Several months ago I reviewed Valve’s Steam controller. In that time, firmware revisions, and features in Steam have made it even better. But there was another cool piece of tech that launched alongside the controller, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it. Steam Link is something you really might want to look into if you’ve ever wanted to use the TV as a monitor without having to lift your 20 pound behemoth into the entertainment center.
PROS: Lag is barely noticeable. Can be used for more than gaming!
CONS: Low end video cards can’t really utilize it properly.
APP: If you have a Samsung Television, you may not need to buy a Steam Link box!
Steam Link is a pretty cool device. It’s been available now for almost two years, but the core purpose hasn’t changed. It’s an in-home streaming device that works on your home network. Just like your phone, computer, tablet, or game console, it can connect to your router. Once connected to your router, it can see all of the other computers you have connected to the router. If one of the computers is running Steam it will allow you to connect to it.
So what does this mean for you? What it means is you can have that computer running in the bedroom, but use it in the living room on your HDTV. This is perfect for nights where you have family or friends over, and you want to play party games with them without having to drag your computer into the living room with a HDMI cable. It’s also great if you’ve spent an entire day at the desk typing, and want to web surf on the couch when you get home. You can even do work on your computer in the living room if you want to.
The device itself, is just a tiny little box that looks like a USB hub. It has both a wired, and wireless network chipset in it. So you can run a cable from Steam Link to your router, or just connect with a wireless signal. It also has a HDMI output on it so you can connect it to the TV. Beyond that are a port for the AC Adapter cable for power, and two USB ports. You can connect combinations of controllers, mice, keyboards to these ports. You can also connect USB hubs if you want multiple controllers.
Once you have everything connected to the TV, the box will go through a brief setup. It will first see the networks in the area. You’ll find yours in the list, and connect. If you have yours password protected (and why wouldn’t you?) You type it in, and go from there. From here it will see the network, and whatever computers are running Steam. You choose the one you want (Just make sure it’s running big picture mode.), and connect. The first time you do this you’ll get a verification code you’ll have to punch into Steam. Once you do this it will pretty much let you connect easily assuming the firmware is up to date, which it won’t be out of the box. So you’ll have to sit through a few update downloads, and installations upon the first use.
But once the initial setup is over, you’re pretty much ready to go. It will connect to your computer, and you can navigate Steam with a controller or keyboard, and mouse you have connected to Steam Link. You can even minimize Big Picture mode at this point, which lets you pretty much navigate to anything on your computer. Obviously, a keyboard, and mouse connection is better for general purpose computing or work. As you can go into the fields you need to, and type away. Or to move the mouse around as needed.
But for gaming, you can navigate Big Picture mode with a game pad pretty easily. Go up, and down the menus, your list of games, and presto. You’re up, and playing in the living room, while the computer is running the game in the bedroom. Steam Link also has a few performance options you can go through before connecting to any given computer. You can force a lower image quality to reduce lag, and tweak other bandwidth settings.
If you use a Steam Controller with Steam Link you get a U.I. better experience than with other game pads, joysticks, and controllers. Just like on your desktop, you can use the trackpad for some mouse-like navigation, and the onscreen keyboard in Big Picture lets you easily go to the fields very easily. The range on the Steam Controller’s USB dongle is pretty far too, so you can probably leave it in your computer, and still use the controller in the other room. Unless your home just has a ton of interference.
In my personal situation, I’ve found that Steam Link is pretty wonderful. I rarely notice input lag, performance is great, and as long as I use Big Picture mode, I can have an easy time web browsing, and gaming. Outside of Big Picture I can still get to things, but this is one of the parts where it isn’t perfect. If you really want to web browse on something like Chrome, or Edge, you’ll really want to have the keyboard out, as the on-screen keyboard only works in Big Picture. The same is true if you want to continue work in the cool, air-conditioned front room because your computer is in the sweltering hot bedroom where the fan isn’t good enough in July.
But beyond that, it works very well. So long as the computer you’re using is well beyond the system requirements listed on the box. If your hardware, especially the video card; is too slow, it can’t keep up. I ran Steam Link on two of the desktops here, and the newer one which is a few years old now works fine with it. The older one does work. In that, I can navigate the computer, and even try running a game with it. The trouble is, the ancient GT9500 couldn’t push the video signal to both a monitor, and a network device. So what games the card can run, don’t run well through the Steam Link. This was also true of running movies. That computer has a number of digital versions through Ultraviolet that came with Blu-Ray movies. While they’ll display fine on the computer itself, when trying to watch them through Steam Link they will stutter, band, as well as de-sync audio, and video. Doing this was not a problem for my newer rig.
It is great that you can push more than games from your computer to the living room TV, but if your computer has a very old video card, or onboard video you’ll need to upgrade that before you can use it effectively. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a water-cooled, overclocked, $600 monster card. But you can’t get away with a sub $100 budget card either. You’ll need something somewhere in the midrange bracket.
Be that as it may, I do recommend the Steam Link. Especially for those nights you have company over for a night of couch co-op, pizza, and drinks. But it gets even better. Because it was recently announced that certain Smart TVs made by Samsung can download Steam Link as an app! The TV’s in question have similar hardware built-in, so a free app will get you the same experience as using Valve’s box. This is great news for those looking into a new television, and it gives certain Samsung models (Not all of them are compatible) a competitive edge over other sets. But for those of us with an eight year old Element HDTV, the Steam Link is a worthy purchase anyway. Now if Valve would only allow the on-screen keyboard to work outside of Big Picture, to make it a little bit more convenient for non-Steam uses. You won’t want to type a review with a controller mind you, but needing a keyboard for a non-Steam browser might annoy some. But for the intended purpose of playing your PC games on the big screen TV, Steam Link is pretty awesome.
Final Score: 9 out of 10.