If you have paid attention to Valve or PC gaming within the last year or so, you probably have heard about their new push for gaming on Linux; SteamBox, Steam Controller, and SteamOS may seem like novel concepts to you, but they may also be confusing.For example; what's the point of SteamOS if I already have a desktop computer? Why would I want an operating system made only for gaming? What even IS an operating system?
No doubt Valve's recent efforts have led to some interest in the subject; as various game developers have recently announced Linux versions of their games... including some titles that are poised to be major AAA experiences. A year ago gaming on Linux was just a buzzword; while there were many Valve titles on the platform, there really wasn't much that people could play unless they had a hard-on for indies - but it seems that the situation is about to change very, very soon. Although Valve's SteamOS has not officially been released yet; the SteamBox platform is getting ready to launch within the next year. As hype begins to overtake some minds, it may be within someones interest to see just how "ready" they are to switch to Linux Gaming; so in the interest of said individuals, the crew here at TechRaptor felt it was needed for us to put together a little "Beginners Guide". A crash course on Linux and Gaming for the average end-user!
Today we bring you the first part in our Gaming on Linux series of articles; focusing on the differences between the various Linux distributions - and which ones you should consider, depending on your wants or needs. The reason that this needed its own separated article is actually rather simply explained; Linux has a varied ecosystem, with distributions dedicated for very different things. You have your Ubuntu and SteamOS's, but you also have your Debians, Mints, and Fedora + Red Hats (with an Arch and a Gentoo thrown in for good measure!). Each distribution is highly specialized; and while you can modify each of them to act like the others, it would be rather counter-intuitive to install one distro just to make it act exactly like another one that you could have installed in the first place...
To that end; there are some Linux distributions that, if your plan is for gaming, you can almost certainly ignore off the bat; that isn't to say that these distros cannot work with Steam on Linux; but it means that they are too mechanically different out of the box - that you may have problems with games that are designed specifically around Valve's recommended guidelines. A game that is targeting Ubuntu 12.04 will work on later versions of Ubuntu, as well as SteamOS, but it may not work easily on, say, Arch. Nor would it be likely to work on Gentoo unless you were to go obsessive over having your system aligned with Valve's requirements - as well as any requirements that devs may have added as well!
Beyond that, some distros are simply not made for the average user; while CrunchBang (A derivative of Debian) may be fine for me, it may be counter-productive for someone that is not used to the unix terminal... and as such, unless you absolutely know what you're doing - you probably should not consider it, or distros that require similar patience. And, if you do have that knowledge and patience...? Well, then you probably didn't need this guide in the first place, then! So with that out of the way; what ARE the Linux distros that I can recommend if gaming is your goal? Well, that - once again - depends on what else, if anything, you want Linux for!
First up; SteamOS!
If you want a distribution for gaming, and nothing more, then Valve's SteamOS would be the one for you; though being in BETA, setting up your system may be a bit obtuse depending on the circumstances. It's not complicated, per se; but rather Valve only officially supports a rather unorthodox method of installing the system. Regardless, if you're only in it for the gaming and not the desktop experiences - SteamOS may be the distro for you.
However, if instead you want a system that will also be a regular computer; then you might want to stay away from SteamOS. Instead, the other alternatives may be for you... SteamOS has a Desktop Environment, but the overall experience is centered around gaming; and you won't find many extra packages on the package manager (more on this later!) that you might need for other apps, such as text editors or the like. Valve intends this to be a distro strictly made for gaming - so expect little else.
The distros after this get a little tricky, now; especially since they have multiple LTS releases going on at the same time. What that means, is that some versions will continue to get support for a period of 3 years; and as such, you're going to have to make a choice between a few different versions. Ubuntu 12.04 and 14.04 are the official Valve supported distros; but within a month Ubuntu 14.10 will be upon us as well, that won't be an LTS release. Likewise, 12.04 will drop out of support before May of next year; meaning that you will have to consider whether you want to stomach Shuttleworth's eccentricities for the time being, or stick with an older version in hopes of him coming to his senses in time for the next release... but enough about that, and more about what makes Ubuntu, well, Ubuntu.
For one thing; Ubuntu is a Linux Distribution that is loosely based off of the debian framework; it uses the apt system for package management, and deb's can be used to install some files natively that may not be on the repositories... stuff that is important to note when wanting to use Linux for a desktop experience. Package managers are used to control the various parts of your computer; imagine that it's the hand that makes sure that the lego structure that is your OS is configured correctly. Repositories are the official distribution "list" of programs and their dependencies; think of them like giant header files for packages, and what they depend on. Almost every distro has a package manager and their own respective repositories; and any of the ones that you should be using for gaming, fortunately, should be using the apt package manager. So regardless of which of the distros you decide to roll with - the explanation should be the same. We'll go over the various intricacies of using Linux on the desktop later; but it's important to keep in mind these differences, even if they might not be prevalent on our list!
For Ubuntu's part, it also uses the Unity Desktop Environment by default (pictured to the right, here.); and it comes with many things pre-installed by default. It comes with it's own Software store so that devs can sell their software, while still keeping it as a package... it's pretty similar to OS X in that aspect, and the interface shares many other similarities with Apple's system as well. It's also got the biggest community that will be there to help you transition (if you need the help; it's also pretty user friendly!)
Finally; Linux Mint.
It's a derivative of both Debian and Ubuntu; depending on which version you download, it'll be more like one over the other. Either way - it's yet another system that is mechanically similar to SteamOS, and you shouldn't have much problem with Steam games compatibility - especially if you're on regular mint instead of Debian Edition. It's two default Desktop Environments are similar to windows, and so if you're looking for the easiest transition; you might want to look here. You'll find the community for Mint merges a lot with Ubuntu as well - so most of what you find that works on Ubuntu will work for you on Mint (again, as long as you don't use Debian Edition!)
Most of what applies to Ubuntu applies to Mint here; so stuff like the Ubuntu store, and other things, are available to you as well (for now at least!) Of course, being tangentially related to debian - it uses debs as well, and does in fact use the apt package manager too. It's a pretty simple system - and package managers in general make finding and installing software a breeze, and updating software even easier. There is a lot more that can be said regarding that; but for now that's probably enough to be said. Each distro is pretty different; and depending on which one you choose, the resources are incompatible as well. For that purpose; we leave you to explore the various distros, and make your decision on which one you might want to try before we really get started on this series - it would be nigh impossible for us to document all the different problems or possibilities you face on our own. Instead, try checking out the various forums or ircs that house discussions on these distros - places like http://forums.linuxmint.com/ or the official Ubuntu community.
Next time; expect us to talk about the games that have recently come, or will be coming to Linux; along with some more tips in regards to really learning the Linux interface. If you guys are still a little confused, and don't know where to head off to learn more about the distros and their differences; feel free to post a comment, and I'll try to direct you where your question leads. As for now, I hope you guys learned a lot more about Linux!