Valve didn’t make it easy on itself when it publicly announced its decision, now more than two years ago, to bring the PC gaming experience to the living room TV. Many companies have tried, and most never even got off the ground (see the Infinium Phantom for just one high-profile failure). But Valve may be better positioned for success than any previous effort, with a deep understanding of the PC gaming market and a deep-rooted, market-leading distribution platform in Steam.
Now, after a few delays and a soft launch for the operating system, Valve is about to officially launch its run on 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 multifaceted effort that includes many moving parts: the SteamOS operating system; the partner-produced “Steam Machine” hardware designed to run that operating system out of the box; the Valve-produced Steam Link box that enables easy streaming in the home; and the Steam Controller intended to make it all controllable from a keyboard- and mouse-free couch.
We’ve been putting that whole ecosystem to the test for a few days now, and while some of those parts work better than others, they’re all struggling to deliver on the promise of a seamless, hassle-free, PC-on-a-TV console -experience. It’s early and Valve’s assault on the living room is far from a vaporware failure, but it’s not a shocking knockout either.
SteamOS: familiar in the sense of a bigger picture
SteamOS itself does a good job of hiding its Linux roots, and we mean that in the best way possible. There are no command lines to wrestle with or repos to download or drivers to configure when you first load up a SteamOS system. Instead, Steam’s own front-end walks you through a painless installation process similar to that of the console competition. If you didn’t know any better, you might not even know that the Steam Machine is a real computer with upgradeable hardware, direct file system access, and other such PC nicities.
If you’ve used Steam’s TV-centric Big Picture mode for the past three years, you know exactly how the interface works for SteamOS. However, if it’s been a while since you’ve launched in Big Picture, it’s worth looking at how much a September overhaul has made the whole big screen experience more enjoyable to watch. Menus are characterized by huge, easy-to-read icons arranged in neat rows and columns that slide out of the way when you open filter menus or navigation (one major exception: the text on the Controller Configuration screen was a bit small and hard to read on default TV viewing distances). Everything is easily navigated with a single analog stick and two buttons to confirm menu selections or go back.
Compared to the sometimes confusing 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. Not only do these tell you about games you might want to buy (based on your existing library), but they also suggest games your Steam friends have played a lot and backlog titles you own but haven’t played yet. That’s useful information in a world where about 26 percent of Steam games purchased have never been played.
Otherwise, SteamOS gives you everything you’d expect from Steam. You can buy, download and install games with just a few clicks and then play them from your library with the touch of a button. There’s a community section that lets you see what your friends are up to on the service and lets you watch live game broadcasts conveniently from the comfort of your couch. You can open a friends list and chat with them using your voice (assuming you have a USB microphone plugged in) or typing.
There’s an obligatory TV web browser that seems to be built on Chrome and works fine for what it is. Sites like YouTube and Netflix load and play fine, but anything that required Flash or a downloadable app didn’t work easily (which means it’s not an easy way to play Spotify music during your SteamOS games).
Some just-out-beta kinks
Overall it’s all very smooth, but there were a few bottlenecks that seemed a bit rough compared to other gaming consoles. While the system hasn’t frozen us up during a game yet, there have been a couple of times where the entire operating system crashed when we were closing or opening a title, requiring a system reboot, which took 30 to 60 seconds. We ran into intermittent issues with web page scrolling, the on-screen keyboard, and also Wi-Fi recognition, all of which disappeared after a reboot.
We also found some SteamOS games that still contain an intermediate “launcher” screen asking players to confirm resolution and other settings. That’s only annoying because these screens can’t be navigated with the Steam Controller; in these cases you need to connect a mouse and keyboard to get to the actual game. While the SteamOS interface carries big warnings that these games require additional hardware, and Valve isn’t directly responsible for unfriendly decisions by third-party developers, it still seems like a mistake to make such games unplayable out of the box.
We also found it a bit odd that the library screen shows all the Steam games you own by default, including games that don’t run natively on SteamOS (you have to go through a menu and add a filter to get rid of the excess). While other library titles are technically playable via 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 they in that case should hide). While the Steam logo button on the controller can be used to turn the system off, we actually had to get up and hit the power button on the box itself to turn it back on (this may not apply to the steam engines from other manufacturers, as far as we know).
None of these issues can be fixed and we’re sure Valve will continue to refine the already competent SteamOS experience going forward. What will be harder to fix are game selection issues that left the new OS far behind the accumulated momentum of Windows-based gaming.