AMD's R464 embedded APU beats at the heart of Xi3's Piston, but can it fight off the faster PlayStation 4 and Valve's own Steam Box?
Xi3, the company behind what many had incorrectly taken to be Valve's Steam Box
, has officially opened pre-orders for its gaming-centric compact computer - but if you were hoping for something closer to the cost of a modern console, we've got some bad news.
The Xi3 Piston, as the Valve-approved device is known, is a variant of the company's existing Modular Computer design. Like the PlayStation 4 it will be going up against at launch, it is powered by an AMD accelerated processing unit (APU) - a 3.2GHz quad-core embedded variant of the A10 family known as the R464 - and a built-in graphics processor rated as a Radeon HD 7660G. It also includes 8GB of RAM as standard, matching the PS4 but using more traditional DDR3 rather than opting for GDDR5 throughout. The system is also provided with a 128GB solid-state drive as standard, with upgrade options offering 256GB or 512GB for those with the budget.
So far, the system sounds pretty tempting as a low-cost gaming rig - but there are a few caveats. The AMD R464 is part of the company's R-Series of embedded APUs, as evidenced by its low 35W TDP. As a result, it doesn't have the grunt of an A10-5700 or the like, and Xi3's claims of a 3.2GHz clock speed are disingenuous: the chip runs at 2.3GHz as standard, only hitting the advertised 3.2GHz speed when in Turbo Core mode. Using the FS1r2 socket type, it's also going to be near-impossible to upgrade in the future: at present, there are no retail sources for single FS1r2 chips in the UK - hardly surprising, given the socket type is largely reserved for laptops and embedded systems.
The biggest issue with the Xi3 Piston, however, is the price: the entry-level model, supplied with a 128GB SSD, costs $999.99 - although the company is currently offering $100 off as part of its launch promotion at the South by South West (SXSW) event. Upgrading to a 256GB SSD will increase the cost by $340, while maxing the system out with a 512GB model will bump the price up by a whopping $750. With Sony's PlayStation 4 - a next-generation console featuring a more powerful AMD APU variant and 8GB of GDDR5 memory - expected to launch at around the $400 mark, that's a considerable premium that only increases when you look to add a game pad or other control peripheral.
That said, the Piston is capable of things the PlayStation 4 can only dream about. Arriving pre-loaded with a custom user interface and a copy of Valve's Steam client in Big Picture mode, it offers a massive back-catalogue of titles. In normal PC mode, it can also run any other software you might desire - although those who still buy their software on shiny polycarbonate discs will need to splash out on an external optical drive, as the Piston - in common with all Xi3 Modular PC designs - doesn't include one as standard.
While pre-orders are being taken now, Xi3 has admitted that it won't be shipping any actual devices until closer to the end of the year - and even then, it's concentrating on the US market initially. With Sony expected to launch the PS4 at the same time, rumblings of a pre-Christmas launch for Microsoft's Xbox 720 and Valve's own Linux-based Steam Box due to drop early next year, Xi3 is going to have a fight on its hands to convince buyers as to the merits of its design.
If you're interested in picking up an Xi3 Piston, and you're either based in the US or don't mind the thought of considerable import charges, you can find the pre-order page on the official website