Feature Article

How To Install SteamOS

sudo SteamOs

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With all the hype surrounding Steam Machines at this year's CES, it's easy to forget that purchasing a brand new system isn't the only way to check out Valve's vision for the future of PC gaming. The Linux-based operating system powering Steam Machines, SteamOS, is available to download free of charge directly from Valve. Given its beta status, only certain hardware is currently supported, and setting it up does involve a bit of Linux know-how. But with just a little work, it's relatively easy to build your own Steam Machine, or convert an existing Windows PC into one--you can even dual boot.

Currently, SteamOS only supports PCs with Intel processors and Nvidia, Intel, or AMD graphics cards. Laptops that feature both discreet and integrated graphics aren't currently supported. You'll also need at least a 500GB hard disk, and 4GB of RAM, but most PCs from the last few years will make the cut.

Our test rig is an Ivy Bridge Intel i5-powered PC, complete with 8GB of DDR3 1333Mhz RAM. We used two GPUs for testing, AMD's high-end R9 290 X and an older Nvidia GTX 670. It's not the highest spec PC out there (in terms of the processor at least), but for the purposes of comparing a performance across operating systems it'll work a treat. We're using two identical WD 1TB Caviar Green drives in the system: one with Windows 7 64 installed, and the other with SteamOS. This helps make dual booting between the two operating systems as painless as possible.

There are two versions of SteamOS available: one with less configuration required that restores an image of SteamOS to your PC, and another that runs through a standard OS setup. The restoration version requires that you have a 1TB hard drive fitted. If you're using a smaller drive like a fast SSD for example, you need to go through the standard setup, which is what we opted for here.

Installation

Once you've downloaded the installer from the Steam website, extract the contents of it to a USB stick. You'll need one around 2GB or more in size. Plug it into your PC and then boot from the USB stick by opening the boot selection screen at startup (keep an eye on your computer's boot screen for a prompt). You should be presented with a list of boot options. Select the UEFI entry for your USB drive, and the SteamOS installer will boot up.

Select "Automated Install" and the installer will wipe the contents of your hard drive, partition it, and install SteamOS. The process takes around 30 minutes. During installation you may run into an issue with your display going to sleep and not waking up again if you're plugged in via HDMI, so if possible go in via DVI. If that's not an option, keep an eye on your hard drive activity light. If it has stopped blinking for any amount of time, it's relatively safe to power off your PC, remove the USB stick, and then turn it on again. If all goes well you should be presented with a login screen.

If your display looks like this after boot, clicking the button on the top right will make the text legible.

Again, if you're plugged in via HDMI, you may encounter an issue with the screen resolution being incorrect upon boot, making the text illegible. The solution (other than to plug in via DVI) is to hit the icon nearest you on the top right of the screen and click the top option. This makes the text bigger, allowing you select the "Gnome" session from the login window and login with the username and password "steam" (minus the quote marks).

If when you reach the Linux desktop your screen resolution is still incorrect, you need to go into the settings and configure your display. Swipe your mouse over "Activities" on the top left of desktop, select applications, then system settings, then display settings. The bottom of the window with the OK button may be off the screen, in which case you need to tab through the options a few times using the keyboard to confirm your selection. Next you need to get Steam installed. Open up Terminal from the applications window, type in "steam" and then press enter. Once Steam is installed, close the open windows and logout of the system.

Login to the Gnome session again, this time using the username "desktop" and the password "desktop". Open up another terminal window and type in "~/post_logon.sh". Terminal will prompt you for a password, which is also "desktop". The system will automatically reboot and create a recovery partition. Once that's done the system will reboot again and you'll finally be presented with the Steam login screen!

Unfortunately, we encountered another issue when we connected via HDMI that caused an incorrect resolution to be displayed in Steam. To fix this, you need to enable access to the desktop by going into the settings by clicking the gear icon at the top right of the screen, selecting "Interface", and then checking "Enable access to the Linux desktop". Now when you click the power button at the top right you'll be presented with an additional "Return to Desktop" option.

To fix an incorrect resolution in Steam's Big Picture mode, you need to modify /usr/bin/steamos-session with the highlighted line.

On the desktop open up another terminal window, then enter "sudo nano /usr/bin/steamos-session". You'll likely be asked for your password, which will again be "desktop". This opens up a text file that you can scroll through using the arrow keys. Find the line that says "Preload", press enter to create a new line, and then type in "xrandr -s 1920x1080", replacing 1920x1080 with your preferred resolution. Hit Ctrl and X on your keyboard and then Y to save the file. After a restart you should be presented with the correct resolution.

