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What is the SteamOS Game Operating System?

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 30 comments
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 1 Hide
    back_by_demand , September 27, 2013 11:38 AM
    I have a whopping gaming PC in the study, but in the living room a modest HTPC attached to the TV, I could use SteamOS to stream games and it would therefore have a use, but it would also mean having to either remove my existing XBMC on Windows setup (never happen) or arrange a dual-boot (inconvenient) so we are back to square 1 again. I want my HTPC to have gaming, but easier not more difficult.
  • -2 Hide
    joaompp , September 27, 2013 11:46 AM
    But can it run...office. Seriously though I hope they integrate more software into their library what's compatible with SteamOS
  • -1 Hide
    will1220 , September 27, 2013 11:48 AM
    They have to include a dedicated VoIP like ts3 or mumble, then I would have no problem switching once <b>all</b> new game are made for SteamOS
  • 0 Hide
    joaompp , September 27, 2013 11:49 AM
    @ back by demand:
    It's a Linux distro so once it's up and running someone will probably develop that particular function, also I believe SteamOS is a light weight Debian based Linux distro, so it might arrive sooner
  • 0 Hide
    memadmax , September 27, 2013 11:53 AM
    If they include WINE and get this OS to run PC games, then you got urself a winner =D
  • 0 Hide
    taurine , September 27, 2013 12:11 PM
    Question 4 contradicts question 1. Steam does have a built in browser, so you should be able to browse the internet in SteamOS, that is of course assuming that they don't remove that, but it would make sense if they left it in.
  • 2 Hide
    Fredrik Aldhagen , September 27, 2013 12:16 PM
    "SteamOS is a Linux system"
    "You won't be able to run an Internet browser or video streaming services that lack a dedicated SteamOS app"

    Has it been confirmed that SteamOS wont run anything not approved by Valve? That sounds very contrary to what they claim on their own page on the beta signup for steam machines (saying you're free to install your own software)
  • -2 Hide
    JD88 , September 27, 2013 12:18 PM
    The big question is going to be what kind of performance can be expected on these things VS say a Windows PC running the same game.

    To build a PC with comparable performance from what one could expect from the new consoles is going to cost north of $700 (more if you include Windows).

    So, can the optimizations of the Steambox and the more efficient Linux OS make up say $200 worth the difference so these things can be priced between $400-500? If they can, and the developer support is there, this is a winner. I would almost rather see Steam self branding one of these things and selling it at cost or maybe even a loss with hopes profits will be made up through game sales. OEMs are going to want to make some profit off hardware sales which will drive up consumer cost.

    Keep in mind, the new Consoles are also starting out with even less games than are currently available on Steam for Linux. This means pretty much an even playing field on the console front. What's even more interesting is the fact that all of the consoles will be based on x86 and likely either Mantle or OpenGL all of which are supported by Linux. This goes without mentioning that the PS4 is running a version of FreeBSD which is very similar to Linux. All of these factors mean porting games between these platforms should be relatively simple.
  • 2 Hide
    clonazepam , September 27, 2013 12:40 PM
    I think a follow-up should be Tom's taking that $350 machine, slapping Windows, a Linux distro, and SteamOS on the thing, and having a go at em all. Up front, the Windows OS makes available any game that's playable in Linux/Steam OS, with the addition of every single game available to Windows.

    I'd certainly pay the price for Windows to open ALL the doors.
  • -1 Hide
    back_by_demand , September 27, 2013 12:54 PM
    Joaompp, just because it is Linux 'based' does not automatically mean 'open', we know n-o-t-h-i-n-g about this OS
  • 0 Hide
    LordHaHa , September 27, 2013 1:10 PM
    So basically outside of the native Linux stuff this is basically like a less-portable Shield in regards to Win/Mac stuff?

    I'd rather just run Steam off of a full Win/Mac/Mint setup and hit "Big Picture" if I'm HTPC-ing to be honest.
  • -2 Hide
    LordHaHa , September 27, 2013 1:17 PM
    So basically outside of the native Linux stuff this is basically like a less-portable Shield in regards to Win/Mac stuff?

    I'd rather just run Steam off of a full Win/Mac/Mint setup and hit "Big Picture" if I'm HTPC-ing to be honest.
  • 2 Hide
    CaedenV , September 27, 2013 1:20 PM
    How is this any easier than hooking up my PC to my TV exactly? The only 2 things you plug in is an HDMI cable which caries audio and video, and a power plug. Turn the computer on and Windows (or OSX, or Linux) will auto-detect the TV with the correct settings. Is that really so hard?

