Valve is launching a beta version of its Steam Link app on Android today. A version of the in-home PC game-streaming app will roll out on the App Store for iOS soon as well. I’ve spent the last week with Steam Link on my Android smartphone and a variety of other devices, and it works well, even if it has made me curse my Comcast-provided 5 GHz Wi-Fi router quite a lot.
Steam Link is a brand that Valve launched in 2015. The company introduces a number of hardware and other products to expand how people can interact with their Steam library. The Steam Link was just a $50 HDMI box at that time, and it could stream games from your computer to a television in another room. I’ve used one ever since because it’s simple and the picture quality is high. Now, Steam Link also refers to the app on iOS and Android, and it brings with it an improved image that supports 4K and 60 frames per second. But it also introduces some new headaches that come with trying to use a video game controller with a smartphone and trying to get a consistent Wi-Fi signal as you move around your home.
When it’s working, the Steam Link experience is a great way to play controller-based games away from your desktop. The image is crisp and clear, and Valve has done a lot of work to ensure that whatever gamepad you’re using integrates into Steam without a hassle. Whether this will work for you will depend on whether you can find a comfortable way to hold the controller while also looking at the phone or tablet.
I use a clip that connects a Pro 8Bitdo pad to a smartphone, which turns the entire setup into a quasi-handheld gaming console. Steam Link only works on your home network for now, but I’ve had a good time playing games downstairs using this method. I will say that the cobbled-together contraption isn’t the most comfortable. It’s top-heavy, and the clamp that holds the phone in place has a tendency to activate and hold down the volume button.
If you don’t have one of those clamps, you could try a kickstand or a case that keeps your phone or tablet upright on a desktop surface, but that limits your mobility enough that it isn’t something I care to try more than once.
But when you’re extra mobile, you may find that 5 GHz Wi-Fi has some limitations. You often get 5 GHz as the second option in dual-band routers and gateways. These enable you to take advantage of much faster speeds than 2.4 GHz-only options, which is crucial for broadcasting 4K video at 60 frames per second. But 5 GHz is a shorter wave than 2.4, and that means it struggles to get through walls and other obstructions. I have a number of dead spots in my home where 5 GHz poops the bed. I’ve tried a range extender, and that hasn’t helped. If you are happy with your Wi-Fi coverage, this won’t affect you — but keep this in mind if you’re unsure about the state of your 5 GHz network.
That uncertain nature of my home network means that I’ve had the best results and the most fun using the Steam Link app on television. The app works on Android TV and Apple TV, which means you can turn a huge number of devices into a Steam streaming box now. I have a power Android TV box connected to my television that is specifically made for handling 4K video at 60 frames per second and in HDR, and that means it does great with Valve’s app. The Android box also has a built-in Dolby Atmos decoder, so if Valve adds support for that in the future, I’m ready to go.
I do still want the option to play my PC games in bed or in that downstairs bathroom, but that’s going to require an investment in my home network. I’m going to the Comcast store before the end of this week to exchange my gateway for a new one. If that doesn’t work, well, it’s time to invest in an Asus AC2900 router or maybe that Google Wi-Fi mesh network kit.