As the Consumer Electronics Show's press conference day wound to a close Monday afternoon, a press release from Xi3 Corporation shot the modular computer maker to the top of the CES hot list. The press release was vague, almost coy, announcing a development stage product "designed specifically to support both Steam and its Big Picture mode for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens." And at the bottom of the release, Xi3 tacked on this teaser: "Xi3 also announced today it has received an investment from Valve Corporation. Xi3's new development stage computer game system is also being showcased in Valve's booth (#25730) at CES 2013. No additional details about Xi3's new system or Valve's investment in Xi3 will be released at this time."
The implication was clear: Valve's Steam Box, an affordable computer designed to bring Steam and PC gaming into the living room, is finally coming, and Xi3 is behind it.
Turns out that's not the full story--Valve CEO Gabe Newell chatted with The Verge and made it clear that the company will release its own Linux-based Steam system, and that they're working with multiple partners to expand Steam's reach. But Xi3 definitely has something cooking that supports Steam. We talked with Xi3's Chief Marketing Officer David Politis to find out as much as we could about Piston, the codename for their in-development hardware.
Piston is exciting. Modular computing is cool. But out of everything we saw at Xi3's booth, one piece of technology stood out. It's called mSATAmax, and it's an SSD solution the company has been developing for its new computers, the X7 series, set to be released in 2013.
mSATAmax is fast. Really fast. 12 Gbps fast, or about twice the speed of a SATA III connector.
Here's the tantalizing bit: Politis intimated that mSATAmax SSDs won't necessarily be a premium upgrade, and these could very well show up in the Xi3 Steam Box. Yes, the miniature computer will still need competitive processors and graphics and RAM, but PC gamers can attest that an SSD enormously improves load times for games.
Here's a 3-inch long circuit board with NAND memory that's able to handle data transfers of 1536 megabytes per second.
mSATAmax is a big deal for the X7 system, but it's an exciting bit of technology in general. Forget Steam for a second--here's a 3-inch long circuit board with NAND memory that's able to handle data transfers of 1536 megabytes per second. For reference, that's triple the read/write speeds of the 2012 MacBook Air SSD, which is soldered onto the laptop's motherboard. And the 2012 Air's 350-450 MB speeds are, themselves, about twice as fast as the 2011 model's. The X7 series isn't guaranteed to deliver actual reads and writes at those speeds, but we're eager to see how close it comes.
Piston is derived from the X7 series and will resemble a $1000 build, though exact pricing for both the Piston prototype and the X7 computers are up in the air. Xi3's modular systems fit perfectly into the living room model--the X7 series measures only about 4.3 x 3.6 x 3.6 inches--but that tiny form factor inevitably raises the question of power. What kind of games can a 40 watt system play? Politis says the hardware is capable enough to run Crysis 2. That's an impressive bar, even if the game's running on lower settings. So how does the hardware compare to components we're more familiar with?
Xi3 develops specialty boards to suit different situations, and the X7A processor board will come in dual-core and quad-core AMD R-series APU variants. The CPUs clock up to 3.2 GHz speeds, which should work for most games--a CPU-intensive game like Civilization 5 could cause the processor to break a sweat. But what about that GPU? Remember that AMD's APUs combine both CPU and GPU onto one chip, just like Intel's Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge platforms.
The fastest GPU Xi3 lists for its X7 series, the HD 7660G, puts up respectable numbers on benchmarking site Notebook Check. They write the 7660G's performance is "significantly better than the Intel HD Graphics 4000 in the Ivy Bridge Quad-Core models." On medium settings, it delivered framerates in the teens or 20s for games like Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed 3, but it topped 30 frames per second in Borderlands 2, Sleeping Dogs, and Dishonored. In a number of cases, it could even stay about 30 fps on high settings (mostly in less graphically intensive games like Torchlight 2).
Politis hinted that Xi3 has at least one more hardware secret about the X7 series up its sleeve to reveal in the next few months.
It's hard to imagine a console competitor selling for $1000, and the fact is few PC gamers will be satisfied with what a 40 watt computer can dish out. But the X7 is at least on paper a capable little box; it offers 4 or 8 gigabytes of RAM, four USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet and a combined DisplayPort/HDMI out port. With mSATA's speed, Piston should be able to play Steam's entire library of indie games with ease. And Politis hinted that Xi3 has at least one more hardware secret about the X7 series up its sleeve to reveal in the next few months. If it's half as intriguing as mSATAmax, we say they're putting that investment from Valve to great use.