A peek inside Zotac's console-killer Steam machine

I was intrigued by the Steam machine Zotac announced earlier in the week, so I stopped by Valve's booth at GDC to talk with Zotac about the system. As we noted in our initial report, this particular Steam machine is a fairly high-end affair that looks to be a stone-cold console killer.

The SN970 box is relatively compact and slim, since it's intended to sit near a TV in the living room. Despite its size, the system houses some pretty beefy PC hardware: a GeForce GTX 970M GPU and a next-generation Intel Skylake processor with a 35W power rating. You can see the SD card up front that can be used to expand the system's internal storage.

There are multiple HDMI ports around back, including a pass-through that could be used to attach another game console or a set-top box from a cable TV provider. There are also dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, a Wi-Fi antenna connector, a mini-DisplayPort output, and more USB ports.

Jackie, who heads up Zotac's Zbox mini-PC design efforts, is pictured above holding his Steam machine creation. He told us Zotac built this system for reconfigurability. The GPU rests on a laptop-style MXM module, and the Skylake CPU is socketed.

It may be possible for users to upgrade the graphics in this system over time. The complication is the fact that Zotac uses a custom heatpipe to cool the GPU, and that heatpipe may not exactly fit future MXM modules. Even so, Jackie pointed out that the modularity should allow Zotac to release upgraded S-series Steam machines in this same enclosure pretty easily.

Jackie let us pop the lid off of the demo unit so we could get a look inside. He cautioned us, though, that this prototype's storage slot config differs from the final product's. This version has dual SATA interfaces, and I believe the final version may switch to M.2 for at least one of those interfaces. Obviously, this board isn't populated, and major components like the CPU will mount on its other side. We didn't get to see the Skylake socket, unfortunately.

As you may have noticed, this system is pretty compact, even compared to an Xbone or PS4. I asked about the noise levels, and Jackie expressed confidence that Zotac could keep fan noise and heat in check. He explained that the enclosure's internal volume isn't always the most important factor involved in effective cooling. The placement of components and the routing of airflow, for instance, can make a big difference. He cited Zotac's long experience in building Zbox systems as an indication that his engineering team is up to the challenge. I think we first reviewed a Zbox five years ago, so it's hard to argue that point.

The SN970 should hit the market this coming November, according to Valve's current schedule for Steam machine availability. For its part, Zotac looks to be ready to go now, even though Intel hasn't even released Skylake processors. The SN970 will list for $999, and it will come with a single Steam controller and a copy of SteamOS preinstalled.

This is just one of many possible Steam machines—the options look to be almost as varied as the systems available in the wider PC market—but the SN970 could be a very nice option for folks who can afford it.

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