Hands-on with Valve's Steam In-Home Streaming beta

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I was fortunate enough to get into the Steam Home-Streaming beta about a week ago and I've been messing around with the system on and off since. It's definitely a beta with its quirks and bugs, but overall I'm fairly pleased with the system. Assuming Valve continues to improve and optimize it I think PC gamers who want to get away from the gaming rig now and then will have a nice system to do so.

Using the system requires zero set up. You run Steam beta on one machine, then go to another machine and run the Steam beta there, log in using the same account and setup is done! If you look at "Installed Games" on either machine, you'll see both locally installed titles and games that are installed on other machines on the network. If you choose a game that's not installed locally, you'll get a "Stream" button. Click it and away you go. (If you don't want to Stream it there'll also be an Install option.)

At least when everything works right, away you go. I ran into a few 'gotchas' mostly concerned with playing games for the first time. For my testing I was using a copy of Dishonored that I had installed but never played. When I ran it on the client machine I got a message saying the connection had timed out. When I went to check on the host machine, I saw the system was doing the Steam 'first time startup' dance and had triggered a UAC alert. Since no one was around to click "OK" the start up had halted.

With some other games this never happened since they didn't trigger the UAC alert. Instead I got a "running first time startup" message on the client and eventually streaming started, but (and if you're a Steam user you'll know what I'm talking about) first time setup can take a while and when you don't know exactly what's happening, doubts crop up. Trust in the Stream! If the host machine has hit a glitch you'll get an error message.

With another game (Blackguards) streaming started up but I had no mouse cursor, so I was stuck. When I Alt-Tabbed away from the game I wound up looking at the host desktop. While I'm sure this was a bug, it seems like a bug Valve might want to turn into a feature. Wouldn't it be nice if they built remote desktop access in, so you could click on things like a UAC alert without going to the host machine?

But these are the kinds of glitches you'd expect with a beta, so I'm not too worried. One thing that was a little odd though. When you play via streaming, the host computer is of course running the game. For some reason I assumed that output would be suppressed on the host, but it is not. On the host machine the game boots up and starts playing, complete with sound. The first time this happened it was rather unsettling for my girlfriend who was sitting upstairs in the office where the host rig was. She thought a gaming ghost had moved in! Anyway, if you think you're going to be streaming and you don't live alone, consider turning off your display and speakers on the host machine!

I tested streaming from my "gaming machine" if you want to call it that. It's an i7-4770 with an Nvidia GTX-760 graphics card.

First I tried streaming to my cheap laptop. It's a Lenovo that I bought for about $400 a few years back. It can run almost none of today's modern games. It was connected via a 2.4 Ghz wireless connection and I believe it connects to 802.11g. I did nothing to optimize the connection and we have a lot of interference in the shape of cordless phones and lots of WiFi devices talking back and forth.

Honestly I didn't think it would work, but it did and Dishonored was playable, but not ideal. The stream converted from the 1920x1080 it was running on the host to the 1366x768 screen on the laptop, running at 30 FPS. The Streaming beta has an option to toggle on stats and a graph. These shows that I was using 33% of the estimated 44 Mbps of bandwidth available, had a ping time between 3 & 4 ms and latency around 56 ms.

The bottom line is that for now, if you need to stream over semi-lousy WiFi you probably want to stick to games that are a little slower-paced. But again, this is beta and early beta at that. Still it was a treat to be playing any kind of AAA game on this junky old laptop. I should also note that folks on the Streaming Beta community that have devices that can connect to a 5 Ghz 802.11n (or 802.11ac) signal report much better results.

Next I tried streaming to the Alienware X51 that sits under the TV. This machine could play Dishonored locally, but I wanted to see how well it streamed. I tried it using both a 10/100 hub and a gigabit hub to see how much difference that made. Unfortunately even on gigabit my bandwidth was topping out at only 145 Mbps or so (probably something to do with the cheap 50' Ethernet cable I have running up the stairs and into the office).

On the 10/100 connection I was using 16% of an estimated 92 Mbps of bandwidth. Ping time was about 1.5 ms and latency of 50-60 ms, which seemed high to me. I'll need to diagnose that (maybe that cable was causing this latency as well). [Update on the latency issue: I was misunderstanding the reading. Latency, in this context, includes the time it takes for the host machine to encode the stream, the time the stream takes to travel over the network, and the time it takes the client to un-encode the stream. It seems to also vary game-to-game.] When I swapped in the gigabit hub I was using 10% of an estimated 141 Mbps. Ping dropped to under .5 ms but latency still stayed around 50 ms.

In both cases with the wired connection, I was streaming at 1920x1080 but still only at 30 FPS. I'm not sure why it's capping at that low a framerate. There are some settings you can tweak and which I haven't yet messed with; they're all set to automatic.

But all these numbers aside, the system works for casually playing all but the fastest moving games. I wouldn't want to enter into a competition using In-Home Streaming and I'm guessing something like a fighting game would suffer from the lag. But for people like me who have a gaming system in the office or den and want to get those games onto the living room TV now and then, In-Home Streaming means you can use an inexpensive PC as the client and not worry about whether your video card is up to the task or what have you.

It's not perfect yet, but I didn't expect it to be. It's a solid start though, in my opinion.

I'll end this post with some example graphs from the 3 tests I did. I'm going to be totally honest and admit I don't know what the red and blue lines represent. I think they're video and audio, but they might be upstream and downstream. Valve hasn't documented any of this stuff very well yet!

Remember the WiFi test was at 1366x768. The other two were at 1920x1080.

In-Home Streaming performance using 2.4 Ghz 802.11g WiFi

In-Home Streaming performance using 10/100 wired Ethernet

In-Home Streaming performance using gigabit wired Ethernet

As you can see, the experience is much more consistent using a wired connection, but I'm sure that doesn't come as any kind of a surprise.

If you're in the Steam In-Home Streaming beta, what have your results looked like? Please let us know in the comments.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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