Can Linux replace Windows as a platform for computer games?
I recently became the owner of a powerful and practical notebook Asus X550JK at a very attractive price. As one of the main advantages of this model it is possible to emphasize the fact that X550JK is offered without preinstalled operating system (at least in the modification XO031D), which makes it a good purchase for users who prefer to choose a suitable for their specific needs software platform – whether it’s popular (but paid) Microsoft Windows or one of the many (but free) Linux distributions.
One of the main arguments usually go in favor of Windows in such cases, is associated with video games. Modern versions of Linux are completely viable competitors to Windows for most everyday tasks (web browsing, multimedia entertainment, office work, etc.), but from the point of view of games, things are different.
It is no secret that a large part (almost 90%) of modern PC games rely on DirectX programming interface developed by Microsoft. At the same time, the vast majority of computer systems in the world are running Windows. It is therefore not surprising that companies in the gaming industry creating its products for this operating system, not Linux which is a very modest niche in the market.
However, Valve – the company that owns the digital distribution service games Steam – the last two years has made determined efforts to break (or at least undermine) the status quo. The main tool, which the company expects for this purpose, called SteamOS – a specially modified version of Linux which is free and can be arranged around the platform Steam.
At first glance, the attempt to promote Linux as environment for computer games is not such a bad idea. Moreover, if to judge on more than 1000 titles to SteamOS/Linux, currently offered in the digital store Valve, it is possible to conclude that some of the goals the company has achieved.
This figure suggests that the attention of developers involved, the real game are present (including premium, big budget titles, and not just niche indie projects), and the loss of its position of Windows the dominant platform for games is just a matter of time. But is it? I decided to test it in practice. For this purpose I have used mentioned in the beginning of the text good from a gaming point of view laptop Asus X550JK, on which was installed non-Windows operating systems, with one main idea: the game! Here is the result.
Of course, at first my choice fell SteamOS for two simple reasons. First, its creators at Valve say that in the face of this operating system they offer an alternative to Windows designed specifically for playing games. Second, because (again, according to Valve) Valve SteamOS has been designed to be as simple in the process of installation, configuration and use even for users without special knowledge.
Currently, SteamOS is only available as a beta version and can be downloaded for free from Valve. At first glance it becomes obvious that the developers have taken care to ensure that as many of the enthusiasts were given the chance to their product. For example, the installation process and initial configuration are described in detail and translated into several dozen languages, including Russian.
The installation itself does not pose a particular problem – all very easily and quickly. You just need to extract the system files to a USB drive with FAT32 file system and then boot the computer. The installation process took me a few minutes, and then at my disposal, appeared ready SteamOS machine.
Sorry, here I was faced with the first serious problem – the system has not found a discrete graphics card in the laptop (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 850M) and instead installed the driver only for the built-in graphics core, which, as you yourself know, is not sufficient for a comfortable game. In the Internet you can find various suggestions for solving this problem, including download and install the driver manually, but it is, in my opinion, an impossible task for inexperienced users. All we are talking about Linux – in the terminal window, enter complex commands, unzip, and recompile the library – all things that the user is accustomed to simple, intuitive and accessible graphical user interface to cope will be extremely difficult.
However, I decided to bring the experiment to the end and see (though with the built-in processor graphics core) for two available for Linux/SteamOS games: Civilization V and Metro: Last Light Redux.
Demanding, first-person shooter from 4A Games refused to run, citing the fact that the system could not find a compatible OpenGL 4.0 graphics accelerator. It is appropriate to recall that most modern 3D games in Linux, expect it to interface with OpenGL, as DirectX is only available in the Windows environment.
Strategy Civilization V, unlike Metro, has not objected to the presence of integrated graphics and start, but with minimal graphics settings.
To summarize: at this stage of its development the operating system from Valve, left mixed impressions. Obviously, the company will have to work more in terms of driver support, although at this stage I am inclined to think that the problems I encountered may be related to the fact that SteamOS is now available only as a beta. It is not excluded that the final version of the system will cope with automatic detection and configuration of main hardware components is much better.
