Steamlink review

December 9, 2015 / Personal Stuff / 0 Comments /

So, Steamlink is out, and after rough in-home streaming experiences in the past, I was hesitant to even get one. However, over the last week or so, I’ve given in-home streaming another chance, and it has dramatically improved. That said, I still had several minor issues, mostly due to the fact I was streaming to a Mac, which doesn’t fully support Big Picture Mode.

So what is Steamlink?

Well, it’s a way to enable in-home streaming without an additional computer, and it’s relatively affordable. I won’t go way into tech spec details, other than it has 3 USB ports, HDMI out (for your TV, duh!), bluetooth connectivity, Wireless AC 2.4/5.0Ghz wifi connectivity, and an ethernet port that can be used to connect your Steamlink directly to your router. So long as you have a nice gaming PC and a decent router, you should be good to go. Me, I have a Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 – a decent router.

How’s it work?

Without getting crazy technical all up in this biz, Steamlink connects directly to your gaming PC over your local network (via your router – NOT your internet connection), streams whatever game you want to play and sends/receives controller input data (your gamepad, keyboard and mouse, etc) over the network so you can play your game in front of, ideally, your tv.

Ok ok, so is it worth the 50 bucks?

Well considering you can’t really get anything like it in the price range, duh. But rest easy my friend, as long as you have a good router and a decent machine to run your games, you should be pretty good to go. I have just over 100 games installed on my PC that I can stream to my steam link – no I didn’t test every single one. There were a couple games that would crash using the steam link for one reason or the other, but every game I was able to play, played really well.

How’s the latency?

As promised, an unnoticeable 15-30ms delay. The lag will vary from setup to setup. The most important thing to note here is your router needs to have the bandwidth to transfer live video from machine to machine.

The cons

  1. The onscreen keyboard input could use some work. I’m sure it works fantabulously with the Steam controller, but I didn’t want to spend an extra 50 bucks to retrain my fingers to use some odd controller. My logitech F710’s joysticks are just too sensitive to be of any use when I’m typing or using a browser. Further, if you intend to use your full desktop from the Steamlink, be sure you have at least a keyboard on hand. You won’t be able to open Chrome and type in a URL otherwise.
  2. Compression could be better. I mean, I can’t really complain, but when I’m playing the Witcher 3 on ultra, I don’t want have the screen to be big ass pixels. Lowering the resolution does the trick, but still, it’s a shame the compression isn’t handled a bit better, considering the host PC plays the game without much stress at all.
  3. Some games simply won’t work. They either crash or don’t work properly. For instance, Injustice: Gods Among Us wouldn’t launch. The game would freeze and Steam would crash on the host computer, forcing me to run back upstairs (where the host PC is) and restart steam. Would be really nice if there was a way to re-launch steam remotely if it crashes. Another game that wouldn’t work was Street fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Once I get to the character select screen, the screen starts blinking rapidly, and the game things my controller is a second controller and introduces a second player. Utter Chaos. Some games also won’t launch due to big picture mode. Luckily, Steam Link lets you disable big picture mode and launch games from the default UI. Luckily, these were the only games thus far that I’ve had any issue with; all other games worked pretty well.
  4. Weird blinks happen when in the menu. Not sure why this happens, but every 10-15 seconds of inactivity causes the screen to go black and the audio to disable for a split second, as if the Steamlink was quickly restarting the stream. Not a huge problem, but a bit of an annoyance when I’m shopping for games and reading descriptions.
  5. Steamlink can have trouble with first-time launches. If you’re downloading a game via Steamlink and you launch it and it crashes, try launching it directly from the host machine first, configure your graphics the way you want, and then relaunch it via Steamlink.

