Gaming Linux

Is SteamOS a Good Choice for a Gaming System?

Danny Stieben 17-06-2014

Several months back, Valve released SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system that is intended for Steam Machines Feel Like Living Dangerously? Then Try Out The New Valve Steam OS Valve has just released their Linux-based gaming operating system for anyone with a spare hard-drive, an NVIDIA graphics card, and nerves of pure steel. Step forward Linux commandos! Read More but can also be installed on any computer. Now that it’s received a few updates, it’s a good time to see whether SteamOS is a good choice for a gaming operating system. Can you rely solely on SteamOS with good performance, or should you still keep that dual-boot with Windows? Let’s take a look.


What Makes Up SteamOS?

SteamOS is a Linux distribution based on Debian 7, and also includes some additional patches that tweak the kernel to improve gaming performance and bring the graphics drivers up to bleeding edge status. Besides this, it runs Gnome as the desktop environment GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop Read More and comes with a few additional applications, but other than that its sole purpose is to be an optimal environment to run the Steam client on (similar in idea to ChromeOS). So ultimately, SteamOS has the same limitations as any other Linux distribution running Steam has. But what exactly does that imply?


For starters, not all games on Steam are compatible with Linux. In fact, the majority of them still aren’t. Of course, since the arrival of Steam on Linux, Linux compatibility has increased dramatically so that now a large portion of new games offer Linux support. Usually, indie games have Linux support while major titles rarely do. If you love getting the big-hit games via Steam, you’re going to have a bad time.

At the time of this writing, there are approximately 1,300 games available that work with Linux. In other words, this is the same number of games that works in SteamOS. Not a bad number, but when you look at what that list consists of, you won’t see very many big hits — some, but not many. There are still far more games available for Windows that will never see Linux support, even though Valve is pushing Linux and SteamOS like crazy.


There’s not much I can really say about the Steam client itself that you already don’t know. It’s the same Linux client, which is pretty much identical to the one on Windows. It has all of the same features, including Big Picture mode. There’s nothing you’re missing out here by using SteamOS.

Gaming performance, however, is very good. I tested out Dota 2, a League of Legends competitor What Is Dota 2 & Why Should You Care? In the world of games, Valve Corporation has recently grown into one of the largest and most consistent game publishers (with the skyrocketing success of their Steam distribution network) and game developers (with the international... Read More , Oil Rush, a naval strategy game Oil Rush: A Fun, Cross Platform Strategy Game With Amazing Graphics Ever since Steam has been made available for Linux, there's been a number of great titles added (and plenty of reasons to use it!), including a relatively undiscovered gem called Oil Rush. Read More , and Surgeon Simulator, a fun and quirky surgery “simulation” Surgeon Simulator 2013: One of the Hardest Yet Funniest Simulators Sophistication is often a term thought of whenever you talk about well-made simulators, but sophistication may not be what you think of when you play Surgeon Simulator 2013. Read More , and they all worked just as expected. In its current state, performance can surpass that of Windows, as the above chart depicts. However, it won’t have this advantage in all games, but it shows that the potential is there nonetheless.

Considering how lightweight Linux is to begin with and the fact that SteamOS doesn’t include many extras in addition to the Steam client, you’re looking at a lot of system resources that can be used entirely by the games you’re playing. I do have to admit that games work very well under Linux. There aren’t any issues that aren’t in the Windows version of the same game, and the performance difference is usually quite minimal. As long as you’re getting more than 60 fps with either operating system, it’ll be hard to tell the difference.

Hardware support is pretty good, but not perfect. If you want to use a joystick or other game controller, you might have a slightly harder time. I personally never had good luck with getting them to work. Maybe I just didn’t get the configuration right or wasn’t using a controller that’s known to work with Linux. Additionally, support for controllers also has to be built into the game you’re wanting to play, although there are methods of translating actions performed on a game controller into keystrokes.


You can download SteamOS by visiting this page and choosing the download you’d like to use. For most people, you’ll want to download the custom installation (unless you have a 1TB hard drive you’d like to wipe completely) and follow the instructions which is to unzip the zip folder you download onto a USB flash drive and boot it from the BIOS.

For convenience, you can also pick up a prebuilt ISO image, but these aren’t official so you won’t get using the latest and greatest by using this.


So is SteamOS a good choice for a gaming operating system? Sort of.

First, you’ll need to like Steam as it’s all about it (obviously), otherwise you’ll be better off with a regular Linux distribution.

Second, it’s completely fine from a technical standpoint, and it’ll only improve over time. There may be a few missing features (for example, AMD doesn’t have Mantle support on Linux), but performance is about the same, and will improve in the future.

And third, there simply aren’t as many games available for it as there are for Windows. This is probably going to be the biggest issue with using SteamOS for quite a while, until Linux adoption really improves to where it’ll be the new norm for all three operating systems to be supported. Unless you find that a lot of games that you’re interested in have Linux support, you might still want to keep Windows around — either as your primary operating system or a secondary one simply to be used for gaming.

Looking for an easy way to stay in touch with your fellow gamers? Take a look at 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 .

Image Credit: Phoronix

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  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 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.