Valve's Steam Box prototype
While Valve seems sets on producing the SteamOS and leaving it to third-party OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) to build the Steam Machines, that hasn't stopped it from producing and distributing its own prototypes.
300 lucky Steam users have been selected as beta testers. They each received a nondescript wooden case housing the new gaming gear, and one of them was kind enough to produce an unboxing video that's garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
Units are shipping with a variety of specifications, ranging from i7 to i3 builds, a variety of Nvidia Geforce graphics cards. This is inline with past comments by Valve CEO Gabe Newell, who has said Steam Machines will builds will go from "good, better, best," with some machines capable of playing games locally, while others will rely on streaming.
Steam Box prototypes shipped in 2014 to 300 lucky gamers
Valve has come out and said it. "This year we're shipping just 300 of these boxes to Steam users, free of charge, for testing." There are instructions to opt into a beta Valve's Steam Machine page. They're rather simple, and seem designed to confirm that you're active Steam user.
Valve has reiterated that while it is making these intial prototypes, multiple manufacturers will be making Steam Boxes of disparate configurations, saying that this will give users a choice, and not force them into a one size must fit all situation.
How open will this Steam Box beta be?
Very open, it would seem from the FAQ on Valve's site. Questions like can I install another OS, post pictures of the thing online or change the hardware are all answered with a resounding yes.
It also goes on to say that users will be able to build their own Steam Boxes, and Valve will providing access to the SteamOS source code.
Wait, how will a Linux-based Steam Box play my Windows games?
Through streaming, of course! Valve released its in-home streaming service from beta and into the hands of the gamers, meaning you can go play with it right now.
The new feature lets you stream games from a Windows PC to either a Steam Machine or another Windows computer. Support for streaming from SteamOS, Linux and Max OSX is coming soon, says Valve.
The Nvidia Shield does just that, allowing you to stream a Windows game from your PC to an Android device.
Of course, having the Steam Box be dependent on the PC we assume you own is not without its faults. First off, it's tying up that machine, so no one else can use it. Second, you're still caught in the expensive upgrade cycle of PC gaming.
Finally, Valve has confirmed that SteamOS won't have a "suspend" function like the PS4 and Xbox One do. In a Github bug report thread, a Valve engineer wrote that Linux's suspend feature is no longer supported in SteamOS.
The reason? "Given the state of hardware and software support throughout the graphics stack on Linux we didn't think we could make this reliable."
So there will be Steam Boxes, plural?
Yes. Valve's open SteamOS will be available to whoever will have it, and they can create whatever sort of machine they like to run. At least Valve hasn't publicized any planned restrictions.
It won't be like the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, where you have the Sony system and the Microsoft system with their own libraries. Multiple configurations mean competition, which will hopefully drive innovation and keep things affordable.
It will also means a lot of different models all claiming to be the best Steam Box for your money, so picking one won't be as simple as deciding if you like Uncharted better than Halo.
Hopefully you'll check back with us for some Steam Box reviews when deciding on which model to go for. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.