A Steam Link review

Is the Steam Link necessary? Worthwhile? Any good?

22 November 2017

Originally touted as a new way of experiencing video games, the Steam Link has been revolutionary for some, tepid at best for others, and positively a waste of time for more still. Now I've finally got my hands on one, I can attempt to let you know what I think.

Front view of the Steam Link console

Situational

Let's face it: the Steam Link is not for everyone. It's a device that can be used to save you from your PC chair. If you'd rather spend time elsewhere in your home, and not in front of the PC, perhaps in a dark room, perhaps surrounded by empty Doritos packs and Mountain Dew bottles, then this could be an ideal device. But be warned: those empty bottles are likely your fault, not your PC's.

Some people will have a single room setup, with a PC within easy access of the TV, or perhaps already using the TV as a gaming monitor. These people will have no use for Steam Link.

Perhaps you already have a console, like an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4. It's probably connected to your home's main TV. For these people, if the game is already available for that platform, the Steam Link isn't really going to be that useful. It might come in handy for those non-console games, though.

A black DX Racer brand chair with red trim

Other people might already have a very comfortable gaming setup. You might be a sheep and already own a DXRacer chair because you lack the ability to pick any other chair on your own, or you're scared in case you pick the wrong chair and people laugh at you.

Enough about the chairs.

If you like spending time at your gaming PC and you don't have any desire to use other parts of your home for that particular addiction, you're likely to find no value in a Steam Link.

That's a lot of people who wouldn't find a use for a little black box under the TV, but there's plenty of potential winners here as well.

I have a TV in a separate room to my gaming setup. The living room is where I like to... do my living... and there is a decent sofa, a decent TV, and a few consoles. I don't always want to spend my time in front of the gaming PC, so the Steam Link is a great fit for my situation.

Perhaps you often game in an area of your home that is off limits at certain times? Maybe you have put the kids to sleep, and the gaming PC is in the next room, so you want to be able to get some quality Call of Duty time downstairs where you won't be waking them up every few minutes with the incessant irritation of MG42 fire.

Seriously, I hope this doesn't apply to many people. I'm not sure how the offspring of Call of Duty players will turn out, but I don't think it's going to be pretty.

There's also the real kicker here: are you the type of person who wants to play games on your TV that you would traditionally play only with a mouse and keyboard, in front of a PC? A Civilization fan, perhaps? Paradox Grand Strategy? Total War?

This is where the Steam Link is really good, situationally. These are games played at a relaxed pace, where the lack of quick mouse actions doesn't really matter, and the controller style works well here, despite the obvious misgivings about using console controllers (I'm looking at you, Xbox and PlayStation) to control a 4X or Grand Strategy title. More on the Steam Controller a little later, though.

Out of the box

It's surprisingly frustrating to get into the damn thing. There's sticky seals all over the place and it's easier just to rip the damn thing open. It's not like there's even a sensible way of doing it. But using "difficulty of box opening" as a review detractor seems a little unfair, so we'll skip past it, making sure it goes noted.

It's great. No complaints about the setup at all. You have an HDMI cord in the box, ready for connecting to your TV of choice, and the power cord comes with all the relevant pieces to fit any socket, even those weird UK ones with the on/off switch! They're my favourite, obviously.

There's an ethernet (RJ-45) socket, and because the entire device is built around streaming video across your home network, it's the recommended way. I tested it on wireless, too. Comments on this below.

It's a little bit of effort to set up a link to your Steam PC, because you will need to enter a code on the gaming PC to allow the Steam Link to connect. I can imagine this being a huge issue for the rich bastard who has to go to the other side of his vast mansion, but for everyone else, it's no biggie.

Artistic representation of animals facing a TV with the Steam logo on it
Everything just sort of... works. Straight out of the box and powered on, the thing just knows what to do.

