Valve Comes Out Swinging With SteamOS: 7 Things You Need to Know

It's a Linux-powered, Steam-skinned, freely distributed operating system

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Can you believe that just happened? I’m still rubbing my eyes (probably a bad idea because it’s flu season). No one expected, well, quite this: Valve hopping into the operating-system game, training — and make no mistake here — its sights on Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Google and anyone else I’m forgetting in the non-Unix-like-OS column.

“Thousands of games, millions of users. Everything you love about Steam. Available soon as a free operating system designed for the TV and the living room,” writes Valve on the new SteamOS promo page, which unlocked at exactly 1:00 p.m. E.T. on Monday. The picture above, probably a Photoshopped purplish negative of the sun, shows SteamOS dangling in orbit like an alien satellite, presumably the first of others to come. We have at least two more reveals, with the final one possibly the storied Steam Box everyone’s been talking about for ages.

Make no mistake, SteamOS is meant to be a living-room operating system, says Valve. Make of that what you will, but probably not something that goes on a smartphone (at least not at this point). But something you’d load on a Valve-branded tablet? Don’t laugh. And a home-brew PC? Perhaps. Valve’s pitching SteamOS as “available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living-room machines,” machines being plural, thus casting doubt on notions it’ll be exclusive to proprietary hardware (assuming that’s even in the offing). And maybe a posttablet device no one’s seen yet? Never say never, because Valve honcho Gabe Newell has already spoken of such things.

While we’re waiting for the next timer to zero out, let’s run through SteamOS’s salient features.

It’s basically still Steam.

Or that’s what it sounds like, based on Valve’s description: “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,” writes the company. Think thin client, like Google’s browser-driven Chrome OS — just the basics, because that’s all you really need in the living room.

But now with better graphics processing.

So sayeth Valve, anyway, noting it’s “achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating-system level.” Valve says game developers — just “game developers,” no names yet — are already availing themselves of these performance perks “as they target SteamOS for their new releases.”

It’s also … modular?

Valve described SteamOS as a “cooperating system,” in which “each participant is a multiplier of the experience for everyone else.” No, probably not in the sense you might be thinking, à la SETI@home, where each user’s processing cycles contribute to some grand process, but metaphorically speaking. This sounds like Valve’s way of saying it plans to make the experience more collaborative, say, than the experience you’re used to having with Apple’s App Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live or Sony’s PlayStation Network.

According to Valve:

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.

Treat all of that as lofty rhetoric until we get specifics, of course, but in theory … well, at least I’m intrigued.

You can stream games from your Windows or Mac system to a SteamOS machine.

The strongest argument that a Steam Box is imminent: Valve’s going to let you pipe existing Steam games from PCs around your house, over your home network, straight to your SteamOS machine in the living room. Latency-free (or near enough)? We’ll see.

You can also stream “music, TV, movies.”

Valve says it’s “working with many of the media services you know and love.” Spotify? Netflix? Hulu? Rdio? Amazon? Who knows. Presumably those and many more, assuming — and I think this is a safe assumption — Valve wants to compete in the Roku/Apple TV category.

Plus “Family Sharing,” which we already knew about.

Announced a few weeks ago, this is Valve’s intrepid plan to let you fold in up to 10 friends and family members (you pick), each of whom can access a game you’ve paid for, earn their own achievements and save their own games.

And last but not least, “Family Options.”

Don’t want to see what your parents are playing? Want to tweak your Steam library distinct from someone else’s, using the same SteamOS interface? Valve promises “families will have more control over what titles get seen by whom, and more features to allow everyone in the house to get the most out of their Steam libraries.”

And now we wait for the second of three announcements to drop on Wednesday at 1 p.m. E.T. If SteamOS — unexpected, bold and at least theoretically a very big deal — was just the first, imagine what’s on deck next.


if they are gonna use intel cpu,s and NVidia gpu,s then I say they will be the best console ever made


This is pretty incredible. I have a Mac but I used to have a PC so I haven't been able to play the majority of my games in a while. But it seems I can now stream a windows only game from my Mac to the steamos device?


"Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Google and anyone else I’m forgetting in the non-Unix-like OS column."

Apple and Google's operating systems (OSX, iOS, Android, Chrome OS) are all Unix-like.  Just sayin'.


Didn't care until I read the streaming games from your PC part.  If I can add a keyboard and mouse to that box for input then I'm in!


Competition is good for the consumer. Apple's been slacking off on innovation recently, as has Microsoft for quite awhile.


@burton.hohman No you don't. You'll be able to stream Mac games to the SteamOS device. To run Windows games, you need Windows. Otherwise, you would just run the Windows games directly on the SteamOS. But that's not happening. That's why they implemented the streaming feature... to get all AAA titles and a bigger library. If you don't have a Windows or Mac computer to stream, SteamOS will only run the games ported to Linux.

mattpeckham moderator

@DJ5 Yep. I meant Linux in the gates-wide-open sense.


@mattpeckham @DJ5 what on earth does "gates-wide-open sense" even mean?
OS X isn't just unix-like, it's UNIX !

mattpeckham: plz explain what "gates-wide-open sense" means so that I can come back and ask if you really believe that SteamOS won't have any proprietary components (like... Steam for instance) and then I ask you to explain how Steam is more 'gates-wide-open' than Chrome OS.


@Zykatious @mattpeckham @dogsausage @DJ5

Thankfully, there is a lot more involved with journalism than an understanding of UNIX compliance... especially considering understanding UNIX compliance is not a requirement to being a journalist. In the same way that you area of expertise doesn't require you to be a fantastic astronaut. Getting every single nitty gritty detail correct is what the industry experts are for. I'd much prefer journalists focus on being amazing journalists, than on becoming experts at everything - a futile endeavour.

On rudeness, I've never known being rude to be the best way to get your message across, communicate your point effectively, or help the other person. It just puts defenses up, creates the justification process, and rules out that person being rude as a punk. The best way to help others learn, is to educate in a supportive environment, where learning is a fun costless process, not one where they are wrong and should give up. Please consider this in the future, if you have a message, you're wasting your time being rude about it, as while said, it won't go heard, and have no impact in changing anything, just a waste of angry time, rather than a supportive experience for all.


@mattpeckham @dogsausage @DJ5

Matt, I think you've lost the plot, how are you even allowed to write these kinds of articles when you're clearly uneducated in such matters. OS X is completely, 100% certified UNIX. Not UNIX-like, not "a little bit UNIX", it is completely full-on UNIX and has been since Leopard (10.5). They are one of only 4 companies to be 100% UNIX 03 compliant, the others being IBM, Sun and HP. Get your facts straight. Jesus, call yourself a journalist.