Renowned game developer Valve has three big announcements this week, and SteamOS is the first of them. This lightweight operating system is a Linux-based platform that runs Steam, and not much else. SteamOS is limited in scope, but could provide living room-based solutions for hardcore PC gamers.
The most obvious reason why Steam wants to launch its OS is to complement a hypothetical "Steam Box" — a Valve-designed home console that runs Steam, and little else. This box would combine the user-friendliness of a traditional console with the incredible selection and frequent price drops on the Steam platform.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to announce an operating system before its console, Valve is also an expert company at building hype (just look at how eager fans are for a new "Half-Life" game which, at present, has been in limbo for six years). With two more announcements this week, SteamOS could be just the thing to ensure that Valve dominates the online discussion before its big reveal.
Of course, the SteamOS will function on regular computers as well. The system is free, and will be available for users to download soon, according to Valve. While players would still need to hook up gaming rigs to their TVs (which is not as hard to do as you might think), the SteamOS provides two potential new ways to play.
Your first option is to hook up a gaming PC directly to your living room TV and run games through SteamOS. Granted, you could just as easily do this with a Windows-, Mac-, or Linux-based machine, but remember, those operating systems take a lot of resources to run programs in addition to Steam.
Between online services, security software and whatever mail and chat programs you forget to close, a standard Windows PC or Mac can wind up running between 20 and 100 other processes before you ever click the Steam icon. That's a lot of wasted system resources.
Linux users have a little more leeway with controlling how many processes function at once, but Linux also has a more limited selection of games that work through Steam.
Because SteamOS will focus almost exclusively on running games, a state-of-the-art gaming PC will most likely not be necessary for a smooth experience. Fewer resources invested elsewhere could mean more resources for rendering graphics and processing gameplay.
The other option — which may be the only way to play Windows and Mac games for the time being — is streaming via SteamOS. As Steam is a Linux-based system, Windows and Mac games may not function on it, but it could provide a solution.
Here's how it works: Keep your gaming PC right where it is, hook up an old computer or a laptop to your TV, and boot up SteamOS. The computer attached to the TV will stream whatever your PC is running on Steam right to your living room.
How well this functionality works will depend on a number of factors: the power of your gaming rig and laptop, the system resources required by SteamOS, your Internet speed and your Wi-Fi reliability. Still, if the OS is as slick as Valve has promised, even modest systems could stream content without too much trouble.
SteamOS has a few other features as well, even if they won't be available right away. You can stream movies, TV and music, share games with family members and implement parental controls to keep mom and dad's games out of kids' reach. This would put it on even ground with consoles like the Xbox One and the PS4 (or even the existing Xbox 360 and PS3).
The easiest way to experience SteamOS will probably be to wait for Valve's next two announcements, which will almost certainly include a gaming machine designed with SteamOS in mind. If you already have all the hardware you need, though, give the OS a go once it's available: After all, it's free.