First look: SteamOS
Published on Apr 8, 2014 6:12 AM
With its large tiles and fonts, the SteamOS interface is clearly designed with big-screen TVs in mind. It is identical to the Big Picture mode available on Steam for Windows or Mac computers.
You log in with your Steam account to get to your games library. SteamOS supports multiple-user accounts, so more than one person can share the same computer.
You cannot easily tell which games are compatible with SteamOS. The filter to show SteamOS games is found deep in the games library. Valve should grey out incompatible titles so that users can distinguish these at a glance.
The built-in SteamOS recovery tool is great. If the operating system is corrupted or damaged, you can easily restore it to the original, while keeping your games and other data intact. Just hit Esc repeatedly during the boot-up process to enable the recovery utility.
SteamOS automatically checks and installs updates during boot-up.
There is a controller-friendly input tool dubbed Daisywheel that feels more intuitive than the software Qwerty keyboard used in consoles.
Valve's Steam Controller using twin trackpads instead of analogue thumb sticks is still in development, but SteamOS works with both the Microsoft Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers.
However, it is advisable to use the official console controllers as the third-party Razer Sabertooth Xbox 360 controller did not work properly.
Gaming performance seems acceptable, probably because my test Steam Machines had far more capable hardware than the minimum requirements. Except for Metro: Last Light, the games available on SteamOS did not really tax the hardware.
Comparisons between SteamOS and Windows 8 graphics performance by tech website Phoronix indicated that Windows 8 was slightly ahead of SteamOS in Half Life: Lost Coast for most benchmarks.
Valve is adding media playback features to SteamOS. The latest beta includes Steam Music (below), which lets users listen to their own collections. The music library is able to display album and artist information and the built-in player has basic features such as shuffle and repeat.
The music player is currently limited to the MP3 format and does not support other media formats. You cannot play videos and there is no way to access music from online streaming services such as Spotify.
You can access SteamOS Desktop, the underlying Linux-based desktop interface, by going into the SteamOS system settings and selecting "Enable access to the Linux desktop" under Interface. This allows you to install Linux apps if you want to get more mileage out of the Steam Machine.
In-home Streaming is a beta feature on SteamOS that is available for selected users. As its name suggests, it lets users stream games from a PC or Mac to another computer running SteamOS.
This has the potential to increase the number of games available for SteamOS. Unfortunately, I was unable to test this. Latency is a potential issue if Wi-Fi is used instead of wired connections.
But the biggest issue is that for an operating system aiming to bring games to the living room, is that SteamOS has just 346 game titles.
It means only 13 per cent of the roughly 2,600 games available on Steam can be played on SteamOS. And only 72 of these SteamOS- compatible games can be played entirely with a couch-friendly controller or gamepad.
The most popular game on Steam now is Valve's Defense Of The Ancients 2 (Dota 2). Like other Valve games such as Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2, Dota 2 is available on SteamOS. But it is a game that is played with keyboard and mouse.
SteamOS faces the same problem encountered by fledgling platforms - a lack of apps. Of the games available, only Metro: Last Light and Football Manager 2014 can be described as big-name titles. Most of the SteamOS games are either from Valve or smaller, indie developers who offer the same games on iOS or Android mobile platforms.
Valve co-founder Gabe Newell posted recently on the online forum Reddit that his company will not produce any exclusive games for SteamOS.
SteamOS is still very much incomplete. Support from game developers is critical.
Crytek (developer of Crysis and Ryse) has announced that its latest game engine will have native support for SteamOS and we may hear more SteamOS announcements at the upcoming Game Developers Conference.
Until more companies release games for SteamOS, the best Steam experience is to install Steam on a Windows PC, connect it to the TV and enable Big Picture mode. You get to play all the Steam games on the big screen and have full Windows functionality, too.