SteamOS 3: Desktop Replacement?

For a while now SteamOS has been available for download on your PC or via a ‘Steam Machine’. I don’t want to dwell on the ‘Steam Machine’ misstep, but suffice it to say that it never caught on as a console replacement, or a Windows OS replacement at the time. With the release of the Steam Deck and SteamOS 3, Valve has evolved the viability of an alternative to Windows for gaming and other things. Thanks to the great community surrounding the Steam Deck and SteamOS, and the significant efforts of Adam Jafarov, it is now relatively easy to install SteamOS 3 (as it appears on the Steam Deck) on your modern PC.

Before we get to the really quick how-to I want to set some expectations via a quick list:

  • This OS Experience is not without it’s flaws
    • In my experience, the ‘Deck’ mode was locked to a lower framerate and despite filling my entire 3440×1440 monitor there seemed to be graphical artifacts and cursor placement issues. This was mostly not present in Desktop Mode.
    • In Desktop Mode, when adding Non-Steam games to Steam to allow Proton to run the applications, and sometimes when browsing the web in Chromium, I noticed that I intermittently could not click on elements near the middle of the display. I think this is related to having a controller plugged in, but not running a game, as the OS seemed to want to bring up a virtual keyboard for the controller to use. When unplugged, things seemed to run fine.
    • SteamOS 3, while recognizing and seemingly using all CPU cores, does not appear to be optimized for non-Steam Deck hardware. Several times while downloading or installing games, I noticed intermittent sluggishness just using the OS. However, the manner in which I installed SteamOS 3 to test could’ve also been the issue (more below).
  • Non-Steam Game Libraries are usable, sort of
    • Using the ‘Heroic Games Launcher’ available via Discover allows the easy installation of games from GOG and Epic; however, mileage will certainly vary on how well the game will run (if at all). The Steam Deck subreddit is always posting workarounds to get things working a bit better

So you want to install SteamOS 3?

To install SteamOS 3 you will first need to download HOLOISO and flash a USB drive with it. This is a fairly simple task. I used balenaEtcher. Download the HOLOISO from the Github release page, download balenaEtcher, flash your USB drive and then get ready to install…

The computer that you will be installing SteamOS 3 on must be:

  • UEFI capable
  • Have one of the acceptable graphics cards:
    • AMD RX Vega+/APU iGPU; 4xx/5xx, 5xxx/6xxx GPU
    • Intel UHD 630+ iGPU
    • NVIDIA GTX 9xx+ iGPU/GPUs (preferably without Optimus [PRIME])
  • Preferably have a wired internet connection

Stick that USB drive in the computer, boot to it, and follow the on-screen prompts. In less than 10 minutes I had a working SteamOS 3 install. Installation worked without issue on my system:

  • Intel 11077k
  • Nvidia RTX 2070 Super
  • 32 GB RAM

I did not have an additional viable computer to install the OS on, so I chose to install it to an external SSD using a USB 3 adapter. This is certainly a storage bottleneck, but allows me the ability to easily switch back to Windows 11 when I am done testing. Many of the minuet hiccups or lag spikes can easily be explained by this storage bottleneck. All games were tested with as close to a native 3440×1440 resolution that was allowed. Games tested were:

Game TitleLibrarySettingsFPS
Metal Gear Solid V : Ground ZeroesSteamMax60
Doom EternalSteamMax120-130
(slight dips
into 110 territory)
GhostrunnerGOG (via HGL)Max60-90
ControlEpic (via HGL)High
Ion Fury (Windows)GOG (via HGL)Max120
Spiro Remastered TrilogySteamUltra
FPS Unlimited
120 FPS Limited
Crash Bandicoot N’Sane TrilogySteamUltra120
(No Launch)
Horizon Zero Dawn
(No Launch)

Games can be a mixed bag. Some didn’t run at all, but those that did ran very well, especially modern games that did not require an external launcher (uPlay). ProtonDB may shed some light on what games will likely run well, or at all…

So, is SteamOS 3 worth your time? Can it replace your Windows desktop? Generally speaking, SteamOS 3 takes a standard Linux OS experience and kicks it into gaming overdrive. Tons of applications are available in Discover (the app store), and online. Proton can run a lot of Windows applications. It really depends on what you use your computer for though. If you have only ever used Windows operating systems then you’ll likely want to wait until this OS is iterated a few more times before switching. Likewise, if you play games that are not supported by Proton. However, if you are a tinkerer, this is the place for you. There are so many neat things to fiddle with on the Steam Deck and in SteamOS. At a minimum, I recommend trying it out and see if it checks enough boxes for you to switch. It doesn’t for me, yet. I have work-related software that doesn’t appear to run well on the OS, but I will revisit it routinely to check on the progress. I really enjoyed the OS experience, and cannot wait to get my hands on a Steam Deck.