Life with the Steam Link
The Steam Link is Valve's attempt to drag PC gamers from the warm cocoon of their bedroom battlestations into the harsh, scary world of couch gaming. Of course it's hard to tell if the average PC gamer actually needs this bit of tech or if it's worth it at all to pick up. So let's take a look at the good, the bad, and the unfortunately ugly of the Steam Link.
How It Works
For me, plugging in and starting up the Steam Link was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a system dedicated entirely to streaming games directly from my Steam library to my TV, and I was under the impression that this was its sole purpose and the only thing for which I would find it useful.
In fact the Steam Link works as a dedicated screen-mirroring platform, not unlike what you might find with your favorite remote desktop connection software. The only difference is that the Steam Link has a special focus on low-latency home network connections, rather than across hundreds of miles and the accumulated lag that you'd expect from such a service.
You turn on the Steam Link, select whatever PC you want to stream from on your network, and boom: you have total control of your gaming rig from your TV. Anything that you can do on your computer can now be done on your television, which is actually a really nice feature that effectively allows your computer to act as the de facto entertainment system for your whole home connected by the Steam Link. Netflix, YouTube, your music library, your browser of choice, every extension and website you would normally be able to access, and every game you have installed on your PC (not just those in your Steam library) can be streamed across your home.
This might not be a revolutionary way to stream games from your PC to your TV, but its simplicity is one of the things that makes it so great. The ability to mirror your screen to any TV on your network is a level of freedom and convenience that I never even thought I needed, but that I'm glad to have on those days where the couch or my bed seem like the ideal place to consume my media.
Does it work well?
This is the question of consequence, and what it really comes down to is “Yes,” with the small caveats “most of the time” and “under the right conditions,” tacked woefully to the end.
The Steam Link recommends that at least one of the two devices be wired in for decent performance, whether it's the Steam Link or your gaming rig, and that both be wired in for ideal performance. The only way I was able to happily game on the Steam Link was when I was wired in on both fronts. A double wired connection delivers low latency and relatively snappy response times, and only the occasional hiccup requiring me to take a stroll over to my PC to alt-tab or mess around with the connection to reset things.
Hard-wired is how the Steam Link is really meant to be used, and the only way to get a really high-quality experience. In this situation games would almost always start properly and, as long as no notifications attempted to minimize or pull me out of the in-game window, everything was peachy.
I was able to play several hours of Skyrim, Dying Light, and even Fallout 4 with minimal hassle and with no visible degradation in video and audio quality. Occasionally things might get a little choppy or laggy, but these incidents were few and far between, and often the best solution when this occurred was to put down the controller and wait for whatever network turbulence was hitting the fan to blow over, which usually only lasted a few short seconds.
This could be a little frustrating during high intensity moments, but was often easy to fix in a Bethesda game when you can just reload one of the hundreds of auto-saves and keep moving. Dying Light, on the other hand, made this feel a bit more nerve-wracking because any lag spike could potentially send you plummeting to the earth or into the jaws of an angry mob of infected. Dying Light is one of the few games these days that can and will punish you for dying by robbing you of valuable survivor points. Fortunately, whether it was because Techland has invested time to streamline their Steam Link experience or because Dying Light is a relatively well-polished game in genera,l I found that this was one of the games that I had the least trouble streaming, and during about two hours of play I only experienced a single hiccup.
The wireless letdown
Now to the uglier side of the equation. Don't expect the Steam Link to work perfectly in any wireless configuration. If you're extremely close to your wireless access point with a strong wireless connection and a minimal amount of traffic on your router streaming will work, but games will be far from perfect. Expect the occasional frame drop, some latency issues where you'll suddenly find your character and controls lagging, and a number of issues where the Steam Link will just lose connection or freeze without much warning.
The farther you travel from your router the worse these problems will get, and I found that the breaking point tended to occur anytime I put more than a single wall in between me and my wireless access point. At this point the lag spikes became pretty intense, and I occasionally found that a game would begin to load and often freeze on a single frame of a cinematic or loading screen, then skip forward a few seconds after to the main title screen or to my character beginning his idle animations.
Starting a new game when I loaded up Bioshock, for example, left poor Jack gurgling water outside a lighthouse while I amiably stared at the frozen image of him still sipping his drink on his ill-fated passenger plane. It felt like the gaming equivalent to Schrodinger's Cat. In one world our intrepid hero was alive and well, in another he was drowning beneath the waves waiting for a player to tell him to swim to shore. I could only find out which was reality when the Steam Link felt it was appropriate to reveal the truth.
Wirelessly you'll still be able to stream many of the services we mentioned earlier so long as you don't mind the occasional bout of mouse lag while trying to pause or configure videos. but gaming gets considerably more painful the greater the distance from your router.
The Brass Valves
All in all the bulk of the problems with the Steam Link can be fixed with the addition of a couple of long Ethernet cables, and with these problems out of the way the Steam Link is more than worth the $50 price tag, even if it just becomes your dedicated Netflix machine.
If you prefer using a controller to play your games, or if you just miss the comfort and ability to play games on a television, the Steam Link is ideal for you, especially if you crave the graphical upgrade and the smooth FPS that the PC is known for. As far as existing as a valid replacement for a console compared to the PS4 or Xbox One the Steam Link comes close, but until it can stream games anywhere and everywhere with absolutely perfect latency it falls short. Considering the number of updates Valve is dedicating to the Steam Link and Steam Controller, it wouldn't be surprising to see it shrink the gap in the coming years.
The best part about the Steam Link is the ability to kick back with a group of friends and game comfortably and socially. Even if you're just casually passing the controller or a mouse and keyboard between players it's a nice experience, and gives you a reason to look at PC games as more than just a solo experience. You can get much the same experience by picking up a PS4 or an Xbox One, but the Steam Link represents a cheaper alternative that lets you get the most out of the rig you have, and if you're a dedicated PC gamer it's a much better value.