Gaming Linux

What Is SteamOS? How to Start Gaming on Linux

Christian Cawley Updated 26-06-2020

Since 2013 the Steam gaming platform’s developer Valve has maintained its own Linux-based operating system: SteamOS.

Advertisement

Originally intended for a range of now-abandoned “Steam Machine”-branded hardware, this Linux gaming OS can be installed on any computer.

But is SteamOS any good for Linux gaming? Can you rely solely on SteamOS for gaming, or should you dual boot with Windows? Let’s take a look.

What Is SteamOS?

SteamOS is a Debian family build of Linux that is optimized for video games.

SteamOS runs PC games on Linux

It is installed on standard PC hardware and provides a console-like experience via the Steam game client. For a console like experience, Big Picture mode is recommended.

Advertisement

More specifically, SteamOS features a tweaked kernel that is designed to improve gaming performance. The latest graphics drivers are supported, but SteamOS features little in the way of additional applications. While it has the GNOME desktop and a version of the Chrome browser, little else is included.

After all, this is an OS that is all about gaming. While ChromeOS is dedicated to cloud computing, SteamOS is dedicated to gaming.

SteamOS Hardware Requirements

As of June 2020, the minimum hardware requirements for running SteamOS on your PC are:

  • Intel or AMD 64-bit capable processor
  • 4GB or more memory
  • 250GB or larger disk
  • NVIDIA, Intel, or AMD graphics card
  • USB port or DVD drive for installation

Of course, for games with the full graphical and FPS settings, you’ll need more RAM and a top-of-the-range GPU The Best Graphics Cards for Any Budget Finding a high-performance budget GPU can be tough. We've rounded up some of the best graphics cards for any budget. Read More .

Advertisement

Significantly, however, most currently available PCs are more than suitable for running SteamOS. Whether you choose an old device or a brand-new PC, most of the Linux-compatible Steam library can run.

Note that while the operating system is open source, the Steam client and some of the third-party drivers are proprietary. If you’ve gamed on Linux before, you’ll understand that this isn’t unusual. But if you’re an open source advocate, it might not be the ideal solution for you.

What Games Run on SteamOS?

Top PC games run on SteamOS

A decent selection of Steam-hosted games run on SteamOS—too many to list here. In June 2020 over 6,500 Linux-compatible games were available in the Steam library.

Advertisement

That’s an impressive library of titles that includes big hitters including Civilization 6, Saints Row IV, Rocket League, CS: GO, and Dota 2. Independent publishers also release games on Linux, resulting in the most diverse and vibrant games and community.

Meanwhile, around 250,000 people using Linux for Steam gaming daily. That figure is of course lower than the total number of Linux users with Steam installed.

In short, Steam is the future of Linux gaming, and SteamOS plugs you directly into that environment.

Does SteamOS Have Any Limitations?

SteamOS, while good, has some limitations.

Advertisement

For a start, there is the obvious flaw: not all games are available with Linux. While SteamOS has resulted in Linux compatibility increasing dramatically and indie games often support Linux, many major publishers ignore it.

It’s getting much better than it was, however. Often, games are released initially on Windows and macOS, then support is added for Linux down the line.

Another SteamOS drawback is that the operating system is geared up just for gaming. While additional software can be added via Apt, you’ll be waiting for a lot of dependencies to also install. If standard computing is required, SteamOS is best avoided in favor of a normal Linux desktop. You can still install the Steam client if needed.

Install SteamOS on Your PC

If you fancy installing SteamOS you’ll need a 4GB USB stick or black DVD to write the installer to.

Download: SteamOS (Free)

The simplest option is the Automated Installation—this will wipe your hard disk drive, however. For dual booting, use the Expert Install option to create a new disk partition for installing SteamOS.

Basically, installing SteamOS is as simple as installing any version of Linux What's the Easiest Way to Install Linux on Your Computer? Switching from Windows or macOS to Linux is easier than you think! These easy installation methods get you started in minutes. Read More .

What Is Gaming Like on SteamOS?

So, SteamOS is a Debian-based operating system with the Steam client preinstalled.

