This is the story of my Living Room PC. I built it with SteamOS in mind, and since last year I have been running SteamOS on it. And it’s been a painful experience, even more recently than ever. And just a couple of days ago, my patience grew thinner and thinner and I came to the point where I got rid of SteamOS. Don’t worry, I am not switching back to Windows or something - but to a regular. healthy Linux distro instead.
This is somehow unfortunate. I really think SteamOS is a great idea, but at this stage it just feels too ALPHA (and I don’t mean this lightly) to be used on a gaming machine. Now, maybe I’m one of the unlucky few, so you know, your mileage may vary, but in the past 2 months I have had to reinstall SteamOS from scratch 4 times.
Four. Fucking. Times.
When I say reinstall, I mean using the install DVD, formating the root/swap partitions and going through a 45 minutes process just to get things working again - and then updating to the latest SteamOS version - another 15 minutes. No matter how many times I reinstalled it, I always end up into the “Fatal Error Loop” sooner or later - usually within a week or two. It looks like that: you start your machine, planning to enjoy games for your evening, and after the Steam logo appears in the background, suddenly things go dark, you see a blinking mouse pointer on screen or random blinking lines and nothing else happens. If you wait long enough, you usually end up having a message that SteamOS has experienced a fatal error, and is attempting to recover from it. This recovery process is completely ass, because it never solves the issue. That is why you end up in a loop, where the reboot brings you back to the same issue. This has been reported to Valve numerous times, yet at this time of writing it is still not fixed. It’s been existing at least since 2 prior updates of SteamOS, and folks like me are still getting it. Note that the recovery partition made at install is completely useless as well and does not solve the problem either. So what is the problem exactly ?
Attribution: Randall Munroe, XKCD: Mysteries.
Some careful investigation has led to a couple of hints. What happens is that, for unknown reasons, the Steam client gets corrupted, and is unable to start. Strange since I always stop my machines in a clean fashion. In several cases it appears that a whole chunk of the client is missing (tenfoot/ folder completely gone in the Steam directory), or some libraries are gone from the system for some reason. Apparently this whole corruption mess is going to be fixed in 2.88, but after getting it once too much, I am giving up. I have no more time for this.
So, that particular issue was number 1 on my list to ditch SteamOS. But it goes further. Do you know that, almost after every single Steam client update, in my case SteamOS “forgets” all the users it had registered on the system ? Now you can picture me, restarting my box and having, again and again, having to enter my username and password with the Steam Controller. Since Steam client updates are super frequent (it makes you wonder why they need so many updates, even the PS3, which I hate for that, did not have such a urge to update stuff all the time), this gets really old, really fast.
After entering your credentials, one more bug awaits me. Every. Single. Time. It goes into the “Updating Information” loop. It never ends. No progress bar. I need to reboot once more. After a reboot, finally I can go past this and find my games (still all there! my lucky day!).
Actually, not* all* my games. I happen to be a beta tester for some games, and when I end up with the client reset, all my beta subscriptions are gone, and guess what. I have to re-enter the beta password, and re-download the whole game again. Such a waste of time and bandwidth. Again, maybe it’s just me, but after 4 full reinstalls something tells me this is some deep flaw in the way things work.
And no, it’s not just the only things the client forgets. Every time I have to enter my credentials again, reboot, log in again, I face with despair the fact that all my settings have been erased. The resolution of my screen. My audio interface. The fact that I want downloads to occur in the background. Well, every little tweak I cared about.
Then, you have the odd games that never seem to launch on SteamOS. Speed Runners.** Shufflepuck Cafe**. There are probably too few users of SteamOS overall for folks to even care about it launching there. I mentioned it before as well, but because nVidia drivers have been ancient for a long time on SteamOS, many bugs encountered in games were answered by “use a more recent nVidia driver”. Gee, thanks, no way to do that with SteamOS. I guess I’ll have to wait for that update to come in… like 6 months. Or sometimes the porters are at fault. Overlord uses a GTK3 window for settings that does not work at all for SteamOS. Maybe in a couple of months they will have a launcher that works with SteamOS… if they care.
This is probably the most frustrating part of SteamOS. There is no roadmap. There is no plan. When you file issues on Valve’s GitHub account most of the folks who try to help are end users like you. I want to mention ProfessorKaos64 here, who is doing a terrific job to try to help folks as much as he can. But that’s not enough - and that should not be his role in an ideal world. In the end the elephant in the room is that the lack of Valve folks coming up and commenting, helping out on issues. It makes you wonder if anyone sees them, if anyone cares. What I like about Github is the collaboration aspect. You report stuff, the author/devs come up and comment, tell you what they can do and what not, and things get better, step by step. With SteamOS, issues are met with silence, or other end users complaining about the same thing. Waiting for a fix. Waiting for a word. Waiting very long. That does not inspire too much trust.
My expectation all along for SteamOS was that it’s an OS that “just works”. You install it, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. It’s seamless, you can forget about it and just spend time doing what you like: playing games. You know, just like a console.
Well, that was the idea. The execution has been… terrible.
I have never seen anything so broken, even in the Linux world, and I have been using Linux as my daily driver for close to 10 years. Why on Earth would you not want to check if the Steam Client is not corrupted before you start it, since it will lead to a fatal error if you fail to do so ? Or you know, if the updated client fails, why not keep the latest working client as a backup so that you can still boot in your machine no matter what, and re-try the update later on ? The more I use SteamOS, the more I wonder if the devs actually use the OS themselves at home - have they really faced none of the issues I had ? Is anyone doing any sort of QA ? The lack of polish really makes it look like it’s at the bottom of the priority list for everyone involved.
Attribution: Randall Munroe, XKCD: Compiling.
So, goodbye SteamOS. It’s been fun… for the first few months. It’s been horrible recently. And it’s certainly not getting better.
I have now moved back to a regular Linux distro (Mint 18, Mate edition with Compton as compositor) because I know what to expect there. Sure, it won’t be as nice - some of the worst ports (like Psychonauts) will start in a window and will make you hate them until you fix all the options (adding gamepad controls for that one is… time-consuming). Sure, you will get to see the desktop screen for a while before booting in Big Picture Mode. No biggie, I can live with that. At least I can upgrade to more recent drivers. At least I can always fall back on the desktop in case my Steam client fails. At least I can install a bunch of other software if I wish to, without having to worry whether or not it’s going to cause any trouble with the base OS. At least I can make an image of the OS root partition that I know I can come back to in case everything refuses to boot.
Is this a goodbye forever? I don’t know. If Valve manages to fix what broke everything, and makes it into a very sturdy system, with more up to date drivers, and more services directly integrated (you know… “apps” to do more stuff! Even consoles have them, why not SteamOS ?), I may end up considering it again. But I’ll be sure to read the issues status on GitHub before I even think about it.