Steam Link – 6 Months On

Spoiler: It didn’t go any better.

Continuing the theme of “Tech I don’t use for no apparent reason”, let’s add the Steam Link to the list. I was initially extremely impressed by the Steam Link and was more than happy to use it… but since then it sits in a draw, largely forgotten. Why? To be honest, I’m not 100% certain.

It Worked Well…

People have been having a lot of trouble getting the Steam Link to work well with their home networks. My home is fully wired – both the host and the client Steam Link are connected via Cat6 to a strong router. Attempting this over wireless is suicidal and will end in tears. YMMW with powerline ethernet adapters. The only way to really do it is with good old fashioned ethernet cables. You also need a beefy PC – midrange systems can suffer a big performance hit once you add on the overhead for processing the video stream for broadcast to the Link. Apparently a lot of people missed this point and thus ended up with issues.

For what it’s worth, I did actually try to stream to a laptop via 802.11AC wireless (the host was wired), and it did work okay over a fairly short distance. But you’re still crazy for doing it.

So I had no real issues with the streaming part at all. Some of the time the visual quality was noticeably degraded, particularly when looking at very dark games with lots of black/dark colours, but otherwise it was fine. I typically couldn’t tell I was basically watching a video stream. Lag wasn’t too much of an issue, at least for single player games. If I paid very, very close attention, I could pick it out – but I’d just as quickly forget about it.

It also had other benefits…

One of the overlooked benefits was that I could just minimise Steam and stream the desktop straight to the TV. Typically this confers absolutely zero benefits, until I ran into issues with some video formats not being played by my PS4 or TV. I could just open up the file on VLC on the desktop and have the Steam Link stream it. Problem solved, no issues at all! Same for Netflix – it just streams whatever the PC is showing and thus it works fairly well. I say “fairly” because this was when I did notice a definite difference in the quality of the stream. A 1080p video file was noticeably softer streaming to the Link than if played natively. So while it works, it’s not necessarily great.

But there are big issues…

The most frustrating part of the entire experience was Steam, believe it or not. Big Picture Mode is still complete arse – it’s far too bulky, far too clunky, and just an unpleasant mess to use. Unfortunately you have to use it with the Link. I really have nothing good to say about Big Picture Mode at all. It does the job… but there’s massive room for improvement. I know UIs designed for output to a TV have to make some concessions given that it’s a controller that’ll be making things happen, but god damn it Valve, this isn’t the way to go about it!

Also Steam would tend to crash more frequently with the Link. More often than not, Steam would shit the bed and crash, leaving the Link stranded and the game playing away on the PC uninterrupted. Sometimes Steam would have a moment and I’d lose the stream, while the game continued blissfully unaware that I was no longer actually playing. Steam is the weak link here – it’s still a big buggy and unstable. Other times I’d play away without a single crash for hours on end – but this ended up being the exception rather than the rule. There seemed to be no real difference between beta and stable releases either.

UPDATE December 2016: The Steam beta clients fixed this issue in the end, although at the time of writing it hadn’t made it to stable release yet. It turned out that the Steam Controller was entirely at fault for causing Steam to crash.

Finally, some things just don’t work very well. Games with any sort of desktop launcher (like the Fallout series) tend to screw up and require a trip to the PC to fix (or using some sort of VNC suite). These little moments just make it hard to justify the effort. I might as well either sit at my PC for those games.

Also, and this is a Windows limitation, you can’t have a headless server¬†without a few hacks. If Windows detects no monitor connected (or a powered-on TV via HDMI) it won’t work at all.

Really, I feel ambivalent about it…

The main reason I just don’t use it is because I can’t find a reason to use it. The fact is my PS4, for all its inferiority, just does couch gaming better. The games are designed for the couch and for controllers. The PS4 just maintains itself – it downloads updates in the background, it wakes itself up to download stuff, and it’s more reliable than Steam when it comes to me parking my arse on the couch and wanting to play games. Yes, the visual fidelity and framerate aren’t as good – and yet the console generation gap has closed enough (at least in the AAA sector) that it probably doesn’t matter so much anymore.

When I do use the Link, I sit there thinking “I could just sit at my desk and play, it’d work better” and that’s why I generally don’t use it. The kinds of games I enjoy on the PC are better played at a desk. Anything else generally plays better (in terms of sitting on a couch) on PS4. The only real advantage I can come up with for the Steam Link (outside of visual fidelity) is that I can choose to play on either my PC or PS4… not really something that comes up a lot, to be honest. Games aren’t even that much cheaper anymore because the Australian dollar versus the US is atrocious, and Steam insists on making us pay in US dollars¬†while implementing regional pricing! Really, from a cost perspective, it isn’t even worth it anymore.

If you don’t have a console and have a robust network, and are willing to put up with a few very annoying issues, the Steam Link does actually do what it advertises. It isn’t bug free and sometimes feels like a bit of a hack job rather than a finished product, but to be fair it does exactly what it says on the tin. I just don’t know if I can justify using it anymore, for all of the annoying things that come with it. It’s not a bad product and to be fair some things are out of Valve’s hands, but as an end user, I just feel like it’s a compromise that I can’t win.

I have a gaming laptop these days (I didn’t when I first started with the Link), so frequently if I want to play a PC game on my TV, I just move the laptop. Not ideal, but it avoids a lot of the things that break with the Steam Link.

Whether or not it works for you will depend on your own situation, but for me, I don’t think it’s killed the console. Not yet. Maybe never, depending on if they fix some of the more pressing issues with it. It’s not a bad device, it does actually work quite well, but it has a long way to go.

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