Introduction, design and setup
When we spoke with Valve CEO, Gabe Newell, at GDC 2015, he illustrated the company’s multi-faceted initiative to rob the console of its TV rights in terms of what’s "good, better, best" for gamers.
The "better" and "best" scenarios can be achieved by plopping down $449 (about £297, AU$637, though official pricing outside of the US has yet to be announced) on a mid-range Steam Machine from Alienware, or up to $4,999 (about £3311, AU$7093) on a high-end model pieced together by boutique PC manufacturers, like Gigabyte, Falcon Northwest, Origin and Digital Storm. Each console-sized machine will get you in the door with SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system built to keep you locked inside of Valve’s ecosystem.
At the bottom of the totem pole – what Newell called the "good" option – is Valve’s own creation, the $50 (£38, about AU$69, but won’t be made available outside the US, Canada, UK and Europe until 2016) Steam Link. It’s a small, unassuming slab of black plastic that, for some, is actually a better choice than the more fully featured (and more expensive) Steam Machines.
While it might be similar in name to its SteamOS-packing comrades, its duties on the frontline in your living room (or wherever you enjoy watching TV) are very different. The Link is strictly a game streaming box that acts as – you guessed it – a link between your computer and TV.
Despite being positioned as the lowly "good" option, it deserves more credit than that. When used under ideal conditions, the Steam Link not only stands out as the most affordable of Valve’s fleet, but also as the only one that caters to Steam’s loyal customer base, which is largely made up of those who already have a capable gaming PC and networking router or switch.
The Steam Link is making its entrance during a time when real estate on our entertainment center has never been more of a precious commodity. Set-top boxes are fighting each other for a spot, but Valve’s streamer does what most others cannot. As a result, it could very easily slip past the scuffle and make a home for itself in your living room.
For comparison’s sake, this game streaming device isn’t all that much different in appearance to recent, popular streaming boxes like the Amazon Fire TV or the new Apple TV. Each is no bigger in size than most modern portable hard drives and weighs just about as much a smartphone or two stacked together.
And while Amazon and Apple’s offerings might have Valve’s box beat in terms of the devices’ vast multimedia catalogs, the Steam Link totally cleans the floor of the competition with its own expansive game selection. It can stream any (read: any) game in your computer’s Steam library over a wired or wireless local connection.
Digging in a little more on the Link’s looks, it’s a modestly built device, clad in plastic on all sides. Valve spices things up visually with a matte texture on its top and a ring of gloss around its sides. Sure, the design of the unit can generally be described as "boxy": three of its corners come to a sharp point, but one is stylishly rounded-off. The Steam logo is stamped in discreet fashion on top of this rounded edge.
On its back, you’ll find a lineup of ports. There are two USB 2.0 ports, an ethernet jack, HDMI-out and a spot to plug in the AC adapter. Around the corner, Valve stuck on an extra USB 2.0 port for good measure. The Steam Link is padded with rubber footing on its bottom to help give it some traction on your entertainment center, or wherever you place it.
Inside the box, Valve includes everything you need to get started. Aside from the Link itself, there’s a power adapter, as well as an HDMI cable, an ethernet cable and some universal plug adapters (types C, I and G are included).
Steam isn’t known for being the most user-friendly application out there, but it’s gotten remarkably easier to use in the past few years. That’s mostly due in part to its Big Picture feature, Valve’s controller and TV-friendly interface that gives gamers a slick, refined view of the Steam universe. Anyone who is comfortable navigating Netflix should feel right at home here.
From the time I powered on Steam Link to when I began playing only took a few minutes. That said, there are a few initial steps to run through. Whether you have Valve’s official Steam Controller, a trusty wired or wireless Xbox 360 controller, or just a standard keyboard and mouse combo, setup is simple and intuitive for beginners and experts alike. Xbox One controllers will work, too, but only when wired up to the Link.
On the controller selection screen, the Steam Link passed my first test: it instantly recognized my third-party wireless Xbox 360 controller receiver, the same one that once stumped my computer into a driver-seeking frenzy for a few minutes. Next, I tried connecting a Steam Controller, and, to no surprise, it worked like a charm. Also, thanks to the Link’s Bluetooth support, I was able to have a wireless keyboard and mouse, as well as two wireless controllers, connected simultaneously while only using up one of the USB ports.
However, pairing a Bluetooth headset, or plugging one in directly to the Link, is just outside the reach of what’s possible right now. Thankfully, we’ve received confirmation from Valve that these features will be coming soon down the line.
The next step involves connecting the Steam Link to the same home network that your computer is running off of. Valve strongly recommends tethering an ethernet cable to the Link, and after some rough experience streaming games over my Wi-Fi connection, I wholeheartedly agree. On the other hand, if you have high-end router that’s capable of 802.11ac (which I do not), I’d definitely opt for the wireless route.
Either way you go about it, getting the Link onto your network requires no more effort than plugging in a cable or putting in your Wi-Fi password. From there, you can take time to tweak the streaming quality (between Beautiful, Balanced, or Fast settings).
The last step before you get comfortable on the couch is making sure that the host PC is running Steam (this is a must, each and every time you want to stream). Once the Steam Link establishes a connection for the first time, it will spit out a four-digit code to authenticate the tether between the two. From there, you’re all set.
This might have seemed more complicated than what I had led on, but it takes far less time than initiating an Xbox One out of the box.
