What is SteamOS? How to Start a Game on Linux

By | December 22, 2021

Since 2013, game platform developer Steam has maintained its own Linux-based operating system: SteamOS.

Originally intended for a now-abandoned set of “Steam Machine” branded hardware, this Linux gaming OS can be installed on any computer.

But is SteamOS good for Linux gaming? Can you just rely on SteamOS for gaming, or should you dual boot with Windows? Let’s see.

What is SteamOS

SteamOS is a Debian Linux family optimized for video games.

It installs on standard PC hardware and provides a console-like experience via the Steam game client. For a console-like experience, Big Picture mode is recommended.

More specifically, SteamOS features kernel tweaks designed to improve gaming performance. The latest graphics drivers are supported, but SteamOS features a bit in the way of additional apps. Although it has a GNOME desktop and a version of the Chrome browser, not much is included.

After all, it’s an OS that’s all about gaming. While ChromeOS is dedicated to cloud computing, SteamOS is dedicated to gaming.

SteamOS Hardware Requirements

As of June 2020, the minimum hardware requirements to run SteamOS on your PC are:

  • Intel or AMD 64-bit processor
  • Memory 4GB or more
  • 250GB or larger disk
  • NVIDIA, Intel, or AMD graphics card
  • USB port or DVD drive for installation

Of course, for games with full graphics and FPS settings, you will need more RAM and High-end GPU.

Significantly, however, most PCs currently available are more than suitable for running SteamOS. Whether you opt for an old device or a new PC, most Linux-compatible Steam libraries can run.

Note that while the operating system is open source, the Steam client and some third-party drivers are proprietary. If you’ve played on Linux before, you’ll understand that this is not unusual. But if you’re an open source advocate, it might not be the ideal solution for you.

What Games Run on SteamOS

The selection of Steam-hosted games worth running on SteamOS is too numerous to list here. As of June 2020, more than 6,500 Linux-compatible games are available in the Steam library.

It’s an impressive library of titles that includes big hitters including Civilization 6, Saints Row IV, Rocket League, CS:GO, and Dota 2. Independent publishers also release games on Linux, producing the most diverse and vibrant games and communities.

Meanwhile, about 250,000 people use Linux to play Steam games every day. That number is of course lower than the total number of Linux users who have Steam installed.

In short, Steam is the future of Linux gaming, and SteamOS connects you directly to that environment.

Does SteamOS Have Any Limitations

SteamOS, while good, has some limitations.

For starters, there is an obvious drawback: not all games are available with Linux. While SteamOS has resulted in dramatically improved Linux compatibility and indie games often supporting Linux, many major publishers have ignored it.

However, it has become much better than before. Often, games are released initially on Windows and macOS, then support is added for Linux on the line.

Another downside of SteamOS is that its operating system is adapted only for gaming. Although additional software can be added via Apt, you will have to wait for a lot of dependencies to also be installed. If standard computing is required, SteamOS is best avoided in favor of a normal Linux desktop. You can still install the Steam client if you need to.

Install SteamOS on your PC

If you want to install SteamOS, you will need a 4GB USB stick or DVD to write the installation.

The simplest option is Automatic Installation this will wipe your hard disk drive. For dual boot, use the Expert Install option to create a new disk partition to install SteamOS.

Basically, installing SteamOS is as simple as installing any version of Linux.

What Games Are Like on SteamOS

So, SteamOS is a Debian based operating system with the Steam client pre-installed.

There’s not much to say about the Steam client itself that you probably didn’t know. This is the same Linux client, which is largely identical to the one on Windows and macOS. It has all the same features, including Streaming at Home. There’s nothing you can’t miss by using SteamOS.

Gaming performance is also indistinguishable. Whether RPG, FPS or strategy, Linux is up to the task. Not a surprise from a performance standpoint, but impressive how Steam handles Linux. Apart from that, other achievements and unlockables are also supported.

Crushing it, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. SteamOS doesn’t include much more than a Steam client, leaving sizable system resources that can be dedicated to individual games. Any difference in performance between Windows and Linux is minimal. In the end, if you get the same frame rate, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Controller support is also good, with just about any controller you can think of being supported. While the best outcome might be an Xbox One or PS4 style controller, the Steam Controller is well worth it. However, as this is becoming increasingly rare, a standard console controller is your best bet.

Games on Linux? You Need SteamOS

If you plan to use Linux primarily for gaming, SteamOS is the best choice. It’s lightweight, has good GPU support, and the list of compatible games is growing all the time.

Used alone, it can handle most games you want to play. Furthermore, since 2018 Steam Play has been added to the Steam client. It features a modified version of Wine and is meant to coax incompatible games to run on Steam.

Any game that refuses to run will require strict attention under PlayOnLinux/Wine, or installation in a virtual machine. Both options result in poorer performance on newer titles.

But what you really want to know is this: can SteamOS replace Windows?

Well, if you are all about PC gaming and the games you love have Linux support, then yes. But you may want to dual boot and use Windows for productivity or as a non-Linux gaming alternative.