Valve’s Steam Deck shook up the mobile gaming world in a big way when it launched a few years ago for a few reasons. It’s cheaper than most models that has been available up until that point, and comes from a company with much better brand recognition (and customer service) in the gaming space than the small Chinese brands that had been making handhelds up until then. And it also has a custom AMD chip designed just for the Steam Deck.

But it’s also the Steam Deck’s software that helps it stand out. It’s a Linux-based operating system that’s designed from the ground up for handheld gaming, which makes Windows-powered handhelds like the Asus ROG Ally, Lenovo Legion Go, and MSI Claw feel clunky by comparison, since they’re running an operating system that was designed for laptop and desktop computers. Soon there may be another alternative to Windows and SteamOS though.

A startup called Playtron is developing a Linux-based operating system that can run on handheld gaming PCs as well as computers in other form factors (like desktop, laptop, or tablet PCs).

Like SteamOS, PlaytronOS includes software that allows you to play Windows games on the Linux-based operating system (I’d be surprised if Playtron was using anything other than Valve’s Proton software). But it won’t be as tightly integrated with Valve’s Steam game platform, making it easier for users to purchase, install, and run games from other game stores.

You can do that on a Steam Deck, but you have to switch to a desktop mode. PlaytronOS, meanwhile, won’t even have a desktop mode. Speaking to The Verge, Playtron CEO Kirt McMaster says the goal is to offer a more console-like experience that’s easy to use, allowing handhelds to feel more like a Nintendo Switch than a full-fledged PC.

If McMaster’s name sounds familiar, that may be because he was also founder of Cyanogen, the company that tried to commercialize one of the most popular custom Android ROMs. That didn’t end particularly well, but McMaster tells The Verge that Playtron has learned from Cyanogen’s mistakes. Rather than trying to turn an open source, community-backed project into a commercial product, this new company is focused on competing with Microsoft and Valve in an emerging space with something new(ish).

Playtron has raised $10 million in initial funding and has hired a team of developers who have worked on projects like Box86 (which allows you to run some Windows games made for x86 processors on devices with ARM-based chips), ChimeraOS (a GNU/Linux distro that offers a SteamOS-like user interface), and Heroic Games Launcher (which offers an alternative to the SteamOS game launcher, making it easier to play non-Steam games on a Steam Deck or other PCs – it supports Linux, Windows, and macOS).

If you paid attention to that last paragraph, you might notice that there are already a bunch of solutions that make it possible to do many of the things that PlaytronOS promises. You can replace Windows or SteamOS with ChimeraOS and/or install the Heroic launcher on existing handhelds. But doing those things requires a bit of know-how, and you won’t get much (or any) support from device makers when you load unofficial software.

Playtron is hoping to be different by offering a solution to OEMs, not just end users. There are a few key selling points for device makers:

  • Licenses will be around $10, making PlaytronOS much cheaper to install than Windows (which can cost as much as $80 per device).
  • The user experience should be simpler than Windows, allowing users to boot straight to a game launcher that’s easy to navigate using the game controller buttons.
  • Unlike independent, open source projects like ChimeraOS, Playtron can offer direct support to device makers (and possibly end-users).

This could be an attractive proposition for companies looking to cut costs while offering a user-friendly gaming platform.

The Verge reports that Playtron is in talks with a number of device makers and hopes we’ll see a number of handhelds shipping with PlaytronOS next year. At least one company could ship a device with the software this year.

In January AYANEO announced plans to ship a low-cost handheld that would ship with HoloISO, a third-party SteamOS fork. But the company later scrapped those plans and instead ships the system with Windows (although you can download a build of HoloISO if you’d like to install it yourself). Now Playtron says AYANEO is planning to ship a handheld with PlaytronOS by the end of 2024.

With a growing number of handheld gaming PCs shipping, it’s likely that Playtron will face some serious competition though. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Microsoft take steps to make Windows more handheld-friendly. And Valve has long said that SteamOS isn’t just for the Steam Deck… although it’s unclear if or when we’ll see any third-party devices shipping with the operating system.

Meanwhile, folks looking to check out PlaytronOS shouldn’t have long to wait: the Verge says a public alpha is coming within the next two months.

via The Verge and GamingOnLinux

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  1. I only see this having a chance to succeed is if they get bought after showing some promise by a company that has much more resources and clout to push it. Maybe that really is McMaster’s goal since he missed out selling Cyanogen when Google tried to buy it and ended up killing the company instead.

  2. What are the barriers in the way of OEMs using Steam OS? It’s open source, and I’m pretty certain that Valve stated they were open to the idea of other manufacturers using it. I’m not sure why any handheld OEMs would want to use a SteamOS competitor.

