Valve, the company behind the hugely successful Steam game service, has released a Linux-based OS designed purely for games.
SteamOS is based on Debian Linux, and installing it is relatively simple. There are two installation methods – Default and Custom – listed on the http://store.steampowered.com/steamos/buildyourown website. Both require you to boot from a USB stick and will completely wipe your hard disk. The SteamOS website says you need a 500GB hard disk, but found we could install to a 120GB SSD.
SUITED AND BOOTED
The Default installation aims to use the open-source Partclone software to copy an entire ready-configured SteamOS disk image from the USB drive to your hard disk.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the procedure to work, and we couldn’t find a way to get Partclone to display an error saying what the problem was. We switched to the Custom installation instead which isn’t much more complicated. SteamOS installs automatically, but you then have to boot into the Debian Desktop, run Steam (we could only get it to work by running it from the Terminal), wait for Steam to install its updates, then log in as a different user and run a logon script. The system will now boot into SteamOS, and you’re ready to go.
This all worked fine on a PC equipped with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 770 graphics card. AMD and Intel graphics are listed as ‘coming soon’, and when we tried to install SteamOS using the integrated graphics on an Intel Haswell processor, we got an “OpenGL GLX extension not supported by display” error.
Once we’d booted into Steam, we ran into another problem; SteamOS seems to be hard-wired to use HDMI sound rather than our PC’s analogue output. This would make sense for most people, as they are likely to have their Steam Machine plugged into a TV or AV system, but it would be good to have the option of using your PC’s analogue output. Even booting into the Linux desktop, (you can enable access in the Interface section of the SteamOS settings) and changing the settings there makes no difference once you boot into Steam.
We also had some glitches setting up a gamepad. We used a wired Speedlink Xeox pad, which can emulate both an Xbox 360 controller (using the Xlnput protocol) and older Directlnput gampads. In Xlnput mode, SteamOS picked up our gamepad as an Xbox 360 controller, but the face buttons were all mixed up, making it hard to navigate the OS.
Fortunately, SteamOS gives you many customisation options for your gamepad, letting you easily map the necessary buttons.
We found the controller customisation section slightly flaky, in that it would sometimes refuse to respond to our inputs, so we had to leave a keyboard plugged in as a backup until we had the controller set up.
THE BIG PICTURE
Once all our gamepad’s buttons were the right way around, navigating SteamOS with the gamepad was a breeze, thanks to the onscreen button prompts. The interface is identical to Steam’s Big Picture mode on a normal desktop installation. This is all big easy-to-understand buttons and icons, and it’s designed for navigating from your sofa.
We did notice a few quirks with the Steam interface on Linux, however. The Store shows all the available games, but there’s no content filter for Linux titles, so you have to click into each one to see whether it’ll work on your Steam box. At least there’s an icon at the bottom-right of each title’s thumbnail, showing whether or not it’ll work with your gamepad, but, at the risk of things becoming too cluttered, we wish there were also operating system compatibility Icons.
Things are better in the Library, where your purchased games are stored. The main Recently Played section only shows controller support, but you can go into the View All Games section and select Linux games from the drop-down menu at the top. You can also use this menu to filter by gamepad-supported titles, but you can’t select both Linux and controller-supported titles. Here’s hoping for more flexible Library filters in the future.
This brings us to another potential drawback with SteamOS – Linux, as a mainstream gaming platform, is in its infancy. We found just over 300 titles available for SteamOS, but this is a far cry from the thousands available for Windows.
You’ll also have to be prepared to be eclectic in your gaming tastes. Most of the games available are indie titles, such as Trine 2, Fez, Amnesia, Legend of Grimrock and FTL. Many of these titles are superb; just don’t expect to play all the latest blockbusters.
We did find a few major titles, such as Metro Last Light, and there is, of course, Valve’s back catalogue, with classic, if ageing, titles such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Half-Life 2. Left 4 Dead 2 ran beautifully on our Steam box with maximum detail, and worked well with our gamepad once we’d enabled support in the options. We found one odd bug with platformer Trine 2, where, if we turned on maximum anti-aliasing, our character wouldn’t appear on screen, making it impossible to play. This was easily fixed by turning AA down to the High setting.
Steam Machines are designed to be used in the living room, and SteamOS is well suited to sharing games with your family. Just like in the desktop version of Steam, SteamOS supports Family Sharing. This lets you share games installed on your Steam account with up to 10 others. We found it worked well on our Steam box. When you log in to a SteamOS box with more than one account on it, the other person’s games will be available to download and play. Also, when you select a game to download, a sharing request will be emailed to the person who owns the title so that they can authorise this action. The account owner doesn’t need to be logged in to Steam to approve a request either, so they’ll be able to easily confirm requests while on the move, using a smartphone.
You can then play the shared game to your heart’s content, as long as the other person doesn’t use their Steam account. As soon as they sign in, you have four minutes to save your game before you’re kicked out back to the Steam interface. It’s a useful system which seems to work well, but it’s still not as flexible as just passing around a console game disc.
SteamOS is still in beta, and there are some rough edges which need ironing out; chiefly, support for more graphics chipsets is vital, and we’d like to have the ability to use a PC’s analogue sound outputs rather than relying on HDMI.
SteamOS also needs better ways to filter the Store by operating system, and more Linux support for major titles, but this is likely to come as the OS gains a larger installed base.
In the meantime, what SteamOS gives you is a way to play hundreds of different indie titles without having to buy a copy of Windows or download and install drivers. It also gives PC manufacturers a chance to show what they can really do, by building custom PCs dedicated to running SteamOS, without having to make the usual compromises that a general-purpose PC is saddled with. We’re excited to see how things develop.