Its taken quite some time from the initial announcement by Valve but now machines built to suit their Steam OS and bundled with the controller are finally available to buy in numbers. Today we take a look at one of the first in our Zotac Steam Machine Review, featuring an i5 CPU and interesting “GTX 960” GPU.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – Packaging and Bundle
The Steam Machine arrives in a fairly plain box with Zotac very much focusing on the Steam branding and console like purpose of the system. Inside all the documentation and software is included in an envelope with the hardware items all in a separate tray above the PC.
Those extras are a 180w PSU, mains cables, USB cable and Wi-Fi Antenna…and of course the Steam Controller which we will talk about shortly.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – The Zbox NEN SN970
The NEN SN970 as the Zotac Steam Machine is also known uses a black and white colour scheme and all plastic chassis. The dimensions are 210mm x 203mm x 62.2mm and on the top we find a fairly large Steam logo. Along the front edge of the system we find a power button, card reader, 3.5mm audio in/out and USB 3.0 (type-c connector)
Turning round to the back of the system we find the main exhaust which sits above four USB ports, 2x USB 2.0 and 2x USB 3. To the right of those are 4 (yes, FOUR) HDMI ports and two GB LAN ports. The Wi-Fi antenna connector and power input are also located on the back.
Nothing too much to note about the sides and base, more airflow holes, a few rubber feet, lock slot and we are done.
To access the inside of the SN970 we simply remove the two screws on the back of the system and then slide off the base. This reveals our Intel 3165 Wifi-ac card, 8GB of Micron DDR3-1600 and a Hitachi 1tb 7200RPM drive. Between the drive and memory are two M.2 ports, one converted to be an internal USB port and the other for M.2 SSDs.
It is also possible in the above image to see the backplate for our CPU cooler. That CPU is an Intel Core i5-6400T CPU which is a quad core model running at 2.2GHz standard and 2.8Ghz when in turbo mode. The GPU is provided by NVIDIA and although it is branded as a GTX 960, the specs are quite different. For this card we get 1280 CUDA cores rather than the 1024 found on the GTX 960 normally… think of this more like a GTX 970M. Something which very much makes sense when we see the presence of the GTX 970M’s 924Mhz core speed, peaking at 1038MHz just like the mobile part. Our 3GB of GDDR5 runs at 1253Mhz on a 192 bit bus and all standard NVIDIA features are supported as is DirectX 12.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – The Controller
This is the retail Steam Controller and its wireless receiver, a small device which fits nicely in the internal port of the Steam Machine. The controller itself is a mix of glossy and textured surfaces and of course we get those two touch sensitive pads in the top right and left. These also act as buttons when pressed in. The thumb stick and four action buttons will be familiar to most gamers and the function buttons top centre, the same. A USB connector can be found on the top of the unit, ideal for when battery power runs low.
Flipping the steam controller over we find two shoulder buttons and two triggers. This trigger section can actually be removed by sliding the switch on the base of the controller. That reveals the space in each side of the controller for our batteries. None were provided by Zotac.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – Software/Steam OS/BIOS
When we turn on the Steam Machine it boots into Steam OS in seconds and on first boot that also means a setup wizard. Nothing too fancy, just the usual creation of accounts etc. SteamOS is Linux based and while we can move to the desktop, Valve’s intention is for us to spend our time in the Steam app, essentially Steam’s Big Picture Mode from the PC version. We can view basic details on our system, change key options, even update the controller firmware and all of this functions fairly well using the Steam Controller. Valve have also tried to implement a keyboard tailored to it, the left side using the left touch pad and the right side using the right.
Really though the SN970 is very much a standard desktop PC, so we can for example access a normal BIOS and even install Windows before running the PC version of Steam as normal. Zotac provide all the necessary drivers to help us with this on a handy USB drive bundled with the system.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – Performance
Testing was completed on the Zotac Steam Machine (SN970) with its default configuration, Windows 10 64bit and the latest drivers/patches at the time of writing.
Zotac Steam Machine Review – Conclusion
So lets start this conclusion with the hardware side of things. Overall we were very impressed with the system that Zotac have put together. We like the styling of the chassis and the ports are well set out. It could be argued that the USB 3.0-c connector would be better on the back with a standard port on the front but really that’s about it. There is plenty of connectivity overall, 6 USB in total, dual LAN, 4 HDMI, wireless-ac and so on. We also very much like the use of that internal USB port for the wireless receiver and that the system can accept a 2nd drive in the form of a M.2 device. We upgraded to a standard sata SSD without issue… its simply a case of turning a few screws and users can also drop in an extra stick of memory with ease. All very good.
The choice of CPU and GPU used here are also good. We get a nice balance of performance and thermals. the GPU config is of course most interesting… it seems odd for Zotac to call it a GTX 960. It’s not. It’s a GTX 970M. Maybe they feel that people will think this system isnt a true desktop so want to change the name? Who knows…
Moving to the SteamOS, that we didn’t like so much. It does boot quickly, it is fairly simple to use but it does occasionally error in ways we wouldn’t expect. For example when trying to access the Steam Store. Out of the box the functionality is limited and as it is Linux based, the games available are limited when compared to the PC version of Steam too. It has potential as an OS but really any serious gamer will want to get a copy of Windows on there right away and it’s great that Zotac provide the drivers to allow this.
The Steam Controller was much like the OS. It has potential but its not quite there. We like the idea of the touch sensitive pads and using them to move pointers instead of a mouse works well. That said when you hover over a letter on the virtual keyboard and then push the touch sensitive pad to action the click/select it can bump you on to the next letter which is frustrating.
Not all games support its features too, though profiles should become available in the future and we found the shape to be too large. For an adult it is probably fine however kids will find the thumb and main action buttons a stretch. It would also be fair to say that this controller has very much the same feel as 3rd party Xbox and Playstation controllers, not quite that same quality feel as the official Sony and Microsoft versions.
Using the controller in Windows was also not an ideal experience. Again limited use of the touch pads was evident and we even found a few odd bugs. Fallout 4 for example wouldn’t allow any interaction on its main menu, from any device, when the Steam Controller was connected. All in all, we see no current reason why anyone would use the Steam Controller over the Xbox 360 controller (if they have access to one).
So that brings us to performance. Overall, a very positive experience. The Zotac Steam Machine allowed us to game at 1920×1080 (HD) resolution and high levels of detail. We do note that comparing the GTX 960 desktop card with the GTX used here shows around a 400 point drop in 3DMark FireStrike Extreme however the temperatures are great, noise level is near silent and real world gaming in the latest titles, nice and smooth. The CPU should be more than enough for most uses too, it streams HD content with ease for example and as noted before the potential for expansion is great.
Summary: Get some Windows installed, run the PC version of Steam in Big Picture Mode and connect up a 360 controller. That’s how to get the best from the Zotac Steam Machine and it is that configuration which wins it our recommended award.