Steam Link is a great product in theory, but a complicated, inconsistent beast in practice - not a product for the technically illiterate, nor for the budget gamer. If you’re expecting a consistent 1080p resolution @ 60fps, this may not the product for you.
Despite my overwhelming praise for the standard, “Just buy a 50 ft. HDMI,” method of in-home streaming, a recent move forced me to seek out an alternative method. In the process of moving, my cat chewed through my 50 foot HDMI, so I figured I’d give the Steam Link a try.
The device itself costs $50 USD ($60 here in Canada), but this is ignoring any costs you may require to upgrade your networking infrastructure. When I first tried out the Steam Link, it basically did not work - the latency was so poor that I could not control the game. The framerate for Left 4 Dead 2 was hovering 12fps. This was because I owned a Wireless G router from 2005 that, despite being competent for online gaming and internet use, was not equipped with the gigabit Ethernet ports one would require for this intensity of data streaming.
I dropped $50 on a D-Link Wireless AC 750 router with gigabit Ethernet ports, which was a fantastic price. After swapping out the router, I noticed a significant improvement in performance. Left 4 Dead 2 was now hovering around 30fps, and the controls had only the slightest bit of lag, definitely not noticeable enough to affect gameplay.
Still, this number was nowhere close to the advertised 60fps @ 1080p.
I should note that my computer is easily capable of running most PS3-era games on max settings at 60fps/1080p or higher; Borderlands 2 was the most high-end game I tested with (I had no internet connection at time of writing, so I was limited to what was installed). My computer is no powerhouse - it’s got an AMD 960T CPU with a Radeon HD 6850 GPU with 8GB RAM. Again, not high-end, but capable of running Borderlands 2 at 60fps/1080p.
Borderlands 2 ran at less than 20fps on Steam Link @ 1080p resolution.
So, after the move, I invested in a 75ft. cat6 Ethernet cable ($20), thinking my cables might have been as outdated as the router.
Still, I was having a lot of difficulty hitting 60fps/1080p on even low-end games; Pac-Man Championship Edition ran at 40fps, for example. At this point, I had a look online and saw a Steam community forum where a user suggested that Wireless AC actually provided a better streaming option that an Ethernet connection due to non-gigabit ports on the Steam Link box itself (this was not the problem, but we’ll get to that in a second).
So, I switched to the wireless signal on my router instead of the wired connection, and lo and behold, Pac-Man was consistently hitting 60fps/1080p.
This told me one thing: I was bottlenecking somewhere between the router and the Steam Link itself. This pretty much limits it to either the pack-in Ethernet cable provided with the Steam Link, or the Ethernet port itself.
I went out and bought another Ethernet cable, just a little 7ft. guy ($6), and this fixed the problem. This means that the Ethernet cable packed in with the Steam Link is NOT a Cat6 Ethernet cable. If you use the crappy Ethernet cable provided by Valve, you WILL bottleneck any and all streaming to the Steam Link, which seems insane to me.
All told, for me to buy the Steam Link and upgrade my networking infrastructure to a point where the device was actually useable, using the absolute cheapest prices available in a major urban centre, we’re looking at $135 CDN, plus tax, or around $100 USD.
If you are using a cheap router, or if you bought your router before 2010ish, you will more than likely need to replace your router to make the Steam Link work effectively. I purchased my router at Canada Computers, and my Ethernet cables at Factory Direct - both retailers feature significantly lower prices than a Staples or Best Buy, so it’s entirely possible that it will cost you more than what I paid.
Settings and Technical Hiccups
I experienced a number of issues with the Steam Link before getting my settings nailed down, and I’ll do my best to denote everything here. Again, if these issues seem too fiddly for you, I definitely suggest avoiding the Steam Link until the kinks are ironed out through software patches and hardware upgrades.
Please note that I have upgraded to the newest firmware version for Steam Link at the time of writing.
- On a wireless connection, despite a fairly steady framerate, I experienced a great deal of screen tearing, input lag, and audio issues (mostly audio lag and distortion).
- I had previously reduced the volume on Left 4 Dead 2 in my Volume Mixer settings, which made it come out way too quiet on my TV sound system. When I walked back to the computer and turned the volume up, I started getting significant input lag and audio delay. I do not know why this happened, but I had to do a factory reset on the Steam Link to fix this issue.
