Dissecting the Steam Hardware Survey

As a cross-platform gamer increasingly disenchanted with the PC, I absolutely love Steam and what Valve has done for the platform. Over the last five years, Steam has gone from a risky gamble by a small developer to a flag-bearer for the strengths of PC gaming. Valve had made lofty technology promises before (remember PowerPlay?), so launching a digital distribution service just when many gamers were transitioning to broadband was rather ambitious. What began as little more than a streamlined patching service and server browser has gone on to offer an integrated marketplace, voice chat, community organization, and a massive catalog of third-party titles.

Not content to let consoles catch up, Valve continues to be a pioneer, with Steam becoming a champion for indie games like Darwinia, Audiosurf, Aquaria, and others. But that’s enough gushing about Steam; that’s not what this post is about. No, today I’m here to talk about a less-well-known facet of Valve’s service: the Steam Hardware Survey.

Creating games for the PC is a tricky endeavor, particularly due to the vast variety of hardware available. Developers I’ve spoken with have a hard time coming up with target configurations, especially in recent years. Marketers and the media have become obsessed with touting buzzwords like "64-bit," "multi-threaded," "DirectX 10," and "PhysX," but whenever I ask programmers why they didn’t use those technologies, I get the same response: the market penetration just isn’t there yet. Why invest a large amount of time and money into technologies that only a few customers can take advantage of? Ultimately, developers have to stay conservative and wait a few years for new technologies to mature.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the norm, with companies like Crytek and Blizzard providing good examples of opposite extremes. Crytek’s Crysis was an exponent for high-end PC hardware, and though some would like to blame piracy, its sales were no doubt harmed by its smaller target audience. At the other end of the spectrum lies Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft has become one of the most successful PC games of all time. Sure, it helps that WoW is also one of the best-designed MMORPGs ever, but I attribute a large portion of its success to the low system requirements. WoW will practically run on a graphing calculator, an attribute that’s been a hallmark of Blizzard’s development style for some time. With the blockbuster status of the firm’s Starcraft and Diablo series, I’d say that strategy has worked out pretty well so far. But what about developers aiming for a middle ground: not requiring a supercomputer to get playable frame rates, but not having a game look two years old the moment it comes out, either? How do you know what sort of system to shoot for?

If advertising reflected the PC gaming scene accurately, you’d think everyone has a quad-core setup with two video cards and a 1000W power supply—but that’s just not the case. Thankfully, Valve aims to take the guesswork out of the process by leveraging the massive installed base of Steam and periodically surveying its users. With over 16 million accounts, Valve has access to data that few (if any) others do. If the company weren’t so busy making money hand-over-fist from other revenue streams, it would likely try to sell this data to marketers and developers. Instead, Valve releases it for free, and the latest update (published just one week ago) even includes pretty graphs! Let’s take a look at the some of the more interesting statistics:

  • Windows versions: Windows XP looks like the dominant operating system for PC gamers, with nearly 69% of Steam users holding on to it. However, its presence is on the decline (down 1.28% in November), while Windows Vista is up 1.36%. Vista runs almost exactly 30% of all surveyed Steam clients, though the 32-bit version continues to outpace its 64-bit sibling in terms of both installed base and adoption rate. Do gamers still not realize how cheap 4GB RAM kits are these days? Perhaps PC vendors are to blame for continuing to ship 32-bit systems despite the improved driver support for Vista x64.
    One final note of interest in the Windows data is that there’s another OS with a growing gamer user base: Windows XP 64-bit, which was up a minuscule 0.03% over the previous month. Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64 is anyone’s guess, because in my experience, Vista actually has better driver and application support. The minds of gamers truly work in mysterious ways.

  • Video cards: Nvidia is dominating AMD (referred to as ATI in Valve’s data), with over 65% of sampled Steam users packing Nvidia GPUs compared to just 27% for AMD. (Intel’s integrated offerings hold on with 1.76% of the pie, and I can’t help but feel sorry for their users.) Nvidia’s success over the last two years is no surprise, because the hugely popular GeForce 8800 series made life somewhat difficult for AMD. In fact, GeForce 8800 graphics cards make up the largest single group of samples at 12.43%, even if that population is steadily on the decline.
  • AMD’s most represented graphics offering is already the new Radeon 4800 series, which comes in fifth place with 3% of the sample. Although it still has a way to go before it can become top dog, the 4800 lineup does have the fastest adoption rate at 0.51% last month. With 4800-series GPUs now available for as little as $110, it’ll be interesting to see how many Steam users make the switch over the coming months. The next most common AMD GPU is all the way down in thirteenth place, showing just how far behind AMD fell in the eyes of consumers over recent generations—1.73% of Steam users still cling to the now five-year-old Radeon 9600 series.

