Xi3 Piston: Why You Should Stay Away From The Not-Steam-Box

It's not a Steam Box, but they want us to believe it is: Xi3's Piston might be the most confusing product in gaming this year, thanks to some muddled messaging and a deal with Valve that never went anywhere.

So at this point you might be wondering: what is this thing? Why do people keep calling it a Steam Box? Is it worth our time and money? Is this a scam?

Don't worry—we're here to sort things out.

So, wait... this isn't a Steam Box?

Right. Let's make this as clear as possible: the Piston is not a Valve-branded product. It will not come with Valve's Steam controller. It won't be called a Steam Box—or a Steam Machine—and it actually uses Windows instead of Valve's proprietary SteamOS operating system. (Well, it'll ship with Windows—this is a PC, so you can install whatever operating system you'd like.)

Why are people still calling the Piston a Steam Box?

Two reasons.

Reason 1) Valve actually showed the Piston at their CES booth earlier this year, and presented the machine as if it were one of their Steam Boxes. Valve has said from the beginning that there will be two types of Steam Boxes: the ones made by them, and the ones made by third-parties. Valve's representatives implied that the Piston would be the latter.

Somewhere along the way, the two companies split—maybe because of the whole "Windows vs. Linux" thing, or maybe because of the Piston's underpowered insides. Then, bizarrely, Xi3 threw Valve under the bus.

"Contrary to Valve's vision, Xi3 believes that the way to take this to market today is to do so with a Windows OS at the core, coupled with the ability to not just get to one platform/store for games, but to get access to all game stores/platforms," Xi3 boss Jason Sullivan said in a statement earlier this year. "In closing, what Valve does or doesn't do with its Steam Box will be up to them. So Gabe, it's up to you. The ball is in your court."

Valve also distanced themselves from the Piston. "Valve did some some exploratory work with Xi3 a couple years back, but currently have no involvement with any Xi3 product or the company," a Valve representative also said earlier this year, and repeated last week when I reached out for further comment.

Sounds like a nasty divorce.

Reason 2) Believe it or not, Xi3 is actually still calling the Piston a Steam Box—and in a FAQ posted on their website last week, the hardware manufacturers blamed reporters for the confusion.

Q10: Is PISTON the Steam Box or not? A10: Xi3 has never described its PISTON Console (PC) as the Steam box or a Steam Box, especially since it appears that Steam Box is a term created by journalists and not by Valve. To be clear, however, PISTON Console owners will be able to access and play games on/through Steam since it is a Web-based platform open to anyone with an Internet connection and a Steam account, either on a Windows- or a Linux-based system. So in this regard, PISTON could be considered the first commercially available Steam Box.

Translation: "We've never called ourselves the Steam Box—that was all journalists... but we're the first Steam Box."

Wow! That's confusing.

It sure is! But it benefits Xi3 to have their product associated with Steam, a service that everyone loves, so the Piston makers are embracing the confusion. (It doesn't help that Valve is actually calling their living-room PCs "Steam Machines" instead of Steam Boxes. There's no such thing as an official Steam Box.)

Okay, so what is the Piston?

It's a PC designed for your living room. It'll be out on November 29. It costs $999.

A thousand bucks?

Yep. For that you get an AMD Trinity with a built-in Radeon HD 7660G GPU, and, via Piston's FAQ...

The PISTON is powered by a quad-core, 64-bit x86-based processor running at up to 3.2GHz, includes 384 programmable discrete-class graphics cores and is supported with 8GB of DDR3 RAM. As such, PISTON can run the most popular operating systems, including Windows, Linux, UNIX and others, along with the games and applications written for those OSes. PISTON comes standard with dual SSD connectors, one internal microSD card slot, and 128GB of solid-state SSD storage (upgradeable to 1TB), includes 3 display ports (miniDP, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors), 12 total USB ports (4 USB 3.0, 4 USB 2.0, and 4 eSATAp/USB 2.0 combo ports), digital audio ports and more, and supports up to 4K resolution (4096x2160 pixels).

Is all that really worth a thousand bucks?

Not at all. You're getting very little storage and a mediocre graphics card. Current-gen games will not run well on this system at 1080p, and as we move into the next generation of consoles, the biggest games might not even work on the Piston. Meanwhile, the $400 PS4 or $500 Xbox One will run plenty of games, as will the higher-end computers you can build for less money. Xi3 promises that the Piston will be easier to upgrade than your average PC, but that just means more cash out of your pocket—especially since you'll have to upgrade using Xi3's proprietary motherboards.

Building your own computer with similar specs, by the way, would only cost you $600 or so. Sure, those parts aren't an exact match, and yes, the Piston is significantly smaller than your average PC case, but if you're looking for a machine to sit in your living room and run computer games, what's the difference?

What about the controller?

The Piston has a custom controller, made by a company called Scuf Gaming. It's basically an Xbox 360 controller.

This all sounds pretty sketchy.

Yep. Between the disconcerting marketing plan and the underpowered hardware, this seems like a PC to avoid. And no, it's not a Steam Box.