Steam big picture mode - we kick the tyres of Valve's TV-friendly refit

Will Porter at

Ladies and gentlemen: Valve have just made a land-grab on your front room. Steam Big Picture is the Steam you know and love, only bigger and built for TV. Is this truly Valve going toe-to-toe with the Microsoft and Sony consoles?

Well, not really. Steam Big Picture is a slick interface system for the TV link-ups that many have been busying themselves with for years. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, but now it is at least a far more intuitive one. What’s more, clever gamepad integration means that you now won’t necessarily have to worry about your significant other sitting on a cushion-obscured keyboard.

Big Picture is intuitive, ergonomic, shows common-sense in its design and makes amiably bleepy-bloop noises. Much like Valve’s games, it feels like it’s gone through a heap of user-testing before making its presence felt behind our coffee-tables – and when you play around with it you can’t really help but feel impressed. It’s certainly a step up from the advert-ridden cluster-bomb that’s the current Xbox 360 dashboard.

After so many rumbles about Valve’s dissatisfaction with the hardware status quo and the mythical ‘Steambox’ it is, perhaps, possible to view Big Picture as something of a statement of intent. With Microsoft and Sony likely looking to cement their next consoles as entertainment and social hubs just as much as hi-tech games machines, the assault on the sitting room is still an early march on enemy territory. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Steam over the years, it’s that it evolves – sometimes over time, sometimes overnight. Who can say where the system will be by the time the next console cycle reaches its peak?

If you so desire, you too can have your games library stacked up in swishy rectangles. To try out Big Picture simply go to the ‘Account’ section of your Steam settings and select Steam Beta Update in the Beta participation.

In the mean-time – let’s explore this bountiful new terrain – ably assisted by a wired Xbox 360 pad.

As with boring old normal Steam, Big Picture splits the action into Store, Library and Community. In a rather lovely touch, meanwhile, at the highest level all your games and the faces of your friends make up a nice drifty collage before you plunge in.

Just like the depressing, dull desktop Store that the Victorians used to use (probably), Big Picture lets you browse Valve’s wares. You can buy games from here in exchange for credit and debit card details. Those unacquainted with pay-per-view wrestling, hotel pornography or the horrors of BT Vision might be alarmed by the black magic that is paying for entertainment through a large screen. Don’t worry: it’s quite safe.

With the Community section and interaction with Steam Friends comes a chance to chew on the gamepad’s text input lotus flower. Quartets of letters make up each petal, each letter is mapped to a coloured button and each petal runs alphabetically clockwise. At first it takes a while to wrap your head around (I worried my friends with disconcertingly slow chat) but it soon becomes intuitive. Again, the difference between this system and that of the 360 keyboard-style UI is the difference between night and day.

Your first stop into your games library is everything you’ve Recently Played – and in the screen below that all your purchases can be found arranged into satisfyingly chunky rows. Each game then presents you with boxes to navigate to tell you whether or not the game is installed, your achievements, friends who play the game and all the latest news on the title. Impressively, nothing ever pulls you out of Big Picture either - not even to reinstall a game.

Last sight to see on our whistle-stop tour of Steam Big Picture is the rest of the internet in its entirety. The Big Picture browser is perhaps the trickiest part of the system to manoeuvre with the pad (navigation isn’t as clear as elsewhere) and it’s certainly not as fast or responsive as you’d like – especially if you have downloads or games running in the background. Then again, despite the room for improvement, it’s certainly on a par with the console applications that do the same job.

So there you have it: the advent of Steam Big Picture. Do you reckon it’ll change your gaming habits one iota? Has your PC suddenly been ushered into the best sitting room? Or was it there already? All these questions and more, lovely PC Gamer audience…