Connectivity

I tried the wireless connection. It works. Wireless is so varied though. I have a 5 GHz band available, avoiding a lot of the neighbour- and microwave oven-generated interference (yeah, they use the 2.4 GHz band as well), and my router is fairly close to the Steam Link, so I get decent, stable, wireless speeds anyway. This won't be the same for everyone.

If connecting to a wired network is totally out of the question, and you know you suffer from poor wireless quality or speed, you need to seriously think about the Steam Link. Gladly, the number of people who fit that mould is diminishing year on year.

Everything just sort of... works. Straight out of the box and powered on, the thing just knows what to do. I haven't tested it on a home network with more than one Steam PC, or on a larger network, but in my situation, which will surely apply to a lot of home gamers, very little effort is required here.

If network speed is not your router's main strength, or you share a network which is likely to be using a lot of bandwidth on downloading or streaming, you have the option to turn down the video quality. You will get a worse (but fully acceptable) picture in exchange for a lower bandwidth requirement, and likewise, if the opposite is true, you can always up the quality in favour of consuming more precious bandwidth on your home network.

Also: don't worry. Steam knows when enough is enough. If you're downloading something on Steam, your download is going to be throttled back to ensure there's enough left on your network to continue gaming. If it's not Steam that's hogging your home network bandwidth (I'm looking at Netflix or YouTube here), you might have to come to a cordial agreement with the others in your house. Or just unplug something from your router while you're using the Steam Link!

Controller

To be perfectly honest, this little section could have been its own review piece. There's just so much to say about Valve's beloved Steam Controller. A lot of it is good, but keep reading, because it's not all sunshine and roses!

The Steam controller

Firstly, this is a big controller. While some other companies (Microsoft) have been trying to cut down the size of their gaming controllers, and others (Sony) seem to refine the existing design, Valve have gone all out here.

This is the American Dream in controller form: bigger, better, and noisier than anything else around.

First up, there's three shoulder buttons on each side. The left side has a button, a trigger, and a long weird thing that's also a button. This might seem counter-intuitive: controllers already have enough buttons without the need to learn more, surely?

This makes a huge amount of sense when you stop to think about it. The Steam Controller is designed (first and foremost) to replace input methods for PC games. You know, the ones with the keyboard with over a hundred different keys? You need as many different things to press as possible, and the extra shoulder buttons are actually unintrusive.

My main gripe here: there is only one analog stick, on the left. For games that have camera controls on the right stick and movement controls on the left (Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto), this means the camera has to be controlled with the haptic touchpad on the right, which just isn't as effective. Don't get me wrong: it works. It's just not as good as the camera control from an analog stick.

Both of the left and right "circle things" are touchpads, with haptic feedback (they rumble and pulse under certain circumstances). This is very useful when simulating mouse control, and it can be done with the left or the right side, or even both. Both pads also have buttons built in, so you can use, for example, the left pad as a standard D-pad, although don't expect to be pulling off any slick Dragon Punches in Street Fighter without serious practice.

As if all that wasn't enough already, the damn thing has a gyro built in, which means that it's entirely possible to use it as a fine aiming device in a first person shooter. Hold your ammo-laden horses though! It's never going to be as good as a mouse and keyboard, the de facto headshot device combination for the past quarter of a century, but it's actually surprisingly good, and if you're playing single player, and your ego can take a slightly lower difficulty, I mean, sure, who's gonna know?

Ergonomically, the Steam Controller is not easy to recommend. There absolutely has to be a trade-off in ergonomic terms if the ability to replicate PC controls adequately is to be maintained. However, it's not that bad. I don't find it uncomfortable to use for long periods, and my main complaint is that the A/B/X/Y combination of buttons is positioned so low down that it's often easy to hit the wrong button by mistake.

There's no point having a controller built like a Sturmgeschütz III if it takes as long to register a button press as it does to reload the StuK 40.

The haptics... ah the haptics. This is seriously annoying when you begin using the Steam Controller. It feels like you picked up what you thought was an innocent object but you've accidentally just set off a sex toy and now everyone's staring at you while you scramble to find the "off" button.

