An Early Look at SteamOS


What is SteamOS ?

Most people out there have probably heard of Steam. But for those of you who haven’t, it is a software package created by Valve Corporation (Half-Life, Portal,  Source), initially as a DRM -patch delivery system for their games. In its early days many users outside the U.S.A did not have very powerful/stable internet, and the requirement of being connected to the Steam service whenever playing a game was not well liked.

Over time connectivity improved and became less of an issue. Valve also began to convince other publishers to release their products over the Steam service, thus becoming an app store of sorts.
As game/software purchases are linked to your Steam account, you can reinstall computer/setup a new computer without fumbling around looking for CD’s and license keys.
Steam1Steam has supported the development of Indie Games, and offers a platform for amateur and start-up developers to release their products through the Steamworks API and the Steam Greenlight platform.
Valve co-founder Gabe Newell is a fan of Linux and his company has recently started aiding and supporting the development of games for Linux systems.

“Linux and open source are the future of gaming” – Gabe Newell.

On 23 September, 2013, SteamOS was announced. An OS developed on top of the open source Debian Linux, optimized for running the steam system in a full screen, “media-center style” view. As a fan of Linux myself, this is great news, one day I may be able to go exclusively to Linux systems and drop windows entirely (maybe save a VM for those classics.)

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Recently I have gotten a hold of the beta release, and have loaded it onto an old Netbook.
The installer is based on UEFI and as this old system only had a BIOS so I had to manually configure an MBR and GRUB onto a flash drive. For anyone interested instructions here.

The initial installation runs automatically with minimal user input and then boots you into a standard GNOME desktop. From this session you setup networking, connect to your Steam account and perform the final install script. At this point the system reboots and are presented with the steam full screen interface (Similar to the Big Picture Mode on the standard Steam program). In here you have access to all the usual steam content such as your game library the steam store, etc…

steam2There is no integrated file browser or media player currently, though there is a basic web browser and you are able to drop to the Linux desktop from the options and you are able to use the system as a std computer via the GNOME 3 UI.
Valve are said to be in discussion with streaming providers such as Netflix and Hulu so there is chance of the production release having support for these services. Valve are also encouraging developers to start making games compatible with the SteamOS system, but discourage the idea of any SteamOS specific games, preferring the idea of games being available on multiple platforms to support all users preferences.

The advantage of running gaming on a Linux system is Linux is known for it’s native drivers that are light on system resources. By not requiring bloated provider drivers and things like Direct X hogging the system, more of the system is usable by the game thus improving performance.
The downside is not as many games support Linux as compared to windows, but these days the numbers are growing. Now there is a Linux made for gaming I suspect in the future we will see even more compatible games in the future. Linux is also free and open source so you would only have to pay for the hardware, and would be free to fully customize your system.

Tsteam-controller-2he system will be released on pre-built hardware units called Steam Machines (essentially a Steam Console, that will ship with a custom designed controller) as well as a free download installable to any compatible computer system.
The system is optimized for output to a TV screen and is planned to give you the best of both worlds between the power and flexibility of a gaming computer and the ease of use, simplicity and comfort of a console.

Many are not sure about the release. Casual gamers are worried about the complexity Linux is known for, and some people are misinterpreting the system as a direct competitor to Xbox/Playstation. While the next gen consoles could outperform SteamOS in a direct comparison, it is not attempting to be “another console.” The intention of SteamOS is to bring the computer gaming experience to the lounge. Valve are also working on a system where you can stream games from your gaming computer to your SteamOS system.

This is still a very early release and my Netbook is well below the required specs for the system (anyone want to donate me a high end machine for… ahem… research purposes ?) so nothing observed can be seen as a true representation of the final product. I believe there is great  potential for the system, but it will take some time to fully cement it’s place in the market.

Stay tuned for a follow up review when a more developed version of the system is out.

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