We Didn’t Get One of Valve’s Steam Machines, So We Built One Ourselves

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Late last week, computer game company Valve released its much anticipated game-centric, Linux-based operating system, SteamOS. Alongside it, they sent out their own custom-built Steam Machines to 300 lucky beta testers across America, and unboxing videos and high-res galleries of the machines have already surfaced.

We knew we weren’t one of those lucky 300, so we decided to do the next best thing: build our own Steam Machine. So, with a little bit of patience, research, and help from the Linux community at large, we built one of the first homemade Steam Machines.

And so far, it works. Somewhat.

The box was built using the spare parts from computer builds done in the past, and put together with Valve’s rather hefty spec requirement in mind. Those requirements are brief, but as follows:

Processor: Intel or AMD 64-bit capable processor

Memory: 4GB or more RAM

Hard Drive: 500GB or larger disk

Video Card: NVIDIA graphics card

Additional: UEFI boot support, USB port for installation

From that set of requirements we built a rig with more than enough power to run the OS’ Linux-only-capable games (for now), and packed in twice the required memory (because we’re a tech website, so why not?). Here are the specs of our build:

Processor: AMD 1.8GHz 64-bit Quadcore Processor

Memory: 8GB GDDR2 RAM

Hard Drive: 640GB 5400 RPM HDD

Video Card: NVIDIA GTX 460 w/ 1GB RAM (running driver version 331.20)

Network: Ethernet direct-line

Case and Motherboard: Gateway DX4200

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But this post is less about how we built the machine, and more about the overall feel and experience of the operating system in its current state. What Valve is building (and what they have released here) is still very, very early – so bugs, stutters, and downright crashes are not unexpected (they even point most of this out on their blog). But, the footprint for the user experience and overall design is very much in place, and jives heavily with what Valve created with Steam’s Big Picture Mode.

Also, note that we’re not taking into consideration the lack of in-home game and media streaming functionality, since Valve has clarified that that feature isn’t available yet, but will be before year’s end. In the meantime, we’ve tested the stability of games that are Linux compatible, games we can and have downloaded and played on the system.

So far, the results have been expectedly mixed. As is Valve’s intention, we tested every game with a controller – an Xbox 360 controller at that. It’s by far the most commonly supported among developers currently, and had to do since we don’t have our grubby mitts on one of Valve’s controllers yet.

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Some games launch and play well like Bastion, Fez and Mark of the Ninja, while others like Awesomenauts and Hotline Miami are hindered in the SteamOS environment currently. For instance, both of those latter titles use settings windows on launch, which on PC is used to select resolution and graphical quality before launching the actual game. In the desktop space this is a working solution, but on SteamOS, it’s a partial annoyance – as these windows have a tendency to stretch and scale past the point of legibility, making starting some games an impressive chore (and requiring a mouse and keyboard at that).

For games that don’t use that system, games like Fez for example, tended to work right out of the gate with the controller. However, sometimes when we’d sit down to play, the OS would recognize our controller and all of its inputs, but the game would not (or it would ignore some and accept others). This happened with a lot of games as well, such as Bastion. But when it did work, it worked well, and we’d often forget about working and get lost playing the game on the beautiful big screen.

Whether this is a problem of the two game’s Linux ports or simply a bug in SteamOS’ code remains unclear, but if asked, we’d say it feels more like the fault of the OS. To reiterate, that’s not said as a criticism, more an observation of software that’s still very, very early in development.

But one feature that does work immensely well is the screenshot functionality, which can be done by pressing the home button and the right trigger simultaneously. And best of all, when you’re done playing a game you’ve taken a screenshot in, the OS will ask you if you’d like to view a gallery of your shots and/or upload some of them to your cloud account. It works flawlessly.

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As far as the design of the dashboard and its areas of navigation, it seems from a user experience perspective, very well handled. Features and activities are categorized behind three tabs: Store, Library, and Community, which holds the Steam marketplace, your library of games and media, and your friends and groups respectively.

Swapping anytime between these windows is smooth and snappy, and can be triggered at any time with the pull of the left or right triggers. You can even access a full web browser, which is integrated pretty elegantly in the system’s menus.

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The Store section is organized efficiently, with new releases, daily and weekly deals, flash sales, and recommended games organized in clean horizontal lists. Your library is displayed similarly, and can be organized in the same way you can with the desktop client: by favorites, recently played, currently installed, and so on. And since the system can only locally play games that are built for Linux, you can sort by that too.

One of the neater nods of the OS is how Valve has completely scrapped the traditional way we input text into menus. To Valve, gone are the days of moving tediously from key to key on a QWERTY keyboard with a controller, and in are the days of radial analog menus. Shown below, the input system for SteamOS used a combination of the two analog sticks, all four face buttons, and both the triggers and shoulder buttons to create a difficult to learn at first system, but one that ultimately feels better on a controller than conventional methods.

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SteamOS is still very early. Heck, many of its core features still aren’t implemented yet. And even more still, the system has some issues with stuttering, slowdown, and overall rough edges. But Valve isn’t at a point where they believe it’s even close to perfect – they even clarify that most people should wait until 2014 to give the OS a whirl.

This build of SteamOS was explicitly released for the crazy (like us), who just can’t stand to wait to see what Valve’s building. And like Valve, we’d recommend you wait a bit before sinking time into an extensive and inheriently risky project like this. But if you find yourself in just as curious a position and want to play with it for yourself, SteamOS is available now for those not faint of heart and with a fair knowledge of Linux on hand.

If and when Valve flips on the in-home streaming switch and polishes the OS’ rough edges, Steam Machines will be a sight to behold.

At least from a user experience point of view,  it gives us reason to hope for a living room future that’s chock-full of Valve.


— Landon Robinson

Landon is BestTechie's Director of Video. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he plays video games, runs, writes and scours the world for every last edible nacho.




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