What Is SteamOS?

SteamOS, Valve's specialized gaming operating system, is gearing up for a full release, and should be widely available before the end of the year. The developing OS is a curious beast: It's optimized for PC gaming but doesn't run some of the most popular PC games. On the other hand, SteamOS is lightweight and straightforward, and Valve hopes the system will bring PC gaming into the living room just like its console counterparts. If you have questions about SteamOS, Tom's Guide has answers.

Q.: What is SteamOS?

A.: SteamOS is a Linux-based operating system developed by Valve. The software highlights PC gaming but will also have access to streaming video, music and other online 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 generally like Steam for its huge selection, user-friendly interface, integrated social media features and frequent sales.

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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 customizable PC gaming and comfortable 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 the industry's most popular games at lower prices.

Q.: Why wouldn't I want to run SteamOS?

A.: As SteamOS is a Linux system, most of Steam's 10,000-plus game library is not available at present. Furthermore, it 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 develop their own features, if they're sufficiently skilled programmers.

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 official launch date approaches. There are roughly 2,000 Linux games available through Steam, including major titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and indie darlings like Hotline Miami.

Q.: What games don't run on SteamOS?

A.: Generally speaking, games that are compatible only with Windows and Mac 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 currently have no Linux support on Steam. 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 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 Steam machine?

A.: Valve does not produce any Steam machines; instead, it has collaborated with a number of partners to offer a full range of gaming PCs, from the budget-minded to the fantastically powerful. CheckValve's Steam Machines page to learn more and see if any of the machines fit your needs. (You can also build your own computer, of course.)

Q.: Will SteamOS run on my computer?

A.: Probably. Check theofficial SteamOS page for system requirements, but any relatively new system should be fine.

Q.: When will SteamOS and Steam Machines be available?

A.: SteamOS is available right now, although it's still in beta. A full release will come in November, which is also when the Steam Machines will hit the market.

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Q.: How much will SteamOS and Steam Machines cost?

A.: SteamOS is available free of charge. Steam Machines range from $460 to $5,000. You can also find a machine to fit your exact budget by constructing it yourself.

Q.: How do I install SteamOS on my current computer?

A.: Check out the Tom's Guide article onHow to Dual-Boot SteamOS.

Q.: Is there a Steam Controller?

A.: Yes. Valve designed the Steam Controller from the ground up, to get the most out of Steam titles without resorting to a mouse and keyboard. However, the controller is not necessary; gamers can still use a mouse and keyboard, or another type of controller, if they prefer. For full impressions on the Steam Controller, check out our hands-on from GDC 2015.

Marshall Honorof is a senior writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at mhonorof@tomsguide.com. Follow him @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi. 

  • back_by_demand
    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.
  • joaompp
    But can it run...office. Seriously though I hope they integrate more software into their library what's compatible with SteamOS
  • will1220
    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
  • joaompp
    @ 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
  • memadmax
    If they include WINE and get this OS to run PC games, then you got urself a winner =D
  • taurine
    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.
  • Fredrik Aldhagen
    "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)
  • JD88
    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.
  • clonazepam
    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.
  • back_by_demand
    Joaompp, just because it is Linux 'based' does not automatically mean 'open', we know n-o-t-h-i-n-g about this OS