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Zotac NEN Steam Machine Review

Steam machines have been demonstrated at global trade shows for years. Valve’s content distribution platform; Steam, has gone from strength to strength and it has long been expected to make the step from being a software and network ecosystem to a complete gaming solution and a serious contender to the living room dominant consoles. The hardware industry has been waiting to see how Valve would take the challenge up to the likes of Microsoft and Sony. Can they do it? It’s still early days. Today we take a look at The Zotac NEN SN970 Steam Machine. We hope this will be the first of many machines with all the benefits of consoles, whilst retaining the power and abilities of a PC.

 

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Unboxing the Zotac NEN Steam Machine

The machine comes in a hefty size box, that’s deceptively heavy. Note that the Valve logo and branding is almost as prominent as that of Zotac themselves.

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The rear of the box gives an overview of the platform.

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The accessories are contained in their own box, which has a link to Zotac support should you need it.

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There’s a plethora of documentation included. We have warranty information, users manuals for the Steam Machine and steam controller, brochure and more. One thing we give praise to is the inclusion of a small flash drive containing software and Windows drivers. While in this case it makes sense as there is no optical drive included with the Steam Machine, We do wish other manufacturers would follow this route as more and more users move away from using optical drives.

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Below is the included hardware including the much discussed Steam Controller. More on the controller later in the review. The AC adapter is manufactured by the very highly regarded Delta Electronics. It is designed to output up to 180w. More than enough for a machine of this spec. We have region specific power cables, a WiFi antenna, Steam Controller cable as well as WiFi adapter.

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Here is the unit itself. There’s no doubt we are looking at a Steam Machine here with a prominent Valve logo atop the unit.

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The front fascia is quite simple, with a large power on button on the left, multi card reader, headphone and microphone ports and the bold choice of a single Type-C USB 3.0 port. Ideally we’d like to have the option of a regular Type-A connector as well for connecting 2015 era USB devices.

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Below is the rear of the unit. Zotac have really gone all out here with pairs of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, no less that four (!) HDMI outputs, a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports and a WiFI Antenna for the internal AC WiFi card. This presents a multitude of networking capabilities including Steam Link, NAS, HD media streaming or just about any other networked device in the home. We’re sure that some very specific networking applications are possible too. Removing the two screws at the bottom allow access to the unit internals.

You can also see the copper heatsink. Kudos to Zotac for not taking the cheap aluminum option.

 

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Zotac have been producing mini PC’s for years and have really nailed the ease of upgrading and easy accessibility of this unit. On the right we have a 1Tb HDD. On the left we have a single 8Gb Crucial DDR3 module. In the center we have a pair of M-Key M.2 slots. One of which is occupied by a USB adapter. You could use this for the Steam Controller wireless adapter. Above the HDD we have a pair of E-Key M.2 slots.

Overall this presents a wealth of expandability. You could easily upgrade to M.2 and/or SATA SSD’s, add 8Gb of RAM and increase your Wi-Fi speed. We’d probably prefer to see a pair of 4Gb modules instead of one 8Gb but that is really nitpicking since RAM is hardly a bottleneck.

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Specifications

A glance at the specifications indicates we are looking at a powerful system, much more powerful than the Xbox One and PS4, with much greater connectivity and expandability options. A quad core Skylake CPU, 8Gb and GTX 960 make for a more than capable ATX sized desktop PC, let alone one that’s 20cm x20cm and just 6cm high. Throw in four HDMI 2.0 ports, AC WiFi, a pair of Ethernet ports, Bluetooth, Type-C USB and more. This puts the spec of the common NUC machine to shame.

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An interesting thing to note is the configuration of the GTX 960. As we see below, the one included in the Zotac Steam Machine is not a desktop GTX 960. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s actually better. The regular GTX 960 is based on the GM206 GPU, with 1024 shaders and a 128bit memory bus. The included 960 is actually based on the GM204 GPU as seen in the GTX 970 and 980. It features 1280 shaders and a 192bit bus. Even with the relatively low clocks, this GPU is strong enough to outperform the desktop GTX 960.

We also see the spec of the Skylake i5 6400T CPU. This 4 core/4 thread CPU sips just 35w and can turbo up to 2.8Ghz making it perfectly capable of handling modern games and any other casual usage scenario you can throw at it.

