Valve didn't give itself an easy job when it publicly announced its decision, over two years ago now , to bring the PC gaming experience to the living room TV. Plenty of companies have tried, and most never even got off the ground ( see the Infinium Phantom for just one high-profile failure). But Valve is perhaps better positioned for success than any past effort, with a deep understanding of the PC gaming market and a deeply entrenched, market-leading distribution platform in Steam.
Now after a few delays and a soft launch for the OS , Valve is poised to officially launch its run at console gaming. Steam hardware will ship to pre-orderers this week and to others (including select retailers like GameStop) on November 10. It’s a multi-pronged effort that includes a lot of moving parts: the SteamOS operating system; the partner-produced “Steam Machine” hardware designed to run that OS out of the box; the Valve-produced Steam Link box that allows for basic in-home streaming; and the Steam Controller meant to make it all controllable from a keyboard-and-mouse-free couch.
We’ve been putting that entire ecosystem through its paces for a few days now, and while some of those pieces work better than others, all have some trouble living up to the promise of a seamless, hassle-free, PC-on-a-TV-console experience. It’s early, and Valve’s attack on the living room is far from a vaporware failure, but it’s not a shock-and-awe knockout blitz either.
SteamOS: Familiar in a Big Picture sense
SteamOS itself does a good job of hiding its Linux roots, and we mean that in the best possible way. There are no command lines to struggle with or repos to download or drivers to configure when you first load up a SteamOS system. Instead, Steam's own front end guides you through a painless setup process that's not unlike that of the console competition. If you didn't know any better, you might not even be aware that the Steam Machine is an actual computer with upgradeable hardware, direct access to the file system, and other such PC niceties.
Hacking the system
If you dig deep in the SteamOS menus, you can find a few somewhat-buried shortcuts that let you break out of the Big Picture shell and into the Linux guts of your Steam Machine. Amusingly, pre-built shortcuts like the Linux calculator app immediately crashed to a white screen when we launched them. Trying to launch the Xterm windowing system similarly generated some errors and kicked us out to a basic command line prompt. While utilities like a dictionary and file search tool launched directly, they weren't compatible with the on-screen keyboard that can be accessed from the Steam Controller (fun fact: we’re pretty sure Steam Machines are the first TV-based game consoles to launch with a built-in dictionary utility).
We suppose there are people out there who will want to tinker with the downloads and config files necessary to turn their Steam Machine into a full, TV-based Linux workstation. All in all, though, you're probably better off getting a vanilla Linux box for that purpose. We’d recommend treating SteamOS as a dumb console that happens to give an inordinate amount of low-level OS access, should you occasionally want or need it.
If you've used Steam's TV-focused Big Picture mode over the last three years , you know exactly how the interface for SteamOS works. If it's been a while since you launched in Big Picture, though, it's worth checking out how much a September overhaul has made the whole big-screen experience nicer to look at. Menus are characterized by huge, easy-to-read icons arranged in nice rows and columns, which slide aside as you bring up filtering menus or navigation (one big exception: text on the Controller Configuration screen was a bit small and hard to read at standard TV viewing distances). Everything can be easily navigated with a single analog stick and two buttons to confirm menu selections or go back.
Compared to the sometimes confused interfaces on other consoles, there are a lot of thoughtful design decisions in SteamOS. My favorite little touch is the subtle recommended games that greet you on the main menu and your first Library screen. These don't just tell you about games you might like to buy (based on your existing library), but they also suggest games that your Steam friends have been playing a lot and backlog titles that you own but haven't played yet. That’s useful information in a world where about 26 percent of purchased Steam games have never been played .
Otherwise, SteamOS gives you everything you would expect from Steam. You can purchase, download, and install games with just a few clicks and then play them from your library with a single button press. There's a community section that lets you see what your friends are doing on the service and allows you to watch live game broadcasts easily from the comfort of your couch. You can bring up a friends list and chat with them using your voice (assuming you've plugged in a USB microphone) or typing.
There's an obligatory TV Web browser that seems to be built on Chrome and works just fine for what it is. Sites like YouTube and Netflix load and play all right, but anything requiring Flash or a downloadable app didn't easily cooperate (meaning no easy way to play Spotify music during your SteamOS games).
Some just-out-of-beta kinks
It's all very smooth, overall, but there were a few sticking points that seemed a little rough compared to other game consoles. While the system hasn't frozen on us during a game yet, there have been a handful of times where the whole OS hung when we were closing or opening a title, requiring a system reboot that took 30 to 60 seconds. We ran into occasional problems with webpage scrolling, the on-screen keyboard, and Wi-Fi recognition as well, all of which disappeared with a reboot.
We also found a few SteamOS games that still include an intermediate “launcher” screen that asks players to confirm resolution and other settings. That’s only an annoyance because these screens can’t be navigated with the Steam Controller; you need to plug in a mouse and keyboard to get through to the actual game in these cases. While the SteamOS interface includes large warnings that these games require extra hardware, and Valve isn’t directly responsible for third-party developers’ unfriendly decisions, it still seems like an oversight to have such games be unplayable out of the box.
We also found it a bit odd that the Library screen defaults to showing every Steam game you own, including games that don’t run natively on SteamOS (you need to go through a menu and add a filter to get rid of the excess). While other Library titles can technically be played through in-home streaming (more on that in the Steam Link section below), these titles clog up your Library screen even if you don’t have a Windows PC to stream from (and despite a menu option that’s supposed to hide them in that case). While the Steam logo button on the Controller can be used to turn off the system, we had to actually get up and press the power button on the box itself to turn it back on (this might not be true of other manufacturers’ Steam Machines, for all we know).
None of these issues are unfixable, and we’re sure Valve will continue to refine the already competent SteamOS experience going forward. What will be harder to fix are issues of game selection that put the new OS well behind the accumulated momentum of Windows-based gaming.
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