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Hands on: SteamOS beta review

Is Valve's early-days living room interface worth a download?

What is a hands on review? What is a hands on review?

Our Early Verdict

Beta or not, SteamOS needs a lot of work, namely the installation process. But it's clear that Valve is onto something.

For

  • It just about works
  • Easy interface
  • Open-source and free
  • Tons of potential

Against

  • Installation is a nightmare
  • Not enough games
  • Streaming requires Windows

Update: We've included new developments surrounding SteamOS to our hands on review, including its expanded hardware support, new apps and functionality, and Steam Machines' unfortunate delay. Check out Page 2 and Page 3 for more! Additionally, we've penned an article on why we think Valve's Steam Machine dream is very alive - read on for our thoughts.

Just a decade ago, Seattle-based Valve software was best-known for creating the first-person shooter Half-Life series. At the time we were eagerly awaiting the next installment of Gordon Freeman's sci-fi adventures in Half-Life 2.

But Valve's side project, the Steam games distribution platform, was gently bubbling away as faster internet connections and more capacious hard drives meant that we could do away with physical media.

Today we're in much the same boat. Anyone who has ever so much as handled a controller is waiting for the Half-Life 3 announcement. Steam has gone from being a controversial and slightly annoying way of getting games to the PC gamer's title hub of choice. Bubbling away in the background this time is SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system which forms a big part of the company's plan to infiltrate the living room gaming space.

Last week, 300 lucky US Steam users received their Steam Machines – prototype small-form-factor PCs capable of running SteamOS. At the same time the company released a public beta of the operating system, so anyone who fancied building their own Steam Machine could give it a go.

Steam Box

Well, almost anyone: "Unless you're an intrepid Linux hacker already, we're going to recommend that you wait until later in 2014 to try it out," Valve said.

It could change everything. Not only does it threaten Microsoft's dominance of PC gaming, which appears to have slipped a little with Windows 8, but it could finally push the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation out of that lucrative little gap beneath your television. Tiny media PCs that you can strap to the back of your plasma TV are a growing market, but they lack a coherent operating system, especially since Microsoft dropped Windows Media Center in Windows 8.

Default installation

SteamOS, then, promises to sit somewhere between Windows gaming and console usability. It's built around Steam's Big Picture mode, which is designed for large screens and controller-based interaction. A custom Debian Linux distribution sits behind the whole thing, which means it's capable of web browsing and running programs as well as its gaming raison d'etre. As you'd expect from a Linux-based operating system, it's completely free and totally open-source.

Steam

It's a win-win situation for Valve, too. Even if SteamOS completely fails, its coffers will be lined for eternity with the estimated billions Valve makes from the Steam platform alone. But curiosity got the better of us, and we just had to try out SteamOS for ourselves to see how Valve is shaping the future of gaming.

Valve's Steam Machine dream is still alive

2014 was a quiet year for Steam Machines. Interest waned across the board after Valve announced in May that systems would be delayed until 2015, leading many to write them off as the PS4 and Xbox One saw price cuts and picked up further traction.

However, with Valve gearing up to launch an army of Steam Machines at the GDC 2015 conference in March, and positive signs from developers who are more frequently porting or releasing triple-A titles to SteamOS, we argue that Valve's Steam Machine dream is still very much alive.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.