Sat. Jan 28th, 2023
Specifications at a glance: The Ars Technica Dual-boot Test Rig
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) and SteamOS 2.0 4.1.0-0 (on separate drives)
Processor Intel Pentium G3220 (Haswell), dual core, 3.0 GHz
GPU Zotac Geforce GTX660 (2GB) with GeForce Game Ready driver v. 358.91
RAM 8GB DDR3-1600
Motherboard MSI H81I (mini ITX)
Storage Western Digital WD Blue 7200rpm 500GB HD x 2
Sound On-board
Network Onboard (wired Gigabit Ethernet)
PSU Antec VP-450, 450W
Case BitFenix ​​​​Prodigy, arctic white

Ever since Valve started talking publicly about its own Linux-powered “Steam Boxes” about three years ago, we’ve wondered what effect a new gaming-focused operating system would have on overall PC gaming performance. On the one hand, Valve said in 2012 that it was able to achieve substantial performance improvements on an OpenGL-powered Linux port of Left 4 Dead 2. On the other hand, developers I spoke to earlier this year about SteamOS development mentioned that the state of the Linux drivers, OpenGL tools, and game engines often made it difficult to get Windows performance on SteamOS, especially if a game was built with DirectX in mind in the first place.

With the official launch this week of Valve’s Linux-based Steam Machine line (for non-pre-orders), we decided to see if the new operating system could meet the established Windows standard when running games on the same hardware . Unfortunately for open source gaming supporters, it seems that SteamOS gaming has taken a significant performance hit on a number of benchmarks.

To begin our tests, we dragged out the dual-boot SteamOS/Windows machine we first built nearly two years ago (when creating our own dual-boot guide) and updated all operating systems and drivers. The hardware on that bare machine is a bit dated now, but since that hardware remains static for both sides of the test, it should suffice to give an idea of ​​relative performance between the operating systems.

Once everything was set up, we ran the machine through Geekbench 3 (which, unlike many other benchmark tools we’ve considered, actually has a Linux version). The results show a clear lead for Windows 10, especially in terms of floating point operations. Still, SteamOS is in the same range in many other performance metrics.

However, generalized CPU benchmarks are only somewhat helpful in assessing actual GPU-powered gaming performance. To see how the OS change affected gaming, we looked for benchmarkable top titles that we could put through the comparative wringer on both systems. The only problem is that the most graphically intensive recent releases on Windows 10 are not available for testing on SteamOS. We’d like to see how games find it Fallout 4 or Call of Duty: Black Ops III run on SteamOS, but until and unless their developers come up with Linux ports, that will be impossible.

We ultimately settled on a couple of mid-to-late 2014 releases with SteamOS ports that suited our testing: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Metro: Last Light Redux. Both are relatively graphically intensive 3D games with built-in benchmarking tools and a variety of quality sliders to play with (including six handy presets in Shadow of Mordorcase). For all gaming benchmarks, we ran each test at least three times and took the average number to ensure the results were reliable.

Any way you slice it, running these two high-end titles on SteamOS comes with a hefty frame rate hit; we got anywhere from 21 to 58 percent fewer frames per second, depending on graphics settings. Runs on our hardware Shadow of Mordor at Ultra settings and HD resolution, only the operating system change was the difference between a playable average of 34.5 fps on Windows and a stuttering mess of 14.6 fps on SteamOS.

While these are two AAA games ported to Linux by respected publishers, it’s possible that the developers simply weren’t able to get the best performance out of the lesser-known OpenGL and Linux environment. We thought Valve’s own games wouldn’t have this problem; if anyone could get the most performance out of their Linux ports, it should be the company behind SteamOS itself.

Unfortunately, Valve’s own Source engine games took the same performance hit when compared to their Windows versions. Portal, Team Fortress 2and DOTA 2 all had massive frame rate dips on SteamOS compared to their Windows counterparts; only Left 4 Dead 2 showed similar performance between the two operating systems (although there’s no sign of those SteamOS frame rate improvements Valve touted years ago).

In any case, since the Source Engine games we tested were on the older side, the frame rate wasn’t the difference between “playable” and “unplayable,” even at maximum settings. For games like this, which don’t push the upper limits of our hardware, most gamers wouldn’t even notice the difference between the frame rates listed here. Still, it’s not a good sign that Valve’s own porting efforts generally couldn’t get comparable Windows-level performance out of a SteamOS version.

Of course, testing six games on a single hardware setup is far from extensive. Games built from the ground up with OpenGL and Linux in mind might be able to beat their Windows counterparts; similar benchmarking by Phoronix showed Unbuntu 15.04 to surpass Windows 10 at open source Earthquake clone OpenArena, for instance. Newer graphics hardware may be better suited to take advantage of advanced OpenGL features, though that new hardware is at least as likely to draw more power from Windows’ prevailing DirectX standards. Upcoming games that support Microsoft’s DirectX 12 and/or OpenGL’s Vulkan standard could also significantly change the performance equation.

That said, at this point it seems that choosing SteamOS over a Windows box means sacrificing a significant amount of performance for many (if not most) graphically intensive 3D games. That’s a pretty hefty cost considering Alienware sells its console-style Windows-powered Alpha boxes at prices that are only $50 more expensive than SteamOS machines with identical gear. Not to mention that Steam on Windows currently has thousands of games that are not on SteamOS, including most recent AAA releases, while SteamOS has no similar exclusive games to recommend it over Windows.

Hopefully, Valve and other Linux developers can continue to improve SteamOS performance to the point where high-end games can be expected to run at least comparably between Linux and Windows. Until then, though, it’s hard to recommend a SteamOS box to anyone looking to get the best graphics performance out of their PC hardware.

By akfire1

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