  • Processors: This might feel like deja vu for AMD, because Valve’s CPU statistics look pretty similar to the GPU breakdown. This time, it’s Intel beating up on them with almost 64% of the Steam user base. Like Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 series, Intel’s Core 2 offerings have outperformed the competition overall in the past couple years, and gamers have responded appropriately. AMD’s presence has continued to decline these past few months, while Intel keeps slowly creeping higher and higher.
  • Perhaps the most interesting CPU-related statistic is the number of processor cores in respondents’ PCs. The majority of Steam users are now running multi-core systems, with 49.27% toting dual-core configurations and 10.12% having made the jump to quad-core. If nearly 60% of these gamers have more than one CPU core under the hood, there’s no excuse for PC developers not to exploit that as much as possible.

  • DirectX 10 systems: Nearly 46% of the PCs sampled contain DirectX 10-capable GPUs, but the majority of them (53.4%) are still running Windows XP. Gamers must not be sold on either Vista or DirectX 10 yet. Although only 21.43% of Steam users have fully DirectX 10-capable systems (with Vista and DX10 GPUs), developers may want to start investing more in the technology to give the stragglers a reason to upgrade their OSes. The hardware penetration is there, and we’re seeing the results in games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2, and Crysis: Warhead that contain DX10 code paths. Time will tell whether Microsoft can manage to convince the holdout XP gamers to upgrade or if those folks will wait for Windows 7 before making the jump en masse.

There’s far more data that I can’t go over in a simple blog post, so be sure to peruse the Steam Hardware Survey at your leisure. It really is a fascinating read, and some of the statistics might surprise you. In the future, I hope Valve will continue to enhance its presentation methods and perhaps tell us the sample size for the survey. My understanding is that every Steam user is solicited, but it’s a safe bet that not all users complete the survey. I’d love to extrapolate some hard numbers, but for now percentages will have to do.

Before I leave you, two additional facts shocked me: Creative’s minuscule share compared to integrated audio in a demographic where they should dominate, and the fact that the plurality of Steam users still run their primary displays at 1024×768. I didn’t even know that you could still buy monitors that small.

Comments closed
    • blubje
    • 11 years ago

    “Creative’s minuscule share compared to integrated audio in a demographic where they should dominate”

    Creative’s products just aren’t as good as they’re made out to be. Read most audiophile reviews (including TR’s own audio reviews), the Asus Xonar and the older Stryker and Auzentech cards. A 7% performance increase for $100 is nothing worthwhile, particularly as Vista’s new sound architecture “obviated the need for” (i.e. made incompatible) much of EAX, which now runs through OpenAL iirc.

    Look on ebay for twice as much as creative’s cards are actually worth. In my experience, they use cheap effects to make things sound better, and the build quality just isn’t up to the competition. If you’re looking for real sound cards, go for the ones above, or m-audio / digidesign / other professional kit.

    • Alareth
    • 11 years ago

    “Sure, it helps that WoW is also one of the best-designed MMORPGs ever”

    Care to back that up with anything resembling a fact?

    • The Egg
    • 11 years ago

    /[<"One final note of interest in the Windows data is that there's another OS with a growing gamer user base: Windows XP 64-bit, which was up a minuscule 0.03% over the previous month. Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64 is anyone's guess"<]/ Probably a bug in the reporting. Steam incorrectly reports me as using XP 64-bit when I'm actually running Vista 64.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    q[

    • axeman
    • 11 years ago

    l[<"Do gamers still not realize how cheap 4GB RAM kits are these days?"<]l I do, and unless I start to run MORE than 4GB, the loss of a few 100 mb isn't much to worry about. Until games cease to run well on a 4gb machine, and start shipping with 64 bit executables, why bother? I find 64 bit Vista to be slower, probably because of the added overhead of WOW64 and all the 32bit code in there still running. Unless your running an SQL Server or AutoCAD and such, running a 64bit OS is pointless E-PEN IMO

      • blubje
      • 11 years ago

      uh, a 64 bit code path would be faster (more reg’s and other architecture improvements).

      • blubje
      • 11 years ago

      It’s also worthwhile to point out that this is Microsoft’s problem. A 32-bit operating system should be completely capable of addressing 4gb of ram, as my Linux machine currently is. It’s not 100 MB, it’s 1/4 of your ram (1gb).

        • blubje
        • 11 years ago

        It’s also maybe worth pointing out that the original TR comment wasn’t so well informed: having tons of ram for gaming shouldn’t be that helpful. The main memory requirement in a well-programmed game should be textures, and those should be loaded into the graphics card and kept there.

