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20 November 2015

Are PCs finally overtaking traditional games consoles?

The US videogame company Valve is trying to control even more of the PC gaming market.

By Emad Ahmed

Gamers have had different ways to get their fix over the years. Either by sitting on the sofa playing traditional consoles, hosting a souped-up gaming rig at their desks, or tapping their fingers at a small (or large) screen a few inches away from their faces through smartphones and tablets.

But the definition of a traditional console is changing, as the size of computing devices continues to shrink and desktop cases continue to become more stylish. After all, nothing’s stopping you from making your own powerful gaming PC that you can hook up to your TV, all for a price similar to a PS4 or Xbox One.

Here is where Alienware’s new Steam Machine comes in. It’s a compact computer stuffed with traditional computing bits – except for one thing: it doesn’t run the usual Windows software you’d expect.

Although you can get a Windows version of this (known as the Alienware Alpha), the Steam Machine uses SteamOS software, created by gaming giant Valve, which is based on Linux – that weird, free, lightweight operating system anybody can download but most people haven’t.

Now, let’s get to the main course here: the games. Portal 2, Bioshock Infinite and Civilisation V all ran perfectly fine at high settings without pushing the Steam box too far.

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Missing in action: the new Steam Machine doesn’t offer the latest games, such as Metal Gear Solid V

Because SteamOS is a relatively new OS, it requires developers to tweak their Windows creations so they can run on this flavour of Linux. Although many games are available for SteamOS, the best A-rated titles are currently absent. Want to check out the latest Metal Gear? Sorry, not here. The new Call of Duty? Good luck even getting that on the Mac.

I love indie games, and they are primarily what fill the 1,500+ SteamOS library at present. However, indie games are often unique in their ideas or gameplay and not as graphically intense, which makes you wonder why you’d need a computer starting from £449 to play such games. If the Steam machine is going to compete with consoles, it needs to attract the heavyweight titles that go along with one.

One thing that deserves special attention is the dedicated Steam controller. Now, you can go ahead and plug in an Xbox controller, which has long been the preferred controller for PC gamers, but for the purpose of this review, I decided to jump into the unknown and see what it was like using the most interesting controller released since the original Wii remote:

Brave new world? The new Steam controller

I can understand the silent rage hardcore gamers may experience when facing the prospect of their memory muscle being challenged. It does look unusual after all. But I think Valve has done an impressive job of the daunting task of transferring the full functionality of the mouse and keyboard to our palms. The two concave circles are effectively trackpads, responsive and able to provide individual feedback.

After a relatively quick setup, I realised just how fast and hassle-free it is to get going with the Steam box, while users of the Xbox One have to install gigabytes and gigabytes of patches as soon as they’re connected to the internet. Perhaps having a PC as a games console is easier than ever before, while traditional consoles have never been more complex. But despite Alienware’s excellent design and packaging, SteamOS still has a lot of work to do.