Update: The latest issue to hit SteamOS reolves around waking the OS up from sleep mode, which according to one Valve employee is more hassle than it's worth due to a lack of graphics support on Linux. Check out Page 3 for more.
Back in the early 2000s, Valve Software was best known for creating the beloved first-person shooter Half-Life, and we were all waiting patiently for the next installment of Gordon Freeman’s futuristic adventures in Half-Life 2.
Fast forward 15 years, and Valve’s then-side-project, the Steam games distribution platform, is now at the center of its business, as faster internet connections and more spacious hard drives have essentially gotten rid of physical media as far as PC gaming is concerned.
Today we're in much the same boat. Anyone who has ever so much as handled a controller is waiting for the Half-Life 3 announcement. Steam has gone from being a controversial and slightly annoying way of getting games to the PC gamer's title hub of choice. Bubbling away in the background this time is SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system which forms a big part of the company's plan to infiltrate the living room gaming space.
Now that Steam Machines are out in the wild, SteamOS is now available for anyone to download, so if you fancy building your own Steam Machine – you can give it a go.
Luckily, the days where Valve advised “Unless you’re an intrepid Linux hacker already, we’re going to recommend that you wait” are over, and SteamOS is easier to install now than ever before.
SteamOS could have changed everything. Not only did it threaten Microsoft’s nigh monopoly over PC gaming, which slipped a bit with Windows 8, but it also aimed to pull people’s attention from the Xbox One and PS4 that are sitting in that little gap underneath your TV. There have been tiny media PCs that could be strapped onto the back of your TV for years, but they have always lacked a coherent operating system.
SteamOS, then, was promised to sit somewhere between Windows gaming and console usability. It's built around Steam's Big Picture mode, which is designed for large screens and controller-based interaction. A custom Debian Linux distribution sits behind the whole thing, which means it's capable of web browsing and running programs as well as its gaming raison d'etre. As you'd expect from a Linux-based operating system, it's completely free and totally open-source.
It seemed to be a win-win situation for Valve, too. Even if SteamOS completely failed, its coffers are going to be lined for eternity with the estimated billions Valve makes from the Steam platform alone.
But curiosity got the better of us, and we just had to try out SteamOS for ourselves to see how Valve is shaping the future of gaming.
Valve was particularly stringent with SteamOS’s requirements at first. On the outset, you needed a 64-bit Intel or AMD-powered PC with at least 4GB of RAM, a 500GB or larger hard drive, and an Nvidia GPU. To get it up and running you’ll also need a 4GB minimum USB drive, and a UEFI-compatible motherboard.
Today, SteamOS is compatible with older BIOS systems as well, opening support wide for older gaming PCs. Also, the interface now supports dual boot, so no need to sacrifice your gaming rig to Linux entirely. The hard drive will still be completely wiped during the installation process, but fortunately terabytes are cheap these days.
We had our test PC ready to go, with an Asus Rampage IV Extreme motherboard, a Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, a 2TB hard drive and an Nvidia GeForce Titan graphics card – more than enough to run SteamOS. If you’re running an AMD or Intel graphics card, Valve has promised support for these “soon.” Just bear in mind, it’s Valvetime we’re talking about here.
Anyone who’s installed Windows from a USB drive will be familiar with the process – copy the relevant files across, reboot the PC, jump into the BIOS and choose to boot from the USB drive instead of your primary disk. Except for us, it didn’t work at all.
We tried every combination of USB drive and port we could find, as well as a whole host of different installation methods, but each and every time it would kick us back to the BIOS. Valve wasn’t joking when it said this beta of SteamOS is for “Linux hackers”.
With 10 USB drives hurled at the wall as if it was a tech dartboard of frustration, we decided to try running it in a virtual machine, courtesy of Oracle’s do-it-all VirtualBox Manager. After a little fiddling with various commands (thanks, internet) we had it up and running. We’ve never been so glad to see a Linux login screen.
A week from now it may be a different story. There are legions of Steam fans with a decent knowledge of Linux fiddling with Valve’s installer and software to get it to work. Within hours of release an enterprising Redditor had found a way to get it to install on non-UEFI computers, and forums are bustling with hackers desperate to make it work with their dodgy and decrepit hardware.
Of course, running SteamOS in a virtualised environment is hardly a fair test. We planned to compare benchmarks between Windows and SteamOS, but as it’s running in an emulated machine running on an emulated graphics chip, performance suffered immensely. Even Big Picture’s neon bubbles jerked around the screen. However, we did get the opportunity to poke around in Valve’s game-changing operating system.
Anyone who has used Steam’s Big Picture mode will be familiar with the look of SteamOS. It’s essentially the same, except you don’t have to go through a layer of Windows or OS X to get to it. The ambient, percussive music forms a non-intrusive soundtrack, the wallpaper is a stack of games floating around in mid-air, and it switches between the controller and keyboard fluidly. It’s easy to navigate, especially with an Xbox controller, and it’s on a par with other console’s interfaces.
