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How to Dual-Boot SteamOS

The basics of getting started with SteamOS

Want to check out SteamOS, but don't want to wipe your computer to do it? SteamOS, still in development by game developer Valve Corp., is designed to power the upcoming SteamBox gaming consoles, but it can also run on just about any computer.

One of SteamOS' biggest advantages is its ability to run games faster than other operating systems. You should notice a big improvement in performance on the games you play via SteamOS, even with the same hardware.

However, because SteamOS is based on the Linux operating system, only Steam's Linux-compatible games will work on it. At time of posting, that's just under a quarter of Steam's total catalogue, and includes games such as "Portal," "Bastion" and "Fez."

MORE: What is the SteamOS Game Operating System?

SteamOS is still in beta, so it takes a brave soul to test it out, but Valve's developers have now made it a lot easier to do so.

With help from the third-party developers on the open-source project Ye OldeSteamOSe, Valve has recently added the ability to dual-boot SteamOS on a PC. That means you can install and test out SteamOS on a computer without wiping that computer's previous OS and all of its files. However, because SteamOS is still in beta, setting up a dual-boot is far from easy.

We explored some of the options, and figured out a way to get SteamOS running successfully on a laptop dual-booted with Windows 7. Here's a step-by-step walk-through of how to do it.

1. Pick a computer, and back up your files. Even if you're dual-booting, you still want to make a backup copy of your hard drive beforehand, just in case. After all, SteamOS is still in beta, and you don't want to be the one to discover a new glitch.

You'll also need to make sure the computer you choose has an Intel or AMD 64-bit processor, at least 4GB of RAM; either a USB port or a disc drive; and an Nvidia graphics card (though support for AMD and Intel graphics cards is forthcoming).

2. Free up some space on the computer you wish to dual-boot. You'll need space on your computer's internal storage to store SteamOS and everything you do from that OS. When SteamOS is out of beta, there will be a way to do this from within the setup process, but we found it difficult and finicky in the current build, so we recommend creating free space from within your computer's current OS.

On Windows 7, that means opening your Control Panel and searching for "Partitions" in the search box. Select "Create and format hard disk partitions." A window called Disk Management will pop up. Right click on your C drive, and select Shrink Volume. The more you shrink your C drive, the more room you'll have to save Steam games on SteamOS. Steam recommends setting aside 500 GB, but you can get by with much less if you plan to download fewer games.

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3. Go to the Steam community site and download the latest SteamOS ISO.

The first official version of SteamOS that supports dual-booting was posted on Jan. 20 by Valve engineer John Vert. The update incorporates work from an independent project called Ye Olde SteamOSe, which first created dual-boot support for SteamOS.

"PLEASE note there has been very little testing on this, especially any kind of dual-boot setup," Vert wrote in the post on Steam's community forum. "Don't install it on any machine you are not prepared to lose." 

We used this .ISO file, not the.ZIP file currently available for download on Steam's website. Save the .ISO file to a location on your computer. It won't stay there; you'll just need it handy for the next step.

4. Move the ISO file to a blank USB stick or DVD. You can't just copy and paste the file to your storage device; you'll have to use a special program that can burn ISO files to either DVDs or USB sticks.

To use a USB stick, we used Free ISO to USB, a very simple, free program that walks you through all of the necessary steps to create a USB image that will boot a PC.

First, insert a blank USB drive with at least 4GB of storage into your computer. (You can do this step on a different computer than the one you're going to dual-boot). Then, open up "ISO to USB." When prompted, select your ISO file, then your USB drive and select Begin Copying. The process only takes a short while. When it's done, click Exit, and you're ready to begin setting up SteamOS.

To create a DVD, first make sure your PC has an optical drive capable of burning DVDs. If so, it probably shipped with DVD-burning software, which should be able to create a bootable disc from a disc image.  If not, free DVD-burning software for Windows is easy to find; the best-known is probably ImgBurn.

Before creating the disk, make sure you check any options that specify "ISO," "disk image" or "bootable." Select the slowest burning speed offered to minimize the risk of mistakes, and accept any offer to verify the disk. Depending on the speed of your DVD burner, the disc burn could take 10 minutes, or it could take an hour.

5. Place the USB or DVD with SteamOS into the computer you wish to dual-boot. If you used a USB drive, when you put it in, a popup window might appear, alerting you that you need to format the USB drive before you can use it. Ignore this message; the USB drive is formatted just the way you want it.

6. Restart your computer and boot it from the USB or DVD. This means that instead of booting your computer with your current OS (in this case, Windows 7), you'll boot it with the OS on your disk. To do this, you might need to adjust your computer's BIOS settings — the settings that exist beneath the OS level.

This process can vary depending on the brand of computer hardware you're using (e.g., Lenovo, Dell, Acer, etc.), but the first step is always to restart your computer.

When your computer turns on, you might see a screen with your computer maker's logo. You might just see a blank screen with some white text. Either way, BEFORE your OS starts initializing, you'll need to hit a certain key to bring up your computer's BIOS boot menu. The key will  differ depending on the brand you're using, but it's usually Esc, F1, F8, F11 or F12. A simple Google search for your computer's make and model should turn up the BIOS instructions you need.  

Once you get to the menu, find the option to change the computer's boot order. On the Toshiba laptop we used for this test, it was located under the Advanced Settings. The computer is set to boot first from its internal hard-disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD), which means its onboard file storage. In the above picture, you can see that USB Memory is set as second. Switch USB Memory to first. (That means that, when your computer turns on, it will first check for an attached USB drive with an OS from which to boot. If it doesn't find one, it will boot from its onboard OS.)

Once you've accepted these settings, the computer should continue to boot — this time, from the USB stick. If you see this screen, you know you have the BIOS settings right.

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7. When you get to the SteamOS GNU/Linux installer boot menu, choose Expert Install. You can see the options in the above image. The first option, Automated Install, will simply wipe your computer and replace your current OS with SteamOS. If you're reading this tutorial, however, you probably don't want that. Select Expert Install.

8. Answer some basic setup language and location questions. You'll first be prompted to choose your language, country and keyboard configuration. (The default for the latter is the American English keyboard.)

You'll see a loading screen, and then a menu called Partition Disks.

9. Now we'll begin creating SteamOS partitions from the free space. In the screenshot below, you can see the way our Partition Disks menu appeared.

In this image, the highlighted line concerns the computer's hard drive. Lines numbered 1, 2, 5 and 4 refer to partitions (designated sections of storage space) occupied by an existing operating system -- in this case, Windows 7.

There's also 274GB of free space. We created this free space back in step 2, so if you don't see it listed here, turn your computer off, remove the USB or DVD containing the SteamOS installer, restart your computer and readjust your free space.

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The second drive indicated in the above picture is our USB stick holding our SteamOS installer. You won't need to do anything with this; just note that it's there. (If you were to plug a second external storage device into your computer, you could put SteamOS on that device instead of dual-booting your computer, but it would need enough storage to hold Steam game files.)

We'll be making four partitions from the free space on our computer. That will set up a second operating system on the machine and, once finished, allow us to choose between the two operating systems each time we start the computer. So, without further ado, full steam ahead!