If you've been following game developer Valve's announcements this week, then you know that the company is planning a new operating system called SteamOS, a number of new machines to run it and a controller specialized for Steam.
Running a SteamOS system is not quite as straightforward as buying a new game console, or even gaming on a Windows PC or Mac. If you're scratching your head over the system's niceties, inner workings and possible benefits, look no further: Tom's Guide has provided answers in a convenient Q&A format.
Q.: What is SteamOS?
A.: SteamOS is a new Linux-based operating system developed by Valve that will run only Steam and some video streaming services.
Q.: What is Steam?
A.: Steam is a digital download service for PC, Mac and Linux that sells video games and some development software. PC gamers favor Steam for its huge selection, user-friendly interface, integrated social features and frequent sales.
Q.: Why would I want to run SteamOS?
A.: SteamOS will be very lightweight, and is designed specifically with big-screen TVs in mind. It aims to split the difference between the diversity and low costs of PC gaming and the comfort and ease-of-use of console gaming. Hooking a SteamOS machine up to your TV may be easier than hooking up a Windows PC or Mac. Because many Steam games allow you to use a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, a SteamOS system can offer you hundreds of games at a much lower price than a traditional console.
Q.: Why wouldn't I want to run SteamOS?
A.: As SteamOS is a Linux system, most of Steam's 2,000-plus game library is not available for the system at present. Furthermore, although SteamOS will have some video streaming services, it still won't offer as many features as a Windows or Mac computer out of the box. However, like many Linux systems, SteamOS allows users to "alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want," according to Steam's announcement. This means that you'll need to be proficient in programming Linux systems (or comfortable user-made modifications) if you want to add features not included with SteamOS.
Q.: What games run on SteamOS?
A.: Any Steam game with Linux support should run on SteamOS, although Valve will pin down this list as the launch date approaches. There are roughly 300 Linux games available through Steam, including major titles like "Europa Universalis IV" and indie darlings like "Fez."
Q.: What games don't run on SteamOS?
A.: Although Valve may address this later on, its current announcements suggest that Windows- and Mac-based games will not run on SteamOS. The list of games that do not run on Linux is extensive: Series such as "BioShock," "Grand Theft Auto" and "Call of Duty" have no Linux support on Steam at present. If you want to check whether a game runs on Linux, simply look it up on Steam and check for the penguin logo.
Q.: Is there any way to run Windows and Mac games via SteamOS?
A.: Yes, but it requires two systems. In addition to acting as a stand-alone OS, SteamOS can also stream Steam content from Windows PCs and Macs. This means that if you have a gaming rig elsewhere in your house and Wi-Fi, you can run Steam on your rig and stream the content through the SteamOS machine attached to your TV.
Q.: Where can I get a SteamOS machine?
A.: At present, Valve has said only that it is "working with multiple partners" and that "there will ultimately be several boxes to choose from, with an array of specifications, price and performance." Valve will produce its own prototype box, but will make only 300 of them for lucky beta testers. Beyond that, you can install it onto PCs or Macs as a dual-boot (second) operating system or as a replacement for the current OS.
Q.: Will SteamOS run on my computer?
A.: This depends on your hardware setup. SteamOS will probably not have demanding system requirements. But Linux OSes do not have a perfect track record running PC hardware, particularly demanding graphics cards, which are necessary for peak game performance. Keep an eye out for more announcements from Valve as they clarify which hardware will and won't work.
Q.: When will SteamOS and SteamOS machines be available?
A.: The only word from Valve is that, "SteamOS will be available soon." An official release before the end of the year could happen, although it will depend on how it performs with Steam's beta testers. The SteamOS machines may be further in the future — or Valve may want to push them out for the holiday season in order to compete with the Xbox One and the PS4.
Q.: How much will SteamOS machines cost?
A.: SteamOS itself will be free to download, so you could theoretically get a SteamOS machine for any price (including for free, if you have an unused computer lying around). Official SteamOS machines will vary in price. Valve will provide more information on this soon.
Q.: Is there a Steam Controller?
A.: Yes. Valve designed the Steam Controller from the ground up to let gamers get the most out of Steam titles without having to resort to a mouse and keyboard. If you set up a Steam machine in your living room, it's much easier to lean back on the couch and grab a controller than it is to sit up straight with an arm-height mouse and keyboard.
Q.: How does the Steam Controller differ from a regular gamepad?
A.: Instead of dual analog sticks like on an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller, the Steam Controller has two circular haptic pads. They respond to touch, like a smartphone touch screen. Touch controls will stand in for traditional mouse motions, making it possible to play strategy games and other titles that require users to select multiple units at once. There is also a central touch screen (like on the PS4 controller) that will allow users to save and load games, take screenshots and chat with friends on Steam.
Q.: Do I need a Steam Controller to play on SteamOS?
A.: No. Although the Steam Controller will be compatible with every Steam game (whether run through Windows, Mac, Linux or SteamOS), you can still use a mouse and keyboard, or a different gamepad if you prefer.