Last Thursday I had a look at the Steam Controller and gave my first impressions having used that for a couple of weeks. Next up is the turn of the Steam Link. Is this going to take PC gaming away from the desk and onto the couch?
Straight out of the box, the Steam Link is super easy to set up. You attach the power cable, plug in an HDMI cable and then plug in a USB/Bluetooth receiver for your mouse and keyboard or gamepad. From there, there are just a few quick questions (language, etc) and then you have to enter your WiFi password.
Now. I need to preface this, well, whatever this is by saying I have only been able to test the Steam Link out using the WiFi settings. You’ll see why this is important soon.
Once you’ve got all of that out of the way, you just need to make sure your computer is switched on and Steam has loaded up and then you can activate the Link with the press of the Steam button on the Steam Controller. The easiest way around this is to just set Steam to launch on startup. That way, as soon as your computer is on you are ready to go.
Steam Link, as with the controller, work best in big picture mode – something Valve keenly tell you on first use. Big Picture mode is really easy to navigate and everything is very obviously signposted. It also looks great on big screen TVs. I wish Valve had a system in place to let you put listings on the marketplace from your inventory but I guess the demand mustn’t be high enough to warrant this. It would be pretty convenient for me though, Valve (if you’re reading this!).
What’s pretty neat is that you can hold the ‘Steam’ button down on the controller (or click the ‘power’ icon in the top right of Big Picture Mode) and choose return to desktop. From here, your desktop has been cloned onto your TV meaning you can open other files, videos, photos, websites, whatever. It all works pretty smoothly as well, especially when paired with a Steam Controller and using the right haptic pad as a mouse and RT and LT as your right and left mouse buttons, respectively.
The device itself is pretty nifty looking. It’s small, though not Chromecast small, probably not that much bigger than your standard mobile or cell phone, and will easily hide behind TVs or on top of TiVo boxes to keep other halves happy! It’s got some nice, sort of rubbery feet that stop it from slip-sliding around on glass TV cabinets too.
The Steam Link has no LEDs and makes no noise to let you know it is on. This keeps power consumption down and isn’t really missed. When it comes to powering down, you can choose the either turn the Steam Controller off by itself, to stop streaming (effectively turning the device and controller off), or to power off your entire computer. Very handy for lazy people like me who don’t want to go through the rigmarole of having to stand up, walk into the office, and physically turn the computer off. Urgh.
Okay. On to the meat and potatoes. How well does it stream games? Well, the answer, somewhat annoyingly, is inconclusive. Some games it works really well on (Cook, Serve, Delicious and Portal 2, for example) but on others it drops huge amounts of frames and makes the game unplayable (Spec Ops: The Line, Dishonored, Batman: Arkham Asylum). I’ve got pretty good broadband, decent WiFi strength, and never have a problem not being able to stream content so I’m a little confused as to why this streams so haphazardly over WiFi.
Along with dropped frames (it’s like the Steam Link just can’t keep up with your movements at times), there is also a tendency for the audio to stop for a second or two before picking back up again. Not a deal breaker at the moment, but definitely noticeable.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that in order to get the best results you’ll need to have the Steam Link and your computer wired up to your modem. So, over the weekend I ordered some reeeeaaaallly long Ethernet cables to test this out. They should be arriving soon and I’m looking to see if it makes a drastic difference. I hope it makes a difference, because Steam Link promises so much and at the moment just falls short. I’m really enjoying the idea of being able to play some old school point and click adventure games with some buddies on the couch, in the comfort of my living room (Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle anybody?) but playing anything modern causes some frustration.
Then again, I guess to be frustrated with Steam Link proves that it does so much else right. The price is right (£39.99/$49.99), the form factor is right, the ability to use gamepads (PS3/PS4/X360/XBONE/Steam) or mouse and keyboard is great, and the user experience is on the whole very satisfying. I just wish it streamed the games a bit better. I’m still convinced at this moment in time that Ethernet cables are the answer to my problems here so I’ll reserve final judgement until then and keep everything crossed that Steam Link reaches its undoubted potential.