Thankfully, I found I did get used to it. Haptics (and everything else; see below) can be customised overall, or individually for each game, so there's no need to worry about being unable to find a setting to your liking. Including "completely off". Just, consider those poor haptics before you turn it off completely. You'll thank me for it later!

Build quality is a bit of an issue with the Steam Controller. It creaks if you grasp it too hard, and the back cover doesn't attach too well. If you're too loose and wild with the trigger buttons, they made odd noises when they return to their home positions.

However, the key factor here is input quality. There's no point having a controller built like a Sturmgeschütz III if it takes as long to register a button press as it does to reload the StuK 40. Input quality is superb, and assuming you're paying attention to the sounds of your favourite video game and not the sound the controller makes when you accidentally let go of the left trigger too forcefully, you'll hopefully agree that the Steam Controller gets it right where it counts.

The final nail in the coffin (which might be filled with a stiff or a perfectly healthy guy who's just sleeping, depending on your interpretation of the above) is the price. It's a complicated piece of kit. It needs to be. There's just no way to sell this thing at a really cheap cost.

This means that for situations where you want to have three friends over, you're not going to be able to go out and buy four Steam Controllers without leaving a significant dent in your wallet that could easily have been made by expanding your game library instead.

Alternative controller options

As you'd expect from Valve, they're fully aware that you might not want to use the Steam Controller for everything. There's a huge list of supported controllers.

Most controllers that are wired with a USB connector can just be plugged into the Steam Link's USB port and will work right away.

Additionally, most wireless controllers that come with a wireless "dongle" that plugs into the USB port and acts as a receiver, will work right away as well.

The Xbox One S controller (2016 onwards), which uses Bluetooth, will happily play nicely with the Steam Link's own Bluetooth connectivity. It plugs in, works, and you never have to worry about setting it up again.

The Steam Link is incredibly sensible about how alternate controllers work with the system. For example, if you expect that your Xbox controller works just like it does on the PC, you're right; that's exactly what will happen.

This was a conscious and commendable decision by Valve: it would have been easy to make it more difficult to set up other controllers, and promote the sale of the Steam Controller as a result, but really, it's actually possible to spend an entire evening with your Steam Link and never touch your Steam Controller, as long as you have a suitable alternative connected.

Controller setup

At some point, you have to admit it: PC games can have complicated controls. This isn't a console, where the primary driver is the ability to press one button and be in a game with simplistic controls that can't be changed but work fine anyway.

The aim is clear: to bring the full control of the PC to the TV and a controller. It's a lofty goal as well, but it's enhanced and enabled by the fantastic controller config system on the Steam Link.

Steam controller configuration interface

I mean, in terms of user experience and design, this thing blows my mind. You can reconfigure absolutely everything about the controller. If you want the left pad to act like a mouse, you can do that. If you want it to be a D-pad, or a joystick emulator, or press CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+F12, or take a Steam screenshot, you can do all that.

There's also a number of very useful functions hard-wired into the controller config for more modern Steam games. Civilization VI, for example, allows a custom button assignment for "open Civopedia" and "open research screen", so you're easily able to set things up how you want.

All of this configuration is independent to the game you're playing. You can set up a certain game in one way, and a different game in a totally different way. You can have two different configurations for the same game, and switch between them at will. For very complicated control schemes, such as MMOs, you can switch between button configs on the fly, so you are unlikely to run out of buttons, which is the main complaint for bringing complicated control schemes to consoles.

Cleverly, Valve have allowed users to upload their own controller configurations for any game, and you can browse the available controller configs to find one you like. This means that even though Valve and the game developer might not have considered what happens when you try to play the PC game on a Steam Link, someone has probably already tried it, and uploaded a config you'll be able to use, if not immediately like.

Finally, you can do all of this configuration before you even launch the game, so you get all the setup out of the way and don't need to break the action once you're up and running.

