My Review/Response to Steam Machines and SteamOS

My Review/Response to Steam Machines and SteamOS

14 minute read

Ubuntu Facts

Why read my review?

I’m coming from a position a lot of reviewers aren’t in, I know a lot more than those reviewers know about not only Linux, but software as well. I have an Assoc. in Computer and Network Security, and I’m working on my B.S. in Information Assurance, which is another way of saying Computer and Network Security. So I have security behind my belt, with that comes some computer science, yeah I can load a program into gdb and debug. I know how to setup and maintain: Linux (Fedora, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Debian, Kali, Backtrack, CentOS and LOTS of others), Windows (XP-10, server 2003-2012 R2), FreeBSD, as well as Mac. I can program in C++, VB.NET and C#. I can script in Python, PowerShell, Perl, batch, bash, JavaScript and some HTML. So I’m not an elite pro, but I’m also not some normal reviewer giving their opinion, don’t worry, I’ll keep the technical details to a minimum.

My Steam Machine:

I run both Windows and SteamOS so that I can try the machine out and see how it compares if it were a Windows Steam Machine. I have two hard drives with SteamOS on one drive and Windows (highly customized for a console like experience) on the other. It has:

CPU: i5
Not beefy specs, but literally runs ALL of my SteamOS/Windows games perfectly fine. I also have a gaming desktop that dual-boots Windows 10 and Fedora 22. As well as an Xbox One.

**Whenever I say Linux I’m referring to GNU/Linux unless stated otherwise.

What is a Steam Machine?

Steam Machine, previously known as Steam Box prior to reveal, is a line of pre-built gaming computers that began being manufactured and distributed by a number of vendors using a range of different design specifications outlined by Valve Corporation.

Ubuntu Facts

Should this be considered a console?

Well, it depends on what your definition of a console is. If you want to use the definition of what a console is then it’s a console. These Steam Machines are designed for the sole purpose of playing video games, which differs from a home computer (or PC). Yes, these things are running Linux; however, that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered a console. The Dreamcast is one example, the Dreamcast ran Windows CE… yeah it is modified to run for a console but FYI so is SteamOS, they modified things down to the kernel, and even pushed changes upstream to Debian. Another reason is Linux isn’t just for home computers, it’s used for LOTS of things: server, embedded devices, supercomputers (96% of them), the Large Hadron Collider, the International Space Station, cars, and lots of other things (if you’re a Windows fanboy and think then why would I want such a general piece of software running my console you know nothing about software or fail to realize that’s exactly what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 10). Steam Machines are also geared towards a controller, I mean these Steam Machines (to the best of my knowledge) come with a Steam Controller, and the UI… I mean, it’s designed for a controller, yeah you can use a keyboard and mouse… but it’s better with a controller. Finally, yeah, it has a desktop that you can turn on… but that’s IF you go into the settings and turn it on, other than that it’s not accessible to you; if that makes it no longer a console, even though it still fits in the definition because the desktop is NOT it’s main focus, then the PS3 can’t be considered a console since you CAN run a desktop on the older versions of the console, or the Xbox One since it’s running Windows 10 with 2 other OS’s.

Ubuntu Facts

But I don’t like the Steam Controller!

I’m not saying I don’t because I haven’t even used it, I’ saying this for the people that don’t like the controller. That’s not a reason to not like it… you can use an Xbox controller—both Xbox One and 360. You can use a PlayStation controller, however, not all game developers design their game to support it… so you might have a reason there.

Ubuntu Facts

The price and/or specs varies too much!

Hmm, well, I can see your concern here, that’s a problem and I feel Valve should have really controlled the Steam Machine specs and price more because it could be confusing to new comers. You also have to keep in mind if that was a huge problem then PC gaming wouldn’t be as big as it is now… yeah, Valve has 75 million users, that’s more than Xbox and PlayStation. So it’s a problem, but could be fixed by Valve just picking a Steam Machine and just pushing that. If you think that won’t work because OEM’s will become upset and drop it then you haven’t seen Steam Machines advertising because they already do that with the Alienware Steam Machine, also Microsoft’s OEM’s would stop since they make Surface Books and Surface Pros and Google’s would stop because they make Nexus phones. I don’t like where it’s at, but it’s not that big of a problem.

Ubuntu Facts

SteamOS game performance?

You shouldn’t worry about this right now, this OS is still not officially released yet and there’s a lot being done to bring it to the level of Windows. Vulkan is one way, it’s going to be released soon and will give the performance boost SteamOS needs to compete, as long as game devs use it, it’s the same for DX12, it’ll increase performance if devs use it… FYI they’ll be able to use both. As a matter of fact Vulkan was designed to allow you to port from DX12 to Vulkan easily. Driver updates are also brining these games to the performance they need to be at. If you’re not convinced there’s benchmarks you can look at and you’ll see games performing really close to Windows and the OS, drivers and Vulkan isn’t even done yet, this of course depends on your specs:

Can’t I just run Windows on it to get more games?