          • titan
          • 11 years ago

          Except when the graphics card doesn’t have the capacity to hold of the textures. Plus, it is not a sign of bad design if an application requires a massive amount of memory. It all depends on what is happening. Additionally, have a hefty amount of memory reduces the chances of pages being moved to the Page file.

        • titan
        • 11 years ago

        Apparently you haven’t read the forum thread here titled “Dude, where’s my 4GB?” It is not a problem of Microsoft’s that its 32 bit OS can’t address the full 4GB memory. Let me rephrase that: It is not a problem of Microsoft’s that its 32 bit OS can’t make available the full 4GB of memory. The truth is that it can, however, hardware in the system reserves some of that memory and it ends up being reflected in available memory. Windows is not the only operating system that suffers this problem. Every 32 bit OS suffers this problem. There are some workarounds out there that attempt a solution, but ultimately going with a 64 bit OS is the solution.

    • Shinare
    • 11 years ago

    r[<1.73% of Steam users still cling to the now five-year-old Radeon 9600 series.<]r Am I the only one who read that and said aloud, "WOW". I had one... 6 years ago, I had one... wow. (At least I think it was 6 not 5 years ago)

      • willyolio
      • 11 years ago

      i had one until recently. i could play TF2 on it at 1280×1024.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    “Perhaps PC vendors are to blame for continuing to ship 32-bit systems despite the improved driver support for Vista x64. ”

    x64 isn’t anywhere close to 32-bit for legacy, hence why they push 32-bit. The OEM’s don’t want to deal with user backlash on non-working legacy devicesg{<.<}g Oh and they still aren't selling systems with 4+G yet to the majority of usersg{<.<}g

      • Convert
      • 11 years ago

      Dell has started selling their ~$1000 systems with 64bit vista. HP has it below the $1000 mark and an optional $0 config for systems that don’t have it by default.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    I fail to see–particularly with all the killer games released this year (Sins of a Solar Empire, STALKER: CS, Fallout 3, et al)–how anyone can be disenfranchised with PC gaming, especially when you consider that you can build a pretty damn good gaming PC for $500.

    PC Gaming: Dying since 1995, FTW!

    • Ruiner
    • 11 years ago

    If all my games ran in Wine I’d dump Windows altogether.
    If Valve made a point of creating Linux ports for their own and third party stuff sold through Steam I’d be even happier.

    • Forge
    • 11 years ago

    1204×768 isn’t native, it’s just what’s running. I find a distressing number of users running 1024×768 on a 1280×1024 panel and then telling me about how panels aren’t as sharp as CRTs were.

    • jdaven
    • 11 years ago

    I love how this blog posts says that developers should start programming for multiple cores because of the huge market share but also says that developers should start programming DX10 in order to get the low market share of Vista + DX10 GPU higher.

    Develop for capabilities already present, develop for capabilities that are not readily present in order to increase them. That’s some great advise there TR.

    /sarcasm

    • shank15217
    • 11 years ago

    Its Microsoft’s most stable OS to date. Its running on the majority of 64-bit windows servers because its the same as Windows Server 2003 64-bit. If you cant set it up for your pc properly its not the OSs fault. That was response to #29.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      It’s the driver’s that make it unstable, not the inherent nature of XP x64. There were very few drivers available at launch, and even after, many were not stable. Fortunately since most manufacturers had to rewrite the drivers for Vista, they went ahead and did both the 32-bit and 64-bit at the same time.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      That’s slightly incorrect, because Microsoft’s most stable OS is Vista 64, which is also receiving the exact same support and driver treatment as Vista 32 (read: good).

        • indeego
        • 11 years ago

        That’s slightly incorrect, because Microsoft’s most stable OS is Server 2008 (any flavorg{<.)<}g

        • StashTheVampede
        • 11 years ago

        Not quite. Vista 64 requires signed drivers, Vista 32 does not.

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          One source of Vista 64’s stability.

    • flip-mode
    • 11 years ago

    Does 49.27% constitute a majority, technically speaking?

    Edit: beyond that, I think that Mr. Butrovich has made some strange assumptions. Whay does he think that Creative should rule among gamers? In the end, discreet audio is a pretty poor value, especially given that very very few people are audiophiles in even the slightest.

    Any why should game developers push DX 10? What is in it for them? It seems to me that the ones that would benefit most from DX10 adoption among developers are Microsoft, ATI, and Nvidia, not the developers themselves.

    Maybe it is the mind of Butrovich that works in mysterious ways?