Now I can’t recommend SteamOS as an alternative to Windows, particularly for notebooks, which often contain very specific hardware modules. Search for Linux-compatible (not to mention SteamOS) drivers for such components would be extremely challenging.
There is another serious argument against SteamOS on the possible role of this platform as a worthy replacement Windows. This is a highly specialized modification of Linux with a rather limited functionality. In other words, SteamOS is created solely as an environment that allows you to buy, download, and play games. The only other possibility is that the system allows you to browse the web using built-in browser, which is also very primitive.
Other tasks outside of video games simply is not provided. The result is SteamOS effectively turns the computer into a game console, but can’t be used for anything other than gaming entertainment.
As an initial choice based on Linux a little disappointed in me, I decided to continue the experiment with one of the most popular distributions of the free OS – Ubuntu. This is not a beta version, unlike SteamOS, a platform with more than 10 years of history behind. In addition, the developer (Canonical) positions it as a full competitor to the ubiquitous Windows, which is as easy to install, configure and use.
I downloaded the latest version (14.04.2 LTS) from the official website of the company, recorded on the flash drive using the Universal USB Installer tool, and then loaded her laptop.
Then began exceptionally simple and quick installation process, after which I got a working system with an integrated office package (LibreOffice), a browser (Firefox), media player and a bunch of other useful tools – all for free.
The problems started when I moved to Steam. For some inexplicable reason, the module Steam refused to run, explaining that a mysterious absence of several system libraries. In the end, after hours of searching the Internet and attempts to overcome this problem I gave up.
Though outwardly she looks and behaves (in some places) like Windows, Ubuntu has quickly shown that beneath its surface hides a quite complex and not very friendly mood to the ordinary user operating environment. Despite the nice interface, the switch to Ubuntu requires serious changes in the established habits and method of work. For example, for each of the possible solutions to problems with the Steam client, which I found on various discussion forums, you need to type complex commands in the terminal window. This is a task that will scare most users without profound technical knowledge.
This was my third (and last) attempt to prove that gaming on a PC with Linux is as simple and affordable endeavor, according to admirers and supporters of the free operating system.
I downloaded the distro, put it on a flash drive (again using Universal USB Installer) and started to install the operating system on the laptop.
And again, for the third time, my experiment failed, as for some inexplicable to me reason the Mint installer refused to complete the process of copying system to disk, and repeated attempts to complete the installation are invariably unclear error message, which I never managed to eliminate.
Showed my practical experiment associated with the search free alternatives to Windows for PC games? Currently, the most promising option (not surprisingly) is the distribution SteamOS from Valve. If the company will try to provide a really good and seamlessly support a wide enough range of computer equipment, it is possible that in the foreseeable future, even more casual users (and gamers) will dare to try SteamOS. The question is whether it is justified in view of the fact that we are talking about highly specialized operating environment, organized solely around the idea of games and closely associated with a specific service – Steam.
Do not underestimate the question of the quantity and quality of gaming titles – though the popularity of Linux has been increasing recently, the operating system is still very far from the definition of «mass platform». This is clearly manifested in the still limited range of games that are available for this operating system.
As for the others, the older and popular alternatives such as Ubuntu and Mint, they offer much more functionality. But unfortunately, even on the background of already very rich history, they still leave impressions friendly and comfortable (sufficiently) for the user system.
Of course, all the above is my personal opinion, based on practical experience that is associated with the attempt to achieve specific goals using a particular model of laptop. Judging by the fact that Ubuntu and Mint, and SteamOS now have their own growing circles of fans, my experience may not be particularly revealing in this respect. That’s why I don’t want you to consider this material as a kind of attempt to belittle Linux or Windows protect. Both operating systems have their various pros and cons, and each user can decide for himself what is best for him.
However, I would be glad if you can share your own experience. Especially if you are provoked and inspired the ideas presented in this text.