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June 21st, 2016

Anecdotal Comparison of Steam on Linux Vs Windows

The word on the street is that gaming on Linux doesn’t work as well as on Brand X. According to our everyday Super Geek, that seems to be just another Microsoft myth.

The Heart of Linux

“Hi, my name is Joan and I live in 104B. Are you the computer guy?”

I wasn’t ready to receive visitors or company. When I am within my home walls, I’m not the guy you see in public. Neither am I the guy you see at the speaker’s podium and I’m not the guy you run into at the local bodega. There are a number of things I have to do prior to being in a public place so I don’t scare the bejeesus out of the kids, so receiving unexpected company can be clumsy.

Super GeekWith nothing but my head peeking around the door, I signaled her to enter and I turned by back quickly as I went into the bedroom to make myself presentable to the general population. I came back out of the bedroom and placed the electronic voice simulator to my throat.

“Who told you I was a computer guy?”

She smiled widely as she answered. “Everyone at the complex clubhouse.”

I nodded knowingly as I ushered her into our home and guided her to the dining room table where I seated her and pulled out a chair for myself. She had brought an extremely nice Dell/Alienware gaming laptop and it was, or appeared to be, brand new. She opened the 17″ display machine up and she turned it so we could both watch it boot.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with it”. she complained. “It has 16 gigs of memory and a quad core processor. I wanted this one specifically but it’s so slooow”

Dell 17.3″ Alienware 17 R3 NotebookShe was complaining about her Dell 17.3″ Alienware 17 R3 Notebook. For those who haven’t seen this beast, it is gorgeous. It has every bit of the commanding presence that the original Alienware machines had.

I turned my synthvoice down so it didn’t rattle the windows.

“When you say it’s slow, how is it slow? Is it slow to load pages, is it slow while using software or is it jerky during game play?”

She turned the computer back to her focus and began typing. In a moment, she began serious interaction with the keyboard and when she finished, she turned it back so we could both see it.

“All of the above,” she answered. “My Dad spent a lot on this computer for my birthday and I didn’t have a lot of input.”

Indeed, Joan did not have many choices. Her dad went to Best Buy, and not knowing anything about computers, he just told the sales guy he wanted something his daughter could play games on. He pretty much let the sales rep tell him what to buy. Of course it was the top of the line Dell Alienware. It’s glossy and it glows orange. That probably sold her dad on the spot. The sales rep even told him that he would upgrade the laptop to Windows 10 at no charge. If he purchased the laptop, it would take an hour or so and he could come pick it up.

Her dad had it shipped right from Best Buy to Joan’s house, just a few doors down from me. Just my luck.

Joan’s biggest problem is primarily when trying to run Steam, which has been an on and off issue for almost a year. This is not an unknown problem on Windows 10, and the most frustrating part being that while the issue is well documented, there are about as many “fixes” as there are people complaining about it. Some report that a registry hack is needed, which was as far as Joan got in her research. That’s when she sought out the “Computer Guy”.

I asked what games she liked to play on Steam. I told her about Linux and explained that Steam has a large number of games that now run on Linux, in some cases with better performance than on Windows. She remarked out of the corner of her mouth, “Well that wouldn’t take much, now would it?”

(Apologies. I thought that was hilarious, coming from someone who isn’t affiliated or aligned with either religion camp.)

But she was hesitant because of what she had heard about Linux, that being the old party line that says Linux is too complex, doesn’t work well on the Internet and that there are no games that run on the operating system. Where has she heard these specific “facts?” From her ex-boyfriend, of course. The ex-boyfriend that worked for the Microsoft Store in San Antonio. Go figure.

Knowing she would be reluctant to allow a relative stranger to alter her machine, I went into my home office and brought out a Dell E6400 i7 quad with 8 GB RAM and a 120 GB SSD. Of course, ex-boyfriend told her that Steam did not run on Linux. I told her that was true…in 2013…but it was fine now, as I put the laptop on the desk and pulled up my Steam account. As I went through some game play, I told her that this laptop is 8 years old and that, under Linux, you don’t need the latest and greatest $2,000 laptop to play games on Steam.

Screenshot Steam Linux

That took a few moments to sink in. Apparently, the whole 8-year-old Dell versus a brand new Alienware thing wasn’t sitting well with her, but while that was finding a permanent place to live amid her synapses, I also explained the fundamental philosophical differences between Windows and Linux.

