There are two lines of thought about the best way to game. Some gamers want to slouch on their sofa and bathe in the glow of a nice big screen and boot up a game with the press of a couple buttons. Others, though, want to be up close and personal with their games, running them on high-powered rigs and modding them beyond belief. The Steam Link, a game-streaming device from Valve, hopes to bridge that gap, letting PC gamers migrate away from their PCs into their living rooms where local multiplayer is best-suited and a computer chair is replaced by a couch.
The Steam Link debuted yesterday alongside the Steam controller as well as Fallout 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. The Link and Fallout 4 showed up on my doorstep at almost the same time, so of course I wanted to join the two and wander the wasteland from the comfort of my couch. This is where my trouble started.
Layers upon layers.
While the Steam Link does work, it does the exact opposite of its promise – making couch gaming easy. In fact, it’s the same set of problems one has to wade through for PC gaming to be fun with a new layer of complexity added on top of it.
Fallout 4 does a good job of showing off the first complication. If a game has its own launcher, rather than booting directly into the game, playing with a controller doesn’t work. You have to get past the launcher to be able to use the controller, which requires running back and forth to your PC. Even then, there’s a lot that can go wrong as Steam’s Big Picture mode tries to take control of your displays.
Exiting one game caused a hard crash of my PC where the game’s music continued to play but neither the computer nor the Steam Link would accept any inputs. Whether it would work with any given game seemed to be a total diceroll.
I’m not quite sure why, but Steam Link doesn’t seem to like multiple monitor configurations, either, which means that each time I want to use the Steam Link, I have to disable one of my monitors before I head to the couch. It’s not just pick-up-and-play.
I’d also be remiss in skipping over one of my personal misconceptions about the device, because inevitably someone else out there will make the same mistake. The way Steam Link works is it clones your display, meaning that while you’re gaming on your TV, your computer is still displaying the game on your primary display. I’d had it in my head that the game would run in the background, leaving your desktop available to use (even if it was mostly processing the game at the time), but that’s not the case. What shows on one shows on the other. If someone sits down and tries to use the computer, your game is over, and that could be confusing in a multi-user household.
There are some good parts.
Once I actually got into a game and played it – Pac-Man CE DX+ was the first game I tried – it actually looked pretty good and the latency was all but non-existent across my gigabit ethernet connection, though it was admittedly still there – this isn’t going to be something you use for twitch multiplayer stuff. I did try running it across my wireless N signal just to see what happened, and for games that require even the slightest bit of reaction time, it’s close to unusable. If you’re going after a Steam Link, stick to wired. AC wireless signals may work better, but I wouldn’t be willing to bet on it.
While Pac-Man did look great, busier games like shooters do show a bit more artifacting. This is going to depend somewhat on the quality and busyness of your network. If you can crank the stream quality up to “beautiful,” games that do work stay looking good, but at lower quality settings things will get fuzzy much more frequently.
The Steam Link is a neat idea, nicely packaged. It’s compact and light, comes with a variety of outlet connectors for different countries, and all the cables necessary to get it connected to your television, network, and power. Setup is a breeze.
If your style of gaming focuses more on lighter indie stuff that emphasizes single player and local multiplayer, this might be a good buy. At $50, it’s not a massive risk. Despite my disappointment with it, I’m not too angry because I know it’ll get some use, even if it’s not going to totally change my gaming experience.
Elements like multiple monitors and game-specific launchers will make the Steam Link a frustrating experience for many users. If you’re looking to take some of the complexity out of PC gaming, the Steam Link won’t do it. If you’re willing to hold on through the early bumps and hitches, there’s some cool stuff going on here.