Game on for Steam Machines

To an older generation of gamers, Valve is known for its critically acclaimed Half Life series of games. But mention "Valve" to younger gamers and the first thing that comes to mind is probably Steam.

This digital distribution platform, which started in 2003, is the iTunes Store equivalent for PC games. In January, Valve announced that Steam had 75 million active users. Compare that with the more than 80 million PlayStation 3 consoles sold since launching in 2006.

But Valve has greater ambitions. Last year, it announced a new gaming-oriented operating system, dubbed SteamOS. Built around Steam and based on the open-source Linux operating system, SteamOS will run PC-based systems and compete with game consoles for a spot in your living room.

The promise of these so-called Steam Machines is that they can be customised to fit your budget and desired gaming performance.

Unlike game consoles, which cannot be upgraded and so start to feel underpowered near the end of their life cycles, Steam Machines offer the possibility of hardware upgrades.

PC games tend to get more affordable as time passes. Steam is well known for regular sales that offer significant discounts for older games. This is less likely to happen with console games, as manufacturers rely on selling games to recoup the cost of developing consoles.

It has always been possible to connect a PC to a TV and play games on it. In fact, Steam's Big Picture mode for Windows and Mac computers has an interface designed for the big screen and includes support for controllers and gamepads.

Valve claims that SteamOS is focused on gaming and can be optimised to perform better in games than Windows.

SteamOS was first seeded to select beta testers last year in the form of custom systems built by Valve. It has roped in 14 hardware manufacturers to build Steam Machines. They are expected to launch sometime this year, though most of them are available only in the United States.

The operating system is now available for free download. It is still in beta testing, which means you can expect plenty of bugs.

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