Pistons, Shields and Solving Problems We Don’t Have!

This is The Piston. Or a Steambox.

CES is in full swing, and I should be in bed after a slight mishap over the weekend. But talk of a Steam Box AND a new hand-held by NVidia? Come on, I’d drag myself out of bed for that sort of news! Thing is, whilst the tech world is obviously very excited, I’m a little bit more cautious nowadays…

 

It’s weird when you get two new hardware announcements at CES.

I like CES and I like doing a sort of weeks round-up of the juicy stuff that floats my boat, because liking games does mean having half an eye on the technology that powers them, knowing that it all has an effect. But to get two machines announced at CES is… well, interesting. And they are both indeed interesting, although I’d also suggest that both of them are fundamentally flawed in some way.

So let’s begin with the one most are buzzing about – the so-called ‘Steam Box”.

Actually, it’s not called the Steam Box as it is not wholly funded by Valve, but part-funded in league with mini-PC maker Xi3. Codenamed ‘Project Piston’, currently it’s supposed to offer up to one Terabyte of storage, be fully designed for Steam’s new Big Picture Mode and allow for modular updates, which is handy considering it is such a small computer – it, like the Ouya, can fit into the palm of your hand. However, whilst specs aren’t fully nailed down to the fence yet, the Piston is allegedly based on Xi3’s “performance level” X7A series, which costs an eye-watering $999.

Now, admittedly whilst we can obviously say it is based on the X7A, we can obviously deduce some cost-cutting; such as not having a Windows OS, for example, which should save a few quid. And I like the idea of a Steambox. I actually think that Steam is in a fantastic position to have its own hardware and, along with the Ouya in a few months, wreak havoc with the traditional gaming market. In an era where X-Box Live, PSN and the Wii-U eShop all still price new games above retail price, Steam is a retailer. A digital retailer. And that means that often its prices are the same as retailers – and it regularly holds sales so consumers can get their gaming fix a hell of a lot cheaper than that if they hold off for a few weeks.

However, the Ouya is a great comparison; it’s an android-powered tiny cube with wireless controller and is also modular and can be modified and updated, but unlike the proposed Piston the Ouya will cost around £80. Both will be pushing digital gaming – the Piston will be pushing Steam and digital downloads, whereas Ouya will come replete with OnLive, making sure that you can stream games from the Cloud through the Ouya. Indeed, OnLive is just the start of it, with a massive applications store at your fingertips you can just about have anything you want on hardware designed not to be technically expensive, but be technically capable of delivering something consumers want, at a price that the majority of consumers can afford. I cannot see a Steambox being cheaper than £500, and even there, they’d have to strip out a lot of what people want. The issue with delivering a very small gaming PC is that those miniscule parts cost more than the big, chunky parts and so invariably the price will rise the smaller you go. You see this over the course of a generational cycle – remember how big the PS3 was. As it got cheaper and more practical to do so, the size of the machine was cut; not only saving on production costs but on material costs. But to go as small as the Piston, you are talking a very niche selection of parts.

And even then, the Piston has one slight problem… that we have a Steambox. It’s called a PC.

Now, understandably some will mention Gabe Newell’s distaste for Windows 8 here and I’m sure he’s got his reasons. But we go through dodgy Windows iterations from time to time, as Microsoft do their best to try and develop and evolve – not always for the better, no, but they change. But does this mean that Steam as an entity will slowly phase Windows out altogether in favour of its own hardware? I doubt it. For this would be a mistake, with the amount of us still using Windows 7 and Windows being the standard PC operating system. To abandon it would be to abandon the market that has made you such a huge global success story, thinking you are somehow bigger than the system you operate on and that would be a mistake, especially if a PC with the same technical specifications is cheaper to build.

Xi3's Piston

Am I the only one who doesn’t want a PC that finds into my hands? I still lose my 3DS at times…

The Piston, however you slice it, is a niche product aimed at a very small crowd of people. It shouldn’t and probably isn’t indicative of any real attempt to run from the atypical PC, just provide a nice gimmicky option for homes with large TVs. But I have to say it – I can’t understand why you’d buy a Steambox, a Piston, that is functionally more limited than a PC and yet costs more than a PC. There’s a fundamental logic flaw in that decision that just… doesn’t quite make sense to me. It’s a dabbling Valve can afford, of course, but it’s perhaps perplexing when you consider how consumer-focused Steam and Valve have become that they’d help fund something which is inherently not going to be entirely consumer-friendly. The idea they also don’t want to make a loss on the hardware indicates a price point that will frankly just see it in the hands of an elite few, who can live with the inconvenience because hey, it’s a Steambox!

It doesn’t solve any real problem, just creating new questions and conundrums to quantify. Which neatly segues into the NVidia Shield.

Now, we’re no strangers to strange Android handheld gaming devices – yup, they’re all links – so immediately we have a problem; what can NVidia do that others haven’t already attempted at some point? Well, considering it is a hardware manufacturer it has stronger parts at its disposal. It’s looking to stick a moderate GPU into its unit and run on a Tegra 4, but the real push was the idea of streaming games direct from your PC onto it’s 1024×768 clamshell-style screen, in much the same way the Wii-U’s U-Pad does.

