20th Dec 2013 | 00:03
Is the early version of Valve's potentially revolutionary operating system worth a download?
Just a decade ago, Seattle-based Valve software was best-known for creating the first-person shooter Half-Life series. At the time we were eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Gordon Freeman's sci-fi adventures in Half-Life 2.
But Valve's side project, the Steam games distribution platform, was gently bubbling away as faster internet connections and more capacious hard drives meant that we could do away with physical media.
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.
Last week, 300 lucky US Steam users received their Steam Machines - prototype small-form-factor PCs capable of running SteamOS. At the same time the company released a public beta of the operating system, so anyone who fancied building their own Steam Machine could give it a go.
Well, almost anyone: "Unless you're an intrepid Linux hacker already, we're going to recommend that you wait until later in 2014 to try it out," Valve said.
It could change everything. Not only does it threaten Microsoft's dominance of PC gaming, which appears to have slipped a little with Windows 8, but it could finally push the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation out of that lucrative little gap beneath your television. Tiny media PCs that you can strap to the back of your plasma TV are a growing market, but they lack a coherent operating system, especially since Microsoft dropped Windows Media Center in Windows 8.
SteamOS, then, promises 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's a win-win situation for Valve, too. Even if SteamOS completely fails, its coffers will 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.
Installation and hardware requirements
Valve has been particularly stringent with SteamOS's requirements: you'll need 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. The hard drive will 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.
Games and apps
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 thumbsticks 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, is in the pipeline, all presented within the SteamOS Big Picture mode. It's a boon for those who wish to use their TV computers for more than just gaming - which is pretty much everyone.
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 Rust, Super Meat Boy and Bastion on the store.
Valve is pushing bigger developers towards Linux. You'll already find underground shooter Metro: Last Light and soccer spreadsheet Football Manager 2014 on the store, and real-time strategy Total War: Rome II is in the process of being ported. 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. It's not part of the beta for now either.
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.