LAS VEGAS—Modular PC manufacturer Xi3 makes some pretty tiny machines, and now we know that it's working on something big. The company is working on a mini-PC that's small enough to fit in your hand, yet powerful enough to play mid-level PC games on an HD display. More importantly, Valve Software is investing in the company to help them pull it off.
The prototype is called Piston: Xi3 claims the machine is optimized specifically for PC gaming on HD displays and promises support for Valve's online gaming platform, Steam. Neither company will say if the compact machine represents an early version of the long-rumored 'Steam Box' gaming PC, which will use Steam's Big Picture mode to hook up to an HDTV and function like traditional gaming consoles.
Here's what we know so far: Xi3's Piston prototype is based on its new X7A modular computer, which has a starting retail price of roughly $1,000. Xi3 won't disclose what's inside the Piston or how much it will cost, but we know the X7A manages to cram a quad-core AMD APU, up to 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a 32 GB SSD inside a case that's just over 4 inches long and 3 inches tall.
Xi3 pulls it off by breaking the typical PC motherboard into three smaller sections and layering these slices together inside the X7A. Upgrading the motherboard will be a tricky and potentially impossible procedure, but it should be decidedly easy to crack open the case to swap out the rest of the components.
But the X7A isn't designed with enthusiastic PC upgraders in mind; it's meant for use as a workstation or a home entertainment PC, and the Piston prototype has similar 'plug and play' appeal. It's a small, sleek matte black machine that fits nicely in the palm of your hand, and there's even a custom mounting bracket you can use to mount one of these modular computers to your HDTV or home entertainment center.
The back panel of the device is packed with ports, including 12 USB ports (both 2.0 and 3.0), audio in/out, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, 2 mini-DisplayPort connectors and a combination HDMI/DisplayPort jack. Given how tiny these modular computers are, the smorgasbord of ports suggests that you can get away with carrying one around and using it for work, entertainment or play with equal aplomb. There's no word on what sort of performance we might expect from this prototype, but it's not hard to imagine a near future in which the Piston PC is bundled with an HDMI cable and a gaming controller for sale at retail outlets as a dedicated gaming PC for the living room.