Things used to be simple. Unless you were a graphics designer or something to do with media, buying a computer meant buying a Windows PC.
Now, the world is abandoning the desktop and with it new platforms like iOS and Android are flourishing, while Microsoft flounders. Why then, in the post-PC world, is a company synonymous with PC gaming bringing out its own operating system for explicitly old-school PC hardware?
Because that's exactly what Valve Software is doing with SteamOS, released as a public beta last Friday. And although it defies logic, it makes perfect sense.
BUILDING UP STEAM
Steam has been the most incredible story for Valve. It first appeared with Half-Life 2 way back in 2004, and on its arrival was met with a barrage of criticism.
Skip forward nine years, and Steam is now the darling of PC gamers. Valve doesn't release sales figures for the digital distribution platform, but it's the shop of choice for most. Rock solid performance and a penchant for supporting and promoting independent developers on the same footing as major publishers have won over all but the most die-hard of sceptics.
As far as Valve is concerned, we don't need Windows any more. For some time, it's been encouraging developers to code for the open source operating system, GNU/Linux, and has had a version of Steam available for the popular Linux distribution (distro) Ubuntu since late last year.
Now, the final stages of its plan are in place. SteamOS is Valve's own operating system, designed primarily for PC manufacturers and home-brew hackers who want a simple, cheap PC in front of their TV instead of an expensive and restricted games console.
At heart, it's a minimalist installation of Linux designed simply to run the same Steam client that already exists, but exclusively in the Big Picture mode designed for a TV screen rather than a computer monitor. Install SteamOS, and you have immediate access to all the Linux-compatible games already on Steam.
GETTING STARTED WITH STEAMOS
Installing SteamOS right now is a bit of a pain, but only in terms of system requirements. You need a fairly modern PC which supports UEFI booting, a hard drive you're prepared to wipe and an Nvidia graphics card. If you have all those things, all you need to do is download the installation files and boot up. If you don't, well, there are some unsupported workarounds but they're not exactly straightforward or necessarily reliable.
You can even get it running in a virtual machine like VirtualBox, but that's not for the faint-hearted.
We tested SteamOS on a PC with:
Core i7 3930K processor
Nvidia 670GTX Graphics
What is impressive, however, is that if you stick to Valve's recommended system specs SteamOS is boringly reliable. It literally boots directly to the Steam client to download and play games.
There is a traditional desktop mode, using GNOME, but while most Linux distros come with word processors, email clients, video and photo editing tools built-in, SteamOS is barren of such things by default. Adding them isn't hard, since SteamOS is based on Debian and so any software repository designed for Debian should work in Steam, but Valve has always been clear that SteamOS is not intended to be a Windows replacement.
If you want Linux and Steam on a desktop PC or a laptop, install Ubuntu and grab Steam from the built-in app store – it'll be a much better experience.
SteamOS isn't strictly single purpose, though. It's more like a very high-end smart TV, the old Linux media centre standby, XMBC, or the Boxee set-top box. There's a browser in the Big Screen interface already, which is fine for web services, and apps for services like Netflix are likely as development picks up.
The really good news is that there are well over a hundred Linux games available on Steam now, including relatively well-known names like Metro, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, X, Football Manager and the newly released space MMO Entropy (alongside Valve's own titles Half-Life 2, Team Fortress, Left4Dead and Portal). They'll run just as well in a different distro as they will under Steam OS. There are performance improvements hard coded into SteamOS which aren't in other distros, but for the most part they're well hidden and unlikely to be noticed given that you can only use it on a well-specced PC anyway.
UNDERWHELMING, IN A GOOD WAY
All of which is a long way round of saying that SteamOS is a bit underwhelming, really. And that that's a good thing. The first appearance of this massively anticipated, much wanted operating system is stable, reliable and only as good as the currently superlative gaming distribution platform – which is a let down to those who somehow wanted more.
Why would you want a Steam Box instead of an Xbox One or PlayStation 4? Mainly because it means the platform no longer matters – you can buy a game on Windows, Mac or Linux and so long as it's available on all three platforms, you can install and play it on your desktop, laptop or console.
That's the same game, with the same saves and the same multiplayer features and community. And you only pay once, and because there are no licensing fees, you usually pay less than a traditional console game too. And while there may be a worry about how many games are actually available on Linux and thus Steam Box, you can 'stream' games from a Windows PC running Steam to a console running SteamOS over your home network – although that's a feature that's not available in this early release yet.
STEAMOS: INITIAL VERDICT
Should you download SteamOS? Maybe – but in most cases you'll be better off running Steam on your existing Windows, Mac or Linux desktop.
Keep an eye on it, though. With PC manufacturers already starting to sell computers with SteamOS pre-installed and a community of gamers begging for its release, this is going to be the most serious challenge to the Sony/Microsoft duopoly for games for many years. Poor, poor Nintendo.