Oh my god, it actually works!
What’s something that the PC is bad it? If you said “living room gaming” you win a prize! If you wanted to play games from your couch, you were inevitably left with a compromise. You either had a ridiculously underpowered box that made little noise, or you had a box that made a sound like a jet engine and drowned out the TV (or the TV was so loud your neighbours wanted you dead). There have been some major advances in low-power components, but there’s two reasons why a proper ATX build will always be better than an ITX build – performance and upgrades.
Due to the prevalence of consoles, the PC upgrade cycle has effectively been killed off. Gone are the days of the late 90s and early 2000s of buying a new GPU and CPU just to keep in the game. This is the reason why mini ITX builds are viable – because the lower end cards can actually cope because we’re just not seeing that rapid advance in technology anymore. But such a build will inevitably limit your upgrade paths, either because of cooling or because things just won’t fit. And at some point you will need to upgrade, or you might as well go buy a console for cheaper than the cost of a decent gaming PC and be done with it.
But what if you’ve got an incredibly powerful desktop PC already? Chances are you’ve got a larger, louder box that acts as your gaming rig and general workstation. What now? Enter the Steam Link.
What is it?
The Steam Link is a little box that streams AV and controller input between your desktop PC and your TV. Basically, it pipes your PC games into your lounge room.
The unit itself is tiny – we’re talking portable HDD size here – and comes with a reasonable number of ports. You get 3 USB ports, a LAN jack, and HDMI (along with a power adapter). Valve thoughtfully provide you with a HDMI cable and an ethernet cable of a decent length. The unit also has an internal 802.11ac wireless adapter, but I strongly recommend you don’t use it (more in a bit).
The unit itself is designed to sit under your TV and connect to Steam. Any game you can add to Steam will be streamed, with varying results. The box will send the video and audio stream to the TV, and relay back to the PC your controller input. You can plug in any standard mouse and keyboard, an Xbox 360 controller, or a Steam Controller (and you really want one of those). If you want to use a 360 controller, you’ll have the most success if it’s wired.
And that’s it. It doesn’t even have a power button. You will need a decent gaming PC to handle the stream, but this is basically why this thing was made – as a companion to a high end gaming rig.
It actually works! Setup was painless – start up the box, start up Steam on PC, and allow the Steam Link to find your rig. You’ll input a pin code on your PC to verify that it’s the right device, and then Steam Big Picture Mode starts up. And then you’re basically using Steam. The end. Go play!
Any game that you find on Steam will at least stream, although some with menu UIs (like Fallout 4) you’re going to have to minimise Steam and go back to the Windows UI to start the game (and you can totally do this – the Steam Link will basically stream your desktop). After that it’s practically seamless – provided your desktop and home network is up to the task.
For me, I streamed Portal 2 for a good half hour with absolutely zero problems. I also played Wolfenstein: The New Order with only one small issue where the link disconnected. My rig for reference is an i7 4770 with 8GB of RAM and a GTX970, running everything from SSDs on Windows 10. I have a gigabit ethernet setup, and the Steam Link and PC were wired. I used a Steam Controller and it was great. It was just like having the PC in the lounge room, except without all the noise and heat from the rig, which was sitting in its little games room corner doing what PC gaming rigs do.
There are a few caveats that you will need to be aware of. Firstly, if you have a low end PC, don’t bother. You need a decent chunk of processing power to make this work. If you’re not comfortably playing games at 1080p, it likely isn’t worth it. You can drop the quality of the stream but I don’t think that’s worth doing.
Secondly, Windows can break the experience a bit. At the end of the day, this thing is just piping audio and visual data from the PC. If User Account Control pops up a dialogue, it breaks the link. For some games there’s no way to avoid using the desktop UI. Non-Steam games are also pretty variable in their support; sometimes they work fine, other times things break and you’ll have to go back to your desktop PC to sort the problem out. I had one such issue where I was unceremoniously dumped out of a game because something interrupted the link in the background, requiring me to reconnect to the PC and then use the desktop UI to open the game back up. I could do this from the couch though.
Finally, there is zero point in using this wirelessly. Technically it can be done, but it will introduce input lag and likely degrade the quality of the stream. Under perfect conditions on an AC connection, it might be okay. But even a basic home ethernet setup will work a hundred times better. Don’t have the cabling? Invest in some powerline ethernet adapters. You don’t need a gigabit setup, but you do need that wired stability. Do not use it wirelessly. It just doesn’t work. In fact, if you’re using anything that relies on a low-latency connection for wireless, you’re doing it wrong.
I haven’t had many problems with the device, but lots of other people have. People report about input lag, video artefacts, or games not working. I didn’t have that experience. A lot of people who do however are using it wirelessly. Don’t do it!
This thing is pretty damn awesome, all things considered. It does exactly what it says on the tin – streams games to your TV. With a Steam controller and one of these, you basically have the power of a desktop PC (and cheaper game prices too!) with the convenience of a console. It isn’t without issues, but they’re relatively minor. But don’t bother if you can’t get a wired connection – do not use this wirelessly. Don’t. Don’t do anything that relies on low-latency connections on a wireless connection. If you can wire it up though, it’s well worth picking up.