Hhh, look, I’m guessing you saw someone post online about just installing Windows on your Steam Machine and doing it that way… let me be clear, it’s not going to be a good experience. I’ve tried this since Steam Big Picture Mode (BPM) came out, and it sucks. It takes longer to get to the BPM because Windows has to boot up, you have to wait for auto login, there’s updates running in the background (and if you don’t have updates running then you’re asking for trouble, you also don’t have a choice in 10), you have to wait for all those services to start up (and I’m not talking about the desktop since I replace the shell). You have to customize the hell out of your Windows setup, I had to: turn off UAC (to prevent prompts UAC prompts when installing software the first time), turn off the firewall or add exceptions for games that need/want Internet access, replace the shell in the registry, setup auto login, configure power options to prevent sleeping and power button action and lots of other things to streamline your experience, I did a lot of group policy editing like preventing dialog boxes when plugin in new devices. Then what about error boxes, when you get one you have to plugin a keyboard/mouse to close it, in SteamOS you can press the home button and it’ll bring up the Steam interface and let me close it. If you don’t have a mouse plugged in Windows games will crash more often, I plugged up a wireless mouse dongle because games like South Park crashed because it didn’t see a mouse, after plugging in the dongle it worked fine. Running Windows on a Steam Machine is just not a good experience, and not what Valve can control.

Why didn’t Valve just use Windows?

You should have read what I said before… now think of the hoops they’d have to jump through if they needed to modify the kernel… that would be a nightmare, and I don’t even know if Microsoft would makes the changes they would need since it would be competing against their console. They did this to have control, it’s not that hard to modify the Linux kernel, there’s lots of groups/companies that do this. If they have to prompt you to install DirectX can you imagine the licensing nightmare to license different parts of their OS??? It would have more support for a lot more games, but getting OS updates out would be slow and painful, Linux updates (Linux and GNU/Linux) are faster than Windows updates and they can test it before pushing it out.

This is a picture of an error you could get if you're using Windows as your Steam Machine, then you'd need to plugin a keyboard/mouse to click close. In SteamOS IF you got an error like this, I've never had an error while launching a game, if it didn't work it would just go back to the Steam interface, you could just press the home button and the Steam interface would come up and you could just close the game.

Ubuntu Facts

Are there any games?

Yeah, why do people even ask this question when they can easily look on Valves website. There’s more games for SteamOS than there are for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Now, that’s also misunderstood. If you look at the games that run on SteamOS/Linux you’ll see it’s 1,581 (as of 20151031), however, only 508 of those have full controller support, meaning you can play the entire game with just a controller. Now that’s not to say those are the only ones with controller support, some have partial support (meaning some parts need a keyboard/mouse) and some aren’t advertising (like Dead Island even though you can play with a controller). So yeah, at least 509 games are playable like a console. One game I REALLY want that’s confirmed for SteamOS is the new rollercoaster Tycoon, yeah you can play it with a controller. It’s not the usually game I play, but I loved those games when I was a kid, except 3, they took away a lot of the management.

Who is this for?

If you really have to ask you don’t have much of an imagination and/or open mind, and it might not be for you. The purpose, at least from my viewpoint, is for people to have the openness, freedom and power of PC gaming in their living room. Yeah you can drag your gaming PC into your living room, but that’s the purpose of a console, so you don’t have to. You can play your games at 1080p 60fps or 4k if you get a beefy Steam Machine. This is for someone that has tons of PC games and wants to play in their living room with dedicated hardware. If you’re looking for a console, but don’t want to pay for online access. Don’t want to ship your console back to Sony or Microsoft if something breaks, you can either fix it or have someone else since it’s off the shelf parts. If you want a desktop. If you want features Steam has that the consoles don’t. If you want to pay a lower average price for games. There’s lots of reasons, but if you’re not interested you’re free to pick whatever you want, but you’ll miss the freedom of doing whatever you want on a Steam Machine ;-).

Should I even take the reviews serious?

No, if it’s about SteamOS then NO. SteamOS is still in beta, it’s not even officially released yet. They’re still updating it, they even moved to a new kernel (4.1) a week ago. They’re also updating and optimizing the UI, if you look at reviews they’re running a slower UI, the UI is a lot faster and fluid now. November 10th is the release date, and that’s enough time for Valve to release some good changes. If you don’t think so then you obviously haven’t seen how often they update the Steam client, they also could be sitting on big updates. The way the SteamOS is setup allows them to update the UI fast and update the OS slower since the UI is separated from the OS in a way they could EASILY update the UI/client and push driver, kernel and base OS updates slower.

What about AMD?

Any review that complains about AMD you should just ignore for now, AMD has plans to release a big driver update in November, Vulkan will also be released soon to also help with AMD. Just don’t worry about it until after a Steam Machine with AMD is released, or AMD releases their update. But right now AMD isn’t as good as the Nvidia drivers, or AMD drivers on Windows.

What about multimedia?

Yeah, there’s pretty much no official multimedia support. Now, there’s some movies you can get, but it’s through Valve and there’s not that many. There’s no YouTube, Netflix, Twitch (although there’s Steam Streaming where you can watch and stream your games), Hulu or any other apps like that. You can go to some of these sites like Netflix through the built-in browser, but it’s not the same as an app. They said there would be support for those services, but we haven’t seen anything yet. You can install Kodi or Plex, but you need to add a repo to do that in desktop mode and install that through the terminal… something non-Linux people will know how to do. Even though you just copy and paste the commands in.

This isn’t all sunshine and unicorns, there’s problems, like the lack of more AAA games that the consoles have and Windows has, but the thing is you can’t have those AAA games without giving the platform a chance. The good thing is you don’t need to buy a Steam Machine, you could make one yourself, you just download the ISO from Valve’s website and it’s literally the easiest thing to install, if you can install: Windows, Mac OSX or ANY Linux distro then you can more easily install this, it’s literally boot the ISO and press the enter key. You can then try out SteamOS (Steam Machine experience) without having to invest the money. This of course needs to be a newer machine or you’re not going to be able to play any games. We need to wait until the OS is done and the machines are officially released. Will I get one or use SteamOS? Depends on if they give multimedia apps, games are announced and I have 54 games that work, but I also want to watch Hulu on it with an easy to use app.

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