SteamOS – Introduction

With the recent announcement and subsequent beta release of SteamOS, we wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the new operating system and what it means to the community. As part of a short series of articles, we are going to introduce the operating system and its requirements, talk about the installation and configuration as it stands today (December 2013) and then where it is supposed to go. Finally, once released in 2014, we will talk both about the Steam Devices that are sold in channel as well as the official SteamOS with game streaming and game controllers. Let’s get started!

SteamOS is Debian Linux – What Happened to Ubuntu?
This was an interesting turn of events. It was originally rumored that the SteamOS would simply be a custom rolled version of Ubuntu (like many of the Ubuntu spinoffs – Kubuntu, Edibuntu, Xubuntu, etc). with SteamOS as a theme/customization. However, at some point, that relationship soured based on the rumored level of control that Ubuntu wanted as well as their recent strategy of disassociating themselves from Linux in general and Linux X Windows standards. Since the Steam client works quite well on Ubuntu and, much to Ubuntu’s chagrin, it is based on Debian, Steam decided to roll their own plane jane Debian distribution and customize the setup with their requirements.

At this point, only NVidia video cards (and only the last two generations) are officially supported in the Beta version of SteamOS, but older NVidia cards and some AMD/ATI video cards are known to work (as is both VMWare and Virtual Box to some extent). Full support of NVidia, AMD/ATI and Intel (strangely enough) is expected when the OS releases from Beta sometime in 2014.

Requirements
Directly from their site here, the system requirements for a “DIY” Steam box are 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 (AMD and Intel graphics support coming soon!)
  • Additional: UEFI boot support
  • USB port for installation

Two Installation Methods
There are two ways to set up a SteamOS system and depending on your system configuration, one or the other should work for you. Let me make crystal clear one particular point right now: Installing SteamOS at this time, takes over your computer. It will grab (by default) the first drive in your system and will ask to install itself. Saying ‘yes’ will cause the entire drive to be overwritten and SteamOS will be installed in the place of whatever was there previously. USE CAUTION!.

My recommendation would either be to disable all hard drives but the one you want to install it on or to install it as the first operating system (which will install GRUB as any other Linux installation) and then complete your system setup. You can then have subsequent operating systems resize the partition, add SteamOS to a boot menu or allow GRUB from SteamOS to boot your other drives/partitions by rerunning the GRUB configuration like you would for any other Linux distribution. Again, be careful as there is no customization of the installation available at this point in time. It will install itself, format and create multiple partitions (including a recovery partition) and prepare itself for use as the only OS on the system.

The first installation method (link to download here), downloads a larger image that requires a number of steps to create a bootable USB key. I personally found that although this is the simpler (i.e. connect, boot and go make a sandwich) installation method, for whatever reason, it tends to be pickier about the hardware that it likes during the initial detection phase. I was able to install using this method only three out of the five systems I tried it on. This one however does completely set everything up without any interaction on your part until you login and install the Steam Client and set up your steam account.

The second method uses a more typical 900mb image (link to download here), and is used to create a bootable USB key. It can also be burned to a DVD image (whereas the first cannot, it must be run from a bootable USB key or hard drive). This method requires you to be present during installation as it will ask a few questions during installation to confirm location, then installation, then permission to create a recovery partition before it is all done. This method worked on all five systems that I ran it on. Keep in mind however, that BOTH methods require your system to be able to boot with UEFI support (this is necessary for the DRM chain that the partner machines will come with and most of their game partners require to protect their IP from the big bad Linux pirates).

Once you get the image created (which we will go over both methods of doing in Part II – Installation, in our series of SteamOS articles), you should choose the USB UEFI boot option from your BIOS Boot Menu and be presented with the following:

SteamOS Initial Boot Screen

What’s Next?
In our next article in this series, we will take the second (more customized) installation image and talk about how to create the bootable USB key and then the various screens we will see and steps that are necessary to complete the installation. Check back here shortly for updates and throughout the first part of next year as we continue our coverage of SteamOS!

Terrence T. Cox

A veteran of twenty years in Information Technology in a variety of roles. He has worked in development, security and infrastructure well before they merged into what we now call DevOps. He provides training in Linux, VMWare, DevOps (Ansible, Jenkins, etc) as well as containers and AWS topics.