After Valve's presentation at CES 2014 on Monday, the (not-so-secret) secret of the Steam Machine initiative is fully out in the open: Steam Machines are PCs. Valve's major hardware push into the living room, coupled with Steam OS, is more or less a rebranded PC. More, because each Steam Machine will come with Valve's specially engineer controller, and less, because, at present, the Linux-based Steam OS can play only a small slice of the vast Steam game library.
Valve used CES as an opportunity to announce 13 hardware partners for the Steam Machine initiative, including some big names like Alienware and Gigabyte. Like regular PCs, the Steam Machines vary enormously in size and price. Falcon Northwest will offer a configurable machine for $1800 - $6000, filling a Steam-branded tower with terabytes of storage and an Nvidia GTX Titan. iBuyPower plans to sell a smaller model starting at $500, with nonspecific AMD Radeon graphics.
The brochure of Steam Machines, which you can check out here, reinforces that these are just prebuilt PCs that happen to run Steam OS instead of Windows. The hardware configurations are unspecific, because the hardware inside each box may change, as PC hardware tends to, in the months leading up to launch. They're also unspecific because many of the boxes will be customizable, offering gamers the choice between a faster or slower CPU, 8GB or 16GB of RAM, a voluminous hard drive or a speedier SSD or both.
Valve did not announce when the Steam Machines would go on sale. Based on Valve's current partnerships, the cheapest Steam Machines will cost around $500, inexpensive for a gaming PC but pricey compared to the $400 PlayStation 4 and equal to the $500 Xbox One.
Valve made no mention of the streaming technology it talked about last year; the SteamOS page on its website vaguely states "You can play all your Windows and Mac games on your SteamOS machine, too. Just turn on your existing computer and run Steam as you always have - then your SteamOS machine can stream those games over your home network straight to your TV!" Presumably the technology isn't ready yet. But the current range of prices is concerning, because $500 is too much money to spend on a living room box that can stream games from an existing PC.
If you already own a gaming PC, there's no reason to pay attention to Steam Machines. The Steam controller, yes--when Valve has a final version of its controller ready to sell, it may prove an excellent accessory for your PC. Check out our hands-on with the controller from CES.
If you don't own a gaming PC, and want one, check out the list of announced machines. Just don't expect many (or any) of them to fit quietly and neatly into an entertainment center. Like gaming PCs, most of them are bulkier than a Roku or a PlayStation 4.
Want a closer look? Ars Technica has a great gallery of the machines.