While that might seem like a lot of effort to go to in order to get things working, in the grand scheme of Linux, SteamOS fares pretty well. Everything aside from the correct screen resolution worked straight away, including things like audio and the Ethernet port, components that traditionally require a bit of terminal fiddling to get working. Even swapping out an Nvidia card for an AMD one didn't throw up any issues, with the system automatically recognizing the card without the need to install additional drivers.

If you're setting up a dual boot system and like us are using two physical drives, unplug the SteamOS drive, plug your other one in, and go through the standard Windows setup. Leaving the other drive plugged in would mean Windows would overwrite the default Grub bootloader for SteamOS with its own, and while you can fix it with a bit of Windows and Linux magic (as found here), this method is far simpler. Once Windows is installed, plug the other back in and you'll be able to switch between the two systems using the default boot selection screen built into your motherboard.

Performance

Currently, there's only a limited selection of games that have actually been ported to SteamOS. The Linux section of the store is mostly populated with indie titles, the exception being Valve's own games like Left 4 Dead 2, as well as the likes of Football Manager and Metro: Last Light. All the games we tried worked well, but for the purpose of benchmarking between Windows and SteamOS we stuck with the more graphically intensive Left 4 Dead 2, Metro: Last Light and DOTA 2.

AMD R9 290 XWindows FPS @ 1080pSteamOs FPS @ 1080p
Dota 212048
Left 4 Dead 2242182
Metro: Last Light6824
Nvidia GTX 670Windows FPS @ 1080pSteamOS FPS @ 1080p
Dota 2120120
Left 4 Dead 2200172
Metro: Last Light3745

Each game was run with identical settings across both operating systems. Metro: Last Light offers fewer configuration options in SteamOS than in Windows, but a quick dig into the configuration text file let us match the two up as closely as possible.

Looking at the R9 290 X results, there's clearly an issue with the card under SteamOS. In Windows, it performs brilliantly, just as we'd expect for such a high-end GPU But there's something amiss about AMD's drivers under Linux that's causing the R9 290 X to underperform. We also noticed stuttering while playing Left 4 Dead 2 under Linux, which made the game frustrating to play. Hopefully these issues can be resolved in a future driver update or version of SteamOS. In the meantime, though, potential SteamOS users might want to make sure they're packing an Nvidia GPU before making the jump.

The older Nvidia GTX 670 performed very well in Windows and in SteamOS. Indeed, in Left 4 Dead 2, the card actually performed better under SteamOS. It's not better by a huge margin, but it's a great result for Linux, particularly given the traditionally meagre GPU driver support for the OS that caused a certain Linus Torvalds to give Nvidia the finger.

Despite this, though, there are still some issues to be overcome with SteamOS. We noticed significantly longer loading times for Left 4 Dead 2 and Dota 2 than in Windows, for instance, and general performance through the UI isn't as snappy as big picture mode on Windows. There's also the matter of the more complex setup to deal with, and, most importantly, the limited game selection.

Still, SteamOS is a beta release, and with time there's no doubt that Valve will be able to squeeze more performance out of Linux and streamline the setup process. Best of all, it's free! That alone might be enough to convince some to ditch the $100 Windows licence and turn to SteamOS for gaming. And who knows? If enough people install it or buy a Steam Box, there may even be more than a handful of games to play on it too.

Discussion

65 comments
jenovaschilld
jenovaschilld

When the steam OS beta came out a month ago I built a steam machine just to try it out, medium build using a quad core, 8gigs of ram, and a geforce 650 gtx 2g. Even with a clean install it took a week to iron out all of the bugs and problems. First off, it was not compatible with all of my games. really I did not see better framerates or performance with my limited game library and or demos. After a week of testing, I just put a windows OS on it and added some LEDs and sold it to my sister for her kids at a loss. 


Here is what I would like from a new Steam OS:

-Better performance, really a fresh steam os should run around a legacy laden windows.

-The OS should use little to no resources or at least have an option when going into game mode to go into a very low  resource and ram mode. 

-Compatibility: the steam os should be able to run ANY- I mean ANY game in my steam library regardless of Linux or even if  it is a MMO by someone else.  While we are at it, the OS needs to be able to run games from other places or wow, eq, indies - It may not be able to add better performance but at least allow it to take advantage of the hardware of the steam machine.  Also emulators, hey I admit sometimes i want to play an emulated game- whether it is a foreign dating sim, or tactics ogre and grandia 2 which i am logging alot of time atm. 

-Allow a better browser - like Chrome or whatever people like best. 