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Running the Zotac NEN Steam Machine for the first time

Being a PC, the Zotac NEN Steam Machine features a customary UEFI interface. The usual menus are present, with options to select the boot device, system info and health, security etc. Note the OC menu, though there are no OC options present.

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Booting up the Zotac Steam Machine and running it for the first time is much the same as running Windows for the first time. The user is presented with some basic setup options such as selecting the timezone and connecting to a network.

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Once the network setup is complete, the unit will connect to the Steam servers and check for updates for the SteamOS.

The Steam Controller

While manufacturers present their variations on the hardware, the constant between them is the much discussed Steam Controller. Valve have the difficult task of attempting to woo the traditional KB/mouse PC gamer whilst attempting to convert the console masses who are used to plug and play simplicity. A difficult task to say the least. Given that this is the physical interface, you can argue that this device is the most important part of the Steam Machine ecosystem. If Valve stuffs the controller up, they can effectively kiss their console competing idea goodbye. Having said that, our early impressions of the Steam Controller are very good.

Reviewing a controller is inherently difficult. It’s designers are forced to accommodate users ranging from young children to monsters and every size and shape in between. This writer has above average sized hands, and the controller felt extremely comfortable at all times without ‘fatigue’ or any attention drawn towards an unnatural bulge here or a seam there.

The most interesting aspect is the trackpad on the right side. This functions almost like a trackball and can be used to mimic the function of a mouse.

The controller has something of a steep learning curve for those used to a Xbox or Playstation controller. It’s hard to unlearn a decade or more of using a favorite controller. Where it does excel is the level of customization on offer as we can see below. There are also menus for selecting templates should the user wish to give them a try.

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There are some games that will always feel and perform better on a mouse or keyboard. Luckily this unit has plenty of USB ports so you can use your favorite gaming peripherals without issue.

We think the Steam Controller is a fantastic addition to the PC gaming experience. It remains much like a traditional PC controller, yet does it better than any other controller we’ve used. Playing Grand Theft Auto 5 on the lounge room HDTV at quality levels clearly superior to the XBONE and PS4 versions was a perfect example of just how much fun can be had on a powerful Steam Machine.

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The Steam OS

The Steam OS is a Debian based Linux system developed to mimic the ease of use and simplicity of console based operating systems. For the most part it works well with most of the options of the desktop steam client available in one form or another. What it all boils down to is whether the games you play have been ported over to the SteamOS. Several of the games we wanted to benchmark and play were unavailable such as Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto 5, which was disappointing. As a console like OS, there are far fewer options and settings then even the Xbox and PS4 let alone a regular Linux or Windows installation. While it gets credit for its ease of use, at this time it is pretty much limited to playing games and web browsing. We very much like the way Valve is making Linux into a viable gaming alternative to Windows, but until we get a larger number of games ported over, some extra functionality such as media streaming a la Netflix, a media capable player and a little more advanced configuration capability, then we think the Steam OS is not ready for prime time.

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Having said that, there is a desktop Linux mode available which is great for advanced users, but is likely to be somewhat beyond a casual user and those who are used to the Windows platform. Linux operating systems are more user friendly than ever, but they still can’t compete with Windows familiarity and almost universal platform compatibility.

It’s already possible to stream PC games to the living room through the Steam Link or the Big Picture mode built into Steam, which more or less renders the Steam OS irrelevant at this time. If you want to game in your living room, and the games you play have been ported over, then there is nothing wrong at all with the Steam OS. In this way you get the console simplicity that is the point of the platform. However, if your game is not ported, you are better off installing Windows on the Zotac Steam Machine and enjoy your entire Steam catalog without compromise or restriction, along with all the other benefits that a PC brings to the equation.

We aren’t going to write off the Steam OS just yet. It’s really the dawn of Linux gaming. We look forward to seeing how Valve develops the platform with a lot of exciting technologies on the near horizon. VR is all the buzz, along with the new Vulkan API and the promise of better developer support. We’re also hoping the likes of Nvidia and AMD can devote more resources on the driver side, as DirectX 12 is no doubt a major focus right now.

There’s one thing for sure, the people at Valve are very capable.

Windows 10 testing and performance

For the major part of our testing, we installed Windows 10 off a USB thumb drive onto a SATA SSD installed into the Zotac Steam Machine. This transforms the unit into a fully functioning desktop PC capable of running any Windows program.

