Why does this work so well?
Valve do some surprisingly good work sometimes. Oh okay, Steam is a colossal mess at the moment, and they apparently aren’t making any games worth mentioning anymore, but they do have quite a few interesting experiments that I really love screwing around with. One of them was the Steam Link. I was somewhat ambivalent about it back in 2016, and apparently so were the general public, because sales were fairly limited. To be fair, the Steam Link relies on having a wired network connection, or at the very least the server to be wired while the client needs a solid wireless connection (preferably 5Ghz). When it works, it works wonderfully – it’s not quite as good as having the physical box in the room with you, but for most of my games the 1080p stream was very, very good.
When it didn’t work though, it was complete garbage. Back then I had issues with Steam crashing, resulting in me having to go back to the box (which was a few rooms away at the time) and restarting Steam. Valve actually contacted me about these issues, and they were subsequently fixed in a later Steam release – after that the little box pretty much worked flawlessly. Key words: the box. Unfortunately, there are loads of other problems with the concept of PC couch gaming in general – something Valve haven’t quite managed to mitigate against. But we’ll talk about that later.
Now, they’ve got the Steam Link app for Android – it’s currently in beta but you can get it from the Google Play store. They tried to release it for iOS, but Apple decided to block it, because… money? I guess? I mean it’s not like I can get Fallout 4 from the iOS App Store, but whatever, another story for another day…
To get some Steaming Stream Goodness on your Android phone, you’ll need to ensure Steam is on the latest beta update channel. If you have a Steam Controller, you’ll have to plug it into your machine to download a firmware update; this adds Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity to the Steam Controller – allowing you to pair it with your Android phone (or even your computer if you want to use it over Bluetooth, though Valve caution it’s an inherently worse connection than using the default dongle). As an aside, the Steam Controller now has a few hardware key combinations to swap between Bluetooth and its own dongle, so you can still use it with your PC if you want.
After that, you’ll have to ensure Steam is running, and then get the Steam Link app to find your PC. For me it worked without doing anything else, but some people have had to manually input the IP address for their host machine. And that’s pretty much it for setup, there isn’t anything else to do.
But if you’ve got a crappy network, it’s not worth it. I initially tried the Steam Link with my laptop and phone (Pixel 2 XL) on a wireless network (both connected to a 5Ghz node with line of sight to the node). Performance was… awful. My Google Wifi network does a reasonably good job of wireless networking (and yes, both the nodes are connected via an Ethernet backbone – no point to point wifi nonsense here) but the stream was just too unstable for me to make any real use of it.
When I had my laptop connected via Ethernet though, it worked much, much better. This mirrors what I’d seen with my old desktop host and attempting to stream to the Steam Link – it tends to work okay with wireless clients, so long as the network is good and the host is wired. I’m guessing this is because the host streaming such significant data packets over wireless congests the wireless channel enough that it causes the client to receive slower and thus suffer major loss, but I don’t know, I’m a paramedic, not a network engineer.
Something irrelevant: your internet speeds. I’ve seen this pop up a lot when discussing both the Steam Link hardware and app. Your internet speeds mean a grand total of jack shit to its performance. Nothing streams over the internet – it’s all on your internal network.
How does it work?
Surprisingly well. I first tried out Cities: Skylines. Initially I tried it with both the server and client on wireless, and it didn’t work very well at all. I had loads of dropped frames, stuttering audio, and drop outs. With the server wired via Ethernet and the phone on wireless (5Ghz), it worked much better. Cities: Skylines was totally playable. I was using the Steam Controller and was able to effectively play the game (with a bit of adjusting to the control scheme). Things were very small on my comparatively tiny screen, but it was definitely playable.
I then tried Fallout 4. Fallout 4 also ran just as easily as Cities: Skylines. I was mostly able to play it – and I say ‘mostly’ because the Steam Controller is probably the worst way to play Fallout 4, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute. The actual stream was fine and it was fluid enough for me to be able to competently navigate and attempt to aim with the Steam Controller. I didn’t have too many problems with the stream dropping out – there were a few instances where the stream would shudder, but those were cases where I had the phone in my lap, and I guess I was insulating the antenna or something because moving the phone fixed it.
