Windows Machine or Thou hast betrayed me!

So, I did the unthinkable and put Windows on the Steam Machine.  To be more precise, I put Windows 7 Home Premium on a second hard drive I installed in my Steam Machine.

“Why would someone do such a thing?!” might be a question you are asking yourself.

Well, as I stated before, Steam OS is Linux based and this limits the titles you can play on the Steam Machine to those which specifically support Linux.  Of the 160+ games I have on Steam only about 40 or so support Linux and a majority of them are not very graphics-intensive.  Considering that most PC gamers are graphics snobs, this doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Also, I wanted to see if I could do it.

So, step one was to open the machine.  There is a single screw in the back of the machine that holds the cover on.  Simple enough, though actually getting the cover off was another story.  It seems that the plastic vents they use to direct the flow of air off of the CPU and GPU don’t want to let go.  It took me about 10 minutes (and some four-letter words) just to pull the cover off.  Once you get it off, the components are laid out pretty well.

Open says ME!

Open says ME!

As you can see, the hard drive is easily accessed and there is even room for another one in the case as well as 4 more SATA connections on the ASRock Z87E-ITX motherboard.  I used the same Hard Drive (Seagate 1TB Hybrid) that was included just to make sure that compatibility was not an issue although you should be able to use any Hard Drive the motherboard supports.  You’ll also need the following to get the install done:

  • A screwdriver
  • A Valid Windows 7 license (doesn’t matter what type, although I used Home Premium)
  • A USB flash drive with a boot-able version of the Windows 7 Installer on it.  You can download a utility from Microsoft to create a boot-able USB stick using a Windows 7 disc image.  The Steam Machine has no Optical Drive.  You are going to NEED this.
  • Another USB flash drive with the drivers for the motherboard, graphics card, wireless device, etc.  I ran into this issue on my first install.  Windows 7 will NOT install the correct drivers for the hardware and you will have NO internet access.  Fun, huh?  Go to the motherboard manufacturer’s website to get the correct drivers.  You don’t have to get them all, but it helps in the long run.

After some trial and error (and *ahem* reinstalls) here are the steps that I found worked for installing Windows 7 and being able to dual-boot.  I am not an expert by any sense of the word, so please, if you intend to do this do not blame me if it goes horribly wrong.  Also, I deplore Windows 8, so I used Windows 7.

  1. Before opening the case, please disconnect all power and other cables.  Seems like I shouldn’t have to say this, but just making sure.
  2. Disconnect the Hard Drive that the Steam OS is installed on and put it aside.  Steam OS formats it’s Hard Drives as GPT and the Windows 7 Installer does not like this.  Also, it prevents you from accidentally formatting the HD that has Steam OS already on it.  Go ahead and connect your new, unformatted HD that you want to put Windows on.
  3. Close the case up and reconnect everything, including a keyboard and mouse.  You’ll need them to install Win7.
  4. Stick the USB stick in one of the many USB ports on the machine.  I recommend using the ones on the back as the ones on the front are not (to my knowledge) USB 3.0.
  5. Power-up and get into the BIOS for the system.  In my case, you hit F11 to choose the boot order (or Del to get into the BIOS itself) and have to select the USB stick as the first bootable drive.
  6. Follow the Windows 7 installer.  If I have to tell you how, you shouldn’t be doing this.
  7. When the machine powers off, disconnect the Win7 USB drive.  Let Windows load, then plug in the USB drive with the hardware drivers.  You’re going to have to install the hardware drivers the hard way by using the Device Manager in Windows.  Again, if you don’t know how to do this.  You shouldn’t have attempted to install Windows.
  8. Once Windows is all nice and comfy on your Steam Machine, power down and unplug everything.  Open the case and reconnect the Hard Drive with Steam OS on it.
  9. Close up and reconnect everything and power-on the system.
  10. Make sure you get into the BIOS before anything starts (hitting F11 or DEL) and select Steam OS as the first boot-able drive.  Steam OS should start normally.
  11. This is the tricky part.  If you notice, you’ll get a quick screen of the bootloader for Steam OS (it uses grub) after the BIOS, but before the big Steam OS logo.  I do mean quick.  Hitting the DEL key will bring up the grub menu.  It will look similar to this:  S3_GRUB_BootloaderIf you want to add Windows 7 to the choices for the system you’ll have to do it here.  In my experience, I’m much more apt to using the BIOS to select the OS I want by making the correct Hard Drive the first bootable drive.  Otherwise you’ll need good timing to get the grub menu when you want it.  There may be a way to use a different bootloader, but grub works so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

There you have it.  Now you’ll be able to use either Steam OS or Windows 7 on your Steam Machine.  Provided everything went well.

After installing the Steam client while in Windows you should be able to access Big Picture mode and play any game in your Steam library instead of the limited amount of Linux titles.  Granted, Windows 7 is not as lean as Linux, so performance may be curtailed but in my experience it wasn’t notable.

 

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Steam Machines Or Proprietary Shmoprietary

At CES Valve revealed images of third-party Steam Machines from popular brands such as Alienware and iBuyPower.  This leads to the question “Why?” 
image

While Steam OS is pretty, easy to use, and not very resource intensive, does it really need its own hardware? 
No, and yes.
For the average consumer, it is a good idea.  Someone who wants something that is plug and play would be really happy with it, depending on price point.  However, for most of the PC “master race” having a dedicated Steam Machine really isn’t necessary.  Most PC elitists would rather build their own and have it run Windows so that it can play all the games Steam has to offer.  They could also build a dual-booting machine that can run Steam OS when gaming, thereby freeing up more resources. 
I do wholeheartedly support Valve in their decision to use Linux, support modding, and not make their hardware proprietary.  The competition should lower prices overall.  Now if only the rest of Steam’s catalog would be accessible on Linux. 
Looking forward, will the Steam OS put pressure on EA’s Origin to hang up their DRM dreams?  One can only hope so.