    • TaBoVilla
    • 11 years ago

    woops maybe im one of those still on an intel 865g chipset running CS1.6

    it will be nice to compare gamer adoption of new iCore 7 processors and Windows Se7en OS next year on this survey, who knows, maybe it beats Vista’s adoption, which has been lackluster if not less, considering ms had almost discontinued xp and it is practically impossible to acquire for example, a new laptop with xp, save for netbooks which hardly are gaming capable platforms.

    laptop sales have overcome desktop sales for I don’t know how long now, today more and more people are gaming on their laptops, and whichever gpu company wants to survive in the future, is going to need capable gpu design for a laptop envelope. to me, that’s one of the reasons ati lost so much market share in the past quarters, where were the mobile 3870s?? gamers went on and purchased 8800 powered lappys

    • pikaporeon
    • 11 years ago

    Windows XP looks like the dominant operating system for PC gamers, with nearly 69% of Steam users holding on to it. However, its presence is on the decline (down 1.28% in November), while Windows Vista is up 1.36%. Vista runs almost exactly 30% of all surveyed Steam clients

    ?

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      Where’s the confusion?

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      99% of folks use a Windows variant. Some folks bought new Vista machines, and retired their old XP machines. Some folks are brand new to Steam.

    • fpsduck
    • 11 years ago

    Since I still can’t activate The Orange Box
    so I’ve bought more retail box games:
    Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, Biohazard 4, etc.
    and just a few hours ago, GTA IV and Company of Heroes Gold Edition
    (these two will go to my niece, not for me.)
    I totally forget to load Steam to play all HL 2 series and its bundles
    and yeah, I was not included in the recent survey
    and don’t want to participate.
    So the statistic is just from gamers who still use Steam.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 11 years ago

      Which is a pretty good sample if you ask me. Other than those afraid of digital distribution, I’d say almost every PC gamer uses Steam.

      • The Dark One
      • 11 years ago

      Did you buy it second-hand or torrent it or something?

    • bogbox
    • 11 years ago

    This is not relevant. I’m not answering to any study.Probably the people how answer are casual gamers, with 1 Gb of ram max , and 1024 rezolution.

    If you want to see real hardware results see how many bought Crysis, Assassins Creed, GTA4 etc. ( = high end market)
    Or audiosurf, Darwinia, Audiosurf, Aquaria, WoW expantions etc(=low end market)

      • grantmeaname
      • 11 years ago

      the survey would be more of a representative sample if you answered it instead of writing off the people that do

        • bogbox
        • 11 years ago

        Steam should just indicate what many people bought , most games, tips of games. A survey doesn’t show anything if is not representative .
        16 million people is very small compared to 100 million ps2 , 20 milllion xbox 360, and 1 billion pc. BUT still.
        How many people participated ? 1%? 99%?

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          I don’t think Valve regrets not asking for your participation twice.

          • indeego
          • 11 years ago

          I think users would be less willing to submit to the voluntary survey if they knew valve was examining what software was installed beyond the steam periphery. I certainly would. I appreciate the focus in this survey and gladly allow it each requestg{<.<}g

    • Pachyuromys
    • 11 years ago

    Edit: mistook bits for bytes.

    • shaq_mobile
    • 11 years ago

    hasnt nvidia always had a strong hold on the market?

    • dragmor
    • 11 years ago

    ‘Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64″
    simple answer:

    XP64 is still sold in white box stores where as XP32 is no longer being sold. If you don’t want vista and you want to game you don’t have much choice.

      • TheBob!
      • 11 years ago

      but it is a worse OS. Bad drivers and no DX 10 its like grabbing the worst of both worlds.

        • VaultDweller
        • 11 years ago

        Yeah, I ran XP x64 on one system for a while some time ago. I’m not sure if it was before Vista launched, but it was definitely before SP1 was released for Vista.

        It was a terrible decision, I was incredibly relieved when I switched all my systems over to Vista.

          • asdsa
          • 11 years ago

          And why is that? My x64 has been running years and still solid. I think it is Vista 64-bit which has terrible dirvers/support from what I have read.

            • VaultDweller
            • 11 years ago

            XP x64 had very poor 3rd party driver support for peripherals (neither of my Epson devices worked, though they’re fine with Vista x64).

            Daemon Tools Pro did not work in XP x64.

            Executive Undelete did not (and I’m quite sure still does not) have any version compatible with XP x64.

            At least at the time, video drivers were flaky.

            A number of 32-bit apps (which should have run perfectly fine) either wouldn’t run or outright wouldn’t install on XP x64 – can’t remember many specific examples, but Act of War was broken on XP x64. I don’t recall whether there was a workaround for this or not. I don’t think there was.

