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.