How to install SteamOS on your computer

A beta version of Valve's gaming operating system is now available for download. Here's how you can transform your current computer into a Steam Machine.

Valve, the gaming company behind the hit series Half-Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, is looking to change the industry once again. With more than 75 million users and a market share estimated at around 75 percent, the company's Steam digital distribution platform has already changed the way computer owners purchase and play games.

Unsatisfied with the way the game console market has shifted in recent years, Valve in 2013 announced a new strategy for invading the living room. The company created SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system designed for playing video games.

SteamOS computers, also known as Steam Machines, from manufacturers like Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Origin PC, among many others, are slated to launch later this year, but you don't have to wait to get your hands on Valve's new operating system.

Here's how you can transform your current computer into a Steam Machine:

Hardware requirements

Most mid- to high-end computers should be able to run SteamOS with no problem. You will need either a 64-bit Intel or AMD processor, a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and a hard drive with at least 500GB of storage. While Valve recommends an Nvidia graphics card (they are optimized to work better with SteamOS), the latest beta added support for both AMD and Intel graphics. Additionally, your system must include Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) boot support, which most modern (past three or four years) motherboards do.

Dan Graziano/CNET

In addition to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, you will also need a flash drive with at least 4GB of space, an Ethernet connection, and a USB game controller -- I'm using a wired Xbox 360 controller.

For information about building your own computer, including an in-depth description of the parts you will need and a step-by-step build process, be sure to check out CNET's three-part do-it-yourself computer guide.

Installation

SteamOS is still in beta and parts of the operating system are not 100 percent functional. Please be aware that the operating system has some bugs that still must be worked out. Installing SteamOS will also erase your entire hard drive, so it is imperative that you back up any important data to external drive.

There are two methods for installing SteamOS; this guide will cover them both.

Default installation
The default installation process is the easiest way to install SteamOS. The process is pretty straightforward and shouldn't be too much of a hassle for the average user. Note that this method requires at least a 1TB hard drive. To install SteamOS using the default method, follow these steps:

1. Download the official SteamOS file from Valve's Web site.

Screenshot by Dan Graziano/CNET

2. Connect your USB drive to your computer and format it. To do this on Windows, right-click the drive, select format, and choose FAT32. For OS X, enter the Utilities folder in your Applications list, click on Disk Utility, select Erase, and choose MS-DOS (FAT). Rename the USB drive to "SYSRESTORE."

The files must be on the root of your USB flash drive. Screenshot by Dan Graziano/CNET

3. After the download has finished, unzip and extract all of the files to the USB drive. Make sure they are on the root of the drive, meaning that they aren't stored in a folder.

Dan Graziano/CNET

4. Power down your computer and boot to the USB drive. This can be done from the BIOS boot menu, which can be accessed by holding either the DEL, F8, F10, F11, or F12 keys as the computer is powering on (depending on your system). The selection you are looking for will read something along the lines of "UEFI: USB Brand Name PMAP."

5. Next, select the "Restore Entire Disk" option from the boot menu.

Dan Graziano/CNET

6. Once installation is complete, press Enter to shut down the machine.

7. Remove the USB drive and power on your computer. You should now be running SteamOS.

Custom installation
While the default method is the easiest way to install SteamOS, some people have reported running into problems. If that's the case, you should try the custom installation method. The process is slightly more complicated than the first, but it also gives advanced users the power to tweak certain settings. Follow these steps to install SteamOS using the custom installation method:

1. Download the official custom-install SteamOS file from Valve's Web site.

2. Connect your USB drive to your computer and format it. On Windows, right-click the drive, select format, and choose FAT32. On OS X, enter the Utilities folder in your Applications list, click on Disk Utility, select Erase, and choose MS-DOS (FAT).

3. Unzip the file and extract its content to the root of your flash drive.

4. Power down your computer and boot to the USB drive. This can be done from the BIOS boot menu, which can be accessed by tapping either the DEL, F8, F10, F11, or F12 keys once the computer is powering on (depending on your system). The selection you are looking for will read, "UEFI: USB Brand Name PMAP."

Dan Graziano/CNET

5. Select the "Automated install" option from the menu, but remember this will erase your entire hard drive. The installer will automatically partition the drive and install the new operating system.

Dan Graziano/CNET

6. After installation is complete, remove the USB drive, hit the "Continue" button, and your system will reboot. If you are having trouble booting into SteamOS, enter the BIOS settings and make sure the computer is booting from the hard drive that has the operating system installed.

7. Once the system reboots, select the option that reads, "SteamOS GNU/Linux, with Linux 3.10-3-amd64."

Dan Graziano/CNET

8. Change the pull-down to the "GNOME" option and enter "steam" for the username and password.

9. Click on the Activities button in the top left corner of the screen, select the Applications tab, open the Terminal application, type in "steam," hit Enter, and accept the the terms of use agreement.

Dan Graziano/CNET

10. Click on the Steam button in the top right corner of the screen and log out of your session. Log back into the GNOME desktop, but this time with the username and password "desktop."

11. Type "~/post_logon.sh" in the Terminal window, hit Enter, and enter the password when prompted to do so -- don't panic if the numbers don't appear when you type them out. Just type "desktop" and hit Enter.

Dan Graziano/CNET

12. The system will now reboot. When prompted to do so, hit the "y" key, followed by Enter.

13. Now when you reboot your system you should be running SteamOS. Simply log in to an existing account or create a new one.

Limitations

Why would you want to download SteamOS? Good question. In fact, there is no real reason for you to run the operating system at all. It's severely limited and most Steam games don't even support it, yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Out of the 102 games I own on the platform, only 41 currently support SteamOS, a majority of which are either games from Valve -- Portal, Left 4 Dead, Half-Life -- or from smaller, independent developers. To make matters worse, only 16 games out of the 41 I own that support SteamOS have full or partial support for game controllers.

Conclusion

I must admit, it's cool to play some of these games with a controller, although this can also be done via Steam's Big Picture mode. One of the games I tested was Left 4 Dead 2, which included full support for game controllers, and it was relatively smooth. At first, performance on SteamOS appeared to be on par with that of Windows. As I continued to play, however, the game completely froze and I was forced to quit. I also experienced freezing and low frame rates playing Brutal Legend and Dungeon Defenders, two games that aren't necessarily high-end.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the beta tag, I found the actual operating system to be fairly stable. While gameplay performance, which appears to vary by game, has room for improvement, the interface of SteamOS was quite fluid. Due to the limited selection of games, however, there isn't much you can do with it yet. I suspect the only reason people would be interested in running SteamOS is to get a sneak peek at the software on the upcoming Steam Machine; other than that you're better off gaming on Windows or even OS X.

 

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