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My Science Project While Waiting For The Steam Box…

I suppose there were a number of contributors leading to tonight's blog all converging together like the perfect storm leaving me with no other choice but to give in and just blog about it. First, it was an abnormally long weekend. Besides having today off for President's Day, I also had Friday off which meant...woo hoo...four day weekend. In terms of gaming, it was about as productive (or unproductive, depending on your point of view) as I could've asked for. I finished three games - The Walking Dead, Far Cry 3 and the New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. I also had the wonderful opportunity of playing online (and embarrassing myself) with fellow Game Informer members. And...I had plenty of time to conduct this little project I'm about to tell you about.

The other genesis for this blog came from the pages of the newest edition of the Game Informer magazine. If you have it, then perhaps you read the article on pages 12-17 titled Home Invasion; but if you don't get the magazine or haven't received it yet...it's about the next generation consoles and includes the sub-title, "Valve Spearheads Expansions to Home Console Gaming". Being a big fan of Valve and a PC gamer who is very interested in the upcoming Steam Box, of course I enjoyed the article (actually the whole magazine was really good - there were several great articles).

Okay, so if having plenty of free time and reading the article about next generation consoles wasn't enough, I logged into Steam to play some Team Fortress 2 when lo and behold, what did I see...but a Steam advertisement mentioning Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike were now available on Linux for the low cost of free. And...AND...even better than that - if you play Team Fortress 2 between now and March 01, 2013 on Linux, you get a free cute and cuddly Penguin named Tux to wear on your character's belt.

I will go to extreme measures to acquire such limited and random loot, especially when it's free and relatively easy to get. So, I've laid out the framework now...my "science project" for the weekend was to acquire Tux the penguin...which meant I would have to play Team Fortress 2 on Linux. Being a previous user of Ubuntu Linux, I "assumed" it wouldn't be all that challenging of a task to accomplish. And if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right, right? So instead of just playing Team Fortress 2 on Linux, I also decided to hook the computer up to the big screen TV and evaluate Steam's "Big Picture" mode as well.

Hmm...first, the hardware...

TV: 60" Sony

Computer: Homebuilt; the biggest thing you need to know is it is an Intel dual core CPU, 8GB RAM, AMD ATI 5500 series video card, Sound Blaster X-FI sound card, 2 hard drives running in a RAID configuration and a spare 160GB hard drive with nothing on it, normally running Windows 7. Nothing special, especially by today's standards...but it'll play everything I've thrown at it.

Next, the software...

Well, like I said...the computer normally runs Windows 7, but since I was going to perform this test to get my loot, and since Valve has already said their Steam Box will likely run Linux, I opted for Ubuntu, with the latest version being 12.10. You can download it for free here, if you're interested. Then of course there is Steam and Team Fortress 2, but more on that later.

(I know the pictures aren't the best - they were taken with an iPhone camera)

(Ubuntu running on my dinosaur of a computer)

 

(Steam running on Ubuntu)

 

(Team Fortress 2 up and running on Ubuntu)

 

(Steam - Big Picture)

 

(Steam - Big Picture, Achievement tracking)

 

(Steam - Big Picture, Game Library)

 

(Steam - Big Picture, Photo Gallery)

The process...

First thing's first...you have to get Linux. Like I said, I used Ubuntu. It's easy to use, a lot like Windows and very robust. I like it a lot. I downloaded the .iso file for version 12.10 and burned it to a DVD. Man, been a long time since I burned anything to a DVD, but I now have an Ubuntu installation disk, free of charge. Something that would cost you a couple hundred dollars if it was the latest version of whatever Microsoft is selling.

Installing Ubuntu is relatively easy, but can be tricky, especially if you're planning on keeping your Windows operating system installed and functioning. You can set up a dual boot fairly easy, which is what I did...but since I had a 160GB spare drive...that is where I installed Ubuntu. After that, a simple reboot and I was up and running. Using Firefox (a much better browser than IE if you ask me) I went to Valve's website and installed Steam. The file is relatively small, just a few megabytes. I was logging into Steam in no time.

Next came downloading Team Fortress 2, which took the biggest chunk of time. The game is over a dozen gigabytes in size and I started the download at night while I was sleeping... The next day it was downloaded and installed - ready to go.

When I first fired up the game, it was extremely laggy and there was no sound. I did some poking around and quickly fixed the sound issue. My motherboard has built in sound, plus I have a sound card. Linux was trying to use the motherboard audio and the game was configured to use the soundcard, so as soon as I pointed everything in the right direction, I had audio. The video was far more challenging. I should've expected there would be a problem with the drivers as the culprit for the in-game lag. Sure enough, when I went to the properties for the display adapter, it was listed as unknown. Yeah, that is sure to cause a problem or two. Google to the rescue. In no time I downloaded the last Linux drivers from AMD's website, only now the trick was how to install it. It's certainly not like Windows where you double click an executable file (.exe) and it automatically installs. No, this you have to do some command prompt level typing. But Google showed me the way and I was eventually able to update the drivers. I tested it locally and everything seemed to work, so I powered down, disconnected the plethora of cables leading into the back of my PC and carried the monstrosity down stairs (I have one of those old beige full towers your parents and grandparents used when they were kids).

Using the video card's HDMI port, I was able to tap right into the surround sound system (which then outputs the video to the TV), but because of, what I'm guessing is a Linux issue, I had to "rig" up an alternate audio patch into the surround sound system using a mini-stereo to RCA adapter.

After I was done playing on Linux, I loaded it up in Windows 7 to compare the two. And here is how things worked out.

Well, I can tell you playing the PC version of Team Fortress 2 on a 60" television hooked up to a surround sound system is pretty freaking cool. Running the game on Ubuntu Linux, I thought it actually looked a little better and sounded a little better than the Windows version. However, there was an occasional stutter resulting in the screen jerking...which didn't occur all that often, but when it did it was obvious. I'm sure with a few tweaks of the graphics settings I could resolve the issue, so I wasn't too worried about it.

Running the game on Windows was not much different. The game ran just fine, but the menus and other text were fuzzy and distorted, obviously because of the resolution setting. Since I was running in the native resolution and with the default settings, I'm not quite sure why the Linux version didn't have this problem, but the Windows version did. In the end, both were certainly playable, they both looked good and sounded good, but I think Ubuntu had a slight edge.

Then I tried Steam's Big Picture. The bad news is I couldn't get it to work on Linux. Every time I clicked the button to go into Big Picture mode, it would crash Steam. I didn't troubleshoot this too much or research the problem online at all (yet). I'm sure it is something simple and easy to fix, but in the meantime, it simply didn't work.

I did get to use it in the Windows version, and I'm here to tell you...it was on the same caliber as XBL or PSN. A few features need to be polished a bit, but it has all of your games plus a friends lists and achievement tracking, plus it has a store where you can see all the latest games and promotional media files like trailers and screenshots. I was quite impressed with Steam's Big Picture mode. It looked spectacular on a big screen (well, duh) and made me even more excited for Valve's Steam Box.

All in all, I'd say it was a successful test. Despite Ubuntu being a little tricky to set up, I am amazed that I can download an operating system free of charge, an online game management application (Steam) free of charge, and a great game like Team Fortress 2, free of charge...and be up and playing online in relatively short order. That is impressive and that very well might, as the Game Informer article says, be why Valve spearheads expansions to home console gaming.

Oh, and if you're wondering. Yes. I did acquire Tux, the penguin.

Isn't he the cutest?

Ah, the extremes a gamer will go to in order to get free loot.

Cheers.

 

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