First Impressions: Steam Link hardware – Computer Games on your Television!

… Yes, it’s been far too long.  Between being busy, that more than 6-day power outage after the huge windstorm of October 2017 knocked out power to more than half of this state, some computer problems (I think Windows messed up my video card…) and not being sure what to post next, it kept getting pushed back.  This little article here is something, at least, though, and hopefully it’s interesting.

This first impressions article on the Steam Link is broken up into three main parts, first an introduction, second for an overview of the hardware, and last for my impressions of gaming on the device.

Introduction

I got a Steam Link recently.  This is a piece of hardware made by Valve, the company who run the d0minant PC gaming store Steam, that you connect to your television via HDMI.  Then you connect it to the network your home computer is on, preferably by a wired connection for better reliability and speed, and it can duplicate one of your computer monitors onto your television, allowing you to play PC games on your TV, remotely.  The Steam Link does not run the games, it merely streams them from your PC, so how well it works depends on your setup — is it connecting via wired internet, or wireless?  How far is your computer from your TV, and is there only one router or switch in between the two or more?    Etc.

In my case, my computer and television are in different rooms, and my computers I play games on are all desktops and not laptop, so for some time I’ve been interested in finding a way to play computer games on the TV.  I have my computer and Steam Link both hooked up via wired internet to a router placed in between the two.  However, there didn’t seem to be an easy way to do that, until Valve solved that problem.  Fortunately, it works pretty well for me.  While not perfect, the Steam Link is a great device that I really like.

The Steam Link’s regular price is not too expensive, but the price was just enough that I did not buy one until recently.  However, over the past month or so Steam has had a series of sales selling off Steam Links for extremely low prices; they seem to want to clear their warehouses of these things.  There have been several bargain-basement offers, some even cheaper than the offer I bought, but the one I got cost $1 plus $7 shipping, with a catch — it was a bundle with a game, ICEY, which cost $7.69 itself; that is an okay price for that game, but not as low as it’s been. ICEY looks decent (it’s a sidescrolling action/platformer) so I decided to keep it anyway, though, so I have that too now. The total bundle was a bit over $15, which is quite reasonable.  No one is sure why they’re selling these for so cheap, if it’s because of a switch over to apps embedded into smart TVs or a new generation of the hardware that is not out yet, but within its limitations the Steam Link works and is definitely worth getting when it’s next on sale cheap.

Steam Link Hardware Overview

The way the Steam Link works is that you first have to turn on Steam on your PC and then go into Big Picture Mode.  After this, go to your television.  The Steam Link doesn’t have a power button on it, so you have to turn it on either by plugging in a controller to a USB port on the Steam Link, or hitting the ‘system menu’ button on a modern controller, such as the Xbox jewel on a 360 or Xbox One controller for example.   Because you are on a television, while the Steam Link does support keyboards and mice if you plug them into it, a gamepad is recommended.   Anyway, doing either of those things will wake up the Steam Link.  It will then look for your computer.  Once it connects, you’ll see the same Steam Big Picture Mode screen on your TV that is also on your computer monitor.  Big Picture Mode feels like a pointless waste on a computer, but on a television it’s a mostly well-designed system interface that works well.  You can play any of your Steam games through this interface, and sort by any categories you have or by which games have native Xinput controller support, which is nice.

Now, you can stream your desktop to your TV, but the hardware has limitations.  Either for bandwidth or Steam Link hardware limitation reasons, the Steam Link can only display a 1080p picture or below.  If you’re running your desktop at anything above 1920 x 1080, the Steam Link will scale it down to fit whatever output resolution you have chosen.  I have a 16:10 monitor and run my main desktop at 1920 x 1200, but it can display that on my TV, though I do need to remember to set games to 1080 to have them not cut off as much of the screen.  The Steam Link can output an interlaced image as well as progressive scan, too, allowing for 1080i support for older HDTVs like one I have that do not support 1080p.  The higher resolution you stream the more pixels it is streaming so the higher the likelihood you will have performance issues, but how well each resolution works will vary.  For me they all seem to work fairly well.   There are plenty of configuration options, which is great.  You can set what gamepad buttons will do in a game from a standard menu interface in the system menu, for example, which is pretty awesome.  If you have to use it the  Steam Big Picture Mode text-input interface is incredibly, barely unusably terrible with a regular gamepad though, so use a keyboard or Steam Controller for that, but otherwise the system menus are pretty good.

One other cool thing about this device is that while Steam does not advertise it as such, the Steam Link is not a Steam-only device.  Instead, once connected it streams whatever is on your computer monitor to the TV.  So, if you minimize Steam your desktop will appear.  At this point you will need to connect a keyboard and mouse to the Steam Link in order to navigate your desktop, but if you do that you can just use your computer on your TV, which is pretty cool.  Staying in Steam may be the most convenient thing, thanks to controllers and such, but it’s great that you are not locked into it; all PC games are not on Steam, after all!  And even when they are you may have it for another storefront for any number of reasons.  The competition of the many different ways you can buy PC games are one of the many great things about computer gaming, and hardware shouldn’t lock you to one device.