And immediately we’ve run into a problem.

Now, I’m totally game for new handheld platforms but the Nintendo U-Pad does at least have a slight functional usage for some; the idea being that some games can simply be streamed directly to the controller in case someone wants to watch a movie on the TV, for example. It may be a dying scenario, but ultimately it is a scenario that some will have come up against in their lives – myself included. Above and beyond that, the touch-screen U-Pad offers a functionality for other games that could be quite amazing. The Shield… umm… doesn’t have that.

As you can see, the Shield is effectively a pretty (although slightly questionable!) controller with a fold-down screen. Streaming games from a PC sounds like a blast, until you come to two key questions; the first is the issue of the screen. Now, those of us who have streamed games on smaller resolution devices will attest to the problems that can arise from that, most notably a slight performance hit. Framerates and the occasional lag spike, Nintendo just about found a way around it but it took them years to fund a solution (and, most notably, the indication is that solution is patented! Clever girl…). NVidia will have to find a way around this issue knowing that Nintendo has already found and secured its own methods around it. This poses a terrible quandary, and puts NVidia in the most awkward of positions. If it isn’t as good as the Wii-U… well… that’s never going to go away. In a gaming world that has an inherent disdain for Nintendo, even when it does things right, being seen to be doing worse than Nintendo on technical specifications would be a humiliation. That much NVidia has to sort out – even in their demonstration, it was clear this was an issue, and it’s one that they will have to consider putting right.

Secondly, there’s this idea of streaming from a PC. Now, I’m not sure about anyone else, but… I don’t want to stream from my PC. I sometimes might want to turn on the TV whilst I play Mario, and that much I can appreciate and thank Nintendo for. My PC… well… my TV is right next to my monitor. This is not uncommon. I don’t tend to use my PC to watch TV. I’m often using my PC as other things are being used as well. Streaming a game from my PC to a smaller screen… it just doesn’t seem logical. I’ve never thought, “I want to stream this game onto a small handheld device!” Quite the contrary, I download a big scary horror game like Amnesia, I turn off the lights, put on surround-sound headphones and prepare to soil myself. I’ve never thought that I could improve a PC game by not having it on my PC.

The NVidia Shield - Promo Image

It’s achingly pretty. I’d love that controller… just… without the screen, maybe?

And the same goes for the Steambox/Piston in the end. Both will be expensive – neither company wants to take a loss on their sales, meaning that both will price higher than other perfectly functional and decent alternatives on the market. In a year where the new X-Box and PlayStation are set to be revealed, a Steambox that is more expensive than those will invariably be is just a stupid idea. Likewise, with the 3DS XL and the PS Vita on the market, the Shield being more expensive will push it into a price bracket dominated by Apple, and the iPad, and that’s not the tank I’d willingly be wanting to leap into. Both are looking to solve problems that don’t even exist – it’s not like Microsoft will ban Steam on Windows 8, Valve simply have too great a market presence for that to be sensible. And the Shield wants to convince me that I want to play my PC games on the move, or stream them; truth is, I don’t and I won’t.

To upend the market, you have to be offering a really interesting alternative. The Ouya is absolutely a device that has the potential to upend the market; its cheap, solid foundation and sensible idea to ensure indies are catered for, and Cloud Gaming is there for bigger franchises and companies to take advantage of allow for an interesting spin on the traditional; all digital, but a combination of digital services. The Wii-U will get cheaper and has the opportunity to allow for a greater interaction and diversity. I am sure the X-Box and PS Omni will also have their parts to play in the development of the market.

CES is the place to show the future of technology, to show the cutting edge. When you come to the Piston and the Shield, they’re both very pretty and very interesting, but peel away those thin layers and you see two machines that aren’t even close to cutting edge; just expensive experiments dabbling in solving issues and problems that we don’t really have right now. Pre-empting a problem isn’t always the best idea either, because then others can find better and cheaper alternatives – alternatives that may already be available for a fraction of the cost.

I’m sure they will find a market. Of course they will, there is a market (readas: people like me…) who will desperately want them for their aesthetic beauty, their rarity, their potential collectable value, or just because so few will have them. But they aren’t really going to change anything because they’re just not lithe or sensible enough to instigate that change. So what we have are two devices that on paper sound like a total riot but in the real world, in my day to day life, just seem hopelessly impractical and a bit pointless.

It’s great to see these quirky things. And it’s okay to lust after them. But like an expensive car, you might lust after one – but you know getting it means higher road tax, congestion charges, higher fuel costs, insurance costs going up… you can lust after something, but appreciate that the day to day running of this thing you want is going to require pockets deeper than most of us can manage.

We must live in the real world at the end of the day. And the Piston and the Shield… they’re a fantasy.

Pin-up good looks and killer curves. But you really couldn’t live with them on a day to day basis…

 

Images used via NVidia, CBS and Google.

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