Despite its simple appearance, the Steam Link–Valve’s first hardware exploration into your living room–isn’t for the light-hearted gamer. For $50, it’s a perfect complement to your current gaming setup–only if your current setup is already pretty much perfect.
The Steam Link is a tiny block that’s kind of like a Chromecast, or other streaming sticks, but it’s designed for Valve’s Big Picture Steam software. The Link, like its name suggests, simply connects your PC (and soon Mac) to your television sans wires, meaning you no longer have to lug your dedicated gaming PC next to your television if you want to play titles with a bigger screen or among friends.
Serious gamers, but not so much because you need it if you’re a serious gamer. It just doesn’t work that well if you don’t have a decent gaming PC and an above average bandwidth to get games streaming at 1080p at 60 frames-per-second. But when it does, it’s more than worth its $50 price.
This will be a quick one: It’s basically a black box that looks like a convincing paper weight–a rectangle with a curve on the bottom left near the familiar Steam logo. It has HDMI, ethernet port, a power source, and two USBs on the side and another USB port on the right. On the bottom it has a rubber pad so it won’t go sliding around on your TV stand.
It’s well-made but refreshingly subdued. It’s built to bleed right into your entertainment system’s surroundings.
Setting up the Steam Link is incredibly, incredibly simple. Turn on controller —>Join network—> Add computer —> play games. With your eyes shut tight and fingers crossed, the Steam logo will pop onto your TV as your PC, in whatever den, basement, or desk it’s hidden, will be whisked away to Big Picture Mode and beamed to your TV for glorious stream gaming.
Ahh, if only.
This is the set up. Seriously, it’s so fast it fits inside one GIF.
Now, I saw this Steam Link in action at Valve’s HQ in Bellevue, Washington, and when gunning at all cylinders (i.e. high-end PC and strong ethernet connection, and crazy-good internet), you couldn’t even tell the difference between the Steam Link and Alienware’s own (and much more pricey) Steam Machine.
But I wanted to see if the Steam Link could become an integral piece of hardware in my own gaming life. I wouldn’t say I’m a HARDCORE gamer or even a dedicated PC gamer for that matter, but I do have a pricey Surface Book and a sizable indie collection on Steam I’ve collected over the years. I’ve also spent a healthy amount of time playing RPGs and dying in Dark Souls, so I’m no rookie.
But the cruel reality that I quickly learned is that the Steam Link wasn’t made for me or other casual to semi-dedicated gamers. It’s for the serious gamers who already have a high-end system and stable internet connection along with it, but want the option of console gaming without actually forking over even more scratch for what is essentially another computer just for your TV.
With all that being said, here’s what happened to me. I first tried to use the Steam Link wirelessly. Lol. The screen froze immediately. I heard a few spooky noises and pops but could see nothing but a black screen. Ok, that was actually expected. Valve says for the best performance, use ethernet. Also, I just have an 802.11a/b/g/n router so I can’t take advantage of the awesome AC abilities built into the Steam Link.
So I moved the Steam Link to my office, imagining that maybe me and a few coworkers could kick back after work and play a few. This time I sorta had success plugged in via ethernet, but only with the resolution criminally scaled down to 480p–and even then, hardcore platforms like Electronic Super Joy that require exact precision were an utter failure since the slightest hiccup sent my avatar careening into the digital abyss.
I then moved on to my girlfriend’s abode who is blessed with a) better connection and b) no roommates that hog bandwidth. Here’s where I had the most success. I spent hours playing Undertale and I could see the real promise of Steam Link. Instead of being stuck in another room, face in my laptop, I could hangout with my girlfriend or whomever–and they could watch me play, or even grab the controller for a bit if they wanted.
But even on this strong network, playing anything with a decent amount of graphics just wasn’t worth it. It was just too choppy with artifacting, I’d often take the controller back to my PC screen and play on there where it was completely lag-free, thus, eliminating the whole appeal of Steam Link.
Playing all my favorite indie titles on my couch. I started my gaming life on a Super Nintendo and I haven’t strayed too from the console existence, so it felt almost like a natural state of being.
The set up is so simple. Seriously, you’re up and gaming in less than a minute.
This is nothing new, but Big Picture Mode is great. It’s actually one of the better online communities compared to Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus. Message boards are very active and you can easily apply user-submitted mapping controls to your Steam controller instantly, turning keyboard and mouse games into a console experience.
The controller will draw some ire, but I actually kind of liked it and it’s only an additional $50. Granted, I’d be just as happy with an Xbox One controller, but Steam put out a better joystick than I was expecting.
Too unreliable. Game streaming is not like video streaming. One minor hiccup is the difference between landing on that platform or getting the all-too-familiar GAME OVER title screen. When it works, it works wonderfully. But just the sense that the game could seize up at any moment puts me on edge.
It’s hard to be truly portable. If you happen to have the magical setup of high-spec computer and great network connection, your friends might not...which kind of sucks. I wish I could take this over to a buddy’s and we could play steam games on her TV as well, but NOPE. It’s kind of a crapshoot if it will even work.
If you have complete faith in-home network and your gaming PC and you own Steam titles not readily available on other platforms (or SteamOS for that matter), then absolutely, positively yes. It’s only $50, $100 if you throw in the controller. It’s a no-brainer. What are you doing? You should have bought it yesterday.
But if you happen to be a casual player like me, who likes Steam and certain indie titles but doesn’t have a dedicated rig necessarily or robust bandwidth with a router able to handle the streaming load? Nah, I’d pass on this one, especially if you only own one PC since it will take up the whole display. Compared to video streaming services, game streaming is just a whole other animal, not to mention it being in its infancy. Small glitches will pop up, even with all the necessarily cogs churning efficiently, and nothing is more frustrating than getting KO’d due to hardware mishaps.
I’m excited for the near future where I can play games like I’m binge-watching Netflix–but that future isn’t here yet.
Images by Michael Hession
Disclaimer: Valve invited me out to Bellevue, Washington to get hands-on with the Steam Link and Alienware Steam Machine. Their office is pretty nice.