I mostly ran it at ‘Fast’ performance quality, to ensure maximum responsiveness. The screen is so tiny that small imperfections from doing this are unlikely to be obvious. On a larger screen you might notice the reduced quality though.
What’s bad about it?
Firstly, it’s running on a phone, so it’s going to be a tiny screen. If you can rig up some sort of neat little bracket system to hold it onto your controller, this probably won’t matter so much, but as a disconnected sort of experience, it’s going to be a little uncomfortable. Valve apparently do have a few touch controls implemented, but I didn’t bother testing them out because they’re unlikely to be suitable for the vast majority of games out there. Of course this isn’t Valve’s problem – it’s just one of the limits of the form factor. If you’ve got a big phablet-factor phone, or you’re running it on a tablet, it’ll be better.
Secondly, as already discussed, if you’ve got a poor home network, it’s probably not worth using. You need a solid, quick wireless connection – preferably in the 5Ghz band. Unfortunately, the 5Ghz band tends to be the most temperamental to get working; it’s much more prone to signal degradation from walls/blocked line of sight, and tends to have a lower range. Both server and client on a wireless network seems to significantly impact performance. If your wireless network is poor, or your phone’s wireless radios are of poor quality, this probably won’t work out at all.
Thirdly, and most significantly, all of the major dramas with the Steam Link hardware unit are replicated here; except it’s worse, because it’s a phone. The Steam Controller is still an awkward piece of kit. It has some neat ideas – gyroscopic aiming is an awesome way to compensate for the lack of precision in thumb sticks/pads – but it’s still a pretty clumsy bit of gear. Some games still take a lot of work to set up to play properly with the Controller. Fallout 4 is one major example; because it doesn’t support simultaneous gamepad and KB+M input, you’re stuck with using the Steam Controller in Gamepad Emulation mode (making it almost impossible to aim properly) or in pure KB+M mode (making the rest of the user interface very difficult to use). Where a game supports both input modes simultaneously (and many do), it works much better; analogue stick to move, touchpad and gyro to aim, and you still get controller prompts. But if the game doesn’t support controllers, or doesn’t support simultaneous input, you’re stuck with an ugly compromise.
This isn’t Valve’s fault, and they’ve done their best to get around it. They’ve implemented a comprehensive interface to customise controller inputs and outputs. They’ve implemented an on-screen keyboard. They’ve put all the tools there – but unfortunately, some games just don’t work well at all. I’ve never gotten the on screen keyboard to work reliably in Fallout 4, for example – or any Bethesda game for that matter. On the Steam Link you’ve always got the option of just running a keyboard and mouse (as ugly as that is), but that’s ridiculous on a phone. There’s always going to be a major compromise with the fact that some games just won’t work well at all with this system. Of course, you can use other controllers – but YMMV.
Poor controller support and a lack of on-screen input options has dogged PC couch gaming for ages – and we’re no closer to fixing it. This significantly impacts how much enjoyment you’ll get out of the system. It’s very much a case-by-case basis, but it’s still an important factor to consider.
The most surprising thing about all of this is how well it actually works – you can actually stream PC games to your phone and play them. Of course it depends entirely on how robust your home network is, but if you’ve got a good home network, a decent gaming PC, and a fairly modern phone, you should be able to get things to run nicely.
But how much enjoyment you get out of it is likely tied to what games you want to play, and how adept you are with the Steam Controller. For games that have robust controller support, and support simultaneous KB+M input, it’ll work nicely. At times like that, you almost forget that Doom is running on your rig in the other room. But when support is poor or frustrating to implement, or when the limitations of the Steam Controller appear, it’s not fun – you just wish you were using a mouse and keyboard.
But that isn’t the fault of Valve or the Steam Link, but rather developers and their game input libraries and coding. The technology itself is sound, and I have no doubt there’s loads of people who will get use out of this. For that reason, I’d say it’s a good app – just so long as you’re aware of the limitations.
And don’t even bother trying to play Elder Scrolls or Fallout games on it – the engine is shit, and it’s impossible to properly control it with the Steam Controller.