Steam For Ubuntu: A Five Point Review

Senior Contributor
02.15.13 5 Comments

I’m unique among Ubuntu users; I run the OS not because I believe deeply in free software and want to tell you how inferior your operating system is, but because I’m too cheap to pay for Photoshop and Office and too much of a wuss to just steal them like everyone else. As a result, my primary PC is a dual-boot; Ubuntu for work, Windows for playing games for fun and watching movies on the run.

Will Steam for Ubuntu change that? Well… not yet. But it’s a good start… insofar as Ubuntu lets it be one.

The Client

Using the client itself is pretty straightforward, it has to be said. While it’s still got some minor rough edges, and gave me a little trouble on the installation, Valve has worked pretty hard to make this that rare Ubuntu user experience that’s actually smooth and won’t draw on your rusty command line skills.

Buying games is as smooth as it ever is, on Steam, so there’s that.

The Games

That said, the biggest drawback here is the game selection right now. Valve has ported Half-Life, Team Fortress 2, and Counter-Strike and there are major games like Serious Sam 3, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Crusader Kings II and FML FTL, but a lot of the launch games are indie obscurities and fairly heavy on the platformers and casual games.

The Navigation

Everything I tried, from forums to library, loaded quickly, but it felt a little slower and stiffer compared to the Windows client. That said, I’m not willing to blame the software for that one; it could well be my laptop.

The Playback

Here, there aren’t any problems. It does take the games maybe a second or two longer to boot, but I literally had to pull out a stopwatch to see a difference. The big issue is really the fact that you’re going to spend a hell of a lot more time configuring this and that to play more graphically-intensive games. It’s more an annoyance than anything else, but if your gaming time is limited, be aware installing a new game will mean “fun” with settings until you’ve got what you want.

The Problem Right Now Is Ubuntu

I hate keyboard/mouse, so I use a Logitech gamepad and a few custom programs like XPadder in Windows to get the controls up and running and avoid screwing around with config files. In Ubuntu, right now, it’s possible to get that… but more complex than it should be.

Therein lies the rub. Steam works beautifully, the games I downloaded work beautifully, but the OS is not up to the usability standards you want when all you want to do is just play a game. I spent five hours with this last night, and an hour of that time, in increments, was spent troubleshooting: Downloading drivers, adding outside software, unpacking tarballs, tweaking configs. At least some of that was hardware, but Windows 7 on the same machine doesn’t give me any of these problems. It felt a lot like when I was PC gaming in the ’90s, honestly, where you’d run a game for ten seconds and get an error code that took up three lines in the window.

It’s true this is a stepping stone to other things: Steamboxes, Steam for Android, Steam for Consoles depending on who you ask. And Valve has done its homework; this is great for regular Ubuntu users, and it says something that even casual users like me can get the thing up and running with relatively minimal effort.

But Canonical needs to step up, if they want this to be more than a curiosity.

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