VALVE TAKES ON CONSOLES
HANDS ON WITH VALVE’S CONTROLLER LIVING WITH STEAMOS TWO STEAM MACHINES TESTED, FROM SCAN AND SYBER
The battleground between PC and console is well established. PC enthusiasts cite cheaper games, better graphics and more versatility, while console fans reply with ease of use, living room comfort and cheaper devices. Valve promises to bridge that gap with Steam Machines, which promise the usability of consoles alongside the cheaper, better-looking games that PC users enjoy.
The new devices are attempting to bring PC gaming to the living room, but that strategy opens up Valve to competition from all angles. The PS4 and Xbox One are the current kings of the couch, and on the PC, Windows has a much wider games catalogue.
Anyone familiar with Steam on Windows will soon be at home with SteamOS. It’s Linux-based, but it follows the blueprint laid down by Steam’s Big Picture mode – the option that reconfigures Steam for living room use. The UI uses the ‘10-foot user interface’ idea that governs console and Smart TV design – it’s designed to be easily navigable from the sofa, which means large text and icons, and a layout designed for control pads.
The main screen serves up big buttons for Steam’s primary sections: the store, your library and community are central, and pressing the shoulder buttons opens up web and chat interfaces. Below these bits is a welcome message, and above them are smaller icons for notifications, downloads, settings and power.
The library and store are both straightforward, and can be customised with filters.
Like many other areas of SteamOS, the store will be familiar to Big Picture users. There are categories for topselling titles and new releases, and a section called ‘For You’ that provides genre-based recommendations. The community and chat sections are lifted straight from Big Picture mode too – it’s easy to find friends in a big grid of profile pictures.
SteamOS’ PC origins are also obvious in the options section, where you’ll find the ability to tweak audio
output, screen position and networking, and it’s possible to see precise information about the system and its software. Updates are easy to find and install too.
LIFE WITH STEAMOS
The SteamOS setup procedure is as simple as with any console. The machine boots and asks for a Steam Controller to be paired, and then you just have to add networking details and log in. The machine will spend a minute configuring, and that’s it.
Navigation is stellar: menus scroll smoothly and new pages open swiftly, with no hint of juddering. If you tap the left and right shoulder buttons in the OS, the browser page and chat page respectively whizz open with impressive speed, and we were always able to tap the controller’s Steam button to open up in-game options or the main menu.
It’s easy enough to download games too, and getting them working with the controller is generally simple: some titles such as Civilization V have control schemes provided by the developers, and others such as Valve’s own Portal 2 are supported from the outset.
Others rely on Valve’s templates or community-made schemes. Three templates are available – a generic gamepad scheme, a high-precision gamepad setting and another setting that mimics keyboard and mouse controls. In the case of Borderlands 2, the middle option is selected, and it works fine, although the text and images in the game’s control options menu still refer to the Xbox 360 pad.
There are other pleasant touches as well. The OS scans the system for audio files to use as a backing track, for example. There are also two on-screen keyboards – one that uses both of the controller’s touchpads, and another that uses a daisy-wheel system – and both are intuitive given a little familiarisation.
Streaming is possible too, from Windows machines to the Steam system. It’s one way of solving the problem of a game not working on SteamOS, although it does require two systems to be running and it only functions on wired networks.
By and large, there’s a lot to like. SteamOS is quick and intuitive, it has more options than most consoles, and games can be downloaded and run without hassle.
RUNNING OUT OF STEAM?
There’s one major elephant in the room with SteamOS, and that’s the Linux build underneath the sofafriendly UI. The reliance on Linux means there’s a dearth of games: third-party data tool SteamDB has confirmed that 1,428 games work on SteamOS at the time of writing.
That sounds like a large number, but it pales in contrast to Steam on Windows, where nearly 15,000 games are available. Valve has added almost 1,600 new Windows games in 2015 alone, so it’s going to take a colossal effort for SteamOS to even keep up, let alone catch up.
The SteamOS library is larger than those of the consoles, at least: the PS4 and Xbox One currently have 822 and 495 games respectively. Those figures include more triple-A titles than Valve’s system can manage, though, and the PS4 in particular is also loaded with indie games. Sony’s system shows no sign of slowing its momentum either.
That situation will improve as more games emerge for SteamOS, but right now, the store looks bare. By default, the storefront doesn’t display games that won’t work on SteamOS, which makes sense, but that logic doesn’t follow to other areas. The For You section promotes games such as Fallout 4, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, for example, even though they don’t work on SteamOS.
The Library suffers similarly: it displays every game you own, and the option to only display SteamOS titles is hidden away in the filters.
By default, the Library is a screen full of games that you can’t play, which is a kick in the teeth and a reminder of the competition.
Sadly, these small niggles rob SteamOS of the cohesion we expect. The control methods aren’t consistent either: we were able to use the controller’s dual touchpads to log in, but were thrown back to a traditional on-screen keyboard to input Wi-Fi passwords. The D-pad inscribed on the left-hand pad can’t be used for navigation either, which is another odd decision.
SteamOS can’t match rivals when it comes to media either. The basic web browser isn’t much cop either, with few options aside from a tabbed browsing ability. You use a cursor on the webpage itself, but you have to use the Steam Controller to use options in the browser, so you’re always switching between two different kinds of navigation.
There’s also no sign of the media apps such as Netflix, which are common on consoles and the latest versions of Windows. Living room PCs and consoles are now media machines as much as gaming systems, and SteamOS falls down here badly.
Our experience wasn’t entirely smooth when working with Valve’s games and third-party titles either. Portal 2 and Borderlands 2 both defaulted to a resolution of 1,024 x 768 despite using a high-end system and a 1080p TV, and Trine 2 wouldn’t open some menus unless we used a mouse. These issues are easy enough to circumvent, but they rarely crop up on consoles.
Likewise, Left 4 Dead 2 is one of Valve’s games but, sadly, getting it running wasn’t a smooth process. It booted at 1,600 x 900 despite our 1080p TV, and its official controller configuration was poor: mouse movement was so twitchy we couldn’t play the game, and there’s no way to switch to a secondary weapon using Valve’s controls. The former issue could only be fixed by leaving the game and heading to SteamOS’ settings, as the in-game mouse sensitivity slider made no difference.
Many faults are easy to fix, but we shouldn’t have to fix them – on a console, and even on many Windows machines, they just wouldn’t occur.
It isn’t a big ask for experienced PC gamers, but it could be enough to put off lapsed desktop players or console gamers intrigued about a switch to Steam.
The UI is designed to be easily navigable from the sofa, which means large text and icons, and a layout designed for control pads
It’s possible to see precise information about the system and its software in the settings
The store has categories for top-selling titles and new releases, and a section called ‘For You’ that provides genre-based recommendations
Some games, such as Valve’s Portal 2, support the Steam Controller from the outset
The Library displays every game you own, and the option to only display SteamOS titles is hidden away in the filters