Performance and verdict
Ultimately, the amount of fun you can have with Steam Link depends on the speediness of your gaming rig and networking gear. This product serves almost no purpose to someone who doesn’t have either. I say "almost" because, technically, even weaker computers, or those stuck with Wi-Fi only can still get some use out of it: not necessarily on the gaming front, unless you enjoy poor framerates (does anyone?), but with movies.
Steam’s growing database of films available for purchase (the selection spans the Mad Max films, a ton of gaming documentaries and unique indie shorts), means that the Link’s use does extend further than just gaming, but not by much. There are many streaming boxes out there that do a much better job at being your dedicated movie player, but, atop its massive catalog of games, any extra functionality that the Link can offer is a plus.
It’s game time
My gear is middle-of-the-road. It’s well above average in terms of performance, but in no way is it anything close to PC Gamer’s Large Pixel Collider. Mine is a custom-built desktop running Windows 10 (the Link is also compatible with Mac and Linux machines), with a quad-core Intel i5 4670K and a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 inside. The router that I use is nothing special, just a standard 802.11a/b/g/n setup provided by my ISP.
To squeeze the most out of my computer and local connection, I hooked everything up over ethernet and started playing. My first game to try out? Rocket League. It’s currently one of my favorites and probably will be for a long time. But favoritism aside, it’s a fast game that requires twitch accuracy and speedy specs. And because gamers are of many different tastes, I tried a few other games. I’ve recently dug back into Resident Evil 4, a slower-paced game that doesn’t demand very gutsy specs. I also loaded up a few modern titles that are more taxing, such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Fallout 4.
Single-player titles worked just as I’d hoped on the highest streaming settings with very few latency spikes. However, the few instances when the Steam Link did end up being more of a nuisance than a blessing was during online gameplay. Rocket League, as I mentioned earlier, is not a system-crushing title by any means. But still, adding the element of online multiplayer on top of the game streaming was more than my networking gear could churn out with grace. Knocking the streaming quality down to "Balanced" was enough of a load off of my setup that playing Rocket League through the Link felt as fluid as ever.
As disappointing as it is to have to reduce the visual fidelity in favor for smoother gameplay, it’s not a fault of the Link. Instead, the blame falls on the limitations of my PC and bottom-shelf router. I’m confident that gamers with a more premium router or switch will experience little to no latency while streaming on "Beautiful" settings during online matches.
Stepping away from the computer isn’t something that I have a habit of doing every time I want to play a game on Steam. I do, though, share a computer desk at home, so it’s sometimes necessary (or, at least, polite) for me to head to the couch to get my game on if I want to keep the peace. However, I’ve never been able to bring Steam with me. But now that the Steam Link is a thing that exists, I’m spoiled to the point that I see little reason to return to playing on my desk.
A look at the Big Picture
Steam Link is a product that’s only as good as the sum of its many required parts. I’ve explained how the strength of your PC and networking hardware play a large part in that equation. But its Big Picture interface is, and always will be, the backbone responsible for tying each piece together.
I’ve been using this controller-friendly mode since its introduction almost three years ago, which is long enough to witness its marked improvement. Even back then, it showed promise, but it also showed that Valve’s early draft of adapting the features that worked so well on the desktop client over to the TV was a rough one.
The latest version of Big Picture that Steam users see when they boot up is, by far, the best iteration yet, but still not without its share of flaws. It’s been spit-shined to look and respond beautifully when you’re just tinkering around, but, if your Steam usage is anything like mine, you’re likely to run into issues when you run it through some tougher paces. Accepting an invite to join a multiplayer session while playing another game, which is just an example of an everyday task for me, sometimes doesn’t work. Also, certain games take much longer to boot into, resulting in me staring puzzled at a black screen, wondering if I should reboot my system.
Although minor and definitely addressable through a patch, these issues are especially easy to spot if you’re coming from the console realm, a sector of tech that, in recent years, lives and dies by its user interface. I have a lot of enthusiasm for the future of Big Picture, but it’s still early days for Valve in the living room, and it shows.
That the Steam Link exists at all is a thoughtful gesture to the millions of gamers who already have a gaming PC and steadfast local connection. Buying into a Steam Machine isn’t an ideal solution for everyone, and I’m glad Valve recognizes that.
That said, the Steam Link isn’t the only game streaming device out there. The $99 (£99, about AU$140) Razer Forge TV and $199 (around £130, AU$255) Nvidia Shield can also perform the heavy lifting of streaming from your PC to a TV. These boxes also act as a more comprehensive multimedia solution, thanks to the Android TV operating system built into each.
Steam Link has a leg up on the competition in a few ways. It can stream any game that you own on Steam, whereas the Nvidia Shield can only stream a limited (by comparison) selection of games from PCs stocked with a supported Nvidia graphics card. The Steam Link is more financially viable than the Razer Forge TV because you can supply your own mouse, keyboard or gamepad. Razer’s streaming box requires you to buy into its lineup of accessories.
Comparison aside, gamers who are new to Steam have a decision to make before they invest in Steam Link. Do Valve’s pre-built Steam Machines sound more up your alley, or are you up for the challenge of building your own computer? If you go with the former, the Steam Link becomes a redundancy, as Steam Machines are built to fit into your living room.
The Steam Link makes near-perfect sense if you envision yourself wanting to make serious upgrades to a custom-built PC. You can rest easy knowing that Valve’s streaming box will scale with any improvements you make to your computer or networking setup in the future.