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.