There’s not much to say about the Steam client itself that you probably don’t already know. It’s the same Linux client, which is largely identical to the one on Windows and macOS. It has all the same features, including In-home Streaming. There’s nothing you’re missing out on by using SteamOS.

Gaming performance, too, is indistinguishable. Whether RPG, FPS, or strategy, Linux is up to the task. Hardly a surprise from a performance point of view, but it’s impressive how Steam handles Linux. In addition, achievements and other unlockables are also supported.

Breaking it down, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. SteamOS doesn’t include much more than the Steam client, leaving considerable system resources that can be dedicated to each game. Any differences in performance between Windows and Linux are minimal. Ultimately, if you’re getting equal frame rates, it’s tough to tell the difference anyway.

Controller support is good too, with pretty much any controller you can think of supported. While the best results are probably Xbox One or PS4 style controllers, the Steam Controller is worth using. However, as these are increasingly rare, a standard console controller is your best option.

Gaming on Linux? You Need SteamOS!

If you plan to use Linux primarily for gaming, SteamOS is the best option around. It’s lightweight, has good GPU support, and the list of compatible games is increasing all the time.

Used alone it can handle most of the games you’ll want to play. Further, since 2018 Steam Play has been added to the Steam client. This features a modified version of Wine and is intended to persuade incompatible games to run on Steam.

Any games that refuse to run will require close attention under PlayOnLinux/Wine, or installation in a virtual machine. Both options result in poorer performance on newer titles, however.

But what you really want to know is this: can SteamOS replace Windows?

Well, if you’re all about PC gaming and the games you like have Linux support, then yes. But you might want to dual boot and use Windows for productivity or as a non-Linux gaming alternative.

If you’re a fan of online gaming you’ll probably use a chat solution to easily stay in touch with your fellow gamers. Find the best game chat tool in our comparison of Discord vs. Steam Chat Discord vs. Steam Chat: Which Is the Best App for Gamers? Not sure between Discord and Steam Chat? Here's everything you need to know about online messaging for gamers. Read More .

Related topics: Linux Gaming, Steam, SteamOS.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. ishy
    June 28, 2017 at 7:50 am

    beep beep lettuce

  2. 9mm
    December 16, 2016 at 8:03 am

    I just built a computer for steamos. It's the only computer I own, and I game for almost 100 hours a week. They got at least one dedicated steamos gamer.

  3. Lex
    October 12, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Thanks for the reply earlier. I do have an update in regards to SteamOS and the Steam binary in general. Valve Software is finally listening to me on their Github page and that I've reiterated what the problems are when in big picture mode when you first start SteamOS in multiuser mode and boots into Big Picture Mode itself. They've acknowledge a big oversight in regards to not being able to access the browser before you log in (it's one of those, "duh" moments).

    The other things I've touched base on is their claims for bringing things to bleeding edge, which in essence is actually not true. If they were using the Xorg server of 1.18.x or 1.19.x which AMD doesn't support for the vast majority of their products, only the very high end have support on that version. Only the R9 series and above are currently supported by the restricted drivers called AMDGPU-PRO. The AMD Project Crimson aka AMD Crimson with Catalyst drivers aren't compatible as of right now with the anything beyond Xorg server version 1.17.3 which presents a serious problem, it's about the graphics stacks. OpenGL in Mesa 11.x and 12.x only have up to OpenGL 4.3 core profiles, not compatibility profiles (compatibility = full version and core = basic function calls). Technically, while SteamOS is running in beta with Debian, they're not fully bleeding edge. Which in everyone's case is damn good because so many people use AMD GP-GPUs and would be SOL for the most part. However, to Nvidia's and Intel's credit they're making good on their promises, let alone commitments to give open and close source driver variants to work great. As they install on the newer kernels and are compatible with the bleeding edge X servers.

    The other thing I've addressed is the lack of Live media support and the goofy Gnome 2 desktop clone, it's Gnome but then again it's not , looks and acts like it but when you go to extend the desktop, it's different underneath.

    I've offered at one point to clean up the driver trees, the desktop, give people a big choice of desktops and/or window managers they want to use among many other features. I've also offered to make a spin of SteamOS with a custom loading screen and start as live media, like what Ubuntu does. It's one of those things where a consumer version should be stuff the DVD in the drive or insert the pen drive, set the system to boot said media and go, no installing, just try it out, if they like it, then install with write behind caching turned on (which it's not right now, slows down the drive access, takes longer to install, let alone configure) and various other performance options should be set to keep people happy.

