I don’t believe that SteamOS is a good fit for PC gamers

orc linux declaration

Up to now,  I’ve been a big supporter of Steam on Linux and all of the initiatives that it has been engaging in to bring Linux gaming up to the standard we’ve all been clamouring for, for years now (at least, those of us geeks who realise that Windows isn’t as great as you’d imagine). Valve’s recent reveals of their Steam hardware, the Steam Machines and the final design of the Steam controller is the fruit that has been borne from their efforts in these past years to give gamers an option aside from Windows. But, I’d like to remind you all, dear NAGlings and readers, that SteamOS isn’t here for the benefit of the Linux community. In fact, it doesn’t even benefit you generally either – its only for Valve’s benefit and the way they’ve structured SteamOS and its development is staggered towards Valve’s services. Don’t believe me?

This is SteamOS

steamOS overlay

SteamOS is presented to the user in the same way as Big Picture mode on the desktop. Big Picture is not only a really nice 10-foot user interface, its also the same interface design that’s shared with Windows, Mac OS X and the Linux Steam client. It works in the same way across all platforms and the functionality is exactly the same on all platforms. There’s very little to disctinctly tell if you’re on one operating system or the other on the surface.

And that’s something that Valve wanted in the first place, obviously. Steam is now a platform for a lot of things – game development software, mod tools for the Steam Workshop, games, DLC, even music and movies are on the cards in the near future. All of this points to Steam being the platform for sales of Valve’s stuff and the delivery system for content that other people sell on the store. They want to be the main delivery system for all gaming-related activity and SteamPlay also fits into this as well – buy one copy, play it on any system you want. However, their attitude thus far has been that they know they can’t do it all, hence their delaying of SteamOS until both Valve and their partners were ready for a proper release.

But, you don’t directly benefit from running SteamOS. In fact, I wouldn’t even recommend installing it on your gaming rig. Why? Because, well, this is the SteamOS desktop without the client overlay:

steamos desktop

If you’ve ever used Debian (a distribution of Linux), you’ll be quite familiar with the interface you see here. But that’s really all there is to the Linux desktop. It has shortcuts to the Bug Reporter, Home, Trash, Computer and Steam. There are no pre-installed applications otherwise that you’d see in a traditional Linux distribution. There’s no Libre Office. Brasero isn’t there. FireFox is there, but has been forked into a version called Iceweasel (this is intentionally done by Debian engineers to avoid trademark violations). There’s no music player. Simply put, SteamOS is made purely for gaming and that’s all that Valve will ever support on it.

SteamOS is just a console-like OS for a machine that is made to act like a console. In their most recent appearance at DebConf 2014, the conference for Debian Programmers and Engineers held in Portland, Oregon, Valve’s John Vert discussed how they approached the development of SteamOS, their methods of tooling developers with access to services on the OS and how they approached packaging applications and working with Debian engineers to make things work better. Check it out:

You can watch through the video above to get the whole picture, but I’ll quote just one section from Vert’s Q&A session after the speech that summarises what Valve intends for SteamOS (25:58).

“I know people have tried to install, you know… Libre Office on their SteamOS machines. Do spreadsheets from their couch, I guess. And again, that’s something that, right now, we don’t think that’s going to be a thing. Maybe the community will do some stuff in that area and will pick up and adopt it… I’m not saying we’ll never do it, its just not super-high on our priority list to make this a productivity experience, as well as a gaming experience.”

That’s really it. In other parts of the speech and in other question, Vert reveals that they’re not focusing on supporting old hardware, and they’re not focused on supporting huge variations of configurations. Though a lot of hardware support is baked into the Linux kernel already, there are things that Valve won’t be making use of. In addition, while they will send up recommendations, bug fixes and possible improvements upstream to Debian’s engineers, those changes won’t necessarily be seen in other distributions based on Debian. SteamOS only runs, at most, two applications at the same time – the client overlay and the game currently being played. The other stuff is cruft that Valve simply doesn’t look at.

Its actually SO simply set out that the user profiles you set up on SteamOS are only for the client overlays and access to the games on the system. No matter what user you’re signed into on the system, everyone shares the same desktop, has the same access to the same files on the system, and also has access to each other’s history in Iceweasel. Its not a desktop operating system, it is effectively a console environment for gaming only.

What does this mean for Steam Machines?

011 Zotac Steam Machine

Well, they are PCs disguised as consoles. That’s it. Steam Machines have little use beyond gaming and that’s apparent because every Steam Machine only ships with Valve’s controller. There won’t be a keyboard and mouse in the box and likely nothing in SteamOS’s setup process to tell you that you can hook those peripherals up. The salesman will definitely tell you that, but its otherwise not a point being driven home by Valve. They just don’t feel that desktop PC gamers should be using SteamOS as their man OS.

And you know, that’s perfectly fine. While Valve will continue to make SteamOS better and will make certain parts of Debian Stable a better experience for all, it will also equally contribute to the Linux community in other ways. They’ve already announced that the Vulkan API, developed by Khronos to replace OpenGL, will be integrated into, and supported by, the Source 2 engine. If Valve’s engineers ever figure out how to stick to a particular audio API and make it work perfectly every time (YAY! No-one will have to argue over the merits of PuleAudio vs ALSA), that may eventually replace the smattering of options the OSS community has now.

Valve, like Red Hat and Canonical, are big enough and have enough clout in the industry to help form standardised methods of doing things so that developers have a set of best practices to go on. Linus Torvals famously has only a simple rule for developers: Don’t break the user space.  No other company has tried to bring up Linux gaming in the same way that Valve does today and that benefits anyone considering ditching Windows, but wanting to retain some entertainment options.

steam on linux
And that’s why this is a thing.


For my future System Builders Guides, I will mention that running some form of Linux instead of Windows purely for gaming AND productivity is totally acceptable now. The drivers will be current, the three major GPU vendors (Intel, AMD, Nvidia) will be working with Valve to improve their graphics performance, there is hardware support for most things, its a virus-free platform for the moment and it is much more secure than a Windows desktop by default (although patched Windows is a strong platform in its own right). But I won’t be advocating using SteamOS as the main system OS because it just won’t work properly for most people. I would also urge that boutique system builders like Evetech tell their customers who buy a machine with SteamOS that it won’t be a workable desktop environment. Give them Ubuntu or Linux Mint instead, the Steam client and all of the games currently available work on there as well.

And finally, if you’re running a different flavour of Linux like Arch, Fedora, or Mandriva, well… Valve’s not officially supporting you just yet. Their OS is based on Debian, so they’ll recommend Debian-based distributions. They use the APT package manager, so other package managers won’t be as fun to run. Any optimisations that they do for Debian might not work for you. That’s just the way the cookie crumbled and its not a bad thing by any means – it just means that Valve targeted the distribution which had the most user-friendly distributions associated with it to get the project off the ground.

Would Steam on Linux be as much a piece of cake to get up and running on Arch? No, not really.

Let me know what you think of the SteamOS developments in the comments below and also mention if you’d like to see future coverage on a Linux user experience from a gamer’s perspective. I’ll certainly be up to the challenge of running something like Mint instead of Windows 10 if that’s what people would like to see.