Valve's popular Steam client has been a PC platform since its inception, but the company is slowing moving to the living room. The first step in that transition is a living room TV-friendly user interface because, as Ryan noted in a recent editorial, the traditional Steam client (especially the text) is not optimized for viewing from far away or on high resolution displays.
Enter the long-rumored and awaited Big Picture Mode. The new user interface is designed to be comfortably used from the couch in the living room, and controllable by keyboard/mouse or a game controller. It has been a long time coming, but is finally official, and available to the public as part of a beta Steam update.
Still very much a beta product, the Big Picture Mode allows you to do just about everything you can with the "normal" Steam client from your couch (or PC even, if you are into full screen apps). You have access to the Store, your games Library, friends list, downloads, settings, and the Steam browser among other features.
The Store is just what you would expect, a way for you to browse and purchase new games. The interface is sort-of like the Xbox UI in that you scroll through items horizontally rather than vertically like the PS3's cross media bar. The same games that are featured in the slider on the main page are displayed by default on the main Big Picture Mode's Store page.
From there you can also access the New Releases, Special Offers, Genres, and other categories to drill down to the games you want. As an example, if you move down from the featured games and select Genres you get the following screen that allows you see all the games in a specific genre.
Once you drill down to an individual game, you are presented with the details page that takes some of the elements from the traditional client and makes them easier to read from further away.
There does not appear to be an option to purchase titles from within Big Picture Mode yet, but I would not be surprised to see it by the time the feature comes out of beta status.
Beyond the store, you can access your own game library, including a list of recently played games and your entire library on a separate page.
Recently played Steam games. Saints Row: The Third is always fun.
Your entire games library, most of which I have yet to play…
From there, you can start up your games and get to playing! Alternatively, you can monitor downloads, access your friends list, and browse the web. The friends list shows images of your friends with text underneath with their Steam usernames. You scroll left to right to highlight them, and can interact just as you normally would.
Speaking of friends lists, be sure to join our PC Perspective Steam Group!
The downloads section can be accessed by navigating to the top left corner and selecting the icon to the right of your name. In the downloads screen, you can resume and pause ongoing downloads just like the normal steam client. For some reason, Witcher is stuck in a ever-paused update no matter how many times I hit resume (in the normal client). And Big Picture Mode seems to suffer from the same issue...
The web browser is an improvement over the one in the normal Steam client's overlay in speed and the large mouse cursor should help you navigate around with a controller as easily as possible. I don't foresee web browsing being painless as most sites simply are not designed to work from far away and with controller input, but it seems serviceable for the few times you would need to check something on the web without leaving the Steam client on your living room PC.
Flash seems to be disabled, though that could be related to my use of Windows 8. Also, soon after firing up this web browser, the Big Picture Mode crashed. I have not been able to successfully use the browser for any more than a few minutes at a time without it crashing. Unfortunately, that's one of the risks of using beta software – which Big Picture Mode definitely is.
From the Big Picture Mode interface you can access many of the settings that you can from the normal Steam client.
On the other hand, there are also new options that allow you to assign the Xbox 360's guide button such that it brings up Big Picture Mode. It should be possible to do something similar with a Logitech or PS3 controller as well, which is neat. You can also take screenshots in games using an assigned button press on the controller, making it really simple to snag screenshots of your best (or worst) moments when playing on the big screen TV.
Due to the Big Picture Mode's crash prone nature on my system, I have not have much time to play around with it, but from what I have been able to gather I'm excited about where this is heading and what possibilities it opens up for making the Steambox a reality! Navigating with a keyboard and mouse is super simple, and controller support seems good as well. The one part I have not been able to try at all yet is typing with a controller. Valve has made an interesting virtual keyboard for Big Picture Mode and controllers. Until I can test it out further, you can get a general idea of how it will work by watching Valve's launch/introduction video below.
As shown in the screenshots above, the interface highlights the area of the screen that you are currently manipulating and blurs the background elements. Overall, it feels much smoother and faster than the Xbox 360's UI when navigating around. The loading when moving to different panels is snappy and it does not feel sluggish at all. Once Valve gets the kinks worked out and tones down the frequency of crashes, I'll definitely be using this interface more. It loads the Store pages faster than the traditional client does on my system (which is sometimes sluggish), for example. Not to mention that the text will be much easier to read on a high resolution display!
In short, I'm excited about Big Picture Mode, and encourage you to go and try it out for yourself. To get it, launch Steam and log in to your account. Click Steam in the upper left corner and select "Settings" from the drop down menu. In the "Beta participation" section, click the change button and opt-in to the Steam beta update. Once Steam restarts, you should have a new icon in the upper right corner of the client called Big Picture Mode. Click that to start it up and take the new 10 foot interface for a test drive!
Let us know what you think about the new Big Picture Mode in the comments below (no registration required).
Valve launches Big Picture Mode. You can see more over at store.steampowered.com/bigpicture.
Unfortunately, I tend to see this more often than not.