    Valve is still up in the air with the idea of me doing a spin, changing a bunch of stuff but I'd be doing this with the best intentions for the end user in mind but still give ample support to Valve Software to focus more on their problems in the binary end. I've asked them to consider writing their Steam code, the application, as neutral as possible, so that someone who retrieves their archive could use it on what ever distribution of Linux they wanted, like Arch Linux for example, without tripping and stumbling ever time there's an update. If they did this, they wouldn't be stuck with Debian, they could move around. If they went with the most recent POSIX standards, they could compile in 32 and 64 bit libraries and applications for generic Linux as well as the BSD and Minix 3 variants. There is a lot of stuff that could be changed and it would look great for people in the open source community. Once that big change is set into motion and finished, they'd be happy with the result as would countless other users.

    I have a grand total of 602 issues with SteamOS and the binary within, the application known as Steam, 580 of them I could fix if I get the go ahead and obtain all the permissions from said parties. The rest of the problems need to be addressed by the company internally.

  4. Topher Newski
    October 11, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    honestly I really would LOVE to have either a partition in one of my (>2TB) big drives or even use my external 3TB and load whatever Linux Distro it is..Ubuntu I think...and then STEAM OS on top of it and keep it as a contained single-purpose arrangement. Just makes more sense to me. I run Oracle VM software inside my machine for pentesting and it is all kept isolated (for obvious reasons) but with how big and unwieldy my STEAM files have become, and continue to grow with new games and freakin' constant updates (and impulse buys)..all that data back and forth and back and forth...only makes sense to keep them segregated and run a virtual STEAM Machine.

    To me anyway...

    This wouldn't be the first time I was completely off, though. I also really like Linux and the idea of NOT HAVING TO HAVE F&*(ING MICROSOFT.....OR APPLE for that matter. Linux and the spirit that drives all its distro's are where I am finding my comfort zone and what a lot of my studies are based on anyway now, so....YAY Linux! I hope this is the event that finally forces them to be considered by game devs. Since the large development companies are putting out nothing but incomplete, buggy, rushed CRAP nowadays anyway( yes EA and Ubi and the others..I mean YOU)...having a lot of indie titles is a good thing....

  5. Lex
    June 2, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    The real problem of what I think the author of this article is referring to is the fact that; worth it to download and install SteamOS (based on Debian Jessie) and maybe get a SteamBox which is a computer that has it pre-installed. At this time, the amount of titles available for system (SteamOS) isn't worth it (yet).

    I say this on June 2nd, 2016. They have a long way to go on the amount of games available on SteamOS, I mean run natively without massive bugs causing the system to hang or do something bad to the system. Granted, yes, GNU/Linux based system are more safe than say Microsoft Windows but it doesn't mean they're completely safe from programmers that don't know what they're doing on a Linux based platform.

    It's been a long time coming for people in Linux to enjoy AAA or better titles on their computers. As the standards and engines solidify more in Linux, I can see this getting much better, more great titles including high end independent productions hitting Ubuntu and Debian. As of right now, that's up in the air, they've got a long way to go before they're hitting their prime. I'd say maybe 8 or 9 years. I know that's really conservative but coding of libraries and solidifying standards takes time, even if it's in the F.O.S.S. or F.L.O.S.S. arena. Not everyone is going to agree on set standards and will cause trouble for others.

    I've been using and programming kernel modules, applications and libraries for the Linux kernel, let alone the surrounding distributions since 1993. GNU/Linux has come a long way, as has the distros that use this kernel. It's just going to take time, a lot of time. Valve Software is also a non-traditional company, where the internal structure is a tad bit weird to traditionalists such as myself and the rest of the software industry. That is their greatest strength but also their greatest weakness. People pick and choose what they want to work on, they're not forced to do code maintenance or to make sure gamers are heard, that everything is being mulled over to make sure it makes sense.

    Doing bug and pull requests, well, they're not as reactive as you'd think for SteamOS on their GitHub page. This presents a bit of a problem!

