"Piston" may well be the only gaming PC in the world that you can carry in the palm of your hand.
Unveiled at CES, Piston isn't a console but it's not exactly a conventional PC either, although it's much closer to the latter than the former. It's tiny, and it's backed, at least indirectly, by Valve, which has invested in specialty PC maker Xi3, the company that's actually building the thing.
What Piston actually brings to the party hasn't been nailed down yet, although Xi3's high-end X7A rig, upon which it is apparently based, features a quad-core CPU running up to 3.2 Ghz, 8GB RAM and up to 1TB of SSD storage. On the outside, there are eight USB ports (three of which are USB 3.0), four eSATA ports, two Mini Display ports, analog and SPDIF audio input/outputs, an ethernet connector and an HDMI port, plus a connector for an external power supply.
The motherboard is split into three components that connect at right angles via slot connectors, which allows owners to upgrade their hardware by simply replacing individual boards. A big question for gamers is what sort of GPU Piston will offer; according to proposed specs for a failed Kickstarter bid from last year, it will sport 384 graphics shader cores and "handle graphics-rich computer games like Crysis 2 with ease." The specs also say the system will consume just 40 watts of power, a small fraction of the juice sucked back by conventional gaming rigs.
"This new development stage product will allow users to take full-advantage of their large high-definition TV displays for an amazing computer game experience," Xi3 President and CEO Jason A. Sullivan said. "As a result, this new system could provide access to thousands of gaming titles through an integrated system that exceeds the capabilities of leading game consoles, but can fit in the palm of your hand."
How much this mini-beast will cost is anybody's guess at this point, although Xi3 said on Kickstarter that the X7A will start at under $1000, which we all know means $999 and an expectation to pay more for anything beyond the basics. To be frank, I wouldn't give this system very good odds of making a go of it at anywhere near that price - the upgrade channel is way too narrow and 384 cores puts the GPU barely ahead of Nvidia's aging GTX-560 - but Valve's involvement makes anything possible.