The Pros

  1. Super low latency. I’m using  Steamlink primarily for games I’d want to use a gamepad with – Mortal Kombat, Ori and the Blind Forest, Psychonauts, Skyrim, Witcher 3, Duck Game, The Batman Arkham series, Borderlands (yeah I know its a FPS, but sometimes I like using a controller for these types of story-based shooters). I was able to play all of these games without any noticeable input lag, all on 1920×1080 resolution with graphics settings maxed out.
  2. Overall, clean graphics. Apart from more demanding and detailed games, like Witcher 3, I got little to no noticeable pixelation or noise. I noticed blacks/dark colors tend to render more poorly as the compression tends to blend pixels of similar colors. Doesn’t bother me too much for the most part, but it is unfortunate that some games just won’t have that “PC graphics” experience – at least not yet.
  3. Most games work. Again, outside of 2 or 3 games, I was able to play the vast majority of the games I set out to play with the steam link. In one session, I used the Steam Link for several hours and was continuously engaged in the game.
  4. Wireless AC, baby. Again, having a good router is crucial to get decent performance out of the Steamlink, or Steam’s in-home streaming in general. Initially, my in-home streaming setup had the gaming pc directly connected, and the steam link connected over the 5Ghz channel of my AC router. And the results were almost exactly the same as being hardwired on both ends. Do not expect wifi connectivity to work wonders on your wireless G router, or on your stock Comcast or AT&T modem-router combos – they just won’t. Heck, they may not even work well directly connected. Do yourself a favor and get a decent router – it’ll pay for itself. Trust me.
  5. It’s only 50 bucks – if you have a decent gaming PC like I do, and a decent router, what expense is it for you to pick up the Steamlink? “Competitors” cost twice as much, and won’t even play all your games…speaking of which…
  6. You don’t need to be restricted to Steam games. Steamlink allows you to exit big picture mode and take full control over your desktop. Further, you can add external applications and other non-Steam games to your Steam library and launch them using Steamlink.
  7. It’s small, and it’s black. Ok, I realize this is totally minor and has nothing to do with how well it works, but its size and form-factor are actually a benefit. It’s small enough to hide, but sleek enough to show. It’s hard to not find space for this thing. Also, it’s black, so it probably matches your other electronics.
  8. It’s constantly being updated. This might come across as a con, but I’m viewing it as a pro or a perk. Less than a year ago, in-home streaming just flat-out didn’t work. It wasn’t practical, it was buggy, it lagged like crazy, but over time, it grew into something amazing. Steam is treating the Steamlink’s firmware and software exactly the same. A month ago, users were having issues with lag and sound – no longer the case for most folks due to the frequent updates being released. If you’re not confident in purchasing a Steamlink now, wait a month or two and watch as support tickets get solved by software updates.

Some tips

  • Make sure your gaming PC has a little headroom. If it can BARELY play the game you’re wanting to steam, don’t expect the quality to be too good on your Steamlink. Your PC needs the bandwidth to play the game, compress the video output, and send/receive data in realtime over your network.
  • Make sure you have a good router. Your internet connection means nothing in terms of the Steamlink’s core streaming functionality. Your router needs to be able to transfer alot of data between machines – stock routers from AT&T and Comcast don’t typically do the trick. And if you’re a Comcast/Xfinity customer like me, you’re probably paying 10 (that’s $120/year) bucks a month just to use a router that starts dying every couple months. Again, save yourself some money in the long run and buy a reliable router and modem.
  • If games get pixely, lower the resolution. I’m only speculating, but it seems Steamlink values input lag more than video quality, in that it is willing to give you pixely, nasty graphics if that means you’re gonna get a better response when you hit the X button on your gamepad. If you start experiencing these things, don’t switch to Beautiful streaming (steams setting for high quality streaming; you can choose Fast, Balanced, or Beautiful and it will perform respectively). Instead, stay at Balanced or switch to fast, and lower your game’s resolution a bit. Lowering resolution means less pixel data being sent across the network, which means less compression, which means a cleaner picture.
  • Some TV’s take longer to process video from devices. If you’re experiencing input lag even if you have the best of the best gear, check and see if your TV has “Game Mode” – a mode that helps mitigate some of the time it takes to process the video projection.

Ok, so what’s the verdict?

The verdict is – Steamlink is here to stay. I’m so glad I got the Steamlink. The fact I can spend hours playing a game and feel just like I’m playing a console directly connected to my TV – but with better graphics – WITHOUT having to move my gaming PC to my TV or run a super long HDMI cable and usb cables across the floor….it boggles my mind. You couldn’t do this so seamlessly a year ago, and here we are today.

So it was a good experience for you…what kind of hardware are you using?

