It’s been a while. How did the Steam Link experiment go?
The Steam Link has been billed as a novel way of getting games from your gaming PC to your TV with minimal dicking around. In practice? Well, that’s not entirely true, but I still think it’s a viable alternative to running even more cables to the TV (“LOL WHO WLD BY DIS JUS RN HDMI CABEL AN ETHNET USB LOL FKN IDIOTS” – paraphrasing, but not by much). After using it for a while, I think I’ve come to a conclusion on whether it’s actually a suitable system or not.
What works well
The actual concept works very, very well – and that usually translates to the execution of said concept. When it’s working properly, it’s almost perfect. It’s almost like sitting at the desk playing the PC, except it’s on the big screen. I say “almost” because it’s very close, yet it’s also not quite right. But that said, when it’s “not quite right” it’s still very close to the real experience of sitting at the desk. Occasionally the stream looks a little muddy, particularly on games that have a muted colour pallet (Skyrim is one where I’ve noticed it the most – so many shades of grey tend to blend together in the stream), but by and large it works really well and looks perfectly fine. I’ve never had issues with framerate, but I have very beefy hardware so I damn well expect that I wouldn’t.
It works reasonably well with the Steam Controller too, although I’m still not 100% sold on said controller. More on that later, because the Steam Controller also seems to cause a lot of issues with streaming.
That said, this only really works out when you’ve got a robust home network to handle it. I only tried the Steam Link over a wireless network once – and the server was still connected via Ethernet. On an 802.11AC network, it worked reasonably well… but there’s still no way I’d attempt this unless you have a wired network. Over a wired network I never had an issue with the stream itself – it worked fine.
Does it feel like I’m just playing a console? Yup! With high end hardware and a good home network, it works perfectly fine, and for all the world feels like I’m just playing on a PS4… except with a significantly better framerate and visual quality… for the most part. When the stream looks a little muddy, the quality degrades and you remember you’re basically watching a video stream of the host and sending controller inputs. I guess I’d describe it as “something being a little off” about the quality of the stream in some games – and again, it’s usually those that have a limited colour range. But other than that, it’s an easy way to keep your high-end gaming rig (no doubt with its noisy cooling system) out of your lounge room.
Desktop control works reasonably well too, and the onscreen keyboard is pretty good (if you’re using a controller). You can watch Netflix via the Link using your web browser… or use anything from your desktop, really. There’s no real limiting factor here.
Also, because apparently this is still kicking around: your internet connection has no impact on the Link. It never has it and never will. Your internal network is the limiting factor – nothing at all is ever streamed from external servers.
What’s wrong with it?
In short – Steam. The number of times Steam has decided to crash, thus killing the stream, is borderline ridiculous. Granted, nothing will ever be flawless with this kind of tech, but I got really sick of having to either go back to the server to fix it, or to use a remote desktop app when I got sick of doing that. By far the most common element seemed to be the Steam Controller, which would frequently stop responding in strange ways, before the server’s Steam app would promptly crash. Sometimes it’d just crash without warning. Occasionally I’d get an error on the server, but most often I wouldn’t. I got really, really sick of having to go back and fix things on the server… to the point where I eventually gave up.
Granted, plenty of people will say “But I never had any problems! It worked flawlessly for me!” but I seem to have this issue regardless of what I do, and I’ve tried it across 3 different systems so far. Plenty of other people have similar crash issues – it’s been going on since the very first release, and it’s always Steam just crashing and disappearing from the server, leaving the client with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Both Steam and the Link are fully updated, and I’ve tried both beta and stable releases. There doesn’t really seem to be any significant difference.
It’s an annoying, frustrating issue that significantly cheapens the experience – it’s like this is still a beta feature that they’re screwing around with, rather than something that is truly ready for release. Granted, streaming games is hard, both technically and on the hardware, but the server will crash even if I’m just in Big Picture mode doing absolutely nothing.
