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SteamOS review

Michael Passingham
15 Dec 2015
Our Rating 

It's free, but poor performance, UI problems and a lack of games mean it's a false economy

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Specifications

OS Support: N/A, Minimum CPU: Intel or AMD 64-bit processor, Minimum GPU: Nvidia or AMD Radeon 8500 or later , Minimum RAM: 4GB, Hard disk space: 200GB

Valve's grab for the living room centres around Linux. The free, open-source operating system got its first Steam client in 2012, and since then a smattering of games have been re-worked for it. SteamOS is a natural evolution, the company’s big push to distance both Steam and PC Gaming in general from Windows, and begin to control both its software, and hardware with Steam Machines.

SteamOS runs on a modified version of Linux, although you can experience it from inside Windows by activating Big Picture Mode within the Steam client; the two are functionally identical. The Big Picture overlay pops up over games whenever you hit a predefined combination of buttons. It has plenty of settings to change and if you're using the Steam Controller, you can customise it from here.

Read our Steam Controller review

Valve doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to designing a friendly user interface, and SteamOS is just as difficult to navigate as early versions of the desktop client. As soon as you venture beyond the home screen, you find yourself in a myriad of menus that really don't fit together properly. Menus and windows slide from the right but other windows pop-up from the bottom. It's a mish-mash of confusing visual signals and you never really have a clue where you are relative to the safety of the home menu, which makes navigating SteamOS a pretty uncomfortable experience.

When you consider Valve is trying to get SteamOS into the living room, the firm's failure to include any streaming apps like Netflix and YouTube is questionable at best. Any set-top box worth its salt will have a selection of smart TV services, but they're nowhere to be found here. The only way to access this sort of content is via the built-in web browser, which is hardly ideal when you're just using a controller. Even with the Steam Controller's excellent touchpads, the web browser will never supplement proper, TV-optimised apps. What's more, Netflix wouldn’t play at all using the built-in browser due to missing codecs.

^ The onscreen keyboard is great with the Steam Controller, but the browser is not

Naturally, SteamOS works natively with Valve’s own Steam Controller, but it's also compatible with other game controllers, but the traditional mouse and keyboard combination is still best if you want to exit SteamOS and navigate the Linux desktop instead, installing XBMC to supplement the lack of media capabilities and ability to play DVDs, or install a web browser that supports Netflix. In the end, though, you're creating workaround to problems that shouldn't really exist.

^The options menu in SteamOS doesn't go particularly in-depth

SteamOS also lets you stream games from another PC in your house running Steam. This is by far the strongest part of the operating system: install it on a super-cheap PC under your TV and you can use it to stream games from a more powerful desktop system in another room. In-home streaming means your gaming PC is doing all the work and simply sending a video of what's on screen to your SteamOS computer. Your SteamOS machine then sends back your controller inputs to remotely control your gaming PC. How well this works will depend on your home network and whether you're on a wired or wireless connection, but this is by far the most economical way to get gaming performance into the living room without buying another high-performance PC.

In-home streaming also gets around SteamOS's other huge weakness: there are over 7,000 titles on Steam for Windows, but only around 1700 available for Linux. This means the big, AAA titles you want to play immediately will either be delayed, or simply won't ever be available. There’s no Fallout 4 or Grand Theft Auto 5, suggesting Valve has a long way to go to convince developers SteamOS is worth the effort.

There are also performance problems. The Dirt Showdown benchmark scores on SteamOS make for grim reading, with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 managing just 70fps, compared to 120fps on an identical Windows machine under the same conditions.

Its best feature? SteamOS is completely free. With its many drawbacks, though, this is quite obviously a false economy on most PCs. The only place it makes sense to use SteamOS is on a super-cheap, compact PC, using it as a game streaming device. But if you're going to do that, you might as well buy the £80 Steam Link, which allows you to stream games in exactly the same way as SteamOS. If you're building a high-end media centre PC, splash out the extra £80 and buy a copy of Windows. SteamOS is not ready for the prime time.

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