    Keyboards, mice, internet, and game pads are almost all wireless, so there is nothing to really plug in there except a little dongle. Plus you can rather easily set up PC Remote or some other software to remove the need for a keyboard and mouse, then you have a phone and game controller. Or you go get one of those little keyboards with the built in touch pad if you really want to be lazy and want something as small as a TV remote.

    I am not saying that this is going to be an overall bad product or anything... just that I think we are all getting a little carried away with how 'difficult' it is to plug 2 wires into the back of a computer to make it work with a TV.
  • 0 Hide
    CaedenV , September 27, 2013 1:22 PM
    How is this any easier than hooking up my PC to my TV exactly? The only 2 things you plug in is an HDMI cable which caries audio and video, and a power plug. Turn the computer on and Windows (or OSX, or Linux) will auto-detect the TV with the correct settings. Is that really so hard?

    Keyboards, mice, internet, and game pads are almost all wireless, so there is nothing to really plug in there except a little dongle. Plus you can rather easily set up PC Remote or some other software to remove the need for a keyboard and mouse, then you have a phone and game controller. Or you go get one of those little keyboards with the built in touch pad if you really want to be lazy and want something as small as a TV remote.

    I am not saying that this is going to be an overall bad product or anything... just that I think we are all getting a little carried away with how 'difficult' it is to plug 2 wires into the back of a computer to make it work with a TV.
  • -1 Hide
    JD88 , September 27, 2013 1:23 PM
    I'm not sure that's the right way to look at it because what they are playing up is the improved performance of the OS over Windows and probably even a standard Linux distro. As I commented earlier, the success of this thing is likely dependent on the extent of that performance difference.


  • 0 Hide
    mitch074 , September 27, 2013 1:35 PM
    Most of the comments are made by do-it-yourself'ers - and while most have a point, they're missing the main one: the possibility to get a gaming PC, while paying only for the (optimized and silent-running?) hardware (with no Windows + antivirus +etc. tax) and have the whole (eventually) Steam library running on it. So, like a console on which you can change the hardware to suit your needs. In that, it's a nifty idea. If you already own a PC though, this is mostly redundant.
  • 0 Hide
    JD88 , September 27, 2013 1:50 PM
    Exactly mitch, Steam OS is for all those guys posting on the Tom's forums asking for someone to make them a $500 build and is it better than the upcoming consoles.

    This is something designed for the gamer and gamer only, not to replace the desktop PC. It's a competitor to the other consoles and the $500 gaming PC that can be built yourself and customized and upgraded however you like.

    I think too many people are looking at this as a Windows alternative instead of basically just a console you build yourself. No one with a $1500 Windows gaming PC should consider this unless they want something to stream games to in the living room. It's just not targeted at those people.
  • -1 Hide
    CaedenV , September 27, 2013 2:27 PM
    @ joaompp
    If it has a web browser then it has office these days.

    Seriously, it will not be very long (maybe 3-7 years?) that we have to even consider what software we are using, and what platform we are using it on. Most consumer and office software already has web based versions which will run on just about anything from a phone to a work-horse of a computer as long as it has a web browser. For more complicated software like games we are seeing all sorts of software solutions to stream inputs and outputs between devices with minimal issue.

    Maybe I am over-reacting a bit, but if a device has a web browser and the ability to attach some form of keyboard and mouse, then it can be used for at least basic productivity... and it has been this way for a few years now! With the release of Office for iOS and Android this just became that much easier, and the stuff coming out over the next 2 years is going to bring full desktop capabilities to extremely small devices. All that you will need is a keyboard, mouse, maybe a display, and a network or internet connection to whatever device or service is providing your content.
  • 1 Hide
    CaedenV , September 27, 2013 2:33 PM
    @ mitch074
    It is essentially an Ouya with a real controller, and PC streaming capabilities. What makes this particular console irrelevant to most gamers is that it is very much an accessory to a PC rather than a self-sufficient console. Without a PC then you are stuck playing what few 5 year old games have been ported to Steam's particular stripped out version of Linux, and a few indie games. So really you need a $500+ PC AND this device to make it fun and interesting, when most of us would rather just play on the PC, or can much more easily plug an HDMI cable to our TV.
  • -1 Hide
    back_by_demand , September 27, 2013 11:21 PM
    For a lot of people they only have 1 PC, so to use SteamOS will require sorting a dual-boot or removing Windows, otherwise it is aimed at new builds. New builds are either existing Steam users getting an additional PC or new users without a PC. Even if it's a good idea it may prove difficult to motivate those 40 million Windows PC users to switch. Still, great idea in principle, as long as you can run software you would also be able to run through any other Linux distro - that is the question nobody has answered yet, get me a yes to that and I'm all on board.
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