Linux savvy developers can begin tinkering with the living room focused, Debian-based distribution now
Valve has released the beta version of its SteamOS Linux distribution that powers its living room PC Steam Machines, along with a FAQ sheet that covers the basics of the operating system.
In addition to the 300 beta testers of Valve's prototype Steam Machine, now anyone who wants to install SteamOS on their PC can take part in the company's long awaited living room invasion.
SteamOS is available for free, but is rather restrictive on hardware requirements at the moment and Valve has requested that all but the most experienced users hold off on installing the operating system until a more stable release.
The key points are that SteamOS is (as was widely anticipated) a Debian-based distribution, is entirely open source, though Steam and any third-party drivers remain proprietary, and that Valve expects full compatibility with applications developed for Ubuntu 12.04.
In a nutshell, SteamOS 1.0 'alchemist' is Debian 7.1 'wheezy' with a few integrated third party drivers, an updated graphics stack, a custom graphics compositor, backported eglibc, and an updated kernel.
Along with the FAQ sheet, Valve provided system requirements for building a do-it-yourself Steam Machine with instructions for installing Steam OS and licensing information for any company that wants to distribute a Steam-branded living room PC.
In order to run SteamOS, a PC will need at least 500GBs of hard disk space, 4GBs of Ram, a USB port and UEFI boot support for installation, and an Nvidia graphics card. Presumably the PC will also need WIFI or direct Ethernet cable access in order to run Steam.
Valve promises to support AMD and Intel graphics chips soon, but at the moment only Nvidia drivers are integrated into the system image provided.
It should be possible to install and update drivers through the usual Debian package delivery system, but it looks like only Nvidia has optimized its drivers for the new distribution at the moment so the company isn't making any guarantees that a third-part driver will work.
There's an odd similarity between Steam OS and Windows 8 in that the desktop won't be visible at startup. The system will boot straight to Steam, and users will have to enable desktop access in order to use any features not supported by Steam.
Valve specifically states that SteamOS is not designed to replace any desktop version of Linux – the entire system is designed and optimized for use in the living room.
While those who prefer the old desktop PC gaming experience will be glad Valve isn't trying to force a new operating system on them, for others hoping that SteamOS would make desktop PC gaming easier on Linux will probably be disappointed.
Though there isn't going to be a revolution for desktop users, there might be some trickle-down that will make Linux gaming a more viable option.
Aside from the wave of new titles available for Linux through Steam, drivers should improve dramatically for any Debian-based distribution.
Valve has already pointed out that games released on Ubuntu should still work, but since other distributions such as Linux Mint are also Debian-based, devs who've done the work once won't have to do more than a bit of tweaking to get their titles up and running on these other systems.
From the early beta of Steam for Linux on there's been a community finding ways to get everything working for other distributions aside from Ubuntu - even a few that aren't based on the highly stable Debian source.
Another hope is that Linux will finally get a real audio standard, as whatever Valve makes the default in SteamOS will most likely be accepted for game audio across the Linux community.
Developers with a bit of experience in Linux might want to download SteamOS to begin experimenting and testing now, but should bear in mind it's not yet finished and that the installation process will reformat the hard drive.
Some might be interested in taking a look at the source code as well, which Valve has already released and can be found here.