We focused on Gaming performance, starting with 3DMark Firestrike which is easy to compare.

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Company of Heroes 2 is a World War II themed real time strategy game created by Relic Games. Relic claim that the in game benchmark is designed to be a worse case scenario, meaning that your actual in game performance is going to be better than what you see in the benchmark itself. This is a very difficult benchmark so to be able to run this at high settings with medium AA is a great illustrator that the Zotac NEN Steam Machine is perfectly capable of playing even very demanding games at 1080p.

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Shadow of Mordor is a role playing game developed by Monolith productions set in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe. This game is know to be a bit of a VRAM hog, so to run at high settings with FXAA enabled and push above 60fps is excellent.

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Fallout 4 is the latest entry in Bethesda’s acclaimed series of post apocalyptic open world RPG games. At Ultra Quality settings this games looks really beautiful and is a hell of a lot of fun to play too! This level of performance at this setting in a demanding area is another great illustrator that you can get 100% playable high quality 1080p gaming from such a tiny form factor.

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Temperature Testing

To measure temperatures, we used a pretty standard methodology. In the case of the GPU, we ran Unigine Valley on a loop until the GPU temperatures stabilized at a perfectly reasonable 62c. At this temp, there is no sign of Nvidia’s GPU throttling mechanism kicking in. We could hardly hear the fan in action. The exhaust felt warm, a good indicator the cooling is doing its job well. Do be aware that constant gaming will require adequate space and ventilation around the unit.

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Moving over to testing the CPU, we ran prime 95 for 10 minutes. The CPU at no stage hit 60c, once again indicating Zotac got it dead right in selecting the right combination of CPU and TDP, heat sink and form factor. Very well done!

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Conclusion

Zotac have created a lovely compact and powerful gaming device. It’s a full powered PC that’s able to run games at 1080p in a form factor that’s right at home on an A/V rack, and in now way intrusive in your living room space unlike even the most compact ITX system. It’s quiet, doesn’t run hot, has excellent connectivity and expandiblity option and makes competes well even against a full sized desktop PC.

We aren’t so sold on the Steam OS right now. We see it as a work in progress and expect big things from the OS as developers and new technologies come online. Valve is in a strong position at the dawn of the VR age, with new API’s coming and the promise of better driver support, the outlook is bright. For now, we’d recommend installing Windows on it and set up a dual boot system to enjoy the best of both worlds. Unlike with the Steam OS, with Windows, you can access your entire Steam catalog as well as do all the things a console and the Steam OS cannot do. While its browser can access a range of apps, the OS is otherwise quite limited in what it can do other than playing games. With Windows installed, you can stream 4K content from a NAS via the HDMI 2.0 ports, or from Netflix, Amazon or Hulu etc. You can install Plex or VLC and play every type of media under the sun. You can run your regular Steam client and play EVERY game, not limited to those ported to Linux, not to mention play all the other games not available on the steam platform. You can use the Steam Big Picture function to stream gaming from another PC and enjoy al the other benefits steam has to offer in the living room.

The Steam Controller feels very refined and comfortable in hand, though younger children with smaller hands may find it a bit much. It’s ability to remap every control means that games that traditionally don’t support controllers are able to be played. It’s build quality could be a touch better though. It feels a bit light and plastic like compared to some other, albeit typically more expensive controllers.

With both SteamOS and Windows 10 installed, this is really a wonderful gaming PC. Put it in your living room and enjoy the full power of a gaming PC, in a tiny console like form factor and enjoy all of the associated benefits the PC can offer in your living room. This is a PC married to a console. We love it and really look forward to seeing this class of home entertainment device evolve in the future.

The Zotac NEN Steam Machine is currently selling for $999.99 USD making it on the pricey side, but given the spec, performance, form factor etc, it is acceptable for a first generation product.

 

Zotac NEN Steam Machine at The Steam Store

Zotac NEN Steam Machine at the Zotac Website

 

Pros:

Excellent hardware configuration

Diminutive size

No problem with cooling ability

Easily upgradable

It’s a PC. Therefore it’s ‘open’ unlike a console

Steam Controller design and customization control

 

Cons:

SteamOS has a little way to go before it hits prime time

Not enough games have been ported

 

 

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