I left out the whole slathering-rabid-chomping-slashing at Microsoft bit. Fact is, I don’t do a lot of badmouthing Microsoft these days. The reasons are a few. First off, I have good friends working at Redmond and I do not wish Microsoft ill, specifically for that reason. Secondly, I’m getting to old to carry all of that pointless anger around. Since all of that rage is doing nothing but aging my spirit, I’ve laid off of most of that. Some of you younger bucks can take my load of hostility for a while.

But that doesn’t mean I will gloss over bad code or implementation…or bad practices. Microsoft has pushed and pushed the (almost) forced upgrade to Windows 10, and I wasn’t too happy about Best Buy finagling her poor old ignorant dad into opting for the Windows 10 upgrade. Like I did in 2007 and 2008, I might work up the energy to go see if I can get that same behavior repeated, since the Best Buy is just down the road in Round Rock. If I find any merit to it, I’ll report back to you next Tuesday.

I allowed Joan to take the Dell i7 home for a day or two in order for her to see if there were any differences in her experience. After the trial, she was equally excited and angry. Her $2K computer couldn’t run her games as well as my technosaur, which cost 10 percent of her machine’s price on Ebay. I did remind her that it was the operating system, not the machine itself, that was causing her grief.

After seeing how smoothly Steam ran on the Cinnamon Linux box, we sat together at my house the next day and put Linux Mint Cinnamon 17.3 LTS on her Dell, installed I might add, without hardly any drama over EUFI. Mint has that handled nicely. I explained to her that while Steam has almost 2,000 games running on Linux, some of the larger game houses haven’t boarded the Linux Steam ship. For her, that was fine. What she plays runs just fine on Linux…at least for now.

In all, it turned out fine. She’ll still need her Windows computer for when she goes back to school, or so she’s been told. That’ll be fine with her and that’s the way it should be. Each system is a tool and she can choose from each, depending on the task. It is nice though, to see Linux gaining ground on almost all fronts. Especially for Joan, who didn’t want to hurt her dad’s feelings by taking that beautiful laptop back to Best Buy.

Sometimes, people aren’t in the best of moods when they have to return merchandise.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

12 comments to Anecdotal Comparison of Steam on Linux Vs Windows

  • Mike S.

    I’m glad you got everything working for Joan.

    Weird that Steam has problems on Windows 10. I haven’t been able to convince my wife to switch to Linux, and the kids use Steam on her PC with Windows 10 without any problems.

    I’m glad in general you can help your local community with computer problems. I’m hoping to do that for my community.

  • Mike

    “Weird that Steam has problems on Windows 10.”

    What I’ve gathered from friends and acquaintances is that Windows 10 is a different beast for practically everybody. What works for one does not hold for all, and problems are seemingly random and without pattern, but most fingers point back at windows update as the root cause. The story is usually “It worked fine until some updates got installed.”

    That’s no way to have your computer behave! I’m surprised anyone puts up with it. Then again, most people are still ignorant of the freedom of Linux and FOSS in general. Windows users typically can’t distinguish between FOSS and Freeware…sadly, it means the same thing to them.

  • Randal

    Years back there was a company that released its games under Linux. Steam itself, seems to want to be a games in a virtual computer, online thing to me. I am not exactly a fan of that concept, as I used to game more in my Windows days (almost the only thing I found Windows good for, except proprietary woodworking software I never found Linux equivalents for), because some of the gamers lived in the country. (dial up, only option, current options, not much better)
    Online software (Diablo III, etc), and non Wine working games (Sacred 2), sucked at lan only parties. So in my view, gaming is not good on either platform. I should be allowed to play the game at home, offline or on my network, without net access.

    Pretty much consider myself a forced have not.

  • Mike S.

    @Mike,

    You’re right, of course. Just because it worked fine for me proves little. Windows Update has always been plagued with obscure bugs that fail in bizarre ways on a tiny portion of installations.

    And the update mechanism itself has got to be a flawless example of algorithms that could run inefficiently. (In layman’s terms, they must be re-reading and re-writing data many times when they only need to do it once. In computer science terms, they have algorithms that run in O(n^2) or even O(2^n) time that should be able to written to run in O(log(n)) time.) The last two times I installed Windows, it took more than eight hours of updates and four restarts to get from the install disk to the latest updates. A fresh install of CentOS 7 or Ubuntu 14.04 will get all possible security updates installed with only one restart required in less than half an hour.