        • shank15217
        • 11 years ago

        What a load of crap, you have no Idea what you are talking about. You give no specifics and sound like the vast majority of Vista haters out there.

          • MattMojo
          • 11 years ago

          I think he was referring to XP64 not Vista

            • moriz
            • 11 years ago

            i installed xp 64bit for shits and giggles. while it’s good so far, and runs my game faster than vista 64bit…

            according to dxdiag, my processor is a:
            Intel(R) Pentium III(R) Xeon processor (2 CPUs) ~ 3.8GHz

            other than getting intel and 2 cpus right, everything else is wrong. heck, i thought “pentium III” and “xeon” are mutually exclusive.

            • Forge
            • 11 years ago

            There were several types of P3 Xeons, but I doubt any ever ran at 3.8GHz and I’m sure they were all single core.

            Heck, there were Pentium II Xeons. They had big full speed caches to make the people retiring Pentium Pros feel better.

            • shank15217
            • 11 years ago

            I am also referring to xp and not vista. Im comparing the xp comment to comments made about vista.

    • SNM
    • 11 years ago

    I believe they ask you the first time the survey runs on a given installed computer, and then you’re auto-included for all subsequent ones on that installation.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 11 years ago

    Video cards: Nvidia is dominating /[

    • willyolio
    • 11 years ago

    ‘Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64″
    simple answer:

    “lol i’m l33t i use more than 4gigs of RAM”
    +
    “lol i’m l33t i hate vista! vista sucks!”

    • HurgyMcGurgyGurg
    • 11 years ago

    Do you have to manual accept the steam hardware survey, of course its all auto detecting but do I still have to click some option to include my computer in the survey?

    Or is it just automatic for all computers with the steam client installed?

    If only for the selfish reason of increasing support for quad cores, 64 bit vista, and the 4800 series, I hope I’m included.

      • moose17145
      • 11 years ago

      Lol yea i now fall into that group as well. 64 bit vista, core i7, radeon 4870.

      • willyolio
      • 11 years ago

      yes, it needs your permission to send the hardware info off to valve.

      • BobbinThreadbare
      • 11 years ago

      Once in a while it will ask you do you want to be included. Then you have to tell it your internet speed, everything else is auto-detected.

    • mongoosesRawesome
    • 11 years ago

    I don’t remember being solicited for this survey, but it’s possible I did and ignored it by accident.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      I think part of the T&C are that they check it automatically. I could be mistaken though.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    My laptop is 1024×768.

      • tfp
      • 11 years ago

      congrats?

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 11 years ago

        It was in reference to the last part of his post:
        r[

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 11 years ago

          It’s amazing how many gamers you see trying to get 300+ frames/second at 1024×768. I’ll continue to use 2560×1600 at 60 fps and get headshots before they can see me.

          First person shooters aren’t the only thing on Steam, though. There are plenty of other games being distributed. Take a look at some of the 2D puzzle games like World of Goo, for example.

            • Usacomp2k3
            • 11 years ago

            Commander Keen is the only thing I’ve purchased on Steam. Don’t need XGA resolution for that.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      What I wanna know is if this is GAMING resolution or DESKTOP resolution.

      Ideally they’d publish both..

      …but it’d be hard.. even within Steam I game at different resolution for different titles (low res, high FPS for faster games, higher-res, more detail for slower ones)

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 11 years ago

        My guess is desktop.

      • PetMiceRnice
      • 11 years ago

      As with the writer of the article, I too am becoming increasingly disenchanted with the PC as a gaming platform, but 1024×768 may still be common because it will put far less stress on your CPU and video card when gaming. Not everyone has the latest and greatest gear to run their games at the native resolution of 22″ and 24″+ widescreen displays.

        • continuum
        • 11 years ago

        I do buy that argument, but now that Radeon HD 4670’s are $70 or so, running 1680×1050 shouldn’t be that hard….

        Then again considering the number of idiots I know who bought $1500 Alienware boxes with Geforce l[<8500GT<]l 's and other absurdly low-end hardware inside, maybe I should be fully expecting 1024x768. Then again what do I know, I don't even bother to check e-mail on anything with screen resolution lower than 1280x1024. 😉

          • SNM
          • 11 years ago

          1024*768 is standard resolution for old CRT monitors, and I’m betting a lot of those Steam gamers are still teens throwing whatever they can find into a gaming computer. I didn’t step up until 1280*960 until ~2 years ago myself just because I liked the text sizes more on 1024*768, but then I got a free slightly bigger CRT and started sitting closer to it.

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