-Better and clearer LAN support - we freq here play in LAN setups 


Thing is why buy a steam os machine if the performance is not leaps and bounds better then windows. Okay at least 15% better. I still print, burn, run spreadsheets, watch movies, download questionable material, edit media, and yes play the shit out of games, alot of games and from very different sources. There are only a few decent tv shows, so in my sprare time Id rather game it.  I look forward to a steam machine or OS but it better be able to play a ton of different games and play them better then a windows based machine. Why? because a dedicated, expensive steam machine that only does one thing poorly has no room in my house. 


naryanrobinson
naryanrobinson

I wish they had gone with Ubuntu as their base.  Aw well.

Those fps figures are fairly amazing though, given how young and unsupported everything is.

It used to be nVidia who ignored the platform driver-wise, now it looks like AMD have some catching up to do if they don't want to get left behind.

When gaming on Linux explodes, they're going to lose a loooot of customers if their driver performance is even 20% behind the competition.

snaketus
snaketus

I will definitely give it ago as soon as I finish my secondary pc build. Too many Windows games and software in use at the moment, but those Linux alternatives is there, just getting used to them after years of usage of Adobe photoshop, illustrator and premiere for example will be pain, but it will be worth it to get rid of MS dominance in PC gaming and not see the day when I install Windows 8 crap.

gipsy_danger
gipsy_danger

Ethernet port requiring drivers on linux? When was the last time you installed linux sir. Last time I installed ubuntu everything worked right after installation.

Battle_Pants
Battle_Pants

Right now I pass on the SteamOS because I already have the Steam client installed on my Linux system.

Conscrumptured
Conscrumptured

More and more, I'm becoming interested in at least trying the OS out. It probably won't be for a while until more games are available on it, but it still seems like a solid theory worth exploring regarding the higher performance.

Musicrab
Musicrab

SteamOS is great if you have time for messing around (look up Ye Olde SteamOse for a better install experience) and Steam Streaming is also fun (with a high spec gaming host).  One problem.  LACK OF NEW CONTENT.

JoSilver
JoSilver

hopefully the full release will be much easier to install.

sunbeam4
sunbeam4

@mark does it support multiple screens yet ?

GH05T-666
GH05T-666

how do you set up dual booting?

GH05T-666
GH05T-666

That is a lot of stuffing around to run a steam client..

I think I'll wait until this become way more popular and easy.

C-THREE
C-THREE

yeah I'm a amd guy and for right now Linux hasn't changed much when it comes to graphic performance with amd video cards. like really how is their highest end video card getting 20ish fps on games?

megakick
megakick

Don't you like how some games perform better than other on certain graphic cards....

AMD ON STEAM SUCKS...

hadlee73
hadlee73

"...setting it up does involve a bit of Linux know-how." Its sad that 98% of the gaming public just had their eyes glaze over after that line in the article.

GreenvaleXYZ
GreenvaleXYZ

Nice how-to, that's cool.  When SteamOS supports enough games, I'll have to check it out.

xcollector
xcollector

I feel sorry for anyone whos first linux experience is the GNOME 3 desktop. It is one of the worst desktops ever created. Even the crappy windows metro is better than GNOME 3. Why the hell did valve pick that as the default? GNOME 3 makes Linux look real bad. 

ECH71
ECH71

Steam OS site says it requires Nvidia card... and that AMD and Intel graphics card support is coming soon...


Intel gfx support coming later I understand since it's not a major player but AMD is so WTF?!


Also, I was hoping to get a cheap 128G or 256G SSD for multi-boot but 512GB requirement? Again, WTF?!

Armyboy5
Armyboy5

but why install a gaming windows when the performance is lower on it?


what am I missing?

sammoth
sammoth

Why bother the Steam OS in built on Linux and 1/2 the games in the Steam library don't support it.

Sefrix
Sefrix moderator moderator

Man I wish it didn't wipe the HDD :( Guess I'll stick with dual booting Ubuntu/Windows -_- 

NickyWithATicky
NickyWithATicky

"Indeed, in Left 4 Dead 2, the card actually performed better under SteamOS."

Metro: Last Light performed better on SteamOS according to the table, not Left 4 Dead 2.

aenews
aenews

@naryanrobinson As mentioned in my post, you can install the SteamOS shell on Ubuntu.  Just need to install two files and SteamOS will be another option to login like Unity or Gnome.

snaketus
snaketus

@gipsy_danger Some of them might require manual installation even to date. Ubuntu is one of the easy ones. I personally prefer Mint, it's like Ubuntu, but without Unity desktop.

aenews
aenews

@Musicrab 


Think of it this way.  If you use Ubuntu, then using the SteamOS shell means no background applications or anything.  Better performance on theory though this is just a beta.  So it offers a performance improvement over the standard desktop client, though the beta has bugs.

aenews
aenews

@GH05T-666 I would recommend installing Ubuntu.  The SteamOS shell simply requires installing two files like you would any other program (double-click).

snaketus
snaketus

@GH05T-666  To do it without too much pain this installation order must be followed. Partition your hard drive the way you leave unallocated space for Linux partitions and then first install Windows if you so prefer and after Windows, install Linux in this case Steam OS and it recognizes your Windows installation and should ask if you want to install Linux along side your Windows and if yes it install boot loader (grub in these day i guess) where you can choose the OS to boot when you power on your system.