    I don’t see what Playtron could offer that would appeal to OEMs or users. The only thing I see unique is the part where they want to make it easier for users installing games from other store platforms, but which platforms might these be? I’m not aware of any that focus on Linux handheld gaming.

    Competing with SteamOS seems like a nearly impossible goal. Valve is the largest distributer of PC games in the world, and the SteamOS experience is widely beloved by users. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can do better.

    1. Pretty sure to use SteamOS you will need to pay, and pay about the same as for Windows, but you’ll also need to add support and merge it for all custom hardware your device will have, and be sure, Valve will resist it, and will keep breaking it all the time. It happens for years with all Chrome based browsers, where Google just rejects PRs or makes changes to break derivative forks in a very hard to fix way.

      1. As far as I know, in basic principle, provided there’s nothing else I don’t know about,
        Valve doesn’t really have much of a reason to go out of their way to resist projects like HoloIso, since letting other computers run it just means more people buying games from them. This is to contrast with forks of Chrome where most of them remove telemetry of various sorts, which hurts the targeted ad company’s bottom line.
        But I admit I don’t know why they didn’t want to release SteamOS 3.0 as something you could just install, the way you could with 2.0.

        1. People will also buy games from GOG, Epic store and so on, and faster hardware at some premium from other vendors, since Valve cant release HW updates too often. So, loosing this small walled garden monopoly they have now on their own platform.

          1. Well, nothing’s stopping people from using windows on a Steam Deck or playing games from other distributors even on SteamOS. So I don’t think this is nearly the same situation as the iPhone’s walled garden.
            Maybe there was just zero interest in SteamOS from other handhelds at first due the the run windows=just works mentality (which speaking from experience is really not true), and so a bunch of Windows handhelds from reputable companies showed up and now the market is totally different from when the Steam Deck launched. Even though perhaps now SteamOS finally got some credibility, maybe they think just giving it away might hurt sales of Steam Deck handhelds.
            I’m not sure if there’s a license fee involved (it would make a difference if it was), or rules about forking over drivers and things to make sure third party devices appear to “just work” and avoid making Linux/SteamOS look bad, but nothing is stopping you from downloading a steam deck image.

          2. Can’t answer o the thread anymore. Yes, you can install 3rd party stores and games, but it needs some work. Situation is closer to 3rd party stores on Android. You can have it, but no one uses even Amazon one (even though for say games Amazon offers different payment options, and it had Arcade analog for many years, i.e. you play games for free, including all in-apps with fixed subscription price, or use Amazon coins instead of real money).
            As for fees, there will be for sure, or you’ll just not will be able to write on the box and in marketing materials that you are using SteamOS, and you’ll get no OS support from the Valve.

    2. “ Valve stated they were open to the idea of other manufacturers using it”

      Unfortunately, Valve hasn’t done much in supporting this so far. SteamOS isn’t even available outside of hacked versions. Even if it is available, Valve still needs to support OEMs in integrating it and resolve issues depending on the OEM’s Linux expertise which they may or may not have resources for.

      As for Playtron. It sounds like a nice idea but I’m skeptical it’ll go all that much further from an idea. Maybe some buggy SW releases and a few failed devices.

      I do see Valve eventually making good on their word of supporting other handhelds with SteamOS though. I also see MS more likely integrating a more gaming handheld friendly Windows UI than Playtron succeeding.

    3. I don’t see what Playtron could offer that would appeal to OEMs or users.

      Some gamers have collected plenty of free games from Epic’s constant giveaways. I have a SteamDeck and really like SteamOS, but not having to deal with Heroic launcher to access these games would be a big plus for me. Others might want “native” GOG support for similar reasons.

      1. Lol you’re not gonna get “native” GOG support with this either, it runs on Linux just the same as SteamOS.

        With that said, they really haven’t had anything to show with this, and with the CEO’s track record, I’m a bit sceptical.

        1. I put “native” in parentheses because obviously almost nothing is native on Linux if you look at the binaries. Maybe first-class is the better term. I have over 100 games on Epic and almost never play them because they don’t show up prominently on SteamOS. Same for GOG, I’ve actually bought a game there and then forgot about it just because it’s not Steam. If Playtron can level the playing field, then I see a benefit for users right there. Beating the UX of Heroic seems like an achievable goal.

  3. Well, I don’t see anything wrong with this now. I guess better to get their foot in the door before 2025, when windows 10 support ends, and Microsoft starts inviting remote attestation as a part of DRM schemes that only Windows will be able to work with.
    Google may have given up on Web Environment Integrity for anything but Android, but they’re still pushing for Web Monetization, which no less uniquely identifies you, and can be used for DRM too.