The Steam Link is Valve’s tiny computer that links any HDMI display to your gaming computer, running Steam, over a local network connection. I’ve had it for a few months and have been enjoying it despite a few obstacles, some of which Valve can’t work around.
The Link doesn’t take up a lot of space but it manages to fit several ports:
- 3 USB 2.0
- 1 Ethernet
- 1 HDMI
As well as Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 AC wifi.
You can connect wired Xbox One and 360 controllers as well as wireless 360 controllers with the Windows adapter. Valve also has their wireless Steam Controller, which is a middle ground for games that don’t support the Microsoft gamepads. If you need a mouse and keyboard they can be used as well.
Once everything is hooked up and the Link is connected over a wired Ethernet network to your gaming computer, you get a one-time code that allows the Link to verify your access to the remote gaming computer.
The computer’s display will be mirrored to the TV over the local network almost as if it were directly connected. Steam’s big picture mode boots up and it reformats their regular desktop interface for a more console style appearance and input from devices attached to the Link is sent back to the host machine over the network.
From big picture mode you can launch any games that Steam supports, though if you’re not using a Steam controller or mouse and keyboard, and the game doesn’t advertise controller support to Steam, you’ll have to pass a warning checkpoint to continue playing the game.
Although there is also an option to minimize big picture and use the desktop directly, I haven’t had much success navigating the desktop with a gamepad.
Performance on the Link is impressive. I had previously tried Steam’s built-in streaming to a micro computer hooked up to my TV and it never worked well. There were bursts of latency and a “slow network” error message would appear in a tiny font in the lower left corner of the screen. I don’t have a lot of time to diagnose networking issues and was surprised that it wasn’t up to snuff. My networking equipment isn’t that old, and while streaming will be difficult for a wireless network it should have been OK on the wired network.
The diagnostic steps I tried, reducing the number of pieces of networking equipment between the desktop gaming computer and the TV, swapping out network switches, none of them worked and I had given up on streaming. I figured the challenge wasn’t the streaming so much as keeping it to a low latency that Steam would need for a game to be playable. That’s why it is less likely to work over a wireless connection where interference and distance could prevent a solid connection.
When the Steam Link was discounted to $35 (down from $50) I purchased it and kept the receipt thinking that it might perform better than the pre-release developer-focused Steam Machine had, and was surprised to find that the Steam Link performed perfectly on my network. It streamed 1080p, 60 FPS video fluidly.
So if the Steam Link performed well, what are those obstacles? There are a few.
When a game doesn’t work right for whatever reason, maybe it locks up when launched, maybe it crashed while you were playing, when this happens the Link can get stuck in limbo and you’ll be forced to walk away to the desktop computer and force the game to quit.
Technical issues with games aren’t something Valve can prevent. Quality control is up to the developer and publisher. When this happens and it feels like something specific to games running on computers that they’re just going to crash in ways that aren’t recoverable from a controller because computer operating systems aren’t built with gamepads in mind.
These problems happen most often for me with non-Steam games. While some work fine if they’re added to Steam in desktop mode first, like Overwatch, others just won’t work well. That makes me want to try Nvidia’s competing Shield TV console that also includes game streaming. It has the benefit of not being affiliated with any particular digital download system, so it might be better at handling games from Origin, for example. The downside to their Shield console is that it is $200 new when the Steam Link is priced at $50 (without a controller) and I’ve seen it on sale as low as $20 during holiday sales.
Overall I am very satisfied with playing Steam games over the Steam Link. It’s a terrific experience to sit down on the couch, turn on a gamepad and have the Link remotely turn on my desktop computer and start playing Fallout 4 without hauling your computer around or using an extremely long HDMI cable. I just wish the Link had better support for games from third party services, or that third parties would stop exclusively releasing their games through other desktop download stores. There’s an opportunity for a third party to develop software that encapsulates gog, Origin, itch, Blizzard, and Uplay games into Steam for more streamlined streaming and game library management.