On Steam Machines and Razer’s Christine: PC Manufacturers Looking for a Nonexistent...

On Steam Machines and Razer’s Christine: PC Manufacturers Looking for a Nonexistent Niche

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This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) served as some sort of weird coming-out party for various PC OEMs. It’s both bewildering and frustrating to see companies attempt to salvage whatever they can on their diminishing returns on x86 hardware on ideas that seem—quite frankly—horrible on paper. We started the week with both Intel and AMD holding hands and acting like being able to dual-boot a mobile OS is a fantastic idea; granted, near-instantaneous boot-times would have been a big deal five years ago, but running a half-baked version of Android on my desktop does nothing to me personally in this age of SSDs and ten-second Windows 8.1 cold boots. Now Tuesday rolls along and I see my news feeds stuffed with news about the myriad of soon-to-be-available Steam Machines and an interesting concept computer from Razer codenamed “Christine.”

This is Christine. You probably can't afford her.
This is Christine. You probably can’t afford her.

Both ideas are as different as can be. Steam Machines are designed to be console replacements; prepackaged glorified HTPCs running off-the-shelf hardware and pre-loaded with Valve’s SteamOS—a Linux fork that essentially auto-boots Steam in Big Picture Mode (yes, I am aware that there’s more going on than that). Nothing particularly novel nor revolutionary about that, as prefabbed computers have been around since the dawn of time. Razer’s concept, on the other hand, sounds intriguing on paper: it’s essentially a stylized (well, as much style as you can pack in with Razer’s patented tawdry black matte and green LED combination, at least) rack that houses upgradeable “modules” for CPUs, video cards, RAM and storage that you plug into the main unit straight away—no cables required. From the looks of things, they all run off the same bus type and are cooled independently as well.

Here’s my problem with both concepts: they’re trying to reach a niche that does not exist, and for equally-different reasons.

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Steam Machines are already being shunned by the Valve stalkers followers out there for being cheap, vestibular extensions of the PC platform they love; forcing developers to “water down” their games to fit into these machines’ fixed hardware for the next five years. They aren’t too far off: PC gamers have suffered for the past six years to a phenomenon known as “consolization:” nobody is making games that even tickle the highest of high-end hardware anymore as they have to make targeted assets that are recyclable to  (or recycled from) the more-profitable console versions of their games. Console gamers, on the other hand, see Steam, PC gaming, and everything associated with it as inherently complicated and something that they’d rather not deal with. The fact that Diablo III sold so much on the PS3 (despite being an unoptimized, year-late port) speaks volumes about this inherent and unfortunate fear.

Conversely, being fully aware that it’s a concept, Razer’s Christine is also a bad idea in the same regard: it’s a product seemingly aimed at both the mass-market and the hardcore PC audience, and it doesn’t take much postulating to figure out why both audiences will completely dodge Christine’s svelte ebony frame. Penny-pinching PC gamers who have a hard time ponying up $60 for each major release will scoff at Christine’s expected high asking price, relegating it to the “cool, but not $2000 cool” echelon as the company’s Edge Pro tablet and Blade laptops. It being a tower computer is already intimidating enough for Joe and Jane Q. Public, but (a) Razer isn’t quite deserving of the Apple premium yet despite their lofty aspirations; and (b), the ship has already sailed for the desktop PC formfactor. People would rather buy a tablet; or failing that a cheap Dell off-brand econobox to read their emails.

At the end of the day, Razer can prevent Christine from being friend-zoned by the collective public by ultimately resigning to the fact that this modular gaming PC for the less tech-inclined is a good idea, but something that they won’t be able to price or market competitively to make it more than a niche product at the end of the day.