On that note, one other accessory that would go well with a Steam Link is the Steam Controller.  I don’t have one, but I am thinking about it now.  A regular Xinput controller, such as the wired, Xbox 360-compatible Hori EX2 Turbo gamepad I use (because it is the only officially licensed and dual-analog Xinput gamepad with six face buttons, mostly), is great, but the Steam Controller allows for easy keyboard/mouse mapping to it, and its touchpad things may be a better mouse replacement than analog sticks are?  I know impressions of the Steam Controller are quite mixed, though, and I remember hating the touch-only dpads of TurboTouch controllers for the NES and Genesis and such, so if I get one I’ll report on what I think.  The other negative is that it’s mostly locked to Steam; there may be ways to use it outside of Steam, but it’s intended only to run in Steam and that really is too bad.

Gaming on the Steam Link

But anyway, back to the Steam Link.  So far, I have used this to play gamepad-supporting Xinput computer games I have in Steam on my television.  Again, I am using it on a wired network because Valve warns that wireless causes larger amounts of lag which can make playing games difficult.  This makes sense, because while wireless internet usually works fine, it’s never as fast or reliable as wired internet is.  I would expect the same from an intranet like this.

I would say that for the most part the Steam Link works great.  Just as you’d hope, it displays my computer monitor on my TV, and games are entirely playable.  How playable games are on TV instead of computer monitor depends on the game in question and the screens you are running it on, though.  First, of course, many computer games are designed for you to be sitting close to the screen.  Even on a sharp television, sitting much farther away will make details hard to discern.  Playing more console-styled games is fine though of course, and I have many of them for PC as I like many kinds of games.  Second, lag is a key concern.  Everything you’re doing is going through wires over to your PC and then back again, after all, so there are multiple points where lag can be introduced that would not exist when playing just on a PC — either from the wires, from your router, from TV latency, or what have you.  In my experience, while it’s close, I do think that games probably do not run quite as smoothly on my TV as they do on the computer.  The lag is fortunately low, but it is there, and this can affect some kinds of games worse than others.  It works and the controls are responsive, though, which is great.  Being able to play computer games on my television, while the computer is still in another room, is great and I think I’ll use this thing a good amount; it’s kind of like having a new console, only it’s my computer! Sure, there is more lag and slowdown in games, and worse image quality too (because while my TV is HD and largeish, it’s pretty old), but still it’s pretty great.

I have tried a variety of games over the Steam Link, including 2d and 3d games, faster action titles and slower ones.  All are playable, and run close to how they do on my computer monitor.  The very framerate-consious might have a different experience from me, but whether I tried Deltazeal or Dead or Alive 5 games seemed to run about how it should.  There is a noticeable graphical downgrade versus playing directly on my PC, however, either because of the resolution change or simply distance, both from the computer to the TV and from how far you sit from the screen.  That’s a relatively minor sacrifice to be able to run my desktop on my television without a huge amount of hassle, however!

Beyond lag, the other issue I need to address again is controllers.  Since it is an open format there are many different kinds of controllers used by PC games.  The Steam Link will run any modern game with Xinput controller support with no problem, but anything else, whether it’s an older PC game with only Directinput support, games with only keyboard and mouse support, something outside of Steam, or what have you, require other controllers.  And considering that the Steam Link is underneath your TV, far from where I sit at least and I presume this is true for most people, and you are probably not seated in front of a desk, using a mouse or keyboard comfortably may not be realistic.  Plugging in a Directinput gamepad is easy enough, to solve that issue, though a USB extension cable may be necessary to get over to where you are; I sure would need one, PC game controllers do not have long cables.  Still, the keyboard and mouse issue is tougher.  I don’t have a wireless keyboard and mouse to use with my Steam Link yet so I’ve only been able to use it within Steam, but I will get something, perhaps a wireless keyboard with built-in laptop style touchpad; I do not like those things, but for basic Windows navigation it’d work.  These are issues which matter to me because I love computer games of all ages, not only ones from the past decade or so which mostly support xinput.  I still think that Microsoft should have just stuck with directinput instead of confusing PC gaming with two competing interfaces, but they did, so ah well.

But anyway, overall the Steam Link is pretty cool.  Lag, distance from the screen, and image quality degradation are real issues, but despite that the Steam Link is easily worth getting since it succeeds at its goal of allowing people to display their computer desktop on their television, and paired with Steam’s Big Picture Mode also has a good interface for using computer games in a console-sized menu system.  Big Picture Mode is great on a TV, but it is also fantastic that you can minimize it and use your regular desktop, for watching videos online, trying to read a website perhaps despite the inevitable text-size issues, playing a game outside of Steam, and such.  The Steam Link is a good idea that is executed fairly well, and while PC-focused titles centered around mouse and keyboard control will never be any good on Steam Link no matter what controller configuration you try to use up, there are there are many hundreds and even thousands of computer games that would run perfectly on a television.  Instead of buying the game once on PC and again on consoles, why not just buy it once, on PC, and play it on both screens?  With Steam Link, you can do that!   Overall, I recommend the Steam Link if it sounds like something you could use.  It’s pretty cool and I like it, and the repeated sales Valve is offering for these make it an easy recommendation the next time it goes on sale cheap.  Know of the issues, but don’t let that dissuade you from getting a Steam Link if it could be at all useful for how you play games.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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