I’m starting to get burned out waiting for Valve to partner with someone who can produce an affordable Steam Machine.
But the longer things drag out, the more Valve’s window of opportunity threatens to close. Perhaps to buy itself some time, or to tide over people like me that are waiting for a cheaper solution, Valve is releasing the Steam Link — a gameplay streaming hub that pulls the Steam experience from a PC and makes it playable on any HDMI screen in the home.
It’s not exactly what I want, but is it a good substitute? I realize I am communicating through the literary medium, but can you see the grimace on my face? No? It was worth a try. Let me spell out my review of it.
You know the person in the group everyone stands next to when they want to look taller? That’s the Steam Link’s role on my entertainment center. It’s like all my controllers are creeping close to it, just so they can feel better about their stature. I don’t blame my controllers for creeping closer to the tiny black box, because the Steam Link makes them look like impractically huge beasts.
This is great for portability, because wrapping the wires around the Steam Link and slipping the entire bundle into my pocket isn’t a hassle. It takes up about the same amount of real estate as my phone and wallet. Whether that’s what Valve was going for is another matter. I don’t think pocket comfort was a primary design goal.
The Steam Link isn’t so small as to not have the necessary ports to hook this thing up to a modern TV. The back features two USB ports, with a third USB port on the side, a RJ45 network connection, and an HDMI output. Having spent a little time on the set-top media box side of consumer products, I am noticing a trend with these incredibly small living room boxes, which the Steam Link has unfortunately adopted: They are sacrificing traditional audio ports for a smaller size.
This is frustrating. Something like the Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or the Google Chromecast not having at least a digital audio out or headphone jack is BS, but a pinch understandable. As much as these units claim to be high-end multimedia solutions, on the cheap, for the whole family — they are designed for the average consumer that could give two wanks about where their audio is coming from. Or are willing to toss their existing speaker system for newer Bluetooth or USB based solutions.
I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but sound is incredibly important in games, especially in experiences where audio matters (Alien: Isolation). I don’t want to hear about how I should replace my perfectly good 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system just because no one wants to add a traditional audio jack to the back of their device.
On the controller end, I was able to run several USB based controllers off of the Steam Link. Primarily a couple 360, wired, controllers and fight sticks. Not getting stuck with the Steam controller is definitely a plus.
Let’s play with it
So as I mentioned earlier, the Steam Link isn’t so much a machine as it is a hub. Except instead of acting as a way point for accessing general data, music, or movies that are on the network, it streams gameplay from a Steam-enabled PC to a controller and television set in another part of the house.
This means the Steam Link is essentially launching the game on the PC, and I am playing the game on that PC remotely. This isn’t a situation where the Steam Link is just accessing my Steam account and letting me play my games anywhere. The PC with the games installed on it must be up and running at the same time.
This isn’t an issue or a criticism of the Steam Link directly, but I think that the nature of how it works needs to be clarified, because some unrealistic expectations are being attached to this concept.
I don’t recommend using the Wi-Fi option on a Steam Link. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, or that it can’t be set up in an environment where it works well, but the concept is open to failure. We’re sending input signals from the controller, to the Steam Link, through the air to the network via Wi-Fi, and to the PC running the game on the other end. The PC and the game then has its own filters for interpreting that information and creating a visual representation of what is happening, that it then sends back through its normal pipeline, which then goes back through the network, to the Steam Link, which renders that information accordingly.
Like I said, the concept works, but from my experience it was only close to functional with games that are extremely light on performance, such as retro side-scrolling shooter Mercenary Kings and Danmaku Unlimited 2, a shoot-’em-up. While playable, they would still occasionally hiccup and stutter. Sometimes, inputs would drop altogether, or in worse cases, would lag and interpret a single activation input as a hold. A good example of this was tapping right on Mercenary Kings, and occasionally seeing my character keep running right for a second or two.
Games that push the host PC’s specs hard, however, are going to be really dicey on the Steam Link. A good example of this was trying to play Alien: Isolation on my main work machine, which in its old age requires the game to be set at low quality to run smoothly. Through the Steam Link with a wired RJ45 connection, Alien Isolation was still unplayable.
I’ll put most of the blame for that on me using a crappy machine, but it’s another example of the hurdle streamed gameplay faces.
Online gaming is worse. Playing opponents in Ultra Street Fighter IV is already a situation that calls for as little activity on the network as possible, with as little interruption in the input pipeline between the stick and the game machine. But with the Steam Link, we have a situation where both signals are being compromised, because they are all tied to the same line of communication. So the network traffic from the match and the stream are slowing each other down, and that is screwing with the input lag. It’s a mess. If I want to double down the chaos, I’ll go Wi-Fi and play a YouTube video on another machine on the network.
I’m not buying into gameplay streaming. I don’t think this is so much a problem with Valve or its Steam Link, as it is more a problem with the larger concept itself. The very idea of gameplay streaming is asking a lot out of an infrastructure and pipeline that isn’t capable, yet, of delivering a 1-to-1 representation of gameplay. The experience is almost always going to be degraded in some way, not just in audio and video, but in interactivity as well.
It has just so many technical hurdles here. Input and visual lag is already a challenging issue to tackle locally, with a player playing on a controller, connected to a game machine, hooked up to a display inside the same room. The issues multiplay when any part of that chain goes from wired to wireless connectivity. Now take those issues, and try to slam them over a home network. Then if you’re brave, do it over WiFi.
Even if the gameplay stream is the only thing accessing the network, we’ve still added one more major roadblock for the data to cross.
I appreciate Valve’s intent here, but a lot of sections in the gaming hardware and networking pipeline need to be improved before I see something like the Steam Link being a great solution. The company may be a bit too far ahead of its time on this one.