Valve announced a bundle of Steam Machine hardware today, all of which is set for a November 10 release. The "Steam Machine" comprises the PC-console hybrids with SteamOS installed, the Steam Controller, and the Steam Link, a local streaming box sort of like Nvidia's Shield. We've scoured the web for a few pre-release impressions of how the whole concept fits together, and the word on the street is generally positive, with a few caveats.
We'll be looking at impressions of everything except the Steam Machines themselves, since the controller, SteamOS, and game streaming will be the things that will make or break the average user's experience. We'd wager most of our audience can easily configure a SteamOS system to their taste, but these preconfigured boxes are arguably meant for those that don't know how to build a PC, or simply don't want to. (Go read our System Guide if that's the case.)
First, the Steam Controller. Those who have gotten their hands on one say it's slightly bigger than an Xbox 360 controller. Most of the size difference comes from the Steam peripheral's larger hand grips. The controller's weight distribution is reportedly quite different than its Xbox counterpart, as well. The most common-looking bits are all as you'd expect—an analog joystick, four buttons arranged in a diamond pattern, dual triggers on each side, plus a set of "wing" triggers that end up under your ring and pinky finger. But we're here to talk about the unique points of the Steam Controller—those two gigantic clicky touchpads with haptic feedback.
Reviewers all agree the Steam Controller takes some getting used to. The major hurdle is undoing many years of muscle memory from regular gamepads. However, most reviewers also say that the Steam Controller is pretty powerful after a few days of usage. They also praise its configurable, remappable controls, which can be made to suit almost every kind of game, even hardcore PC titles like real-time strategy simulations and adventure games. The "mouse" mode got the highest praise—one reviewer says it makes the right touchpad feel almost like a trackball.
Not everything was rosy, though. Some reviewers found the controller's overall build quality lacking. Others complained about the short range of motion for the trigger buttons and the non-distinctiveness of the trackpad's clicking. Not all games have optimal default settings for the controller, too, which means a ready-to-play experience isn't always available from the get-go. Per-game controller profiles will be available for download from Valve, so the company may make some improvements on this front.
As for SteamOS, reviewers said that if you've used Steam's Big Picture mode, you'll feel right at home on the Linux-based platform. The Steam Controller is as tightly coupled with SteamOS as one might expect, including some neat touches like picking off letters from a virtual keyboard using both touchpads at the same time.
Now for the bad news about SteamOS. One reviewer pointed out that the Store section stilll needs some work when it comes to filtering and search. And, of course, there's the big elephant in the room: most of the platform's titles don't run on Linux yet. More titles get added each day, though, and we'd wager Valve will be pushing developers to make their software cross-platform if it's on Steam. The lack of universal Steam Cloud integration across all games was also a pain point, as it means you can't seamlessly transition a game's progress from your PC to the Steam Machine.
Finally, let's look at the third piece of the puzzle, as in Steam Link. This tiny $50 box has an HDMI output, an Ethernet port, and 3 USB ports, and it seems intriguing for anyone that already has a reasonably well-equipped PC in the house. The Link acts a simple game streaming device, like a cut-down Nvidia Shield. But unlike the Shield, which is tied to Nvidia's graphics cards, the Link is mostly hardware-agnostic. Gamers can use either wired or wireless networking to stream with the Link, although an Ethernet connection is strongly recommended to improve the streaming quality and keep input latency as low as possible.
One reviewer also found that while the Link's streaming quality and input lag is generally very good, some games with very fast-paced action or intricate graphical detail gave the box trouble. Changing from wired to wireless networking apparently didn't change the experience much, though. Wireless streaming appears to incur only a slight increase in latency, and reviewers said image quality didn't suffer noticeably. The Link's interface is reportedly similar to Steam's Big Picture mode, too.
Overall, the reviewers we surveyed wrote that the Link is quite appealing, given that it's reasonably impervious to being outdated as new hardware comes along. The Link just streams whatever your PC is capable of, good or bad. It's worth noting that you can't use the PC if you're streaming it through the Link, though.
One final note: all of these impressions were gathered from reviewers using pre-release hardware, so it's possible Valve will fix some rough edges or make other changes before its ecosystem becomes available to the public.