It’s a shame, because when it works, it works fine. It’s just getting it to work which seems to be the problem. And again, trying to mess with the Steam Controller seems to be the most common link for getting it to crash. Generally speaking, it doesn’t crash during games – which is when I’d expect it to crash, given the extra load the system is under. It only seems to do it in Big Picture mode, particularly when configuring the controller. Otherwise it seems to work fine.
Things Valve Can’t Control
There are some things that are out of Valve’s hands. Firstly, the Steam Link is a streaming device – not a replacement for a console. It’s designed for high end PC hardware users to stream their games to their lounge room. It isn’t made for midrange systems (although you can compromise with quality I guess) nor was it ever conceived as a stand alone platform. Anybody who thought otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about.
Streaming takes a big toll on the system – it has to push that video stream out to the client, and accept controller input and feed that back to the game – all while keeping lag to a minimum. It’s no small task – in fact, it’s unbelievable that it works so remarkably well. Valve have accomplished something incredible, make no mistake. There will be compromises though to keep that standard going – hence why sometimes the stream may look a little muddy or “off”, making you more aware of the fact that you’re streaming a game. But that’s just part of the technology – it’s the price you pay for low latency.
More than that, Valve can’t control your home network. The fact that the Link is basically useless over wireless is not the fault of Valve, but rather the nature of wireless networks. A wired connection will always be better – particularly at anything that requires low latency connections to work properly. Some have argued that you should just run a long HDMI/USB cable combo and use that instead. You can, and I guess it’s basically the same thing – but for my part, using the internal Ethernet network I have in my house worked just as well without the expense of extra cables. Your mileage will vary.
You can use powerline ethernet adapters, but success is variable. For some it works very well. For others… not so much.
And of course you can just build a PC for the living room, or buy one of the Steam Machines which have largely failed to gain traction in the market. But we’re only just in the era of decent, small form factor GPUs (thanks NVIDIA!), and it’s yet another device for you to maintain, plus a lot more expensive than a Link. If you’ve already got a beefy PC, you’d have to weigh up whether it’s worth building another rig or not.
Finally, and perhaps disappointingly, some games just don’t work well with the Link. Valve can’t fix this, particularly if it’s an older game or a game that doesn’t run through Steam. You just have to accept it.
Do I recommend it? Maybe.
The Link isn’t a bad product at all, but it does have some caveats. Firstly, if you don’t have a good home network (wired home network), you’re wasting your time (for the most part). While some people do have success with a decent wireless home network, many do not – and end up giving up. Avoid disappointment and don’t do it if you’re going to rely on wireless. When it works, it works really well and brings the PC to the living room without too many compromises. If you’ve got a big, strong gaming rig sitting in a study or something, and want to stream it to the living room without having to move the box, the Link does the job (provided you have the network to support it).
But Steam is an unstable factor to consider. It’s not foolproof, it does screw up, and you will need to have a means of fixing it when said screwup happens. Getting unceremoniously dumped to a frozen screen when the server crashes isn’t fun. The fact that Valve have had ages now to iron out these wrinkles doesn’t make me feel any better about it. You’re pretty much relying on betas to get the best experience, and the betas do break things, resulting in frustrating trips to the server to fix the problem. If you want a smooth experience and aren’t prepared to do a bit of troubleshooting, I’d probably skip it.
But if you’re still interested, knowing all that, it’s well worth picking up. It’s cheap, it pipes games to your TV, and when it works, it’s almost perfect. I don’t regret buying it, but I do get frustrated with it. Hopefully Valve keeps investing time into it.
EDIT: Instability fixed!
Not too long after I posted a review on Steam itself, a Valve technician got in contact with me and analysed the crash logs from Steam. As it turns out, the Steam Controller was causing an issue resulting in Steam crashing. Swapping to the beta Steam client builds fixed this issue. After that, I didn’t have any crashes during streaming.
That said, I don’t really use the Steam Link anymore. I have a gaming laptop these days, so I just plug it into the TV when I want to play on the TV. If I still had an ATX case though, I’d recommend the Steam Link provided you’ve got a robust, wired network. One thing I didn’t mention is that the Steam Link will only ever push 1080p – NVIDIA’s Shield can push 4k, though you’d need some exceptionally strong hardware to manage that.