Despite consumers expecting Xi3 to offer a cheaper alternative to high-end gaming PCs, the company has opened pre-orders for the Piston at $1,000 (£670) throwing the viability of the micro-computer into doubt.
Over the next year, the game console market is poised to change dramatically. Not only will Sony and Microsoft both introduce new, high-end machines, but it's likely that Nintendo will back out of the hardware race entirely. Its Wii U has so far failed to live up to critical and financial expectations and with two-screen gaming touted as intergral parts of both the PS4 and, supposedly, the Xbox 720, the Gamepad's key gimmick has been pulled from under it.
And then there's PC gaming which is coming back in a major way. Though kept alive for years by devoted players and hardcore modders, the PC scene hasn't returned to the mainstream since the mid-nineties, with living room consoles forming the centre piece of most people's gaming life. That's changing, though, thanks to Razer's Edge tablet, Steam's Big Picture Mode and Xi3's Piston.
A powerful micro-computer, the Piston fills the role of Valve's long-rumoured, though still elusive Steambox, by allowing users to play downloaded Steam games on their TVs. Revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it was expected that the Piston would cost between £150 and £300, offering a cheaper alternative to the big consoles and attract back would-be consumers put off by the expensive computer rigs needed to play PC games.
But last week came the bewildering announcement that the Piston would cost $1,000. Far from offering an accessible, budget alternative to mid-range gaming computers, the Piston now seems to be on a par price-wise with the same complex set-ups that have put people off PC games for the past 15 years. It's an unexpected, sideways pricing move, though not wholly surprising says Enders analyst Heloise Thomson:
"In terms of gaming, they're targeting the small pool of core gamers who build custom gaming PCs for about $1,000+. Buying the Xi3 would give them a good infrastructure to customize on top of, and it's insanely compact. Although a lot of these gamers probably enjoy building PCs themselves, the benefit is that the components will be bought at a wholesale price, rather than retail price, severely cutting down on the costs of a bespoke build (which is why many of these gaming rigs can cost around $5,000 - an individual Nvidia chip costs $1,000)."
The Piston is derived from the X7A, another Xi3 computer used to power indsutrial work stations and engineering analytics programs. An open, customisable micro-computer, the Piston, too, will have broader corporate applications in the engineering and transport sectors. Thomson says this explains the high price-point:
"This isn't really a console in the traditional sense, and it isn't just about gaming. It's a high-end desktop computer that can be plugged into anything. They have wider applications in mind - planes, cars, appliances. So they're thinking commercial as well as individual consumption.
"Is the Xi3 a disruptor for next-gen? I don't think so," continues Thomson. "The whole point of PlayStation and Xbox is that it gives you the most top of the line gaming experience for the price. When everyone is talking about the design and components of next-gen they complain about its already outmoded tech compared to modern PCs. Except that those components and those PCs cost thousands.
"I don't think it's going to cannibalize from the pool of potential next-gen console consumers because of the price. The majority of 'core' gamers are simply not going to be able to afford $1,000; most people are debating whether console players will consider a new box a worthy expenditure at all."
So, despite the encroaching changes in the videogame console market and a new wave of living-room friendly PC-based machines (including Valve's genuine Steambox) Xi3 seems to have plans for the Piston beyond gaming. Certainly, the company has priced itself out of the race between the PS4 and Xbox 720, which are already rumoured to cost $400 or less.
With the X7A infrastructure, the Piston has ostensible industrial applications, but its gaming potential will depend on who, exactly, is into living-room PCs. Unlike the £650 Edge which has the added bonus of portability, the Piston, customisable though it is, is a static console. Sure, it's a customisable computer and it runs games from Steam, but most people who are willing to spend $1,000 on a PC have a machine with that functionality already.
Outside of the workplace, it's hard to see where the appeal of the Piston now lies. If people want a PC that runs through the television and costs a $1,000, they can get a decent-spec desktop and hook it up ti Big Picture; if they want to play PC games on the cheap, they can get a Windows 8 laptop and gaming machine in one with Razer's Edge.
Alternatively, they can just wait for the Steambox itself.