Hands-on with Valve's Steam Link client for In-Home Streaming

Last week Valve sent out the first shipment of Steam Link units to early pre-orderers. I got mine last Friday and wanted to share my thoughts.

The $50 Steam Link is a small device designed to hook up to your TV and use Steam's In-Home Streaming to bring PC gaming to the living room. It's part of the "Steam Machine" ecosystem. You control your games via mouse and keyboard, a game controller or the new Steam Controller (which I also purchased but I'm still coming to terms with).

Steam Link Valve

It's worth mentioning that the Steam Link is useless if you don't have a computer running Steam somewhere in your house. If you thought you might be able to run some lightweight games locally on the Steam Link, think again. This is a dedicated streaming client. That's not a complaint; it does exactly what it is advertised to do. I just wanted to be clear in case anyone though it was a low-powered Steam Machine.

The Steam Link hardware itself is very nice. As I said it's a small device, roughly the size of an Apple TV, Fire TV or Roku. Since it potentially will have quite a few cables connected to it (power, Ethernet and peripherals) Valve wisely added a rubbery material to the bottom of the unit so it won't slide off your entertainment center. The Link supports HDMI-CEC so when you power it on your TV will switch over to the input it is on.

Overall I have no complaints with the hardware. The only issues I have are with Steam In-Home Streaming. First, Valve strongly recommends a wired connection to the Link and I agree. It does support WiFi and with so much variety in WiFi networks you might have a better experience than I had, but when I tried connecting via WiFi I had lag and moments where the image on screen lost resolution or had 'digital static'. Fortunately I have an Ethernet port by my TV and with a wired connection virtually all of those issues vanished. There is still a tiny bit of input lag but games were quite playable...

Unless they weren't. Steam is a very open platform and some games either refused to stream or had me running up and down the stairs to hit a prompt on my PC that I couldn't get to on the Link. I seemed to have particular issues with any game that has a launcher; in some cases I'd fire up the game, see the launcher, start the game and it would be running upstairs on the computer but on the Link I'd still see the launcher. At least once Steam froze on me; something I can't remember it ever doing before (though I am running the beta Steam client, which Valve suggests we do with the Link and Steam Controller).

Other games ran but were just clearly not designed to be played from 8-10 feet away, due to small on-screen text or even tiny click boxes on UI elements.

So it's all still a bit fiddly but when it works, it works pretty well. I'm usually a console gamer but just as an example, Rebel Galaxy, by the folks who did Torchlight, launched earlier this week but only on PC. Using the Link (and in my case, the Steam Controller) I was able to purchase, download, launch and play the game on my living room TV. That was the experience I was hoping for. I don't know if the Rebel Galaxy developers put thought into playing like this or if it was just a happy accident, but I was glad it worked so well and I hope developers embrace the possibility that their customers may be playing via streaming.

For $50 I can deal with the issues and just stick to playing games that play well via In-Home Streaming, but before you purchase a Steam Link give some thought to how you're going to control it. You're probably going to want wireless controllers. Personally I'm not a fan of keyboard and mouse on the coffee table but maybe that's just me. In addition to the Steam Controller, the Link officially supports Xbox One or 360 Wired Controller, Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows, and Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710 but early adopters are finding some other gear works too.

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