    This is why I say that SteamOS isn't worth it at this time. Also, I mentioned something that is ultra important that they never considered, let alone fixed. If you don't have another computer with another OS or Linux installed on it (not SteamOS) and you don't have a smartphone. You will have trouble activating your system. You can't get at the browser to open up your E-Mail to input the security code. The only way you can get at the web browser and Internet is to enter the code. This is what is known as, "head up the ass" logic. This is the very reason not to use SteamOS until they make the web browser and Internet connection (configuration, too) available to you, so you can open a browser to read the E-Mail and get the code. Not everyone uses a smartphone, Valve Software needs to realize this.

    • Topher Newski
      October 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

      ". If you don't have another computer with another OS or Linux installed on it (not SteamOS) and you don't have a smartphone. You will have trouble activating your system. You can't get at the browser to open up your E-Mail to input the security code. The only way you can get at the web browser and Internet is to enter the code. This is what is known as, "head up the ass" logic. " - Lex

      I hadn't even thought of that. It IS H.U.T.A.L ..... good call. OK...well let's help them to try and get a rectal/cranial inversion and not have GLARING oversights like that by participating in the beta. Only way I know how to help them fight their terrible case of the HUTAL's.

      Good call dude.

  6. Dave
    February 26, 2016 at 9:29 am

    The release of the Steam Machine with steamos, was a big mistake. Anyone buying this will find themselves installing windows 10, in place of the steamos. Why make cars, if there are no roads to drive on. The Alpha version is worth the buy, because it plays all games and it would cost far more to purchase a gaming laptop with its specs.

    • Nik
      April 3, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      Windows 10 is not that great for older computers that run windows 7 good.

      • Topher Newski
        October 11, 2016 at 2:23 pm

        Windows 10 a nightmare for several machines I had converted and they aren't even that old. I turned EVERYTHING back to 7 until I am convinced I won't have to go through that FUBAR again.

  7. david
    January 20, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    complete waste of time making a linux-based system. 2% market share vs ( HUGE library of existing PC games + massive PC game development community ).

    time would be much better spent tweaking PC hardware & software so it works better in the living room, imo. persuading game manufacturers to create PC games that can be used via a console-like interface from 10 feet away (as well as from close up), stuff like that

  8. Kamen
    November 15, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    What for a "review", considering you did not even bother with test data on some real games.

  9. Randolph
    April 1, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    The SteamOS is nice and clean. There isn't much on it to start off with. Installing applications isn't hard to do after you do the first few items. The Steam repo is getting bigger so it is making it easier to do stuff fresh out of the box.

    Linux can use xbox AND ps4 controllers. So that isnt something windoes has a 1up on.

    I have the SteamOS on my laptop.

  10. Wind10
    December 20, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Why do you need an OS for gaming? Unless I'm defining it wrong...is it not just like the PlayStation and Xbox interfaces?

    • Dev
      January 13, 2015 at 4:48 am

      Absolutely not. Unless you mean like a ps4 having a freebsd os, then thats where it sort of falls to. However they are both locked down tight whereas Steam OS you are free to do as you please.

    • Dev
      January 13, 2015 at 4:53 am

      And to answer about that, an OS is an OS. Whether you know it or not, consoles have an OS in order to allow you to do things like your everyday computer. For instance, browsing, streaming, screenshots, watching netflix, all that good stuff.

  11. Lisa O
    June 21, 2014 at 4:25 am

    I don't know. I think it's better for me to run the latest Mint and install Steam client on it. Dedicating a box to exclusively run this sounds a bit much, and it doesn't offer much advantages from what I'm seeing.

  12. KT
    June 17, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    I'm really rooting for this o.s. to take off, but I'm not seeing enough to try it yet. I still have a Doze 7 pc for most gaming and I have a Linux o.s. on my workhorse pc with Wine and Play on Linux for additional gaming. I figured they would have added Wine and Play on Linux to the o.s. kernal and tweaked it. I want nothing more than to live in Doze free house. Guess I'll have to wait a bit longer.

  13. Fuze
    June 17, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    I rather run Windows 8 with my Xbox One controller than to go through trouble with Linux.