This article reflects my opinion on the system, it’s place in (my new) living room and quite a few geek moments sprinkled here and there. For a secondary opinion check out GoL’s coverage of the system here.
I’ve been running SteamOS for the past few months and suffered through the 2.49 update head-to-head with other integrated graphics users! First time I installed SteamOS was in October on my Brix Pro system expecting a console-like experience delivered to my living room. I had the system connected to a 23” AOC Touch Screen display, a sofa moved closer to the desk, the 360 gamepad in hand and a beer at my side! I fancy myself as a GNU/Linux user (been rocking Ubuntu – and a few other Debian flavours – since 2006) so I got by most of the problems SteamOS threw my way without giving ’em too much thought but from a newcomers perspective, at this point in time, SteamOS is far from the console-like experience it promises to deliver. For once not all SteamOS/Linux-ready games RUN out of the box: Mount & Blade Warband and Shadow of Mordor were a pain in the proverbial arse with their missing libraries and launchers that failed to execute.
Let’s take a step back and start with the beginning! Installing SteamOS on a new box/custom built “Steam Machine” is easier than with most OS installs nowadays (except for Windows 10, never got to try/install W10). The Installer itself is based on the Debian installer and the process is extremely streamlined. The only possible hurdle might appear if you want to customize the partitions and install it alongside other OS’s. Shouldn’t be too hard but for someone new to this I would recommend going with the default settings if you only plan on using the machine in the living room.
As far as games go I’ve yet to see a System/Console Launch with so many titles available on day one! More than half of my library is playable from the get-go. Sadly my Steam Gamepad still hasn’t arrived and I have no plan on using a keyboard and mouse to game from the couch so my selection of games is limited to a handful! I’ve been surprised to see how well BigPicture Mode scales on my 4K display since I’ve seen a lot of complaints on the the discussion forums. The Interface has one big flaw though: as of the current version 2.49 the shop displays ALL games available on STEAM, even those for Windows. Finding a game for your platform is a nightmare! I don’t get if this is an oversight on valve’s part since the current downloadable Linux Client displays games available for Linux while hiding those that are not. Navigating through the UI is done via keyboard/mouse and/or gamepad.
There are some problems though: my 360 wired gamepad sometimes stops responding causing the UI to freeze and the client to reboot while other times the mouse just does not want to click on the system icons (settings, messages, downloads) on the top of the screen. It’s weird and it’s frustrating but I can live with it. What I can’t live with however is the browser packed with the platform. Valve calls it the “FPS Browser” and I have to give it to them: It does make me want to take it out the back and shoot it. Luckily enough I have a Chromecast plugged into the back of my tv so I can enjoy Youtube/Videos without having to reply on the built-in solution. Still a dedicated youtube app would be appreciated, even if it’s the standard youtube.com/tv offering with controller support added. Maybe Valve will get to it someday though I won’t be holding my breath.
Now for the ugly parts: If you are running on Integrated Graphics like me (Iris Pro 5200) then you might want to stick with the 1.0 release, dubbed Alchemist. Ever since the 2.49 update for Brewmaster SteamOS is unusable on anything that isn’t nVidia (though some report no problems on a few AMD cards). Problems range from the latest MESA drivers bundled with the update to the Linux kernel. In my case it’s both. The OS refuses to boot if ANY gamepad is plugged in. The Steam client fails on launch and enters an infinite loop of crashing, trying to restart and crashing again. Unplugging the gamepad leads you to a barely usable interface that locks up on you or causes the display to go black as if the system is afraid to disappoint you. Better shutdown rather than let you see that we didn’t fix the platform bug in the store. I don’t know why this happens but it’s a common issue, at least on Intel GPUs. And it’s mind boggling especially as the first Steam Machine Valve touted is a Brix Pro running Iris Pro 5200. Pretty sure their not lacking in the QA department so I have no idea how this escaped them. At least all Steam Machines available for purchase right now are running nVidia (to my knowledge).
Going even further some games do not start altogether. You have to get access to the desktop, open up a terminal and check out why the game fails to start. In some cases it’s due to a missing BINARY for the game, like in “7 days to die”‘s case. Other times it’s due to some missing libraries (or in Mount and Blade Warband’s case – because you have a newer version of the library installed and it can’t find the old one). Again for someone with enough terminal years under his belt this is easy to fix but still requires you to plug in a mouse and keyboard, add in unofficial repositories and scour the web in search of some packages things that DO NOT CONSTITUTE a console-like experience. So let me say this – SteamOS is not a finished product! It’s for early adopters and/or people like me who refuse to buy a console and want to run linux on anything ranging from their toasters up to their tablets. But it will get better, hopefully. Valve has a huge chance to turn things around in the PC department. It already stirred up the Linux world and brought more games to the platform than ever before! It will take time however and if I were a betting man, I’d place my money on Valve getting it right in the end. Let’s just hope the final fixes and polishes won’t have to come in SteamOS version 3, we all know how Valve’s and 3’s go together.
However I like SteamOS. It’s a neat little living-room system that makes the geek in me jump for joy every chance it gets. How many of you guys can SSH into your console and play tetris in the terminal? On another done I’ve been mentioning on twitter that I’m wrapping up my living room. All I’m missing is a raspberry pi zero and a new monitor so I can setup my virtual fireplace. For now that task falls on my old 23” tablet. In the future I’m hoping on using it as a Skype Machine and hang it up on a wall somewhere. Ogh and I also bought some bean bags because why not? Have a great week everyone!