Radeon GPUs Confirmed for Retail Steam Machinesby Jarred Walton on October 11, 2013 2:19 PM EST
Last week Valve posted the specs for their prototype Steam Machines, and we noted at the time that all of the prototypes were using Intel CPUs with NVIDIA GPUs. The general consensus has been that NVIDIA has better drivers than AMD on Linux, and Intel CPUs have been leading AMD in both performance and reducing power use for the past several years, so going with Intel and NVIDIA hardware on a prototype system isn’t particularly shocking.
NVIDIA likes to help their partners by actually providing on-site engineering resources to a variety of companies – we know they have helped (and continue to help) numerous game developers, along with companies like Adobe (with both Flash and CUDA support for their Creative Suite), etc. There are NVIDIA engineers at Valve right now helping with the Steam Machines, and likely with other projects as well. We don’t know whether AMD is doing anything similar, but presumably NVIDIA has been putting more effort into SteamOS and thus their use in the prototype machines is logical.
But the lack of AMD hardware, combined with OriginPC announcing that they were completely dropping AMD GPUs, lead many to question whether Valve would be supporting AMD hardware at all. However, in a statement to Forbes yesterday, Valve confirmed that some retail Steam Machines shipping in 2014 will use AMD GPUs, and presumably we’ll see AMD CPUs used as well.
Valve’s Doug Lombardi states, “Last week, we posted some technical specs of our first wave of Steam Machine prototypes. Although the graphics hardware that we’ve selected for the first wave of prototypes is a variety of NVIDIA cards, that is not an indication that Steam Machines are NVIDIA-only. In 2014, there will be Steam Machines commercially available with graphics hardware made by AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel. Valve has worked closely together with all three of these companies on optimizing their hardware for SteamOS, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.”
So not only will we see Steam Machines with AMD and NVIDIA GPUs, but we’ll also get models from some vendors that skip out on discrete GPUs entirely and use Intel iGPUs. Considering that Steam Machines will likely have to stream all the Windows-only titles from a running Windows PC, it’s been speculated that some SteamOS systems will simply be tiny mITX (or smaller) cases with only a small amount of storage and a moderate CPU and will basically act as glorified media streamers. After all, NVIDIA’s SHIELD is essentially doing the same thing when streaming Windows games to the portable gaming controller, so why not do something similar for the living room?
Forbes speculates that we may see Intel’s Iris and Iris Pro iGPUs in Steam Machines, and it’s certainly possible, but I suspect plain old HD 4400/4600 will be far more common in the short-term. It’s just as likely that we’ll see Steam Machines powered by even low-end x86 processors like AMD’s Kabini or Intel’s Silvermont, but those would clearly be for streaming duties as opposed to running complex games natively. AMD’s Trinity/Richland as well as the upcoming Kaveri also seem like good candidates for budget Steam Machines, depending on what you want to do with the hardware.
Related to the above statement by Valve, AMD’s PR team also appears to have responded to various media outlet inquiries: “You’ve asked questions around Valve’s recent announcement of SteamOS and Steam Machines – and were wondering if AMD was ‘left out’ from their prototype program. This couldn’t be further from the truth – AMD is very actively engaged with Valve on these products and campaigns. But since we’d like you to hear this from Valve directly, please email Doug Lombardi, who is the Vice President of Marketing at Valve for their official statement on AMD’s involvement in the Steam Machine prototype program.”
It’s a nice way of dodging the question, but effectively it means that yes, AMD hardware was left out of the prototypes, but 300 prototype devices doesn’t exactly qualify as a huge win anyway; it’s the shipping hardware that will actually matter. Which is true at face value, but it neglects to deal with the fact that in the beta phase of the Steam Machine prototypes, all the bugs that exist with the NVIDIA and Intel platform will be directly tested by users. If I were planning on selling or buying a Steam Machine any time near launch, I would want to use the hardware that has received the most testing, and that’s clearly going to be hardware that’s similar to the prototypes. Then again, AMD is already in the PS4 and Xbox One, so maybe Steam Machines are being pushed as much by NVIDIA as they are by Valve?
None of the above should be surprising to most of our readers, but when we consider the larger context of SteamOS and Steam Machines, it does keep bringing us back to the big question: what is Valve really planning to do with these systems? If all of the Steam Machines that ship next year were to use discrete GPUs – AMD or NVIDIA, it doesn’t really matter – then we can reasonably conclude that Valve has hopes of spurring development for native Linux games. When they start talking about Intel graphics, however, even the fastest iGPUs (Iris Pro 5200) are still only providing roughly the same level of performance as NVIDIA’s GT 640 – or about one third the performance of the slowest prototype machine’s GTX 660! And to get that, you have to buy a quad-core Intel Haswell chip that isn’t exactly a budget part. Broadwell will make Intel iGPUs faster, but iGPUs will always be significantly slower than dGPUs that have several times more power available (e.g. GTX 780 is rated at up to 250W, whereas the highest performance CPUs are less than half that).
So on the one hand, Valve appears to be pursuing the living room more as a streaming platform than as a native Linux gaming platform. And that’s really weird, because Steam is already running natively on Windows with a vast library of games, and it’s really easy to connect a modern Windows PC to your home theater. Streaming will introduce at least some lag, never mind the potential for issues with less than stellar WiFi connections. Okay, you do get to put the noisy gaming PC in another room and still play games with a gamepad on the HDTV, but if that’s all you want then perhaps a GPU-agnostic equivalent to NVIDIA’s SHIELD (minus the integrated display) would be a better solution. On the other hand, we have prototype systems that pack more performance potential than either of the upcoming gaming consoles. Those are clearly designed to be powerful gaming systems, and the fact that they can do other stuff is a bonus.
It's the combination of high-end offerings along with budget systems that makes it hard to figure out Steam Machines; the mixutre means you lose the appeal of designing for a closed platform. We already have complex PCs with widely ranging performance capabilities, so unless there’s something more SteamOS just offers a new take on the same old hardware. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out, but the more I hear about SteamOS and the Steam Machines, the less I see it succeeding as a major gaming platform.