…see the end of the post for the array of alternative titles I considered* …
I’ve started and scrapped different versions of this post many times; the one thing I can say for absolute certainty is that whilst I want to write a hardware review of Valve’s curious gizmo the ‘Steam Link’, it is inherently a dull thing to write about. I’m going to sidestep the default conclusion that I simply don’t possess the ‘blogging flair’ (or writing wizardry) to make a dry subject interesting for two reasons: firstly I’m not one to back away from a challenge, and secondly because the dullness of the ‘Steam Link’ is largely the result of it being such an ‘obvious’ piece of hardware for Valve to release.
As 2015 drew to a close, we were finally granted permission to see the first publicly accessible iterations of the hardware side of Valve’s bid to capture our couch gaming hours in addition to our desk based ones. These hardware developments go hand in hand with the software side of things (also nominally a trio of ideas). The software consists of ‘Steam OS’, ‘Big Picture Mode’, and ‘In-Home Streaming’ whilst the hardware features ‘Steam Machines’, ‘The Steam Controller’, and ‘Steam Link’. This self-imposed literary wrestling match I’m currently involved in is largely the result of having received a Steam Link for Christmas as a gift from my partner (much better than Valve’s xmas gift to us of someone else’s account details), but maybe contextually it’s also appropriate to write about it at the start of 2016. Valve are savvy enough not to expect overnight miracles, but the uptake of these new features will no doubt be scrutinised at the end of the full year cycle and in this respect 2016 could be pivotal in the future direction of Valve’s brand of PC gaming.
What is Steam Link?
Like so much hardware, physically it is a small plastic box with internal technical stuff and various sockets to plug things in to. Functionally it allows you to use Steam’s In-Home Streaming feature on your dusty-dusty HD TV … or even more fundamentally; the video and audio feed from your high-end gaming PC is streamed via Steam Link ‘real-time’ to another display whilst also feeding back your control inputs to your PC all through your home network. In this respect Steam Link is similar to the ‘micro-console’ provided by the (largely failed) ambitious OnLive service however the hardware running the game is in your home rather than a remote location making it a much more viable system.
Steam Link is physically designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, it is a small, thin black plastic device with the Steam logo embossed on the top surface. It has no lights and no buttons. It features 3 x USB ports, 1 x HDMI port, 1 x Ethernet port and a power supply input. It is supplied with power adaptor (for a range of countries), HDMI lead, and an Ethernet cable. I want to keep all the dry ‘technical’ stuff in this section, so for completeness I’ll briefly outline my home setup: We network using a standard BT HomeHub; The two gaming PC’s and the SteamLink are networked via a 500 Mbps Powerline system, and a wireless Microsoft (XBox 360 Style) controller connected.
My Experience So Far…
Setup was a painless, although the nature of the festive period meant that I tried to slot it into a pocket of time between breakfast and doing ‘things’ that wasn’t quite long enough to do much more than get it connected and switch on. Flicking the power on at the socket (I’m still embarrassingly baffled by the lack of buttons on the Steam Link itself) I was presented with a clean interface for selecting language and connecting to a wireless network (as I wasn’t prepared enough to have a powerline socket ready). This was followed by the mandatory software update which is necessary for every new, off-the-shelf, piece of tech; once that is taken care of it’s good to go. The main interface gives you the options to connect to a PC running steam on the network, and a small handful of other settings, the most useful being the stream quality. Connecting to a PC requires a one-time verification code to be entered at the PC itself in order to pair it with the ‘Link’ and then it will be listed on the home-screen.
By selecting a PC, the ‘Link’ remotely takes control and fires up ‘Big Picture’ mode as standard. The ‘Big Picture’ mode itself has been refined in recent months giving you essentially all the Steam functionality in a fairly typical ‘console’ style interface. The only notable differences lie in the power menu that contain a few ‘Link’ specific options to stop streaming or switch-off ‘Steam Link’. As a bonus, you can close ‘Big Picture’ and use it just to view your PC remotely.
My initial, brief, scrolling through menus using the wireless connection were a little disappointing. The stream stuttered every 20-30 seconds and my hand was forced very quickly to run to the shop for an extra powerline adaptor in order to utilise the Ethernet connection – a move which is strongly advised by Valve, wasn’t exactly unexpected but I’ll revisit later as it deserves being picked over. The wired connection was much more stable and I breathed a little easier, the dread being that I’d end up avoiding to use it yet be muted from saying anything by gratitude for the gift.
The first game I fired up was ‘Luftrausers’; a fast paced 2D air-combat game akin to primary school drawings of aerial battles, from Devolver digital. I was curious to test the ‘Link’ initially with something requiring some precise movement (knowing that there would be a slight control delay) that I had played fairly recently. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience which was smooth and ‘normal’, any compensation I made for the control delay was subconscious. For the second effort, we plugged in an additional controller and fired up ‘Flock’; a brightly coloured …erm… sheep herding game where you control a UFO. My partner and I shared a few enjoyable rounds of drowning, squashing and sometimes actually managing to abduct various critters in this bulbous fabric landscape. The experience was acceptable but there was a slight (but noticeable) drop in framerate compared to ‘Luftrausers’. I doubt that any of my gaming falls into the category of ‘scientific study’ so I didn’t rigorously investigate the root causes of this; it could have been other network traffic, the hardware (we were using the other gaming PC), or the ‘Link’ settings. Finally, I wanted to see how nice it could look, so I turned the streaming settings up to ‘beautiful’ (from the default ‘balanced’) and settled in for a few hours of ‘Crimes & Punishments: Sherlock Holmes’. This was pretty much the best streaming experience you could hope for, I don’t remember being annoyed by a single stutter, the framerate seemed to be fine, and there was no evidence of video compression (at least not visible from the couch).
Soooo…. should I get one?…
Gah! stop asking awkward questions! The ‘Steam Link’ fills a gap in Valve’s couch gaming strategy. It is far from perfect, I suspect it will be subject to performance fluctuations depending of the breeze of network traffic and there is certainly a delay (I’d guess around 0.1s) based on watching the monitor out of the corner of my eye whilst playing. From that point of view it’s not going to compete with a direct connection for twitchy games that need split-second kapow-style reflexes.
For gamers willing to invest heavily in PC gaming on the couch then a Steam machine is probably a better option, likewise if your gaming PC is conveniently placed (and wouldn’t require the draping of cables everywhere like mine) then you should probably just buy wireless controllers and a long HDMI cable to directly hook up the screen. Similarly, if you have a PC connected to your TV for general media viewing then you could likely just install Steam and use the in-home streaming with the same performance as the ‘Link’. So the ‘Link’ only exists for the situation where you have no other computer connection to the TV, and only want to play games that don’t require lightning response times, yet you can still get an Ethernet connection to the device for a stable experience.
I’m happy with it as a product, but I’m also aware that I fit into that (relatively narrow) target audience. It’s a sign that Valve are determined to provide enough hardware and software solutions to cater for everyone; I guess 2016 will reveal of they’ve been successful with this stealthy console takeover.
*’the missing link’; ‘… It’s off the chain’; ‘A Link to the future ‘;’ Zelda is the Princess’; ‘Valves Chain-link fence’