The act of running and buying games is Steam’s forte, and these are taken care of with the library and store, respectively. Titles scroll horizontally, so you can see each and every new Minecraft clone quickly and easily. And once you’ve logged into your account, you can buy games as you would if you were using Steam’s store or web interface.
Valve includes its own web browser, with bookmarks set up for popular sites such as YouTube, Google and Reddit, and you can add favourites to this page. There’s support for multiple tabs so you can flick incessantly between sites, while controller-based text entry is handled via a nifty flower-type interface, which uses the thumb sticks and buttons to choose groups of letters.
Getting to the Linux desktop isn't supported out of the box, but it can be enabled via the 'Interface' option in the settings screen. Once you're there it's a bare bones affair, with a few standard apps such as a calculator, document and image viewers, the Iceweasel web browser and a disc burner. The good news is that as it's running a standard version of Debian you can add Linux programs via a package manager.
For the time being, the SteamOS client merely handles gaming and the web, but Valve has bigger plans for it. Multimedia content, such as Hulu, Netflix and Spotify, were in the pipeline, but never saw a full release. These apps would have been presented within the SteamOS Big Picture mode, and would have been a boon for anyone who wished to use their TV computers for more than just gaming.
In February of 2014, Valve launched Steam Music on SteamOS to a select number of beta testers. The service pulls tracks from your local music library and pulls up relevant album artwork for display. The service is rather limited at the moment (some streaming solution would be nice), but don't think for a second that Valve's work here is done.
Then there's the slight matter of gaming itself. Approximately a third of our Steam library is available for Linux. Valve has ported its Source engine to the open-source operating system, so its blockbuster games like Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal are all available. Indie titles – which generally require less coding to drop into Linux – are also downloadable, and you'll find Stardew Valley, Hotline Miami and Bastion on the store.
Valve is pushing bigger developers towards Linux. You'll already find the turn-based strategy title XCOM2 and soccer spreadsheet Football Manager 2018 on the store, and real-time strategy Total War: Rome II has also been ported over. The big unknown here is how many developers and publishers will want to develop for Linux on top of consoles and PCs. It is, after all, an entirely different operating system with a whole new load of bugs and idiosyncrasies to deal with.
Valve has a novel, if slightly awkward solution to non-Linux games: streaming. If Windows and SteamOS computers are connected to the same network you can stream games from the former to the latter. Having a Windows PC running all the time sort of defeats the point of a Steam console, but it could be the only way to get your favourite games running.
Valve launched this streaming feature to the SteamOS beta just before the summer, though we've yet to be able to test it. (It also works on any computer running Steam, but still requires a Windows PC as the source.)
Valve quietly dropped the ability to suspend SteamOS, a decision that was made due to a lack of graphics hardware and software support on Linux according to a Github entry written by a company employee. According to the post, the issue means that Linux fails to wake up USB controllers when a Steam Machine is resumed from sleep mode, something that isn't a problem in Windows and OS X.
Forget the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 – Valve’s SteamOS is the biggest shake-up to the gaming industry yet, a free operating system that allows gamers to roll their own machines. It’s still very much in the nascent stages of development, and the beta isn’t exactly easy to use, but as a proof-of-concept it’s intriguing and potentially monumental.
There’s a lot of programming and coding magic behind SteamOS’s deceptively simple interface, and Valve has done a great job of building an entire operating system specifically for gaming. In Linux, tinkerers can go behind the scenes and alter settings as they wish, and, like Google’s similarly open-source Android, it will only be made better by fervent fans.
While we wouldn’t choose SteamOS as our operating system of choice at the moment, there’s still a great deal of potential here. In-home streaming could deliver on a promise that has been made many times before, and multimedia services will put it on the same level as the consoles as the hub of a home entertainment centre.
At the moment, installation requires a great deal of patience, moderate Linux skills and a narrowly defined PC setup – none of which most gamers have. If you’re not into the intricate ins and outs of Debian distributions, we’d only recommend running it out of curiosity. You can experience a far more user-friendly version of Steam for Linux by sticking Ubuntu on your computer and installing it there.
We’re not too sure about the future of Steam’s huge games catalogue in Linux. This could improve in the future, and Valve is undoubtedly throwing incentives at developers to get their games onto the platform as we speak. But the fact that a Steam Machine will have to be tethered to a Windows PC to play the majority of games is a bit of a failure.
Even if Valve’s SteamOS fails to take off – and we doubt very much that it will – it’s still a big raised middle finger at Microsoft’s PC gaming dominance, not to mention a warning to the consoles.
There is a lot of work to be done here, particularly in regards to the installation methods, but these are forgivable given its very early beta status. And since Steam Machines were just delayed to 2015, there’s plenty more time for Valve to get SteamOS in fighting shape.
Additional reporting by Joe Osborne