SteamOS, Valve’s living room PC gaming operating system, is basically just a new Linux distribution. It’s based on Debian and provides easy access to a standard Linux desktop complete with a package manager.

Google’s Chrome OS is based on Linux but can’t run Linux desktop applications without enabling developer mode. Valve’s SteamOS is much closer to the traditional Linux desktop Linux geeks have used for years.

We don’t recommend attempting to install SteamOS just yet. Valve is offering an early alpha build with fairly narrow hardware requirements and an installation process that hasn’t yet been streamlined.

An Introduction to SteamOS

If you haven’t been keeping track, SteamOS is Valve’s attempt at creating a Linux-based PC gaming operating system. It’s designed to run on Steam Boxes, which are PCs for the living room. Steam Boxes (or “Steam Machines”) and SteamOS are designed to compete with traditional living room consoles like Xboxes, PlayStations, and Wiis. They bring a PC gaming experience to the living room.

SteamOS is based on Linux, so games that run on SteamOS will also run on Steam for Linux. SteamOS will be available to everyone for free, so you’ll be able to download yourself and install it on your existing hardware if you like. You can hack away at the system and modify the software, just as you can on a traditional Linux distribution.

This project is Valve’s attempt at dragging the PC gaming ecosystem away from Microsoft Windows, giving it a chance in the living room. Building up Linux will give the entire PC gaming industry an escape hatch if Microsoft locks down a future version of Windows completely and removes the desktop.

Big-Picture, TV Interface

You shouldn’t be scared of SteamOS if you’ve never used Linux before. For normal gamers, SteamOS will come preinstalled on Steambox hardware that it’s optimized for. Just plug it in, connect it to your TV, and it should just work. The actual interface you’ll see is Steam’s TV-optimized “Big Picture Mode,” optimized for controlling with a game controller.

You’ll be free to install SteamOS on any hardware you like, of course. Big Picture Mode also functions on Windows, Mac, and other Linux desktops, so you can use any system running Steam as a TV-connected set-top box.

Based on Debian Wheezy, Not Ubuntu

Valve recommends Ubuntu to users who want to install Steam on Linux, but SteamOS itself is based on Debian Wheezy. Valve answers the question “Why is SteamOS built on Debian and not Ubuntu”?” on their SteamOS FAQ page:

“Building on top of the Debian core is the best way for Valve to deliver a fully custom SteamOS experience to our customers.”

This doesn’t answer the question completely. If we had to guess, we’d say that Debian is slower-moving and a more stable base to build on. Ubuntu updates more frequently and is pursuing controversial system changes such as Mir, its own display server to replace Xorg. The rest of the Linux ecosystem seems to have standardized on Wayland, so Ubuntu is going it alone and developing its own graphical display system in-house.

SteamOS is so close to Debian that its installer is just a customized version of the Debian installer. It even includes the “Iceweasel” web browser, which is Mozilla Firefox with the branding removed, on its desktop.

Standard GNOME Linux Desktop

Underneath the hood is a standard GNOME 3 Linux desktop, complete with GNOME Shell. To access it, all you have to do is open the Steam settings screen, locate the Interface menu, and activate the “Enable access to the Linux desktop” option. You can then select the Return to Desktop option to switch to the SteamOS desktop. The Return to Steam icon will switch you back to Steam’s TV-optimized interface.

Uses APT For Updates and Software Installation

RELATED: How Software Installation & Package Managers Work On Linux

SteamOS uses the APT package manager, which was developed by Debian and is also used by Ubuntu. Valve operates its own software repositories and SteamOS automatically updates its system packages from them.

SteamOS comes with only Valve’s own repositories configured, but you also have the ability to add other package repositories. The SteamOS community could create their own repositories to make additional Linux desktop software available.

In the future, Valve says they plan to make more packages available directly from the SteamOS software repositories. Currently, many Debian Wheezy packages should be compatible.

32-Bit Repositories Available

SteamOS has fairly stringent hardware requirements at the moment. It requires a 64-bit CPU and UEFI firmware, not a traditional BIOS. However, we expect to see Valve expand hardware compatibility. Valve operates 32-bit software repositories for SteamOS as well, so a 32-bit version should eventually be in the cards. This will make SteamOS more compatible with existing, older hardware.

Games Should Run Fine on Other Linux Distros

If there was any doubt — and there shouldn’t have been, given what Valve had been saying — this close relationship with desktop Linux demonstrates that games for SteamOS will definitely run on Steam for Linux. SteamOS and Steam for Linux are basically the same thing. This means that Steam’s Linux game selection should improve dramatically. If SteamOS is successful, desktop Linux will become a powerful PC gaming platform.

As Valve tells game developers on the SteamOS FAQ page:

“All Steam applications execute using the Steam Runtime which is a fixed binary-compatibility layer for Linux applications. This enables any application to run on any Linux distribution that supports the Steam Runtime without recompiling.”

Open, Hackable Platform

For some reason, some people were spreading rumors that SteamOS would be “locked down” to Valve’s own software. We now know for sure that it’s not at all locked down. It’s easy to enable access to the traditional Linux desktop or even the Linux terminal, adding software repositories and using traditional Linux desktop software if you like. All typical Linux desktop programs and terminal software should run on SteamOS.

Game developers could even distribute games from outside the Steam store to SteamOS users. They’d just have to switch to the desktop to install and launch it from there.

The lower-level parts of the system will even be customizable for Linux geeks and everyone else who wants to try. Gaining root access to SteamOS is simple and doesn’t involve any hacks.

SteamOS For Desktops and Laptops?

When SteamOS stabilizes more, it’s not hard to imagine some Steam fans or Linux geeks will install it on their desktops or laptops and use it as their main operating system. Why not? There are already people who use Debian, Ubuntu, or other Linux distributions on their PCs. With access to a full Linux desktop, a SteamOS system could be as useful as typical Linux desktops.

The full desktop could also give Valve a path towards growing SteamOS into other form factors. For example, if SteamOS were to take off, Valve could start selling a few gaming laptops with their operating system in a few years. They already have an entire desktop system in place. Steam even has a built-in desktop application store, although it’s fairly underused.

Whatever the future holds for SteamOS, it’ll be interesting to watch. The year of Linux on the desktop on the TV is just about here.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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