Video performance and streaming

Your PC will actually be doing two jobs when you're using your Steam Link: it is rendering the game, and it is taking that rendering, encoding it to video, and transmitting it to the Steam Link.

This means that your PC is working that bit harder when using the Steam Link, and this can show in some situations. If you're likely to be playing a modern, fast-paced FPS where your system is already pushing its limits, you will want to consider lowering the quality slightly to allow your PC to encode the video seamlessly.

Luckily there's very little tweaking required to get all this working. Generally you just fire it up, it works, and if it's not quite right, you can adjust it.

For example, I run a 4K monitor for gaming, and my TV is 1K (the regular 1080p type). I can leave the game running in 4K on my PC, and see the result in 1080p on my TV, or I could reduce the 4K resolution to 1080p on the PC, and see a very similar result. It's mainly a thoughtless process: if it works on your PC, it will work on your Steam Link without issues.

There were some older reports of users with multiple PC monitors having issues with the Steam Link because it couldn't work out which part of the screen it was supposed to be encoding. If you are planning to play games with multiple monitor support, this will still be an issue, as generally, you don't line up multiple TVs next to each other in your living room.

For the majority of people, who game on a single monitor, and watch TV on a single TV, it works perfectly. Again, the Steam Link is equipped with options if you're running into issues with an irregular monitor setup.

Game compatibility

If it can run on your PC, it can run on your Steam Link, but obviously, not all games will work this way. Rocksmith, for example, which requires a real guitar as a controller, is not going to work with a Steam Link. A driving game that requires a steering wheel is not going to work.

There are also some modern games that require signing into a separate service to play. I'm looking at you, Assassin's Creed. It will automatically fire up uPlay before allowing you to load the game through Steam.

If you don't have an automatic login for uPlay, or it fails to load, you will run into issues on the Steam Link, because your PC is just going to wait for uPlay to finish loading, which will never happen without manual intervention.

Happily though, my PC can automatically log into uPlay, and firing up Assassin's Creed on the Steam Link doesn't require any extra steps besides a small wait.

The same can't be said for Batman: Arkham City. It requires manual activation and filling out of a bunch of forms with codes. This just won't work with the Steam Link, because there are so many PC-based steps required before you can start the actual game. So there's limits. For any game that loads directly through Steam and has no extra faffing beforehand, you're good to go.

Playtest: Assassin's Creed Origins

This is a demanding game. It's not a fast-paced FPS, but will give your system a beating, partly due to Ubisoft's aggressive DRM which involves running the game inside a virtual machine on your gaming PC.

The game mostly ran fine for me, but, curiously, as soon as the day/night cycle turned to night, the video streaming would slow to a crawl, making the game unplayable. There is a workaround in that the game comes with a button to advance time to day again, but there are some missions that will always take place at night, and there's no way around this, so this game was a no-go for me on the Steam Link.

Weirdly, I feel like this is a "my rig" problem, because it doesn't make any sense, and I'd fully expect this game to work fine on anyone else's Steam Link. I haven't been able to find anyone else having similar issues, at least.

The plus side? The Xbox One controller worked with Assassin's Creed Origins with no issues, and behaved exactly the same way as the Xbox 360 controller on the PC, with no configuration required.

Playtest: Bus Simulator 2016

This is a really weird one. This game has so many controls that it's mind-blowing, and there were no predefined Steam Controller configs. As a result, my main gripe here is that the setup process is long and complicated. This is one for people with patience.

I think that quite honestly, if you had the patience to set up all the necessary controls for this game, it would work absolutely fine. I don't know for sure, because I lacked the patience!

Playtest: The Banner Saga

Ahh, everyone's favourite Viking Strategy Tactics RPG! What's that? It's the only Viking Strategy Tactics RPG?

This is exactly the type of game which works well on the Steam Link. Controls make perfect sense without any configuration required. The turn-based nature means you're not panicking about maximum video quality or FPS.