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Steam Machine Day 2 or Fat Fumbly Fingers

Controllers have evolved.  There have been studies performed by hardware developers that made them more ergonomical, responsive, intuitive, and just plain easy to use.  There is a rich history of horrible controllers, such as the Power Glove, the Atari Jaguar Controller, and the XBox “Fat”.

Power Glove XBox Fat Atari Jaguar

The Steam Machine’s controller is not that bad.

I’ll admit, I am not very good at FPSs.  They are not my forte.  I’ve tried to play Half-Life 2 and Metro: Last Light using the Steam Machine’s controller and was promptly flummoxed.  Using the two touchpads is very difficult.  The left is too responsive and the right is not responsive enough.  As with most two-stick controllers, the left touchpad moves you and the right is how you look around/aim.  Often, I was moving too fast and aiming too slow.  In Half-Life 2, pushing too far forward on the left pad makes you automatically sprint.  Which, when it came to the jumping puzzles had me cursing furiously.  Trying to find that sweet spot where you are moving forward, but not sprinting, was next to impossible with thumbs of a human adult.  Oh, and just to make it more interesting, pushing the left pad down makes you jump.  Oh, what fun.

The controls were also difficult to figure out.  In Half Life 2, I could not for the life of me figure out how to duck.  In Metro: Last Light, it looks like they took the time to try and at least make a map of the controller.  If you push the grey button on the controller…wait a minute…they are ALL GREY.  Okay, pushing the small, grey, innocuous button below the “A” button brings up a controller map for Metro:Last Light.  So far, this is the only game that this has worked in.  To be fair, I’ve only played a few games on the Steam Machine.  In my defense though, only Linux-based games work on it.

There is hope, though.  I unplugged the Steam Machine controller and plugged in a PDP XBox 360 controller.  IT WORKS!  Yay!  The Steam Machine recognizes it as a “Generic 360 Controller”.  I tried out Bastion with it.  Works just as well as playing it on a PC.  Which is great, because to use the Steam Controller, you have to set the control scheme to Mouse and then use the controller like you would a mouse.  The Right touchpad moves you and the right trigger is like clicking the left mouse button.  Confused yet?  I was.

I also tried using the old-faithful of the PC gaming world, a keyboard and mouse.  You can use those too!  The only issue I see with that is why would someone buy the Steam Machine when they can get a PC and just use Steam’s Big Picture mode?  If you do that, you can play any game as well.  You don’t have to worry if it is Linux-capable or not.  Well, that is a discussion for another post.

This update, I’ll leave you with one more thing.  Here is the System Info displayed using the menus of the Steam Machine:

System Info

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Steam Machine or The Great Un-Crating

Upon opening the crate that the Steam Machine came in, you are greeted by the static-free bag that the unit comes in.

Open Crate

Not the best visual, I know.  However, it is necessary.  Below the unit was the controller, as well as literature about setting the unit up.

Controller and Literature

Below the literature was the included cables.  Among those were an HDMI cable (yay!), the power cable, the micro USB cable for the controller, and a WiFi antenna.

Cables

Also included was a USB drive with a backup of the Steam OS.  I thought this was a really good idea since the Steam Machine itself is, in essence a PC running Linux.

USB Backup

The controller itself looked pretty plain.  I suppose it is not branded and also doesn’t have any colored buttons that I am used to.

Controller FrontController Back

It was rather light compared to controllers for other consoles.  Also absent from the controller was any sort of headphone jack, like the XBox 360 controller has.  In addition to the triggers and bumpers that a Dual Shock or 360 controller has, there are also two buttons on the “handles” of the controller marked as left/right pads.

Back of unit

The back of the unit has all the connections that would be on the back of a PC.  USB, Ethernet, HDMI, keyboard, etc.  Since this is a Beta unit, the video ports from the motherboard were covered with plastic.  I would assume you could use them, if you got into the BIOS.  That is not the purpose of this test, so I’m just going to ignore them.

Steam Machine Unboxing

The front of the unit has the “Big Button” on it as well as 2 USB ports for the controller.  When the unit is operational, the Big Button is illuminated a very bright white.  I think you might be able to see it from space.  If you want to look at it, I would build a pinhole projector that way you’ll also be prepared for the next eclipse.

Installation Card

The installation instructions are pretty fool-proof.  I tested them with actual fools.  If anyone can help me find a home for the leftover fools, please let me know.  I also need someone who can dispose of fools discretely.

Startup  Language  Controller Text

The first few screens of the unit setup were pretty uneventful.  The normal language selection, Time Zone, etc.  When it comes to inputting text using the controller was a little tricky at first and not very intuitive.  Using the left pad, you select the set of letters, then using the right you select the actual letter.  The controller is very sensitive.  Using it does take a considerable amount of time to get used to.  In my opinion it is too light and the vibration feedback is not strong enough.

UI

The UI is very nice for a first attempt.  It is simple, informative, and pretty.  Startup is very quick.  I’d say it is on-par with the startup time of a PS3.  Again, the controller seems to be the Achilles heel of the system so far.  The slightest movement causes you to select things you might not necessarily want to do.  In the unit’s defense, I have not gotten too far into the settings to see if I can turn down the sensitivity of the touch pads.

The only games that can be played on the Steam Machine are those with a Linux version available.  The games that Steam gave me for participating in the Beta all have a Linux version so that is a big plus, especially since Linux is such a light operating system.  This should translate into a pretty good performance, system-wide.

In my next entry, I’ll get into the packaging specifics of the crate.  I’ll also get into the performance of the unit with some of the games provided for the Beta.

I welcome all feedback, so please provide it below by clicking “Leave a Comment”.

 

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