There’s no need to wait for companies to start selling pre-built Steam Machines when you can put SteamOS on your PC today!
The mission If you’re a PC gamer, you probably noticed that Valve Software and Microsoft aren’t BFFs these days. Valve uses its own Steam software client to deliver thousands of games to PC gamers around the world, and it is probably concerned that at some point Microsoft is going to want a piece of the action, just like how Apple takes a percentage for each sale via iTunes. Valve is apparently so concerned with the direction it thinks Microsoft is headed that it’s gone to the trouble of building an entirely new operating system just for its Steam client, and dubbed it SteamOS.
It’s a free Linux distribution, and it’s designed to run on pre-built Steam Machines, which are console-size and due this year. However, it will run on any current PC, so we figured we’d take it for a spin this month to see how it feels. We did it because, aside from the joy of tinkering, SteamOS runs a surprisingly large number of games, and one day it will be able to stream games to your TV from a computer. To satisfy our curiosity, we decided to install the SteamOS on a DIY machine we had in the Lab.
We were not among the 300 lucky SOBs who scored a Steam Machine direct from Valve for beta testing, so we installed SteamOS on a machine we created previously. SteamOS only runs on Nvidia video cards at press time, though, so we swapped the system’s AMD Radeon R9 290X for a GeForce GTX 780.
Since this PC Builder article is focused on software rather than hardware, we’ll skip the usual components chart and just give you a quick rundown right here. Our box has an Intel Core-i7-4770K, 16GB of DDR3 RAM, a gold-rated 550W Seasonic power supply with modular cables, and a 256GB SSD and 1TB WD Black hard drive. SteamOS requires a motherboard that uses UEFI and a 64-bit CPU. Valve recommends at least 4GB of RAM and 500GB of storage space. Some familiarity with Linux is also helpful, but it’s not required.
To install SteamOS, we’ll also need a 4GB USB flash drive. And this is very important: Just like with Windows, whatever drive you install SteamOS to will be formatted during the install, so if you are looking to dual-boot you will want to keep that OS on a different partition or drive altogether. In fact, we recommend disconnecting the device with Windows on it while installing SteamOS, just to be safe.
Also, the build of SteamOS that we used does not have a complete audio package. The only way to get sound is over an HDMI cable, either to a receiver or a flat-panel display with integrated speakers.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to building your very own Steam machine:
We show you how it’s done.
Step 1: Downloading the package
Download the 950MB installer package from Valve’s servers at repo.steampowered.com/download. There are torrents floating around, but none are officially approved. The SteamOS installer download is a ZIP file instead of the ISO that you’d usually use to install an operating system. You can create an ISO from this package and burn it to disc, but a lot of people (including ourselves) experience difficulty doing this, so we instead extracted the files to a USB key. Be sure to back up any important data on your flash drive, because you’ll need to format it as FAT32 for the installation (most USB keys default to this file type during formatting). Just open Windows Explorer, right-click your flash drive’s icon, select Format, make sure the file system is set to FAT32, and click the button labeled Start. When the installer is done downloading, extract it to the USB stick.
Step 2: Extraction begins
Windows has built-in ZIP file extraction these days, so you can just double-click on the freshly downloaded file to view its contents, hit Ctrl-A to select everything, Ctrl-C to copy it all, then double-click your flash drive in Windows Explorer, and press Ctrl-V to begin the transfer. It’s a large file, so that could take 15 minutes to half an hour, depending on the speed of your CPU and whether you’re using USB 3.0 or 2.0. While the files are being extracted and copied over, we recommend digging up your motherboard manual or looking online to find out which button to press on boot to access a Boot Selection menu so that you can boot from the USB key. It’s usually F12, but varies by mobo. Also, we recommend installing Steam to a mechanical hard drive as SSD optimization in Linux can get complicated if you’re not familiar with the OS. If you want to take a stab at it though, here’s the official guide: https://wiki.debian.org/SSDOptimization.
Step 3: Begin the install
The actual installation of SteamOS is pretty easy, since it’s almost entirely automated. Just shut down your system, detach your Windows drive, plug in the USB key with SteamOS on it, start your PC again, and press your motherboard’s preferred key for accessing the boot menu. This should list your flash drive with a UEFI tag at the front. Choose that, select ‘Automated Install’ from the next menu, and go grab a bite to eat because it will take about 30 minutes to install on a mechanical hard drive.
Step 4: Get to know Linux
While the OS is installing we’d recommend taking some time to check out some basic Linux commands and concepts, if you’re not already familiar with them. SteamOS is a variant of Debian (version 7, code-name Wheezy), so Googling the latter will give you info on the former. SteamOS also uses the Gnome Shell for its desktop environment, and that comes with a set of keyboard shortcuts that are handy to have at your fingertips. The makers of Gnome keep a Gnome Shell cheat sheet here. Most of them will be familiar to Windows veterans.
