Steam Link First Impressions: Not Bad at All

PC Gamers often wince at the idea of buying a console because 1) we’ve already got a huge library of games, we don’t want to buy a whole other one just so we can play in the living room and 2) you’re downgrading your experience.

Valve’s Steam Link is supposed to bridge that gap by allowing solid control and display of your computer to any television that takes an HDMI connection — basically allowing you to play your PC anywhere. But does it work?

Yeah, it kinda does. The price is low and what’s promised is minimal — if you have a wired network, a PC, a controller-mouse/keyboard of any type, and a TV to plug the Steam Link into, you’ll get to play your PC wherever the link is. The Steam Link meets those promises and just barely over-delivers — which should not be considered a dig for a $50 device.

I ordered the Steam Link on Monday pretty late at night and was provided a reasonable delivery expectation — 3 to 8 business days. It came Wednesday, which was pretty surprising (I ordered my own with my own money, so nobody knew to speed up shipping or anything.) So we were already off to a good start. The package comes with cords, adapters, and almost no manual, which worried me at first, but it turns out there’s no manual because setting it up isn’t complicated, and the device is really intuitive/user friendly.

Setup is pretty easy — I plugged it in and entered my network information and it immediately installed 3 updates through the wireless network and recognized my controller, a wired Xbox 360 controller. Steam Link can accommodate three USB devices, but it can also accept Bluetooth — which is great for games that need a mouse and keyboard. I didn’t buy a Steam Controller yet because I’ve found first generation controllers are often a bit of a beta test, so I’d like to wait for the second or third manufacturing of them.

I was actually able to run the Steam Link “full wireless” (on Fast mode; you can choose between Fast, Balanced and Beautiful) as long as all three devices were within 25-30 feet of each other without too many walls — which is impressive considering you’re not supposed to be able to do it. There is pretty significant controller lag when you do this, though, and every wall or foot of distance will add to it/increase the possibility of drop connections. But considering it’s not even supposed to be able to do that and they warn against using the Steam Link in that manner, it still kind of works.

The most important bit of “wired” connectivity seems to be connecting your computer to your wireless network — a “half wireless” set up works surprisingly well. When I wired my computer to the wireless network, I was able to take the Steam Link up to the attic, wireless, and play almost everything pretty well. Couch gaming works perfectly fine in this mode on any game that works with Big Picture mode. A wired configuration works best (and the way Valve suggests you set it up), delivering a pretty seamless bridge between your PC and device. The audio and video suffer a bit — though you can move up to “Beautiful” from “Fast” if you set it up fully wired. Will this set up allow people to play games competitively on the Steam Link? Maybe – there feels like just a bit of lag, but you can steer into it with predictive controlling. When playing Rocket League “half wired,” for example, I steer just a bit earlier than I need to, and my car always ends up where it needs to be.

It works with some games — and games already fully supporting Big Picture mode tend to work best. There were a few titles that would load but weren’t quite compatible, but considering all the patching I expect that to be smoothed out, and most things work with mouse and keyboard if the controller doesn’t. The Steam Link was having trouble playing Steam videos for me at one point, but it seems alright now so I’ll chock it up to operator error. You can also play music through it, but music is one thing the Steam Link doesn’t always do well — it can get a bit tinny, especially in the non-recommended wireless modes. Who knows, though, again it loaded three patches when I got mine started so they may address this.

I’m not quite ready to review the whole device because it’s really going to need to have its tires kicked further after a patch or two, but for the fifty dollars I paid I’ve got a portable box I can plug or Bluetooth controllers into and access my whole PC, with a pretty decent Steam-specific overlay to help me manage and download games. Will this be a way for pro-gamers, hardcore shooter fans, or expert DOTA players to compete from other rooms in the house? Probably not. But I’m playing Broforce in my underwear upstairs from my PC, and other than the terrifying mental image that’s a good thing.


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