When Valve announced its Steam Box in January at CES, we saw what was supposed to be a prototype of the console. Produced by Xi3, the little box shown was a very small form-factor PC, able to fit in the palm of your hand. Xi3 recently opened up pre-orders for that box, dubbed the Piston, but also stated it’s not a Steam Box. If you believed what the internet had to say, this news might’ve come as a shock, but we already knew the Piston wasn’t a Steam Box. Technically speaking, the Steam Box is actually clearly defined. Hypothetically speaking, though, no one has any idea what constitutes a Steam Box.
First, it must be noted that the prototype Steam Box shown off at CES, the Piston, wasn’t actually a Steam Box. Think of it as more of a spiritual prototype, or a proof-of-concept. The little box was made by Xi3, a company that sells similar little boxes that act as modular, small form-factor computers. Valve didn’t point to the Piston and state in a loud, booming voice, “This is the Steam Box.” It didn’t even point to the Piston and state “This is one of the Steam Box models.” The company pointed toward the Piston and said “This is what we are thinking of doing with the Steam Box.” So, if you read one of the many articles or tweets on the internet in the past few days that stated the Piston is suddenly not the Steam Box, don’t be disheartened, because it never was, and you were supposed to know that.
You might have also read that the Piston isn’t the (or a) Steam Box because it is shipping with Windows, and the true Steam Box is supposed to ship with Linux. However, Gabe Newell himself said that while the Steam Box will ship with some form of Linux, you’re free to install Windows over it if you want. On top of that, Newell said that Valve won’t be the only people making a Steam Box, and that any manufacturer can stuff whatever guttyworks into the box that can fit. So, if manufacturers can change the hardware, there will be different kinds of hardware for the console, and Valve is fine with you installing Windows on it (which can run Steam with Big Picture mode like a normal PC), then wouldn’t that make the Steam Box a regular small form-factor PC? Yes, but also nope.
It’s difficult to define the Steam Box. Whenever Valve releases an official one, it’ll be easier to point to that unit as the Steam Box. However, considering Newell’s statements about how different companies can make their own, and you don’t even need Valve’s chosen OS installed, what really makes a Steam Box a Steam Box? The only two vital cemented details we have are that it has to run Steam, and it should have a small form-factor. With the help of Steam’s controller-friendly Big Picture mode, you can make your own Steam Box right now. Or, you could buy the Piston, install Steam, and hook it up to your TV. Yeah, you could just hook your regular gaming rig up to your TV.
What the definition of a Steam Box really comes down to are two pieces of information that Valve hasn’t released. First, if the Linux-based OS will be specialized and optimized in such a way to where it acts as more of a game console than a traditional PC. For example, if the operating system is just the Steam client, removing a barrier of entry (albeit a very small barrier of entry — dealing with a traditional operating system) for more casual users. Second, what the controller ends up being like, and how the console interacts with it. Right now, with Big Picture mode, you can coherently navigate Steam with a controller, but that doesn’t mean every single game you can play through Steam has a coherent controller option. So, if the Steam Box is able to — somehow — translate all PC game controls to a couch-friendly controller, that would be a defining aspect that sets Valve’s console apart from being “just a small form-factor PC.”
So, the Piston isn’t an “official” Steam Box (which it never was), but considering it’s a literal box as well as a PC that can run Steam, it might as well be. The thing is, we don’t know ifValve has anything surprising up its sleeve regarding the Steam Box, so we can’t really define it yet. If you want a tiny PC that can plug into a TV and run Steam, though, you can get one right now pretty easily and call it whatever you want.