If you have spent any time in gaming hardware circles, then you’ve probably heard about the Steam Deck, the Linux-based handheld gaming PC built by Valve. Yes, you heard that right: not Windows, but Linux.
I’ve had my fair share of attempts at gaming on Linux. When it works, it’s amazing. When it doesn’t, it’s incredibly frustrating. The last thing I want to do when playing a game is to become a developer and start troubleshooting issues with all the layers between the hardware and the game.
What makes the Steam Deck different is that the compatibility layer (Proton) and all the bits and pieces associated with it are integrated in a way that should make it unnoticeable to the user. Just start up your Steam Deck, pick your game, play, and you’re good to go.
Although I’ve thought about buying a Steam Deck myself for tinkering and testing purposes, I could not justify that purchase. But thanks to videos from the ETAPRIME YouTube channel I learned about the existence of HoloISO, an unofficial SteamOS 3 installer.
HoloISO aims to be as close to the native SteamOS 3 experience as possible. The only reason it exists right now is because Valve does not yet officially support SteamOS 3 as a distro that you can go and install. That might change in the future, but for those that are impatient like myself, HoloISO is a nice option.
To test out HoloISO and give it a good chance at succeeding, I chose my ASRock DeskMini X300. It sports an AMD Ryzen 7 5700G, which is a high-end APU and should result in performance that’s roughly comparable to the Steam Deck in most scenarios. The GPU cores are not on the newest GPU architecture released by AMD, but the higher power budget should make up for any architectural deficiencies.
The installation of HoloISO is very easy, just download the installer and write it to an USB stick. Once you’re booted up, follow the installation instructions and reboot. You should now be at the SteamOS 3 setup screen.
I’ll be the first one to admit that my Steam library is a bit out of date, which is why my experience is limited to older titles. I can confirm that BeamNG drive and Dirt Rally 2 work fantastically though.
The only way to play GTA V on Linux without issues used to involve creating a Windows VM and passing a GPU to it. This is why I was very impressed to see that installing and starting up GTA V worked out of the box. I could even go to GTA Online and play around without being kicked out or banned!
To make choosing and playing games a better experience for casual gamers, Steam has also come up with the Deck verified program. You shouldn’t be discouraged if your favourite game is shown as unsupported or not tested, though. Try to start it up and see if it works. Burnout Paradise and Absolute Drift were not officially supported, but worked like a charm.
The unfortunate reality of SteamOS is that not every game will work out of the box. Some older games, such as GTA III and GTA Vice City, would not work at all. You might be able to check out places like ProtonDB and see if a game has a tweak that you can apply. Tweaks can involve passing additional launch options to a game or using another version of the compatibility layer (Proton).
What turned me off of this platform was Forza Horizon 4. On this setup, it did not launch properly, the sound was there but the screen was black. Based on results in YouTube, it seems like Forza Horizon 4 and Forza Horizon 5 do work on Steam Deck, so this issue might be down to a compatibility issue on my hardware or HoloISO distribution of SteamOS 3. I wanted to play that game though, so I had to eventually end the experiment and install Windows 10 again.
As someone who wants to get a good overview of resources usage during gameplay to detect and resolve any performance issues, I tend to use tools like MSI Afterburner. With SteamOS 3, you can easily achieve similar results by enabling the performance overlay. I was very happy to see that addition because that means installing and configuring one less tool on my gaming box.
Quality of life issues
Even when things generally work, I did notice some annoyances when playing games. Sometimes I ran into issues with controls. Steam allows you to pick gamepad templates and layouts, which can involve community-provided setups. Sometimes it would default to a layout that simply did not work. Turning off Steam input altogether would sometimes improve the situation. If that did not work, then picking an alternative template would do the trick most of the time.
One major issue that I ran into was related to my XBOX controllers. Because the XBOX wireless adapter does not work out of the box on Linux, I connected them via Bluetooth. However, the latency was horrible and borderline unplayable. There do exist drivers that you can install, mainly xone and xpadneo, and those do improve the situation.
One aspect of SteamOS 3 that made me actually consider buying a Steam Deck is the desktop mode. Not only can you play games, but you can also boot into a normal KDE desktop environment. Install a web browser, emulators, tweak the system or do actual productive work on it, it just works!
Hell, you can even install an SSH server and manage your gaming box with Ansible!
Whenever I’ve had a gaming PC, I’ve usually hooked it up to a big screen, installed Windows and Steam on it, and called it a day. If you want to watch some media, open up the browser and you’re good to go. I’m happy to report that something similar can be achieved on SteamOS as well.
At the time of testing, there were some issues that I didn’t expect to have with desktop mode. Firefox is included as a Flatpak and it did not support any form of hardware acceleration for video playback, which made it a no-go for a home theater setup.
After browsing /r/SteamDeck for a while, you’ll notice that a lot of people are into modifying their consoles, and all of that is possible because Valve did not lock anything down. Pop the hood and work with the Linux internals as much as you want to! With other gaming consoles you’re going to have to wait until someone discovers an exploit that allows you to have proper control over hardware that you physically own.
Gaming outside of Steam
With the presence of desktop mode, you’re not only limited to games purchased from Steam.
To see how well I could emulate games that I have purchased on older consoles, such as PS1, PS2 and PSP, I tried setting up some emulators. I’m happy to say that setting them up is just as fiddly as it is on Windows, but they do seem to work quite well, at least for these consoles.
I gave Minecraft a go as well by installing it as a Flatpak from KDE Discovery software manager, but for some reason it didn’t run and crashed on startup. I didn’t look into it further, but it seemed like something that an update can fix.
GOG is a platform similar to Steam, with one notable exception: their games are DRM-free. I don’t use that often, but with a game like art of rally I had to get it from there just for that reason alone (and the developers publishing native Linux ports). Although there isn’t an official client for GOG on Linux, there do exist open source implementations. I gave HeroicGamesLauncher a go and although it is a bit rough around the edges, it got the job done and I could play art of rally just fine.
The HoloISO experience tries to be as close to the one provided by SteamOS 3, but it is not 100% there yet. It seems that there are differences present under the hood, such as Steam Deck shipping with the root filesystem being read-only by default. I might not be aware of other differences between the HoloISO and official Steam Deck installation, so keep this in mind when making any decisions based on info from this post.
The choice of hardware will also affect your experience. The requirements regarding GPU-s is relatively strict and you’ll likely have the best experience with a modern AMD GPU since that’s what SteamOS 3 is built around. Intel and NVIDIA GPU-s may work, but are not guaranteed to.
SteamOS 3, even in its HoloISO implementation, is very impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I almost bought a Steam Deck. The uncertainty about support for my favourite games and less than ideal performance on the big screen were what held me back. For now.
In its current form, SteamOS 3 (and by extension the Steam Deck itself) are a tinkerers’ dream. There are some rough corners and caveats that you should be aware of as well. Not everyone is into tinkering and experimentation, and that’s OK.
I sincerely hope that Valve can use the momentum that Steam Deck has achieved to push gaming on Linux even further. After having to reinstall Windows more than I’d like to admit, having my gaming PC run plain Linux and be fully manageable with Ansible just feels so right.
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