Remember the Xi3 Piston? The small-form-factor PC made waves in January when it was introduced as a system "designed specifically to support both Steam and its Big Picture mode for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens." Xi3 started taking pre-orders for the machine in March, promising to ship them in time for the holidays. Now, no doubt eager to capitalize on the buzz generated by SteamOS, Xi3 has announced some updates in addition to the street date and retail price.
The asking price has jumped to $999, which seems a bit rich given the hardware under the hood. The processor is an embedded AMD Trinity model with quad cores that scale up to 3.2GHz. Graphics processing is handled by the Trinity chip's Radeon IGP, which has 384 shader ALUs.
Those specifications sound very similar to those of the A10-4600M notebook APU we reviewed last year. That processor was indeed capable of playing the latest games—Skyrim, Battlefield 3, and Batman: Arkham City—but only at medium or low detail settings with a meager 1366x768 display resolution. I doubt the Piston can handle the latest games at 1080p with the eye candy turned up. Amusingly, the press release touts the system's support for 4K displays and three-screen configs. As the extremely high resolutions common with those kinds of setups, you're probably going to be stuck with a choppy slide show.
To be fair, the Piston is tiny. Its 4.3" x 3.7" x 3.7" chassis is about the size of a grapefruit, according to Xi3. It's a looker, too, with a unique shape, matte black shell, and vented chrome ends. Next to that hat, the case almost looks gangster.
The exterior is loaded with ports, including an Ethernet connection that's been tuned to prioritize gaming packets. There are four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, and four eSATA/USB combo ports on top of that. Digital audio output? Check, plus analog jacks and triple digital video outs.
The Piston's overgrown-NUC dimensions are made possible by a modular design that allows for future upgrades. Inside, you have the option of running dual mSATA SSDs instead of the single-drive config of the original—a handy capability if you want to dual-boot Windows and SteamOS. The base config comes with a relatively small 128GB SSD, but you'll be able to upgrade to a pair of 512GB drives for a total of 1TB of storage. There's an internal microSD slot, too, which strikes me as a little weird. An external SD slot would make a lot more sense.
Xi3 says Piston pre-orders will arrive no later than November 15. The machine will hit the market for everyone else on Black Friday—November 29—a day usually associated with bargains. Um, yeah. And worse, the promo video embedded below has the gall to claim the Piston is designed for "hard-core gaming" and "high-performance computing."
I like the idea of a jumbo NUC with modular internals, and the Piston looks like a really neat machine. But let's be honest: unless there is some serious optimization magic in SteamOS, this thing is suitable for casual gaming at best. You could easily build a cheaper Mini-ITX system with a discrete graphics card that would blow the doors off the Piston. It wouldn't be as tiny, of course, but most folks have a reasonable amount of room around their big-screen televisions. And you wouldn't be limited to mSATA drives, small fans, and an upgrade path restricted to proprietary parts.