Still, there are a few things that need to be resolved before the Steam Link is ready for mass consumption. Plenty of early adopters have had audio streaming problems, myself included. Some would tell you that their audio is lagging behind or dropping in and out, but I’ve been running into an issue where the audio continually skips and distorts as I use the Steam Controller. It’s a very odd (and extremely specific) issue, but it’s one that I’m working with Valve on fixing. And to their credit, Valve has been tirelessly pumping out updates and fixes for the Steam Link, and the experience has definitely improved over the last few weeks.
There are issues that still need to be worked on, however; some games will crash inexplicably when streaming, with some games refusing to stream well at all (I imagine this is caused by older titles that use software that is incompatible with streaming). Personally, I would like to see stability improvements and greater control options; if a desktop notification or anything else pops up during streaming, you’re most likely going to have to keep walking back to your PC to close and minimize any other programs before you can jump back into your game.
Then there’s the Steam Controller, an excellent companion piece to the Steam Link. While you can plug in Xbox 360 and other controllers (including mice and keyboards) into the Link, the Steam Controller is the easiest route to explore. This is the other half of Valve’s solution for gaming on the couch; with many games needing the fine precision of a mouse, they have taken it upon themselves to craft their own controller that offers more accuracy and precise control compared to the traditional dual-analog setup.
I can safely say that even if you’ve had plenty of experience with controllers and gamepads, the Steam Controller will take a while to get used to. Your standard four face buttons, two bumpers and triggers, and a lone analog stick are all present, but the trackpads are what really set the Steam Controller apart from the rest of the pack. These trackpads aim to emulate the feeling of a mouse, with plenty of customization options available to tweak things like sensitivity and rumble feedback to your liking. The trackpads themselves feel great to use, though it will undoubtedly take some time to get used to wielding them with precision. Having been used to using dual analog controllers for the last 15 years or so, there is a lot of muscle memory to overcome on my end, and I imagine others will have similar feelings.
I tried the Steam Controller with a variety of games and different genres, and am still on the fence on how I feel about it replacing a traditional dual-analog controller. On the one hand, it does offer the ability to play nearly every type of game from the comfort of my couch. I mostly spent time with point-and-click style games, and these worked really well, much better than attempting to emulate a mouse with an analog stick. First person shooters are definitely playable, but it’s going to take some more time to get used to controlling the camera, and I doubt I’ll every try to competitively play online multiplayer games with it. Platforming games worked the best, mostly because you’ll simply be using the lone analog stick in conjunction with a few face buttons.
As for the controls themselves, Valve’s offers an insane level of customization. Some games like Portal 2 have ‘official’ controller presets ready to be used, but for games that don’t have this option, you can fall back on a few presets, which do an admirable job of emulating basic and well-known setups, such as mimicking an Xbox 360 controller. Should all of these prove fruitless, you have the ability to customize each button and map it to a specific action, saving each binding as you see fit.
If you aren’t interested in doing the legwork yourself, there are plenty of bindings available to download from other users, which frankly, was a big boon to me personally. That being said, there are still some things that need to be addressed with the Steam Controller; there were moments where I couldn’t select certain bindings and configurations, and I occasionally had problems getting my PC to recognize and update the controller’s firmware. Much like the Steam Link, Valve has been pumping out fixes and listening to the community, so I’m waiting to see where Valve takes things in the coming weeks.
Glitches and pending fixes aside, I can’t help but be impressed with the ecosystem Valve is attempting to curate. Unlike the closed ecosystems of the PlayStation and Xbox, it’s truly impressive that Valve is managing to create hardware that can fit the needs of hundreds of different setups and situations, and it’s a genuinely fun experience to finally be able to play my PC games from the comfort of my living room, with a few friends on the couch. There are a few things that still need to be ironed out, but consider me optimistic for the future.
This preview of the Steam Controller and Steam Link are based on hardware that was provided for use by Valve Corporation. The author spent approximately one month with the hardware, and separate, scored reviews will be published in the future, pending future software updates.