Valve’s Steam OS has certainly made a commotion in the gaming industry. With all the talk of a free operating system and the appearance of spiffy-looking Steam Machines from boutique builders like Alienware, it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype. With a blank hard drive in hand and my home system in tow, I decided to give Steam OS a test drive for a couple of days and see what Valve is cooking.
My time with Steam has certainly been interesting, but there are a couple of nuances that you should be aware of before you attempt to join the beta party.
The OS of Steam OS
There are two parts to Steam OS. Big Picture mode and the Linux side. Big Picture mode is the streamlined, user-friendly aspect where gamers will access their Steam library and other functions like simple web browsing and friend management. It is easy to navigate and offers a similar UI experience to what is found on Xbox and PlayStation, both visually and in practice. If you have tried out Big Picture mode on a Steam PC, you will be right at home with the main part of Steam OS.
The other side of Steam OS is Linux. It is based on the Debian distribution of Linux and has a simple-looking desktop menu with a UI arrangement similar to what is found on Mac OS systems. There are drop-down menus and folder navigation but other than that, the computing experience starts to differ from that of Windows and Mac.
In Windows, you can typically download and install programs with the press of a button on the website and launch the program. In Linux, that is the exception rather than the rule. Installing programs and drivers for your hardware is most often done via the terminal. Think of it similar to the command line in Windows. You input commands and text to update, install and remove programs. This requires that you learn the lingo of Linux and reference the Internet for the proper commands or scripts. Once you get a hang of the process, you will find that it is simple, straightforward and even fun. But with little or no experience with Linux, the transition will take some time and can be jarring.
The games that I played – which included Team Fortress 2, Dungeon Defenders, Shank and Left 4 Dead – were more or less the same experience that is offered by Windows. There were a few hiccups in the action (less in Valve-developed games) but they were to be expected in beta testing. Due to the limited amount of games that could test my computer’s graphics capabilities, I wasn’t able see how graphically demanding games would perform on Valve’s OpenGL API (Direct X equivalent). For the most part, games were responsive and worked as they should.
Although I expected that I would be unable to play Windows-based games, it was a bit of a let down when I looked through my library. There is a nice collection of indie games to sink your teeth into but the lack of Windows-based games is still a bit unsettling. Though the ability to stream Windows games to your Steam Machine will alleviate the smaller library, more mainstream titles that work right out of the gate would be nice. Hopefully with more steam (pun intended), more visible titles will find their way to Steam OS.
Odds and ends
The process of getting Steam OS up and running is not for the faint of heart, as learning to troubleshoot on the fly is a part of the beta experience. Fortunately, I have experience with Ubuntu (a Linux variant), which certainly helped me acclimate to the quirks. For example, installing Adobe Flash and getting wifi or sound devices to be recognized involved liberal use of the terminal and forum searching. With such a wide range of computer components to support, this is to be expected. But for a novice just firing up a Steam Machine, it will be hard to swallow that you won’t be able to watch or listen to videos without some work-arounds.
What would be nice to see as Steam OS matures is a central software center as found in Ubuntu, either as a part of the desktop or baked-in into the Steam Big Picture mode. Having a central hub to download non-gaming applications or manage entertainment media would go a long way to convince adopters that it is a great OS in itself. Additionally, standalone media applications such as Amazon Prime, Hulu or Netflix would be nice to have and make a Steam Machine fit right in as a central entertainment hub for all to enjoy. Though the web browser can be used to get to your favorite video sites, distinct applications add to the experience.
Despite the issues that I ran into, I am excited for what Steam OS will eventually lead to. Big Picture mode is a great interface to lead off with. Streaming games from your Windows computer to the Steam Machine will be exciting and fun to see in action. As of right now, it is a beta experience for a reason. Once Valve matches the perceptions of what a Steam Machine can do and is as user-friendly as possible, Valve will have something that can change the industry. But until then, the great migration will have to wait.