictions now.
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In a statement on the Steam Community website, Valve described its prototype as "something special." It is built from off-the-shelf PC parts and is fully upgradable, meaning users can swap out the GPU, hard drive, CPU, or the motherboard if they want to.
"To be clear, this design is not meant to serve the needs of all of the tens of millions of Steam users," Valve said about its prototype. "It may, however, be the kind of machine that a significant percentage of Steam users would actually want to purchase--those who want plenty of performance in a high-end living room package. Many others would opt for machines that have been more carefully designed to cost less, or to be tiny, or super quiet, and there will be Steam Machines that fit those descriptions.
Valve said it is not ready to share a picture of its prototype because "they're not finished enough." However, the company said it will post images of the device before units ship to testers this year. Valve also expects users to redesign the machine from a technical perspective and from an industrial design angle, changing the enclosure in new ways.
"So high-powered SteamOS living room machines are nice, and fun to play with, and will make many Steam customers happy. But there are a lot of other Steam customers who already have perfectly great gaming hardware at home in the form of a powerful PC," Valve said.
"The prototype we're talking about here is not meant to replace that. Many of those users would like to have a way to bridge the gap into the living room without giving up their existing hardware and without spending lots of money," Valve added. "We think that's a great goal, and we're working on ways to use our in-home streaming technology to accomplish it--we'll talk more about that in the future."
Valve's Steam Machine, as well as units made by a variety of companies, will be available beginning in 2014. Hardware specifications for those machines will differ, in many cases substantially, from Valve's system, the company said.
Pricing has not been announced.
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