- In the settings, there is an option called, “Enabled Hardware Decoding.” Whenever this option is turned on, the framerate drops by about 10. This option basically forces the Steam Link to decode the data streaming from your PC instead of the on-board software, and I have no idea why this creates such a large drop in framerate. It also automatically turns itself back on every single time you stop streaming with Steam Link, so it’s a big pain in the ass.
- This device absolutely does not stream at 60fps/1080p for PS3-era games. I will detail exact performance below, but no modern AAA game will run at 60fps on this thing. Even running at 720p, the framerate does not come close to 60fps. The websites and reviews claiming it does are either using significantly better hardware than I am, or they’re testing exclusively with low-end games.
- Running at 720p will give you significantly better performance than 1080p. This is a no-brainer, but for me, I had to scale down Borderlands 2 to 720p to get it anywhere near playable - and again, that’s despite being able to run at a consistent 60fps on my computer.
- The Steam Link will sometimes shut itself off with a message stating your computer is going into sleep mode. My PC is set up so that it never goes into sleep mode, but the Steam Link shuts itself off regardless. When it does this, there is no way to boot it back up with the controller; you have to pull the power cord, then plug it back in. Kind of a pain in the ass.
Below is a list of games I tested at 720p and 1080p, after finalizing the settings and hardware to a point where I was happy. Note that these settings are true of the “Beautiful” setting on the Steam Link (options being Fast, Balanced and Beautiful).
All of these games run at a steady 60fps @ 1080p while running on my PC and monitor.
Borderlands 2 - 18fps
Left 4 Dead 2 - 30fps
Freedom Planet - 40fps
Armored Hunter Gunhound EX - 45fps
Pac-Man Championship Edition - 60fps
Borderlands 2 - 30-45fps (inconsistent, but definitely playable)
Left 4 Dead 2 - 45fps
Freedom Planet - 60fps
Armored Hunter Gunhound EX - 60fps
Pac-Man Championship Edition - 60fps
As I noted before, dropping the resolution to 720p does offer a significant improvement in quality. I tested a number of other games I had installed - Dark Souls, Spec Ops: The Line, Fallout: New Vegas (with mods), Jamestown and Cave Story - and all performed at 30fps, minimum, with the latter two hitting a consistent 60fps.
And What About Non-Gaming Applications?
I primarily use in-home streaming to watch YouTube on the couch. There’s no two ways around that. Despite its marketing exclusively as a gaming device, the Steam Link can definitely be used for internet and other applications as well; it’s just a matter of closing down Steam or tabbing out to your desktop. The performance is more than satisfactory for any typical web browsing.
I don’t have any high-end software on my computer at present, so I couldn’t tell you if Steam Link can handle some of the most high-end professional software like AutoCAD, PanelView or digital art programs, but I would expect performance similar to some of the more high-end games - a noticeable framerate drop, but still useable.
Would I Recommend the Steam Link?
Yes, but with a very large asterisk. I had to put in a significant amount of work into researching networking technology, and invest a larger dollar amount than the Steam Link itself, to get the device working properly. And even once it was optimized to its best possible point, it still didn’t come anywhere close to the 60fps @ 1080p streaming Valve has promised in its advertising, despite my PC being able to run most games at that level.
The device is fundamentally flawed in some ways, but when compared to the HDMI set-up I’ve been using for years, it’s actually less of a hassle to use the Steam Link. With the HDMI, I would have to manually set the volume to come out of my TV. Sometimes I’d have to drag the game window over to my TV screen, despite having Big Picture up on the TV, and in a handful of cases, the game simply would not run on my TV, even if I disconnected the monitor completely.
Steam Link ultimately offers a painless method of getting a PC game on your TV screen in a way that surpasses other methods. But it comes with the caveat that it’s a royal pain to configure to a functional state. If you’re on a limited budget, I definitely suggest the HDMI method over and above the Steam Link, but if you’d require a cable longer than 50ft, you have cash to spend, and/or you’re technically literate, the Steam Link is a great product.
I’m honestly more excited to see future iterations of this product, to see some of these flaws ironed out, but for now, I give it a conditional, “Go for it!”.
If you have any thoughts as to why my experience with the Steam Link was less than perfect, or if you have any stories of your own experience with the Steam Link, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.