Up until a few months ago, PC giant Valve has had grand plans for developing and releasing their own hardware, though these plans have been rather nebulous for the most part. Steam Controllers, the company’s solution for gaming on the couch, were announced years ago, and have gone through numerous revisions and tweaks before the final design was settled on. Steam Machines, which are essentially gaming PCs in a console form factor, have also gone from in-house products to computers that can be purchased through various third-party companies.
It’s all coming together though, as Steam Machines, Steam Controllers, and Valve’s own streaming box (aptly titled the Steam Link) are all set to release today. I’ve personally had the chance to test out the Steam Link and Controllers for the past month, in conjunction with my mid-to-high end gaming PC. Still, at this point in time, I’m holding off on giving a final, scored review for each product, as I’m not comfortable with stating that these products are fully finished.
While it’s going to differ for some, I was personally the most excited for the Steam Link, Valve’s solution for bringing the PC experience into the living room, through the use of a set-top box of sorts. The Link acts as a streaming device, with the game or application running on a separate host PC, all the while encoding and decoding a video file which is beamed to the Steam Link, and then displayed on a TV or monitor.
In-home streaming such as this has existed for a while now, though it’s always required a second ‘client’ PC or laptop to sit near your TV and handle the decoding. The Link serves as a affordable client box, retailing in at $50 USD. And to my surprise, it worked rather well during setup. Plugging in the power and HDMI cable, I booted up the Link with a Steam Controller in hand. After picking a language and network option (wireless or wired), I was able to pair the Link with my gaming PC, and after a few minutes my TV was showing Steam’s Big Picture Mode in all of its glory. Then it came down to actually playing and streaming.
I’ll probably delve into this area in a little more detail in my final review, but to keep it short, you’re going to want to use a wired connection on your Steam Link, or at the very least, you better be rocking a high-end router. Valve recommends a hard-wired connection themselves, with the easiest option being to run ethernet cables from your Link and PC into a common router. I tested this option myself, and it was quite smooth. Image quality remained fairly sharp, and latency was at its lowest during this setup.
Of course, it can be a tall order to ask everyone to run ethernet wires throughout their house, especially if the layout of your home places the Link and your gaming PC far away from each other. I couldn’t test this personally, but some people have had success with powerline adapters (which transmit ‘internet’ data over your home’s power lines and connections), though your mileage is undoubtedly going to vary, depending on how your home is wired and when it was built.
I originally tested the Link using two wireless routers bridged together via a 5 GHz connection on the somewhat dated ‘N’ standard. While some games ran smoothly here and there, this connection was prone to lag spikes and periods of ‘slow network decode,’ which prompted me to upgrade to a high-end AC router, which is the newest and arguably best wireless networking standard. Things fared much better here, and streaming has been much more smooth, with many games running at a flawless 1080p at 60 frames per second. Your actual internet connection speed won’t matter for streaming, but unless you have the option to run ethernet cables between all your devices, you will need a pretty solid router to come close to reproducing a solid gaming experience.