If you have new unused hard drive for SteamOS you can use it without repartitioning your existing drive where you have Windows installed.


If you happened to install SteamOS first you need to manually install boot loader to get things work, and that can be bit pain in the ass, because Windows do NOT notice any other operating systems installed in your machine (it's selfish bastard), it just installs it's own boot loader and ignores your Linux. To remedy this you need to do some serious googleing starting with "how to boot to my linux after installing windows in the same machine".

xcollector
xcollector

@C-THREE The drivers still need a lot of improvement. I was getting about 30fps using the latest drivers for a HD 7850

aenews
aenews

@hadlee73 Well fortunately, installing Ubuntu isn't that complicated, and you don't even need to know that scary "linux know-how".  Installing the shell is as hard as two double-clicks.

Caldrin
Caldrin

@hadlee73I for one really cant be arsed to have to drop back to the linux command prompt to configure stuff.. no thanks I left those days behind with DOS..

Thats on of the main reasons i dont use linux, some versions have got a lot better I msut admit but they still have a bit to go before people will accept it as a desktop os and not just an os for techs to mess around with.

Still after saying all that I will still grab a copy of this to have a play around with :)

xcollector
xcollector

"Linux know-how" scares Windows users & "setting it up" scares console gamers and that pretty much makes up the 98% lol

Unraed
Unraed

@xcollector No, no the worst is Unity. ;)

Hellknite190
Hellknite190

@ECH71 Actually, it now supports nvidia, intel and amd graphics. That page is just outdated. And I agree with the space requirements, its a bit ridiculous.

riotinto876
riotinto876

@ECH71 you do not need 512gb to install an OS, use your head for a second. AMD has shit drivers for linux in general, and even windows I'd say, so that's not very surprising.

snaketus
snaketus

@sammoth I plan to stream games to my living room from my desktop doing the heavy lifting. And if native Linux games starts to arrive I replace Windows with Linux in that machine too.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

@sammoth 

I would say a lot more than half don't support it, and almost no big AAA titles.  I went through my own Steam library, and only 15 out of my 180+ games would (so far) run natively on Linux, so using it would not be worth it for me.  Other people's mileage will vary, of course, depending on the games in your personal library.

aenews
aenews

@Sefrix


You can just install the shell on Ubuntu.


Just need to double-click and install two files and bam you have another shell like Unity or Gnome to login as. 

sunbeam4
sunbeam4

@Sefrix I'm waiting for an ubuntu like soft-lib-installer.

Musicrab
Musicrab

@aenews@MusicrabPerformance is a red-herring - see the numbers above, especially with AMD (although I'm sure that'll improve with time). The raison-detre is lack of reliance on Microsoft.  But, just like the PC itself, new content is sorely needed.

aenews
aenews

@Unraed There is nothing particularly wrong with Unity.  It is quite modern and aesthetically pleasing, and probably the easiest interface for new users to learn how to use.  Definitely makes people less likely to poke fun at big scary Linux, and I like it.  Don't like the launcher on the side maybe?  Could set it to auto-hide to save screen real estate.

xcollector
xcollector

@Unraed No  Gnome 3 is the worst. Unity is actually more functional because it still has the minimize and maximize buttons on the windows. Just look at the screen shot. The minimize and maximize buttons are missing. They were previously there in the earlier releases of the 3x versions. Each new version keeps stripping away a useful feature. 


Its sad that Gnome 3 is popular enough to makes Linux look like a joke. Unity too to a lesser extent compared to Gnome 3. But its been said that Gnome has a bus factor of 1. For those who don't know what a bus factor is, it is how many people can get hit by a bus before you don't have enough people left to continue the project.

sammoth
sammoth

@Gallowhand@sammoth I was being generous. You know how these Linux fanboys can be. They will say just dual boot. I'll just say "why bother when the games already work on Windows".

snaketus
snaketus

@Musicrab @aenews AMD/ATI drivers has always been total crap on Linux side of things. Old motto for Linux user, get Nvidia card if you don't want trouble. And those performance numbers don't tell shit at this point. Both Nvidia and AMD don't prioritize Linux drivers enough yet and the state of OS is still so early state you have to expect it to have bugs and performance issues, that's why it's been tested right now.