It’s important to note that having a good system and a good router will equal a good Steamlink experience. Your experience may differ from mine if you don’t have the hardware or network bandwidth to run and stream your games. So, that in mind, here’s what I have:

  • Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Router
  • Steamlink – directly connected to the router (though I initially tested this via the 5Ghz channel and had similar, near identical results)
  • Logitech F710 Wireless Controller
  • Some Vizio 50″ LED 1080p TV with Game Mode enabled (lower latency)
  • A gaming PC with…
  • 16GB RAM
  • 3.4 Ghz (not overclocked) 8 Core AMD CPU
  • 120GB SSD for Operating System
  • 4TB 7200RPM Hard Drive for storing games
  • 1 Radeon R9 290x

The fact I had more than enough headroom to run demanding games, process video in real time, AND a decent enough router to stream that data to and from the PC and the Steamlink DEFINITELY played a part in my experience. If your PC is just barely powerful enough to run the games you want to play, you’re going to at least want to tweak some settings in order to free up some of that PC power to compress the video. If you don’t have a decent router – buy one. I mean, regardless of whether or not you plan to use Steamlink, you should own a decent router. It’s well worth it.

Anyway, I’m rambling.

To sum up, I had – and am continuing to have – a great experience with the Steamlink. If any of the above changes, for better or worse, I’ll be sure to share.

Steam In-Home Streaming Review

December 9, 2015 / Personal Stuff / 1 Comment /

I’m not a gaming reviewer or anything of that sort. But I am a gamer, and I do use steam regularly, and I’ve begun using In-Home Streaming on a regular basis. So, given there are a lot of questions about in-home streaming – how’s it work, what do I need, does it lag, – I thought I’d share my experience with it, and hopefully provide some answers to these questions.

So first off – what is in-home streaming? 

Let’s start off with what it is not. In home streaming is NOT streaming your Steam games from the internet. In-home streaming is NOT a wireless HDMI adapter. It is NOT meant to control every aspect of your remote PC. It does NOT stream games from a PC over the internet.

In-home streaming DOES stream your games over your local network via a router. Because of this, it DOES stream games from your host PC over wifi.

Essentially, in-home streaming mirrors your gaming PC. When you launch a game using in-home streaming, the game opens and runs on your gaming PC; the video and audio from that device stream to a device, like a laptop or Steam Link. It then takes any input data (button presses on a controller, mouse and/or keyboard) and sends that data back to your gaming PC. And that’s pretty much it.

This allows you to plugin a laptop or steam link into your TV and stream your favorite PC games directly to your TV without having to fork out the dough for another serious gaming machine, or play any game in any room on the laptop your grandma bought you on sale at Walmart. High five, grandma!

But that’s not all you need to get it working. Steam recommends a strong, fast connection between your gaming PC and the device you’re streaming to. Their recommendation is to have both machines directly plugged into your router. However, depending on the router, that might not be good enough.

So what do I need?

You need a gaming PC to run games, a laptop, pc, or steam link to stream to, and a good router. Not that stock one AT&T gave you. Get yourself something like a netgear Nighthawk 1900 or better, wireless AC router. This router supports up to 1300Mbps via its super stable 5Ghz wireless channel, which is more than enough to stream video to your machine. That said, nothing beats good ol’ ethernet cables plugged directly into the router. If you can’t plug both devices into the router, a great compromise would be to plug the gaming PC directly into the router and connect the other device wirelessly over the 5Ghz channel.

This is actually my current setup, and I get little lag. Which, to my next point…

Does it lag?

Yes, but it’s not noticeable in most cases. Before I dive in too deep, let’s first define what lag even is. Lag, in this instance, is the amount of time between you pushing a button on your controller, and seeing something happen on the screen. When dealing with a standard PC, there is lag because the data from the keyboard needs to be processed before it does anything on the screen; this happens incredibly fast, but still milliseconds after the physical press of a key.

Now, consider how in-home streaming works. Your hitting a key on one machine, that data is sent over a network to a completely different machine, processed, then the video from that machine is sent back to the first machine over the network. So yes, it lags. But the real question – is the lag noticeable? If you use a wireless AC router with strong signals, or have at least your gaming pc plugged directly into your router, probably not.

