Valve has taken an interesting turn in their business as of recently. The once triple A game developer established the most successful digital PC gaming platform that has sort of standardized how PC games are distributed to PC enthusiasts. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Steam take over the PC game market at some point and time. Aside from digital distribution, Valve has also jumped into the hardware market this year by creating Steam OS (which turns the Steam platform into an operating system), partnering with PC manufacturers to launch a line of console-sized Steam Machines, and releasing their own wireless controller that introduces a brand new way to play video games. Basically, they’re doing everything BUT developing Half-Life 3 it seems…
The latest gadget from Valve is called the Steam Link — a small box that allows PC gamers with pre-existing rigs to transform any television in the home into a Steam gaming platform by streaming gameplay from a PC to the television. A Steam Link is a perfect device for crafty PC gamers such as myself that enjoy building their own custom gaming PCs and do not want to bother with a Steam Machine that’s limited in specs and lacks full customization. By simply connecting the Steam Link to your home network, plugging in a USB controller and connecting it to a television via HDMI, your Steam client will beam right to your living room as if it was a game console sitting right in your entertainment center.
This small micro-console is about the size of a pack of Uno cards and just a bit bigger than a Playstation TV device. It sports three USB 2.0 ports, a power connector, a 100mbps RJ-45 Ethernet network port and an HDMI port for video output. The small box also include Bluetooth 4.0 and wireless 802.11ac capability, but in all honesty I would completely ignore the fact that this device has WiFi if you want the best performance out of it. Users can play games at 1080p up to 60 frames per second on the Steam Link as well. The Steam Link retails at a modest $49.99 and ships in a pretty attractive package that includes an AC adapter, four removable connector pins for the AC adapter to support power outlets for multiple countries (which is a first), an HDMI cable and an Ethernet cable. Basically, everything you need to get started is included in the box. At the moment, the Steam Link can only be purchased through the Steam Client, through Amazon or at a Gamestop location. Gamestop seems to be the only brick and mortar option for folks who want a Steam Link now without waiting for it to be shipped.
So how does this thing work exactly? It’s rather simple actually. After the Steam Link has been connected to a television and the home network, the user must turn on their PC and open the Steam client. Updating the Steam Link firmware will occur when first powered on too, which is quick and easy. From there, the Steam Link will power on and ask the user to enter a code that displays on the television into their Steam client to link the two together. Once that link has been established, the television kicks into Steam Big Picture Mode and your entire Steam client can be controlled from the television. The PC must stay powered on in order for the Steam Link to function. Aside from Valve’s own Steam Controller, the Steam Link also supports most USB controllers including the Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Playstation 3 controllers. Those who own the wireless PC adapter for Xbox One controllers will have to wait until Valve updates the Steam Link to support it unfortunately. Mice and keyboards are also supported on the Steam Link via USB or Bluetooth as well.
The magic of the Steam Link is that it takes the Steam Big Picture Mode and beams it to your TV, making your PC feel just like a home gaming console. The Big Picture Mode interface works wonders with a controller and looks very attractive. The “achievement unlocked” notifications on your television look much better than the ugly grey ones found on PC outside of Big Picture Mode. Playing high-end PC games with a controller in the living room is fantastic for games that can be played effectively that way, but PC purists who must play with a mouse and keyboard, gaming headphones and high performance sound systems may want to steer clear. Also, if you’re a power user who plays at 4K resolutions and framerates higher than 60fps, the Steam Link isn’t for you.
I guess the big question is how this thing actually performs — which was my question right from the start. We have seen various streaming methods released over the past couple of years and some work better than others. A lot of folks feel like game streaming just isn’t ready for prime time and they may be correct. However, with the right setup at home, the Steam Link performs beautifully… on a wired connection. My home has a cable internet connection with a 30mb download and 5mb upload speed with a NetLink N600 dual band router. If you’re a user who’s home network is comprised of nothing but stock hardware provided from your ISP company, the results may vary. I would recommend at least a mid-range router connected to your cable or DSL modem before investing in the Steam Link. Obviously, your gaming PC’s guts are a huge determining factor in how well the Steam Link performs too. I’m running a custom PC with an Intel Core i7 4790k processor, 16GB of ram and an Nvidia Geforce GTX 970 SSC graphics card. Although, the more powerful of a game you play in conjunction with a Steam Link, the more powerful of a PC you will need. Playing indie games on a MacBook Air won’t make too much of a difference here.
My first attempt with the Steam Link was loading up Fallout 4 using an Xbox 360 wired USB controller. The Steam Link has three streaming settings, which are Best Performance, Balanced and Best Picture. If you shoot for best performance, the network will not need as many resources to play effectively but the picture quality will look blocky, especially at high in-game speeds. Best picture will give the user the best picture quality possible but require more network resources. Balanced mode is a happy medium that balances out the two but still presents an less-than-perfect picture quality. I set my Steam Link to “best picture” and Fallout 4 ran at 1080p at 60 frames per second with little to no input lag that I’ve noticed. The picture quality looked almost identical to the game running natively on my PC monitor too. Once I dropped the Steam Link down to “balanced” mode, I noticed that the performance was the same but the picture looked a bit more pixelated. Thankfully, my home network and PC play nicely with the Steam Link but once I connected the device to a WiFi signal, I noticed more blockiness in the picture quality and a bit more input lag. Honestly, just avoid WiFi if all possible. I tested performance with other games too like Remember Me and Darksiders 2 with great results.
All of the functions you would expect to have on your PC’s Steam client works here too. You can buy PC games in the store, bring up the Steam overlay using an Xbox or Playstation center button, set a button combination to take screenshots and even redeem product keys and Steam gift cards too. I set my Xbox 360 controller to take screenshots by holding the Xbox button and pressing the right trigger and it worked flawlessly and even allowed me to upload it and share it. Community features are also able to be accessed on the Steam Link and an included web browser in the Big Picture Mode works great for surfing the net on your TV. Worried about button configurations? Don’t sweat it; I’ve had no issues being able to fully map controls in each PC game I tried to play. You can even control your PC’s desktop if you want by shrinking down the Steam Client, which is nifty. All in all, the Steam Link turns your TV into a Steam OS machine that piggybacks off of your gaming PC with solid results.
Even though I had excellent results with the Steam Link, there are still a few quirks with the device. First off, any PC game that loads up with a launcher prior to loading the game will require the user to run into the room that houses their PC, click to launch the game, and then run back to the television to continue playing. The majority of supported controllers must be wired and USB, excluding the Steam Controller, but hopefully Microsoft’s wireless dongles for Xbox One and Xbox 360 controllers will be supported soon. Again, anyone who wants resolutions higher than 1080p and framerates higher than 60 are out of luck too. I’ve had a few lockups using the Steam Link, which occurred in both Fallout 4 and Remember Me too, but it only happened twice and may very well be a hardware issues on my end (or the fact Fallout 4 is very buggy).
I spent several hours tinkering and testing the Steam Link and I have to say that I’m rather impressed with the little device. I purchased a Steam Link so I could play PC games like Fallout 4 in my living room in order to keep a closer eye on my toddler and it works great. Even though the results may not be as positive with everyone due to network setups and PC hardware, and resolution and graphic enthusiasts may frown at the lock to 1080p and 60fps, the Steam Link is a steal at $50 as long as it is useful to you and it is perfectly capable at delivering solid performance if your network is up to the task. Curious about the Steam Controller? Don’t worry we’ll be visiting that soon!