Do not adjust your LCD monitor: What you are looking at might just be the mythical Steam Box. Codenamed Piston, and developed by Xi3 in partnership with Valve, this grapefruit-sized computer was built to “specifically support” both Steam and its new Big Picture mode.
While Piston is on display at at CES 2013, we’re severely lacking in actual details. Valve and Xi3 are calling it a ”development stage computer game system” that is specifically designed for Steam and Big Picture mode, “for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens.” The press release states that Valve has invested in Xi3, but we don’t know how much, and it doesn’t explicitly state that Valve invested specifically in Piston. In short, this is probably the Steam Box development kit, or prototype, or something along those lines.
If we take a look at Xi3′s site we can perhaps infer a little bit more, though. Piston seems to be based on the X5A Modular Computer, and is probably very closely related to the X7A Modular Computer, a failed Kickstarter project. X3i doesn’t explicitly state what CPU is under the hood of the X5A, but it seems to be a last-generation AMD CPU (the data sheet doesn’t even mention a GPU, for some reason). The X7A, if it were ever to come to fruition, seems to have an A8 or A10 Trinity APU and up to 8GB of RAM. Both systems can run Windows or Linux. The Modular Computers all seem to be 4-inch (10cm) cubes — they’re very small indeed.
As the name suggests, the X5A and X7A are modular — in theory, there is a processor board (CPU and RAM), primary I/O board (USB, SSD, eSATA), and secondary I/O board (DVI, LAN) that can be switched out. The idea being that, next year, you might want to upgrade to the latest and greatest CPU. There obviously isn’t space for a discrete graphics card, though, so you’re stuck with AMD for now — at least until Intel’s integrated GPUs are up to snuff.
If I had to guess, I would say that Valve saw the X7A on Kickstarter, thought it would make a nice Steam Box, and decided to invest. Whether this is actually the Steam Box, though, I am not so sure. If the Kickstarter had succeeded, the X7A was slated to cost $ 1,000. The X3A, which is meant to be bargain version of the X7A, was meant to cost $ 500 — but again, like the X5A, there’s no mention of the GPU inside the X3A, suggesting it’s not exactly a gaming rig.
Of course, Valve might be able to drive the costs lower, or sell the Steam Box at very close to cost, but we’re still talking about a very expensive bit of kit. It’s one of the oldest computing laws: Small, cheap, powerful — pick two. At just four inches cubed, the X7A/Steam Box would be one of the smallest x86 PCs in existence. With a chassis that small, there are severe limitations on heat dissipation, meaning you have to use the finest (and most expensive) silicon that money can buy.
In reality, I would expect the real Steam Box to be a lot larger — something like the GameCube (6-inch cube) — or perhaps it won’t even be a cube! The main thing, though, is that the the Steam Box must be cheap. The Steam Box is now confirmed to run Linux, and thus will launch with a very small library of games. There is simply no way that Valve would try to pitch a Steam Box that is in essence a very expensive paperweight.