Yes, I own one. No, it’s not very good.
A few months back I moved into a new flat and, somewhat buoyed by the novelty of having free space of my own to play with for the first time, immediately bought an XBox One1 and a gigantic television to play it on. This console generation being slightly awful, however (and no I don’t think I bought into the wrong ecosystem; as far as I’m concerned the pickings are even slimmer on the PS4) I soon ran out of interesting-looking games to play and started to cast around for other ways I could use these expensive technological wonders. Fortunately it was around about this time that Valve announced a release date for their much-vaunted Steam Link and Steam Controller. Perfect, I thought, I’ll pick those up and instead of being restricted to the six games I’ve bought for the Xbox I can play any one of the six hundred games in my Steam account on my nice shiny new television.
I must admit I bought into the hype a little bit here. Every single preview of the Steam Link streaming technology I read had been overwhelmingly positive; I’m usually quite suspicious since I’ve seen countless high-tech boondoggles that test perfectly in a controlled environment implode when introduced to the messy and imprecise real world, but for some reason I thought Valve could really nail this thing. Certainly I had more faith in the Steam Link than I did the Steam Controller, which is a horrible plasticky piece of kit that remains in its box, unused, over four months later2. And to be fair to it, taken in isolation as a thing that sits behind your television and streams in-game video from your PC, I wouldn’t call the Steam Link all that bad. The problem is the that the tech stack sitting behind the Steam Link is incredibly immature and really not up to providing the painless, seamless experience that I’ve come to expect from living room videogaming.
Let’s go over it in detail. That tech stack consists of:
- The Steam Link itself. This is a small box about the size of a wallet with two USB ports, an HDMI port and an ethernet port. The HDMI goes to the television and the ethernet goes to your home network; in theory the Link has wi-fi capability but in practice this is so overwhelmingly shit that you’ll never use it. Only a hardwired ethernet connection can provide the network bandwidth for this thing to work even passably well. The USB ports are for wired controllers or – in my case – a wireless dongle for Xbox 360 controllers, which worked flawlessly when plugged in. It also has integrated wireless for the Steam Controller but honestly who is going to use that thing.
- My computer, consisting of a hodge-podge of parts that are variously between one and four years old. (The case is a whopping 12 years old, but that doesn’t count.) The components are all midrange quality targeting the sweet spot of price-to-performance. In other words it’s about the average gaming PC you’d expect any reasonably dedicated gamer who didn’t fall into the “enthusiast” (i.e. insane) bracket to own. It’s handled every single game I’ve played in the last year on High or Very High graphics settings without complaint.
- Steam Big Picture mode, which the PC will automatically switch to once it detects that it’s streaming video. It’s not a very good interface, but you can at least navigate to and launch the games in it. Sometimes. If it feels like letting you.
- Steam streaming. You don’t need a Steam Link to stream Steam games to your television; you can do it with a regular media PC too, which is what the Steam Link is a cheap stand-in for. Steam video streaming is a separate technology from the Link, which is unfortunate because it’s the real weak link in the chain.
The problem here is that encoding video in 1080p on the fly is quite a demanding thing for a computer to do. If it’s doing something else demanding at the time – such as, say, rendering a complex 3D environment with high graphical fidelity — then you’re almost certainly going to encounter performance bottlenecks. To my thinking Steam’s video streaming capabilities need to encode the video with as little overhead as possible if it’s ever going to be more than an occasional curio as you cannot expect the end user to be running a £1,500 behemoth of a machine that can cope with doing both at the same time. Unfortunately based on the testing I did it really isn’t there yet. I tried the Steam Link with a fairly wide range of games, and the results were very disappointing.
- Spelunky and Crypt of the Necrodancer are not particularly high-tech in terms of their visuals; nevertheless they still experienced intermittent video lag. However the thing that made them really unplayable was the input lag, which was a very noticeable fraction of a second while the control signals bounced back between the Link and my computer. It made it impossible to time moves in either game. And don’t talk to me about Pinball Arcade.
