Been keeping up with Steam's Big Picture interface? Then you probably know it's already in beta. The 10-foot UI hopes to help Valve's content distribution portal get comfortable in front of your couch, offering gamers access to their favorite PC titles from a gamepad-friendly interface. We piped the beta out to our own living room to take a look, and weren't surprised to find a sleek attractive UI with a heap of polish. That said, we were glad we didn't leave our mouse and keyboard at the office.
Big Picture furnishes users with a snazzy start-up animation the second it's activated, flourishing its launch by superimposing the Steam logo over pixelated bubbles and liquid sound effects. After easing the user into the new gamepad-friendly environment, the new UI offers three familiar options: Store, Library and Community. When a section is highlighted, a preview of its contents float beneath the surface of the interface, scurrying to the top when their parent option is selected. Each section has its own personality, but all share the same basic navigational template: horizontal lists piled atop one another. The Store, for instance, lists a series of featured titles above a sideways scroll of browsable categories -- left and right on the analog stick take one through the featured games, while clicking up or down shifts to the next list. Its easy, intuitive, and attractive.
Valve also uses the beta to launch what it calls the first ever "first person web browser," which substitutes an analog-controlled mouse with an omni-directional crosshair. Rather then pointing at a link or image with the cursor, the user drags their point of view across a static page, scoping in on the desired element before pulling the figurative trigger. It's certainly a unique approach to browsing from your couch -- and no less awkward then sluggishly dragging a virtual mouse across your TV -- but the view centric navigation can break the illusion of a well designed website, showing blank space on a page's borders if the user isn't looking at it dead-center.
Text input gets a fairly significant overhaul as well, representing a notable departure from common standards of controller-based typing. Rather than adopting the tried, true and traditionally inefficient hunt-and-peck alphabet, Valve is introducing Daisywheel -- a familiar looking text entry setup designed specifically for analog gamepads. Daisywheel divides the alphabet into eight groups of four, assigning each letter to a controller face button based on the position of the left-analog stick. This idea has actually been around for some time, but it's still refreshing to see it implemented in a mainstream product. It may not be as straightforward as simply selecting a letter from a grid, but over time users who learn to Daisywheel might find sending messages without a keyboard downright tolerable.
The Beta does hit a few snags, albeit manageable ones. Windows 7, for instance, can pull the user out of the interface's console-like experience with a security alert, requiring a bona fide mousing peripheral to put its concerns to rest. Some games present a similar problem, forcing users to click "play" in their own launchers before starting. The necessity of a cursor can't be blamed solely on exterior factors, either -- some titles (like Batman: Arkham City) offer the user a gamepad-incompatible list of applicable CD keys upon launch. These windows can usually be deactivated after their first appearance, however. Some elements simply aren't fully integrated into Big Picture, either -- viewing your friends' full profiles, for instance, opens up the Steam web browser, as does reviewing purchase history.
For a Beta right out of the door, Steam's Big Picture mode is a pretty smooth experience. It has its rough edges and hiccups, but they're easily forgivable in light of its pre-release moniker. Gamers venturing away from their desk will still want to to lug along their standard peripherals, though -- as well as it works with a gamepad alone, Windows alerts and game launchers make the traditional pointer a necessity, not to mention the fact that many PC games simply don't play nice with controllers to begin with. Big Picture won't turn your media center into a game console, but it definitely makes outputting high end PC games to your living room a smoother experience. Not satisfied? Take solace in the fact that its only a beta -- we're looking forward to see where Valve takes it.