Valve is overhauling its Steam Chat feature and the immediate reaction is that it's essentially Valve's version of Discord, the go-to chat client for many avid online gamers. The new Steam Chat is not available in polished form—if you want to try it out, you have to download and install the beta client, which Valve has made available to everyone (it's an open beta, not a closed one, in other words). Those who do are in for a shock to the system.
The beta Steam Chat is vastly different from the existing one. One of the biggest changes is being able to wrangle friends into groups, which can be based on games or topics of interest. Once a user group is created, you can drag a person from the friend box into the chat window to add them to that group. You'll also notice that in-game friends are grouped by game in the new Steam Chat client, making it easier to join them or to see what games everyone is playing.
Having a bunch of groups can get overwhelming, depending on how many friends you have. To help with that, Valve implemented a favorites feature. You can position your friends, groups, and chats at the top of the friends list for quick access. As with several other features, it's aimed at making the friends list more flexible and robust.
As for the actual chat experience, Valve is modernizing it with a bunch of improvements, including support for inline video, animated GIFs, pictures, Twitter links, and more.
"Every chat on Steam is now multi-media friendly. Getting your point across is easier than ever, now that everyone can see your GIFs inline rather than a list of links. Paste a picture from the clipboard and upload it directly to the chat," Valve explains.
Valve updated the voice chat system as well. Rewritten from the ground up with a new WebRTC-based backend, the new client uses the Opus encoding system for higher quality transmissions. The company says that voice traffic is encrypted and goes through its own servers rather than directly to friends, which keeps users' IP address private and masks their physical location. It also shields users from network attacks.
It's not clear when Valve will roll out the updated Steam Chat to the public at large. In the meantime, you can grab the beta client or try it out in your web browser, as it works there as well. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that "During the beta, chatting with Steam users who are NOT in the beta will be a little weird. Mainly for them. People in the non-beta Steam Client won't be able to join your group chats," Valve says.