For hose of you who don’t follow the small intersection of people that is Linux users and gamers, or the even smaller subset that are also jalops, Play Linux might be something completely unheard of, foreign and perhaps even weird.

But they all have something in common: the desire to be the master of one’s own domain. The love of manual transmissions, the love of DIY, and the love of Linux all coalesce in a desire to resist the encroachment in to areas that have historically been open. To insist that we continue to have the freedom to maintain and modify our own vehicles, to maintain the assurance that what is going in to our software is for our benefit, and not some mutually exclusive benefit.

It’s with this in mind that I am reviewing Play Linux, which is a distribution of Linux (a.k.a. a distro) that seeks to shore up an area of Linux gaming that has historically been a weak spot: gaming.

It’s birth coincides with that of another, much more famous version of the same: SteamOS. Unlike Play Linux, which is a more traditionally developed distro created by a group of people who saw a need in the Linux ecosystem and decided to do something about it, SteamOS was born due to a concern on the part of Valve’s founder, Gaben Newell, that Microsoft would try to push Valve out of the market by focusing exclusively on Xbox One gaming, and making PC gaming a relatively unpleasant experience. If nothing else, Valve has succeeded in waking Microsoft up to the relevance of PC gaming in the coming decade.

In light of this, it might seem that Play Linux would be redundant, and that is actually where our story begins in earnest.

As it happens, SteamOS was designed primarily to function as an idiot-proof couch gaming platform. As such, it has a few unique tweaks to this end. One is the complete absence of a traditional desktop environment (which is unwieldy to use with a controller while sitting on the couch). But the more significant is the restriction of the user by default, even when a normal desktop environment is installed.

My use case is that I finally need to install Linux on my laptop for the purpose of being able to remotely SSH in to my Linux server at work. As a secondary motivation, Windows 10 is buggy as hell, and I feel incredibly guilty running Windows while simultaneously trying to preach the Linux gospel.

As such, I needed a distro with a desktop environment. I wanted to be able to game, and I dislike Unity, Gnome 3 and KDE for various reasons. What I wanted was a minimal install that I could configure with my favorite tools, without redundant tools. I didn’t want to end up with five different file managers, five different package managers, etc. , but I also didn’t want to have to manually download everything that I wanted.

Play Linux has been bouncing around on “best gaming distros” lists for a while now, and since it’s based on Ubuntu (which is one of the best full-featured distros around), I figured I would be safe installing it.

I was wrong.


Let’s start with the first issue: drivers.

To be fair, this is a Linux issue as much or more as its a Play Linux issue, but it got especially bad because of another issue I’ll mention in a minute. In this case, the problem was related to my laptops use of Nvidia’s Optimus graphics switching, which Nvidia has not yet provided native support for. In essence, the laptop tried to run both graphics chips at the same time, and simply could not start the desktop environment (the stuff you click with a mouse), stranding me in the console (the Linux equivalent of a DOS prompt).

After solving that issue, I then had to tackle the issue that created the issue in the first place: Play Linux uses a prettified version of something called OpenBox (which is a really stripped down dekstop environment) which they have then proceeded to strip of functionality (namely the right click, which is the primary user interface for OpenBox).

Now, bear in mind, that the last in depth review of Play Linux is from a while ago. A little over a year, to be precise. Which means, that all the reviews you read will tell you that Play Linux runs on Cinnamon (the default for a distro called Mint) as a desktop environment. While there may be some things borrowed from the same, this is not Cinnamon.

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The user interface (that they’re calling Nebula) wouldn’t be so bad if it just worked, which is what I think they’re going for. But it doesn’t just work, and because of that getting to other things you need is a pain.

So, all in all, the experience has not been fantastic.

With all of that being said, let’s move on to what Play Linux does well.

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The most obvious part here is “Ubuntu.” While there are certainly other distros that have their strengths, for sheer out of the box functionality, Ubuntu still reigns supreme.

Also, something that was historically a Linux shortfall (although it hasn’t been the kind of problem it used to be for years) if WiFi setup. Drivers installed automatically, and it saw both my home networks and connected without issue.

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The splash animation during boot is actually really pretty. Gone are the days of watching console readout as the kernel boots up.

One of Play Linux’s selling points — that it is set up to “just work” as a gaming distro, is sadly a mess. Steam did not work by default, and I spent so much time on config that the “Play” portion of the distro has not been used for its intended purpose.

Conclusion:

It’s hard not to be disappointed when such a good idea suffers from a lack of execution. Documentation is difficult to find, and Play Linux’s website has traded functionality for aesthetics.

In short, Play Linux is not ready for prime time, and if you’re looking for a gaming distro, you would be better served looking elsewhere. While it is technically still in Beta, it has also been so for a while now. So here’s hoping they get around to finishing it and making a polished release.