The only time I encountered noticeable lag was when I played the Witcher 3 – a fairly demanding game – on Ultra at 1920×1080 with the Nvidia hair effects turned on. Now, quite frankly, I hate the hair effect. I think it looks tacky.  Once I turned that off, I was getting a steady 30-40FPS with no noticeable lag. I got even better frame rates decreasing the resolution slightly.

I did notice the video compression increase a bit, dumbing down some of the quality. I was able to mitigate this by slightly lowering the game’s resolution. However, games like Borderlands 2, Mortal Kombat X, Psychonauts, Ori and the Blind Forest, and just about every other game I threw at it streamed at at least 60FPS with no noticeable lag. Gaming felt about the same as any console experience, but with better graphics performance.

If you’re plugging your device into your tv, you may experience some additional lag. TV’s sometimes take a little more time to process video from the device, which will introduce more input lag. That said, most modern TV’s have a “gaming mode” that will decrease the time it takes to display video from your device. So be sure to enable gaming mode if you’re intent on streaming to a device connected to your TV.

How’s it look? Does video quality suffer from compression?

Generally speaking, no. Steam has three compression settings for in-home streaming, Fast, Balanced, and Beautiful. Fast will compress your video quality so you always get the highest framerate and lowest input lag. Balanced will give you the best looking video you can possibly have little to no input lag, and will dynamically change its quality as it encounters compression or connection issues. Beautiful will optimize for graphics, but will result in higher input lag.

I keep my quality settings on Balanced, and when sitting on my couch, I really don’t notice the compression much at all. It’s only noticeable for more demanding games – again, like Witcher 3 on Ultra in 1920×1080. The better hardware you have on your machine, and the better router you have, the less you’ll need to worry about compression, lag, etc.

What kind of computer do I need?

Your gaming PC needs to be able to run the games you want to play with enough headroom to also process the compression and streaming. My current setup uses a 3.4Ghz 8-core processor, 16GB RAM, and a single Radeon r9 290x. Even at these specs, I still get minor compression, framerate, and slight lag issues playing more demanding games on their highest settings which I don’t see on the machine itself. This could be due either to my PC needing more headroom to process the compression, or the router not having a fast enough data-transfer rate via the Wifi – again, the laptop I’m streaming to is NOT directly connected to the router via ethernet. My router is great, but there are definitely better routers with higher wireless data transfer rates to take advantage of.

The device your streaming to needs to have a strong enough connection to the router, and have good enough specs to play video at the resolution you intend to play. And that’s pretty much it. Any quadcore machine with at least 4 GB of RAM will likely do the trick.

How can I get the best performance from In-Home streaming?

First make sure to get the best connection to your network on both machines. Directly plugging into your router is most ideal, but if that’s not possible, move your router and/or devices to ensure the best connection.

If you still experience input lag, try reducing the resolution of your games and adjusting the graphics settings a bit. This will take less time to compress and use less bandwidth over your network.

If that doesn’t work, try also changing your streaming quality to “Fast”.

Ok, I’m going to end it here.

I think I’ve given you a lot of detail, and I’m going to sum it up: in-home streaming is overall quite good. I do occasionally have issues with Big Picture Mode, and the fact that Steam’s BPM doesn’t necessarily fully support OSX – bummer. Oh well, I’ve got a Steam Link, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts soon.

Steam In-home streaming rants on the way

December 8, 2015 / Personal Stuff / 0 Comments /

I’ve been using steam for quite some time as my primary source for gaming. I actually used to move my gaming PC from room to room every so often to get the “couch” experience in the living room, or to get the best “mouse/keyboard FPS” experience.

This got old relatively quickly, which is why I was stoked to find out about steam’s in-home streaming over a year ago. I signed up for the beta and gave it a shot. Sure enough, it sucked.

But that was a long time ago. I decided to give it a shot a few days ago – after giving it time to mature, and after buying a nighthawk wireless AC router – and sure enough, it’s amazing. But it’s not without its shortcomings.

So, over the next few days I’m going to be doing some thorough testing and mindlessly rant about my experience with it. However, to sum up in advance for those of you who don’t like reading stuff, I’m overall pleased.