CES 2014 wows gamers with Steam Machines, Project Christine, and more

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The annual Consumer Electronics Show, which took over Las Vegas this week, covers far more than gaming. This year, however, there was plenty of new video-game technology to talk about.

Leading the way was Bellevue, Washington–based Valve Corporation, which officially revealed the list of computer manufacturers that will be developing hardware that will run the Linux-based SteamOS. Valve’s operating system—a public beta was released in December—anchors the company’s move from the gaming computer to the living room. (The wireless Steam Controller is also a part of the initiative.)

Fourteen companies will be making Steam Machines in a variety of configurations and price points ranging from US$500 to more than US$5,000. The wide range in pricing is due to Valve’s philosophy that manufacturers should be free to build whatever system they want. The only requirement for a Steam Machine is that it runs SteamOS and ships with a Steam Controller.

Some systems, such as those from Alienware, CyberPowerPC, and iBuyPower, are designed with their price and form factor to compete with Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4. Others, like the Digital Storm model, will run both SteamOS as well as Windows. And then there’s the computers from high-end custom builders such as Falcon Northwest, which has a US$6,000 configuration that looks much like any other PC tower. Other manufacturers of Steam Machines include Alternate, GigaByte, Maingear, Materiel.net, Next Spa, Origin PC, Scan, Webhallen, and Zotac.

Razer's Project Christine.

On the subject of gaming computers, Razer, which turned heads last year with the concept of a gaming tablet that is now being sold as the Edge, calls its radical new computer concept Project Christine. The machine accepts only modular components, allowing users to build, customize, and upgrade a computer by simply slipping in a new module. The modules, which include graphics systems, storage components, power supplies, and more, are self-contained with independent liquid cooling and noise cancellation. And they are cable-free and plug-and-play. Simply insert them into the rack and the system automatically syncs the new components.

While the slick computer is months away from being available to consumers in any form, the very idea that gamers could so easily upgrade their rig is genius. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan said that his company is considering a subscription model so that users could always have the most up-to-date components.

Gigabyte, which is best known for manufacturing components for computer systems, was in Vegas with a powerhouse gaming laptop that is less than an inch thick. The aluminum X7 is the first model for Gigabyte’s new Aorus line of systems, and it’s a 17-inch machine with two graphics cards and multiple options for solid-state and hard disc drives. It’s built for performance, though, so don’t expect the battery to last too long.

SteelSeries Stratus.

Available now for pre-order is the first wireless game controller for use with Apple’s iOS 7 devices. The Stratus is a Bluetooth device from game peripheral-maker SteelSeries. The palm-sized controller has the familiar dual-stick, eight-button configuration of most gamepads as well as four shoulder buttons. The drawback is the steep US$99 price point of the Stratus.

Sony dropped news of a head-mounted display, the HMZ-T3W, that offers users a virtual movie screen that is equivalent to a 750-inch screen 20 metres away. It could be used for anything, but the gaming functionality is readily apparent, especially given the popularity of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset that debuted at last year’s CES.

Oculus Rift, meanwhile, showed off the second-generation prototype of its headset. Dubbed Crystal Cove, it’s built with a high-definition organic light-emitting diode display, which has reduced motion blur, and adds motion tracking so the system can respond to your head movements.

During Sony’s keynote presentation, executive Andrew House detailed PlayStation Now, the cloud gaming service that the company has been working on since acquiring Gaikai in 2012. PS Now will stream games—at a resolution of 720p—from cloud servers to PS4 and PS3 consoles. The PS Vita handheld, Sony’s Bravia TVs, and other devices will also support the service at some point, and users will be able to either rent individual games or subscribe. Game progress will be saved to the cloud, so users can resume play on another device. Sony is recommending a five-megabits-per-second broadband connection for an optimal experience. CES attendees were able to get hands-on with streaming versions of God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us, and reports were positive. A closed beta of the service will be rolled out in the U.S. this month. No word yet on when it will be available in Canada.

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