SteamOS Revealed

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅23.09.2013 18:06:30

Valve, in the first of three announcements due this week, revealed that a new Linux-based OS is in development. Known as SteamOS, it designed chiefly as a game streaming platform where games are run on a high-spec machine and then streamed to the lower-spec machine in the Living Room.

In theory, SteamOS will mean that Steam PC titles can be played in the living room without the need for a powerful PC in situ. Buying into the functionality would be fairly cheap - ZOTAC for example have their ZBOX range starting at less than £200 - whilst the gaming experience could be greatly improved. In the fullness of time new titles designed to run natively in Linux could be added, playable either on a Windows-based machine or high-spec Linux-based system.

The chief impediment from a developmental perspective is latency. Video latency has largely been licked, but controller and audio latency needs to be minimised to the order of milliseconds to provide a seamless experience. One imagines that controllers specifically will be addressed in later updates.

Steam is coming to a new operating system

As we’ve been working on bringing Steam to the living room, we’ve come to the conclusion that the environment best suited to delivering value to customers is an operating system built around Steam itself. SteamOS combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines.

'Free' of course being the operative word. Windows 8 currently costs on the order of £85, and the Windows Platform as a whole may move to a subscription service similar to Office 365 in the future. A SteamOS with titles functioning natively would undermine much of the draw of the Windows platform for the home user, namely an unparalleled PC games library. It's early doors yet, but these could be the first shots fired in a substantial platform war based solely on software, the first in some time for the PC. For now though, Windows and SteamOS will need to act cooperatively for SteamOS to be a success.

Living room & Steam

Finally, you don’t have to give up your favorite games, your online friends, and all the Steam features you love just to play on the big screen. SteamOS, running on any living room machine, will provide access to the best games and user-generated content available.

Fast forward

In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.

Cooperating system

Steam is not a one-way content broadcast channel, it’s a collaborative many-to-many entertainment platform, in which each participant is a multiplier of the experience for everyone else. With SteamOS, “openness” means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to. Content creators can connect directly to their customers. Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want. Gamers are empowered to join in the creation of the games they love. SteamOS will continue to evolve, but will remain an environment designed to foster these kinds of innovation.

As great as principles of openness sound, the rub is access to your own game library. In the vast majority of cases titles in your library will be streamed to the living room PC rather than run natively, perhaps necessitating a hardware update to your gaming PC. Triple-A titles native to SteamOS - meaning native to Linux and presumably OpenGL - are due to arrive beginning 2014. You may also require a wired LAN, depending on the wireless congestion in your area.

Game streaming isn't new, in fact NVIDIA are targeting this niche with Project SHIELD. In SHIELD's case they require a Kepler GPU for its on-board h.264 encoding, and it seems reasonable that SteamOS game streaming will require much the same hardware capability. NVIDIA are well placed to take advantage of this, whilst AMD have been MIA in presenting latency-free encoding even though the 7000-series architecture should be well-capable of it.

New features for Steam, including family account sharing, seem much more logical with SteamOS in the works.


Valve aren't targeting simply game streaming. Much like embedded OS software on TVs and set-top products, all forms of audio and video content should be available on Steam OS. In this respect it should be similar to XBMC, whilst having an established user base in the millions. Getting content-providers on board will be no easy feat, but with such a huge install base the likes of Netflix and BBC are sure to be interested.

Our predictions from last week - gaming peripheral hardware, Steambox system hardware and SteamOS, remain on track. The second announcement will be at 18:00 on Wednesday, and we imagine that the centrepiece will be a Steambox.