The Steam Link: From Computer To Couch

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Valve’s war for the living room continues. From Big Picture to the Steam Controller, it’s clear that they really want you to stay on Steam and away from those filthy, nasty consoles.

Available now is yet another tool in their arsenal: the Steam Link. It’s designed to take advantage of Steam’s In-Home Streaming function, leveraging the power of your PC and displaying the output in your living room through a dedicated device…all for the affordable price of half a Benjamin.

Worth? Let’s find out.

The Steam Link is a small, weighty device in a rather fancy little package. I have a sneaking suspicion that Valve added dead weight in this thing to make it feel like a premium product, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work on me—it feels very nice in the hand. Smooth clean lines and a low profile cap off an otherwise sleek little unit.

It comes with installation instructions, but it’s all very straight-forward: just plug it in and watch magic happen. All the extra info can be found in support forums online. Valve also recognises the different power outlets of the world by supplying several different adapter plugs, so big ups to them. An HDMI cable and an Ethernet cable are also both included.

The device has ports for USB 2.0, HDMI, and 100Mbit Ethernet. Yeah, no Gigabit port; apparently 100Mbit is more than three times what you need for a satisfactory streaming experience. The device also supports WiFi, although a wired connection is recommended.

The Steam Link supports a handful of (primarily Microsoft) controllers and keyboard / mouse. I was pleased to find that the original Xbox 360 Wireless Receiver works well. As for Xbox One Wireless Receivers, at the time of writing they weren’t supported, but hopefully this may change in future.

Setup is relatively painless. I did come across a hiccup when attempting to pair the link with my PC for the first time—the Steam Link presented a code, which I had to enter at my computer, but the connection appeared to time out on the Steam Link. It turned out that I needed to flush the DNS cache on my PC (which was possibly related to me using a VPN service), and then all was well. No need for additional firewall rules on my router or anything of the sort.

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And that’s it! Basically the Steam Link allows you to remotely control your PC (hence the whole reason why you need to manually key in a pairing code). Big Picture mode should start up automatically, but you can also quit to the desktop and navigate by moving the mouse pointer with the thumbstick. Pretty neat. Of course, since your PC is streaming to your TV, no one else will be able to use your PC at the same time, so keep that in mind.

But what about performance? Well, I’m planning on writing up another article that details my exact specifications, but with a mid-range computer, PowerLine adapters and a decent router, I was able to hover around 55-60 FPS @ 1080p on most games with the “Balanced” setting. Input lag clocked in at 10–12ms, and display lag was at 60ms. Enabling “Game Mode” on my TV helped with the display lag, and lowering the resolution to 720p made a difference in terms of reducing input lag and increasing responsiveness. Rocket League is quite playable for me, but I feel like it really shines on games like Fallout 4 and other titles that don’t require hair-trigger twitch movements.

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If I had something bad to say about the Steam Link, it’s that you really do need to have decent host hardware and networking infrastructure in place to get a satisfactory result. I strongly recommend testing out In-Home Streaming from your host to a second PC or laptop client first to get a feel for what kind of experience you’ll get. If you can get performance to a point that is reasonable, then that’s the experience you can expect with the Steam Link. Alternatively, if the idea of not-quite 1:1 gaming doesn’t appeal to you, then I’d recommend getting a long HDMI cable and a wireless controller receiver.

However, if you have the right gear and setup, and you’d rather not pay for a whole new Steam box PC, the Steam Link offers surprising results for a very affordable price.

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