Summary: After months of rumors, Steam announced last year that it would release an OS based on linux that aims at bringing PC gaming into our living rooms. So I took the beta version of it out for a ride to see what this is all about. Still an early release, SteamOS looks promising – but will it convince ?
This year might be called the year of steamOS. With the launch of several steamBoxes by steamOS manufacturing partners at the CES, it is clear that the rocket is launched. Whether its going to keep its momentum and strive or fail isn’t sure yet. In this setting, I took steamOS beta for a test drive on my DIY steam machine to see what makes this so special.
SteamOS vs Steam
Steam on PC is a reference in terms of game store. Who hasn’t heard about one of their awesome promotions?
So you say, what’s the point?
I say: Well, steam on PC needs windows to run, SteamOS needs Linux.
You say, sure but steam already exists on Linux
I say, indeed and this one is quite the same
You say, so?
Well not much. Basically SteamOS is the full screen mode of your steam app. Most of us never use it (unless you have a gaming PC on your TV maybe). No matter if you use windows, Linux or even Mac – it is the same full screen interface that steamOS uses.
What makes this special is the customized Linux distro underneath. A Debian based distro that is configured to only launch the necessary to play games, boot fast and launch that full screen mode. And this is it – that’s the interface, this is what SteamOS looks like. Not very impressive.
So how does this performs?
SteamOS a work in progress
The beta I tried is the one that is available on the “build your own” page by steam. I didn’t had too much problems to make it run but I did ran in very minor technicalities which I will discuss later in the SteamOS partner section of this review.
Interface wise, it is intuitive and simple, but I would have expected something more – something “special” for the living room, you see? For some reason, I also ended up freezing the interface at some point while navigating through the menus. Only way out – hard reboot. (That happened nearly every time and could be hardware/driver related)
Connected to Steam through my steam account, buying and installing games is simple. The selection of Linux games isn’t as great as for windows, but I’m convinced that this is something that will slowly change with time. I did notice though that some games for Linux (on the online game store) were absent of the selection. It isn’t clear if this is intentional, a bug on my install, or maybe due to hardware limitations of my build. Hopefully in the end all Linux games will run – especially the freebies!
There isn’t much I can add for now except that I will be testing it with a beefed up graphics card in the coming weeks. I want to see how better graphics can help me to get a better gaming experience on my SteamBox. I will also be comparing my own SteamBox to the Brix Pro from Gigabyte which is one these Steamboxes introduced at CES.
Now let’s have a look at the hardware…
SteamOS, SteamBox and hardware
For my build I used a fairly recent motherboard (Gigabyte H87N-WiFi), the top i7 haswel CPU from Intel, a 8GB Vengeance pro memory kit by Corsair as well as a 128Gb SSD from the same brand. A decent build with integrated graphics that should be enough to play on a 720p TV. Still it wasn’t a stable setup. Here is why:
What makes Linux a difficulty to adopt OS is the limited support in terms of hardware. Let’s not enter too much into details but truth is: drivers for Linux are still not as great as those on windows. In these circumstances, Steam came up with a clever idea: SteamBoxes made by PC hardware manufactures.
PC is dying they say, true or false is another debate, but these days it is true that PC hardware manufactures are looking for ways to diversify. With the recent changes in the windows world (win8 – ARM tablets), PC parts builders are willing to look into the Linux side of things attracted by the insanely large market of gamers that Valve promised.
It is with such goal that we started seeing PC vendors, PC distributors and online retailers (newegg or materiel.net) launch their own SteamBox. Some might say that these are just PCs, and other see them as finally the holy way to the customer living room – is it?
Of course it isn’t that simple and our favorite brands in the area such as Gigabyte (with the BRIX Pro) have spent time developing and fine tuning their existing hardware mix to get them certified as steam machines.
What remains now is performance testing.
SteamBox hardware performance
In the end, what makes people choose between a brand or another? The brand name? the box design? features? or performance?
I personally like to base my judgement on design (product) and performance (hardware). For performance, it is a good thing to benchmark a system to know what it is capable of and compare the score with another system. Reviewers commonly use benchmarks to score the hardware and overall systems. But that’s usually done on Microsoft windows… (different driver for linux might mean a different score)
So this leaves us with the following problem: The benchmarking scene for Linux isn’t as diverse, and backed by development as it is on Windows. Without great drivers and benchmarks support for linux, we will have to wait a bit before we can effectively compare the Steambox solutions out there.
What do you think? Is SteamOS aiming at a bright future or will it fail to convince?
Or even, how many free HDMI inputs do you have left on your TV?