Linux and Sony used to be on good terms, if not the best of friends. Back in the early days of the PS3, Sony actively talked up its support for “Other OS,” and encouraged programmers to think about Cell as a potential competitor in HPC environments and as part of supercomputer clusters. Once hackers found ways to use Other OS in ways Sony didn’t anticipate, however, the company patched the functionality out of the PS3 altogether. When the PS4 launched, there was no noise about any sort of Other OS compatibility — the system would play games, pure and simple.
Except that’s not exactly how things have turned out. The PS4 shares many commonalities with PCs, but according to hacking group fail0verflow, it’s not a PC — there are legacy features missing in the PS4 and “the southbridge does a lot of things in nonstandard ways and the way it is organized makes no sense” (that last is a quote from marcan, a fail0verflow member).
According to a YouTube video from April, modder OsirisX managed to get Arch Linux running on a PS4, and then managed to install the Steam client. The video below shows the entire boot up process and ends with a gameplay segment from the game Bastion. According to comments OsirisX has made elsewhere, “Most games have stable FPS when running low to mid graphics setting.”
Note that this required a PS4 that was already jailbroken (only possible if you are still running firmware 1.76 or below) and some specific patches, available here. Even so, current compatibility is unknown, as is the overall performance level. Until someone builds a Steam OS box with a roughly comparable AMD GPU, we won’t know how well the PS4 is actually performing relative to an equivalent PC.
In theory, bringing Linux support to the PS4 could open up the console to a small (albeit vocal and dedicated) group of gamers who view Linux as a preferred OS and want to play more games in that operating system. In practice, Sony will never allow it, for three reasons.
First, while the PS4 has much in common with a PC, it’s not identical to your typical beige box. The CPU cluster is a pair of quad-core Jaguars and the GPU is a tweaked version of AMD’s GCN architecture with its own set of custom capabilities. PS4 games have been optimized and designed to run on the PS4; the games available via Steam for Linux haven’t. In some indie games, this isn’t likely to matter, but more demanding titles could easily bog down. Sony isn’t going to take on the task of ensuring that Steam games run well on the PS4 when using an operating system it doesn’t formally support, and Valve won’t target the PS4 as a platform for its own SteamOS unless Sony signs off first.
Second, there’s the piracy concerns. Sony yanked OtherOS support from the PS3 as soon as it got a whiff that there might be a chance the capability could be used for piracy. It’s not going to risk any emerging threat that could compromise the PS4 as a locked-down ecosystem.
Third, there’s the simple fact that Sony doesn’t need to make any dramatic product changes to increase PS4 sales. It’s already dominating this console generation with more units shipped than the Xbox One and Wii U combined. The Nintendo NX and rumors of a new Xbox One are an opportunity for Nintendo and Microsoft to shrink the gap, but the PS4 Neo is expected to give Sony’s hardware a boost as well. Nintendo may break free of its doldrums thanks to stronger hardware, but it’s not at all certain that Microsoft will be able to steal Sony’s thunder nearly three years into the current console generation.
It’s cool to see these kinds of hacks as an illustration of what enterprising and talented individuals can do — but we strongly suspect that Linux gamers will be better served by a PC designed for such titles than a PS4 that isn’t.