Will 2013 be the year of the Steam Box? Depends on which end of the hype you’re on. According to one version, Valve is poised to launch its popular Steam distribution platform on a compact gaming PC to compete head-to-head with next-gen consoles by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. According to another version, we don’t really know much more about the Steam Box than we ever did; and what we do know isn’t necessarily encouraging.

Valve Steambox

Between the Rumors

There’s a long, uncertain stretch between initial rumors–even credible ones–and getting a shiny new tech product into the hands of consumers. Gamers have been anticipating the Steam Box for at least a year now, but two recent bits of news have shifted speculation into a much higher gear. Valve’s Big Picture mode brought us full screen HDTV views and full gamepad control. In other words, what Windows Media Center tried to do for media, Steam now really does for gaming. And a month later, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell gave a Kotaku interviewer1 confirmation on Steam Box development, along with a kind of timeline.

Even so, there is much that we do not know. We can be certain that the Steam Box will not be a proprietary console, but a relatively powerful gaming PC packed into an HTPC-style enclosure. However, Newell stated that “hardware will be a very controlled environment.” This may be problematic, as one of the chief factors that keep PC gamers from wholeheartedly embracing consoles has been the flexibility and cutting-edge expandability of the PC platform. In other words, if convenience trumps performance options anyway, how would a Steam Box be an improvement over a next-gen Xbox or PlayStation?

Keeping that in mind; as long as nothing is permanently soldered into the Steam Box motherboard, modders will certainly have a wider range of options including standard processor, memory, drive, and PCIe slots. Not to mention a mainstream OS and a distribution channel that embraces indie devs with open arms.

The Steam Box, like current-gen consoles, could make any TV “Smart”

Aside from the obvious gaming focus, the option of a small form-factor PC with an intuitive interface and controls could endear the Steam Box to even casual gamers who want to integrate web browsing, social communications, and media playback into a living room experience. This kind of all-in-one flexibility has boosted the usefulness and longevity of many Xbox360, Wii, and PS3 consoles, and the Steam Box tosses in the PC’s added flexibility and online “home court advantage.” Add a mini keyboard and touchpad, and many consumers can write off their next PC purchase–a compelling option, both to thrifty consumers and the ailing PC market.

But will it really be a “PC” in the full sense?

Valve Steam big picture

We know that it will run some form of a Big Picture “skin” over the underlying operating system, but not whether you’ll be able to get beyond the Big Picture interface. Or, for that matter, whether it will run Windows or Linux.

Windows currently boasts the most Steam game compatibility, while Linux would grant Steam more independence and cost-effectiveness. Newell’s comments imply that Valve is working hard on getting Big Picture to work with Linux, which will be a victory for a subset of PC gamers, but not much of a threat to the current state of the overall gaming market. You need to go pretty far down the list of best-selling games in 2012 to find one with Linux support, and there’s no reason to think that 2012 will be the year that Linux compatibility becomes a priority for Activision, EA, Bethesda, or any of the big names.

Don’t underestimate grudges, especially ones that are based on cold, hard competition

Newell was among the most vocal critics of Microsoft’s newest OS, calling the Windows 8 move toward an Apple-like walled garden model a “catastrophe” for third-parties such as Steam. One would think that a champion of openness would prefer to offer a system that could maintain the last and best reason to recommend Windows-based PCs. But if Newell is set on sticking it to Microsoft, a lot of gamers will still be left with the PC vs. console choice and the Steam Box left to struggle in the latter category, offering often innovative but relatively unknown indie games and no option for much else.

Honestly, if I were collecting various gaming platforms, I’d have no qualms buying a Linux-based, non-customizable, closed-interface Steam Box. I’d put it right next to my Ouya, and the Raspberry Pi that I made into a classic console emulator. But if I was going to invest my money into a single device to cover as many gaming and entertainment bases as possible, I’d need more than the current collection of Steam Box rumors to shift my focus away from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.

Update: Valve CEO Gabe Newell recently confirmed plans to use Linux but Steam box will be upgradable to Windows.2

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1 Read Luke Plunketts full article here
2 Read the full article published today by Martin Gaston for Gamespot.com

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