CES 2013: Is Valve's Steam Box hiding in plain view as the Xi3 "Piston"?

CES 2013, Computers, Gaming, Tech Digest news

Thumbnail image for xi3piston.jpgValve, the brains behind the Hal-Life and Portal gaming series and the Steam PC game download store, have long been rumoured to be preparing to enter gaming hardware market, with the whispers growing much louder by the end of 2012. Now some eagle-eyed tech heads at the CES 2013 show believe they’ve uncovered the fabled Steam Box, hiding in plain view on the Xi3 Corporation stand at the Las Vegas show.

Xi3 Corporation, who Valve have invested heavily in, are showcasing their Piston PC (Steam-powered piston engines – beginning to see the link yet?), a small but reasonably powerful PC at CES 2013. Known for their small form factor PCs, the Piston has been designed specifically to run Steam and its Big Picture mode.

With such an interesting, small chassis to work within, Xi3 employ modular internal hardware in the Piston, split into three components. One handles processor power and memory, another the display and power, while the final one handles connectivity options and I/O ports. This modular design allows users to update components as more powerful ones become available, which would be useful for the ever progressing world of PC gaming specs.
Xi3 already have a similarly shaped PC called the X7A. For the sake of offering a glimpse at the sort of performance these boxes can offer, its specs are as follows:

-A quad-core 64-bit, x86-based 32nm processor running at up to 3.2GHz (with 4MB of Level2 Cache)
-An integrated graphics processor (GPU) containing up to 384 programmable graphics cores (or shaders)
-4GB-8GB of DDR3 RAM
-64GB-1TB of internal solid-state SSD storage (with up to 12Gbps throughput speeds)
-Three display ports providing maximum resolution of 4096×2160 (including one DisplayPort v1.2 -and * 2 Mini-DisplayPorts v1.2)
-Four eSATAp 3.0 ports
-Four USB 3.0 ports
-Four USB 2.0 ports
-1Gb Ethernet port
-Three audio ports (1 input and 2 outputs: 1 copper and 1 optical)

While running at one tenth of the power of a full size desktop, the Xi3 machines do not have room for a fully-fledged graphics card, meaning they’d really only work best with casual games. That, paired with the premium pricing that Xi3 machines carry makes it unlikely that would turn out to be the eventual Steam Box design, even if it does suggest some exciting possibilities as to what may be sitting over the horizon, given Valve’s investment in Xi3.

That said, with a fast enough web connection, the Piston would more than powerful enough to run a cloud gaming service similar to OnLive or Nvidia’s just-announced Grid. If that’s the route Valve has planned for the Steam Box, then perhaps this really is an early glimpse at their own forthcoming hardware.

Images: Time / Gizmodo

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Gerald Lynch
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