This is the perfect sofa game to just fire up, relax, and enjoy. Flawless on the Steam Link.

Playtest: Hand of Fate 2

Hand of Fate 2 is an interesting one, because much of it is a turn-based card game, and then there's some fast-paced third person action combat sections. It's a good test of the Steam Link, which holds up very well.

Functionally, it's perfect. It works well with the Steam Controller, it looks great, and there's no disadvantage either in the turn-based sections or the action-based sections.

However, it does bring to light one of the other weird things about owning a Steam Link and using it on your TV: some of the text in this game is very small. This is fine when you're 75 cm away from a monitor, but when you're 3 m away from your TV, it can be difficult to read everything, and I found myself leaning closer to be able to understand some of the text, partly due to the stylised font being used.

Hand of Fate 2 is a Unity game and configuration options are limited, so there is no "UI scale" option. There's just no way of making the text bigger. Frustratingly, if you reduce the game's resolution, the text remains the same relative size on the screen, just using fewer pixels.

This is absolutely a problem with the game and not the Steam Link, but it does introduce the concept that just because you have the perfect Steam Link setup, you will almost always be unable to avoid situations where the game just wasn't designed with a 3 m viewing distance in mind.

Non-Steam game support

As long as you've set up the appropriate shortcut in your Steam library, any non-Steam game should work fine through the Steam Link, provided that the shortcut loads the game right away, and doesn't involve any tweaking menus or first-time setup.

For example, the exception is emulators. If you were to set up a shortcut in Steam to load an emulator, you usually get an emulator interface screen, where you then need to choose the correct ROM and possibly some launch options.

The Steam Link just can't handle this. If you can set up your emulator to boot directly into the desired game, it should work just fine with the Steam Link.

But now we're into the territory of the hardened gamers who aren't put off by a little extra effort, and away from the "just sit on sofa and play" appeal of the Steam Link itself.

Steam interface and non-game features

Everything "just works" which is lovely. You can use the store, filter your game library, install or uninstall games (on your base PC, not directly on the Steam Link), talk to your friends, add things to your wishlist, read reviews, use the game hubs to find videos... pretty much everything you can do on the desktop.

The Steam store in Big Picture mode

I should note that some things are a bit of a weird experience. For example, in "game update news", a lot of developers link to YouTube videos to provide their updates. These are hit and miss: sometimes they will load and other times they won't.

When you're reading a Steam review for a particular game, you have the "yes" and "no" options for "I found this review helpful" on the desktop Steam. On the Steam Link, those options appear, but there isn't actually a way to "click" them, so you can't leave review feedback.

The "my queue" feature is ever-present here, but there doesn't seem to be a "not interested" response for queue items on the Steam Link, so you can't tell Steam that you don't ever want to see that tentacle-riddled Japanese "adult RPG" again, like you can on the PC.

The purchase process is a little weird. It works flawlessly, but then while on the PC, you can install the game immediately after purchase if you want, on the Steam Link, you need to navigate to your game library, find the game in there, and press "install". It's minor, but irritating.

Overall though, I found the things that didn't work very well on the Steam Link are the things I'd rarely use on Steam. It's obviously not good that there are interface issues, and they should most definitely be fixed, but it's not a show-stopper, by any means.

Should I buy a Steam Link?

Editor's note, Feburary 2020: The Steam Link is no longer produced or manufactured by Valve! Neither are the controllers. You might be able to pick one up on third party sites like eBay, however.

If you skipped to the end for the tl;dr:

Seriously, run out and get one. Get two! Get one for your cats as well. I can't recommend this device enough for people who can genuinely benefit from it, but see the opening section of this review because it's not a device that will definitely be useful to every gamer.

I'm glad I've finally had the chance to sit down and spend some quality time with the Steam Link. I know I'll be using it to get away from the PC and relax while gaming a bit more, and I hope this has given you a decent impression of whether it's the right device for you!

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