Steam’s Big Picture released last week, and in that time users who opted in for Steam beta clients have been able to get some hands-on time with Valve’s latest release.
I have spent considerable time with Steam’s Big Picture beta, and here are my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t with the current build of Big Picture. Keep in mind that Big Picture is still in beta, so there is a very high likelihood that a lot of the kinks mentioned will be ironed out (hopefully not in “Valve time” though).
Valve is aiming Big Picture at a very specific demographic of gamers. There are not many short-term implications of Big Picture’s features for the gamers who are not a part of the target audience. This audience is the not-so-large portion of gamers that plays games on a PC, likes to play games on a big screen television some distance away from their eyes, and uses controllers for a decent portion of their gaming. Sounds like console gaming on a PC, right? It certainly seems that way, and while Big Picture does not affect many gamers directly, it does provide a larger, tile-based interface that is much more suitable for viewing on a television than Steam’s current default interface.
Opting into Steam’s beta client provides users with a newfangled blue button in the top right with the words “BIG PICTURE.” It’s not too hard to figure out what this button does but what’s really nice is that Big Picture can be accessed directly from a controller without ever having to use a keyboard or mouse. Pressing the Home button on a supported controller (such as the wired Xbox 360 controller that I used) brings up Steam’s Big Picture, making it a fully controller-friendly interface. Some users reported on forums the Home button did not bring up Big Picture due to the button’s default behavior in Windows (this default behavior brings up a pop-up showing the controller’s battery life), which apparently prevents the keypress from ever being sent to Steam. Though I did not personally encounter any trouble with using the Home key to start up Big Picture, it seemed to be somewhat widespread and thus worth noting for gamers who are considering using Big Picture.
Big Picture currently only supports controllers that use the XInput API, which is used mostly by well-known gaming controller companies such as Logitech and Microsoft. Gamers who use older, DirectInput controllers are left in the dark when it comes to navigating Big Picture. There are XInput emulators available and other workarounds for those want to use their non-supported controllers, but providing support for only one type of controller input API is a rather frustrating inconvenience for many gamers.
For those fortunate enough to have a supported controller lying around, Big Picture is an absolute pleasure to navigate using a controller. The left and right triggers switch between a web browser, your game library, and your Steam friend list. Nearly every feature that the regular Steam interface has is centralized in these three main pages in an easy-to-view, tile-based format. Big Picture’s interface is somewhat reminiscent of the Dashboard for Xbox 360, albeit with much fewer ads and a more focused and streamlined.
Besides the triggers, all of the buttons on the controller are context-specific, but they are mapped out intuitively and take the place of mouse and keyboard actions fairly well. I’d still prefer using a keyboard and mouse to navigate the regular Steam interface but Big Picture is definitely a step in the right direction in making controllers a viable way to navigate Steam’s features.
Valve touted Big Picture as having “a web browser that doesn’t suck”, but unfortunately it appears that Valve may have to eat its words. Opening new tabs and navigating web pages isn’t too bad, though I would have liked to see a better way to open URLs (a fairly common task for web browsers) than pressing ‘x’ and selecting the corresponding option when just one button press could have easily achieved the same task (and there are more than a few buttons that aren’t used at all that could have been used for this task).
Big Picture’s browser uses a strange scrolling scheme in which a cursor is always in the middle and the webpage moves relative to the cursor as opposed to the cursor moving relative to the webpage, as a mouse pointer does. This results in a ton of empty space visible if you move to select a link on the edges of a page, making Internet browsing on a controller a bit of an ugly, though usable, experience.
Visiting Facebook on Big Picture for some reason rendered the browser unable to open new web pages, a rather glaring bug that Valve will hopefully fix soon. Facebook is one of the default “Favorite” tabs for the service’s web browser.
My biggest qualm with the browser, however, was its horribly inefficient zoom feature. Pressing up on the right stick caused the browser to zoom in where the cursor was located, while pressing down would achieve the opposite effect. This is pretty intuitive but the zoom itself was awful. It stuttered and zoomed in and out much too slowly. Zooming in on flash videos was an absolute nightmare as the browser would stop responding and take a few seconds to refresh the zoom every time I pressed up or down on the right stick. It was a rather aggravating experience, to say the least, but I look forward to seeing how Valve improves webpage zooming in a future client release.
One of Big Picture’s most intriguing features is its Daisywheel typing interface. Typing on controllers is usually slow and inefficient, and it’s about time someone came up with a better way to type than moving your cursor to every single letter you want to type out. While Valve is not the first to implement a wheel-based typing interface, it is certainly the most high-profile company to do so.
Daisywheel involves using the left stick to select one of eight “petals” of the Daisy. Once a petal is selected, users press one of the four face buttons to select the corresponding letter on the petal. It takes a while to get used to, but once I got a feel for where all the letters were, I was able to type out letters at a much faster rate than the typical QWERTY virtual keyboard for controllers. Though I would still much rather type on a regular computer keyboard, Daisywheel is a step in the right direction for making controllers a viable way to interact with computers for non-gaming tasks.
Big Picture is an aesthetically and aurally pleasing work of art. Fine, it might be a bit of a stretch to call it a work of art, but Big Picture absolutely screams polish, which long-time followers of Valve have come to expect. A subdued, sparkling-sand-in-water animation adds a peaceful ambience to the experience, adding a nice touch of flair to an otherwise minimalistic interface design.
Sound effects (especially from typing) are pleasing to listen to. Though they sound a bit similar to those found in the Xbox 360 interface, Big Picture’s sound effects have a bit of a raindrop feel that fits in beautifully with the dark blue-greens and overall feel the service conveys.
The average PC gamer won’t find much to be impressed about in Big Picture. For those who fit its target audience, Big Picture is a pretty big deal. Being able to access Steam features using a controller is a huge feature for living room gamers, as a keyboard and mouse simply are not ideal in a setting dominated by sofas and coffee tables. Daisywheel is hands-down the best feature to come out of the service and I would not be surprised to see more developers implement it in the near future.
Big Picture is not perfect, which is to be expected from a service still in beta. There are a few flaws and bugs that detract from the Big Picture experience but overall there is a lot to like and a lot of potential for Valve’s Big Picture interface.