STEAM MA­CHINES

VALVE TAKES ON CON­SOLES

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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.

STEAMOS EX­PLORED

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

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