Step 5: You have arrived
Once SteamOS has installed, it will prompt you to reboot your PC. At the login screen, the user name is steam, and the password is steam. You can change this later. Note the drop-down menu right below the password field. Selecting SteamOS will launch you directly into Steam’s Big Picture mode, which uses an interface designed for living room TVs set about 10 feet away from the user. Default Xsession will give you the Gnome Shell desktop instead. We’re not sure if this menu will even be accessible once SteamOS is out of its beta phase, but you should take a look at Gnome, now that it’s actually on your computer. The first order of business is to finish the install, via the command-line terminal. Select Activities in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, choose Applications, and click Terminal. Type su desktop, use desktop as your password, type ./post_logon.sh, and hit the Y key to confirm a series of automated steps. You can also open the terminal by pressing Alt-F2, typing gnome-terminal and hitting Enter. Alt-F2 is basically like Windows’s Run dialog.
Step 6: Opening the valve
Once the post-install script has completed, reboot the system, and you will be launched directly into Steam’s Big Picture mode. To get back to the desktop, click the Exit button and select ‘Return to Desktop’. The screen will go dark for a few seconds, and you’ll be back in the Gnome Shell. There will be an icon on the desktop that you can click to return to Big Picture mode. At this stage, you may need to re-create your account password to correctly establish admin privileges. In a terminal window, type passwd desktop, and type in whatever new password you desire. That will allow you to use sudo commands, which temporarily give you administrator privileges for things like installing software or accessing system-wide settings.
Step 7: Hissing noises
You may have issues getting audio to work. At press time, there was a bug that muted several outputs, and the built-in audio panel did not display those outputs. As a work-around, we had to manually install a third-party panel that shows everything. ALSA Mixer is one such program, but we want the one specifically built for Debian. To get that, go to desktop mode, open the Applications menu, select Iceweasel, and go to: packages.debian.org/wheezy/alsa-utils. Scroll down to the bottom, click AMD64, and choose your download location. Once that’s finished, open the terminal and type cd Downloads. Then type sudo dpkg -i alsa-utils_1.0.25-4_amd64.deb. Now type alsamixer in the terminal to bring up the new audio panel. Use the F6 key to cycle through your available audio outputs. Arrow keys cycle through each audio channel, and M toggles the mute. If that doesn’t work, you should be able to get audio over HDMI, either through TV speakers or a home theater receiver.
Know your way around SteamOS
Click image to enlarge
Getting on the steam train
Once we had SteamOS up and running, the first order of business was seeing what applications were available in the package and from the repositories, or ‘repos’. Unfortunately, it’s pretty bare-bones. There’s no word processor, image editor, email client, or media player, for example.
With Debian, this is usually not a big deal, since it has literally thousands of packages in its repos that are just a few clicks away from installation. But SteamOS doesn’t point to Debian’s servers, and there’s no way to force it to. And they’re two different distributions anyway, so you could get hit with incompatibilities and errors even if you could. Therefore, SteamOS, or at least this version of it, does not look like it’s meant to replace Windows. It’s a stripped-down gaming platform. You can always install packages on your own, or build from source, but that’s not nearly as much fun.
With nearly 100 of our 289 Steam games compatible with Linux, however, including nearly all of Valve’s titles (though Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a prominent exception), it’s a pretty good gaming platform. Metro: Last Light is also getting bundled with retail Steam Machines, and a quick scan of our personal library also included popular titles like Starbound, Bastion, Mark of the Ninja, Fez, Football Manager 2014, and Monaco. DOTA 2, one of the most popular games in the world, will also be available on SteamOS. Unfortunately for AMD users, SteamOS uses Nvidia’s proprietary drivers, so you can’t run an AMD GPU at this time.
We also dual-booted with Windows, which was simple since our test bench had Windows installed on the SSD and SteamOS on the hard drive. We just selected our boot device during startup and were back in Windows-ville. You can also go into the board’s BIOS and tell it to boot to a specific drive every time, instead of manually selecting from the boot menu. It’s not as clean as getting the Linux boot loader to just see Windows and add it to its own boot menu, but it’s close enough for our needs.
Overall, we’re not sure at this time if running SteamOS is worth the effort, since you can get Steam for Ubuntu and other Linux distros, where you’ll get access to repos and the ability to dual-boot. It’s fun to play with though, so if you have a spare drive and some time you should check it out. If you’re on Windows though, don’t worry — you’re not missing anything… yet.