- I couldn’t even get past the intro sequence in Just Cause 3 because there was so much judder. I’m not going to blame Steam streaming or the Link for this one because Just Cause 3 was a pretty bad port and had performance problems just running stock on my PC until I got some new Nvidia drivers and looked up some workarounds for other issues online. However it does demonstrate that if it’s a technically demanding game that’s pushing your computer then you have no chance of streaming it to the television.
- The Witness almost ran well, but unfortunately about five minutes after I booted it up I started getting rendering pauses for about one second out of every ten, which was annoying enough to put me off continuing with it on the Link.
- Assassin’s Creed Unity just ran awfully with a whole host of rendering and framerate issues. Ditto Syndicate.
- There was one single current-gen game I tried that actually didn’t run too badly: Fallout 4 streamed well enough to be 100% playable, although its sweeping open world vistas were rendered a little muddy by the video encoding. I eventually switched to the PC because I prefer mouse aiming in FPSes, but there were no technical issues stopping me from continuing on the Link.
Still, it wasn’t all bad news.
- It’s pretty telling that the best performance I got out of it was when playing older — or at least last generation — titles. I went through all of Assassin’s Creed Rogue on the Link and it ran entirely acceptably in 1080p resolution, allowing me to see how the Link should be performing. There are the shortcomings you’d expect from watching a video of a game being displayed rather than the game itself; even at 1080p there were visible artifacts in the video, and it had a lot of difficulty doing dark areas as video never copes well with black colours. There was also input lag here, however it was barely noticeable and — thanks to the sort of game Assassin’s Creed is — didn’t impact my enjoyment of the gameplay at all.
- I saw the same problems in Dragon’s Dogma, but here I eventually stopped playing after ten hours partly because Dragon’s Dogma is a very dark game and I was sick of not being able to see anything because the video encoding couldn’t deal with it. It was entirely playable otherwise though.
- Finally, from the fifteen minutes I played of The Talos Principle it seems like a game ideally suited to the Link: a slow paced puzzler where quick reactions and rapid camera movement are not necessary and it has the time to render properly.
So my view on Steam’s streaming capabilities is pretty clear: it works for older games that don’t require split-second reaction times, but if you want to play anything pretty on your 40 inch television you’re going to need one hell of a beefy PC powering it. If you don’t you can pretty much forget streaming the latest and greatest console hits, and given that this is the reason I bought the Link I can’t help but be rather disappointed in the way it has turned out. Even if I had such a machine there would still be the inevitable issues that all Steam streaming does – all it can do, reasonably — is mirror what’s being displayed on your desktop monitor. If anything else decides it wants to seize control of the display (such as that really annoying Do You Want To Switch To A Basic Colourscheme popup) then there’s nothing Steam can do to stop it and it’ll necessitate a trip to the PC to sort it out. Big Picture mode does not react gracefully if a game fires a third-party wrapper such as uPlay, and it really doesn’t react gracefully if the user is ever asked for text input; I spent the first couple of minutes with Fallout 4 running back and forth between the living room and my room so that I could set up my player profile with a keyboard as the controller text input mechanism simply didn’t work.
Basically what I’m saying here is that the Steam Link is not a cheap or convenient alternative to a console for living room gaming, which is something of a problem for the Link because this is what it’s marketed as being. Console games are known for looking great on a television and for being plug and play with a minimum of faff3, but Steam streaming provides neither. You can get stuff to work acceptably well with it, particularly if it’s an older game and you’re willing to spend some time cajoling it into working before settling in for a gaming session, but the Steam Link, Steam streaming and Steam Big Picture mode don’t eliminate any of the typical problems you’d encounter when playing a PC game. They just mean that you have to walk into another room to fix them now. If this is Valve’s assault on the living room then I don’t think Microsoft or Sony have anything to worry about just yet as it comes across as a half-baked technology at best. Perhaps in five years it’ll amount to something useful, but I’m not holding my breath.
- Because I love Halo and wanted to play Halo 5. It was absolutely terrible. ↩
- If you’re in the right age bracket to have experienced the N64 in its heyday you’ll probably also remember the incredibly cheap Makopad controllers that were bundled with a lot of four-player games by retail stores as a substitute for the pricey official controller. The Steam Controller feels like one of those. ↩
- Although given my experience with the Xbox One they’re moving further and further away from this ideal. ↩