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SteamOS beta impressions: Well, Valve did warn you to wait

Hayden Dingman | Dec. 20, 2013
Valve released a public beta of its new SteamOS operating system last week, but it's not going to replace your Windows installation anytime soon.

Game streaming is probably the standout feature of SteamOS, and the one that raises the most questions. How well will it run? Will the lag render games unplayable? Are people really going to run two computers at the same time, just to sit on their couch?

And thus its absence is also very noticeable. You're stuck running a sparse selection of Linux-native games. What's more, Steam doesn't filter your Linux-compatible games by default. It teases you with glimpses of all the cool games you own, and then when you click one to install, it says, "Not available." You have to filter your library manually to show only Linux games.

So what did make into the beta?
With no family sharing, no game streaming, and only Steam's shallow Linux catalog to work with, what actually made it into this SteamOS beta?

Very little, to be honest. SteamOS basically runs two separate instances at once: Steam Mode and Desktop Mode. After you've completed the entire installation and the system boots for the first time, you're launched immediately into Steam Big Picture Mode. This is the primary interface in SteamOS.

Yes, this means you can get approximately 85 percent of the current SteamOS experience by opening up Steam on your actual PC and clicking the "Big Picture" button in the upper-right corner. Seriously.

The other 15 percent? Dig into the SteamOS settings menu, under Interface, and you'll find a box labeled Enable access to the Linux desktop. Do so, and you can then "exit" Steam Big Picture Mode and access a generic Debian desktop--though it's clearly a secondary focus for the game-oriented OS.

Unfortunately, If you have hundreds of games, as I do, scrolling through the interminable list of Windows Metro-esque tiles in Big Picture Mode with a mouse and keyboard is a major pain--especially compared to the simple text list in the "normal" Steam interface.

Worse still, the entire interface has a noticeable amount of lag when swapping among the Store, Library, and Community panes, and when switching from Desktop to Steam and back. While a bit of stuttering isn't surprising in beta software, it's one more reason to hold off from performing your own installation.

With SteamOS centered around Big Picture Mode, it's clear that Valve's aim is to take over couches and living rooms. Navigating Big Picture Mode with a controller isn't faster than using a mouse and keyboard on a normal Steam interface, but if this is actually going to be your primary living room machine, then it's at least serviceable. In fact, while SteamOS won't let you use your AMD graphics card yet, it does provide immediate support for Xbox 360 controllers.


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