  • Mike

    @Mike S.

    “O(n^2) or even O(2^n) time that should be able to written to run in O(log(n))”

    I agree. A major problem with Windows updates compared to Linux is that Windows does not use a package system. Instead of the OS being divided up into nice little chunks, each of which only ever need a single update at the most, Windows files are updated, updated again, reverted, and then updated yet again with an endless array of updates that have overlapping areas of responsibility. This also means Windows updates need to be applied in chronological order to function properly, or you end up with a musical chairs version of your OS files. That’s why you can get a screen-full of updates, only to have another and yet another screen-full appear after each series of reboots. This lack of any real organization to the OS coupled with the ordering dependency means Windows updates are a rats nest of complexity. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and happen it does. It’s really disgustingly amateurish.

    Maybe Microsoft will eventually learn how to write an operating system, but I doubt it.

  • Mike S.

    @Mike,

    Right. But nobody is stopping them from adding a package system, and you would think any Microsoft employee that worked with Linux for more than two days would figure out that Windows Update is a user and administrator nightmare next to apt-get/deb, yum/rpm, pacman, etc…

    I’m a free software foundation member, I guess I should be thrilled that they’re so unwilling to copy this concept from open source projects. But since I have to support friends and family members, it just makes me nuts.

  • maestro

    If you want to have access to every game that Steam has to offer you need to be using Windows. If you want to have access to maybe half of the titles, you need a Mac.

    If you only want access to a fraction of those games, you’re running Linux.

    This isn’t an OS war, it’s simple fact.

    I use all three platforms. Such is life.

  • I was asked to look at the public computer at my mother’s assisted living community. It was running MS Windows XP to allow residents to surf the internet and read Web based email. Loading a Web page was painfully slow because of the virus running in the background taking up bandwidth. 10 minutes, 2 downloads, 1 usb flash drive allowed me to install. http://linuxmint.com 17.3 Rosa with Cinnamon Desktop.
    Well ok with Virus laden XP it was more like 50 minutes than the 10 minutes quoted. http://rufus.akeo.ie
    Download the Linuxmint.com. ISO file, download single file windows application rufus.exe. Run Rufus to write. ISO file to usb flash drive. Reboot computer with USB flash drive and install Linux Mint to make residents computer usable again. Now it can play those youtube cat videos, just Purring along virus-free. Oh MS Windows XP is still available in the Grub 2 boot menu for those times you want a slow slow stroll down memory lane. I might even boot XP again to see if I can remove all those extra programs in the start folder that don’t need to be there slowing down this dual core machine. Yea Linux Mint 17.3

    Help your own community upgrade from Windows To Linux.

    http://puppylinux-or-pcbsd.blogspot.com/2015/10/what-do-you-like-about-puppylinux-or.html?m=1

  • Mike S.

    @maestro,

    Generally I agree with you. I think the biggest obstacle to Steam OS adoption is Steam on Windows.

    But it’s fair to point out that *every* gaming platform has sacrifices. Steam on Windows can’t provide Titanfall (Xbox), or Gran Turismo 5 (Playstation), or Mario vs. Donkey Kong (Nintendo), or Plants vs. Zombies 2 (iOS and Android).

    As I already wrote elsewhere on the site, when I tried to talk my kids into a Steam OS gaming machine they refused. But they went for a Playstation instead, not a Windows Steam gaming machine.

  • Mike

    You have to decide if the additional games on Windows are worth the loss of freedom and privacy. For me the answer is a resounding “No”.

    I am a gamer. I own and have access to more games than most people ever will, and yet I do all my gaming on Linux (either directly or through emulators, but typically not Wine).

    I don’t mourn the loss of the latest Windows games, which these days all seem to be DRM infested, privacy stealing, “you’re a pirate” assuming, pieces of garbage.

  • Joe

    I own an Alienware M17x R3 and had nothing but grief with Windows, BSODs especially. I wiped it completely and put Linux on it and it never ran smoother, Steam included. In fact, some things popped up that never did when I was using Windows – not sure why their defaults were set to “off.”

  • Robert Glen Fogarty

    There are certainly more options for Linux on Steam than there are for the dinged-up Speak & Spell I’ve been trying to use. Nobody seems to support dinged-up Speak & Spells these days. 🙁