Valve's Steam Link is a tiny box designed to making gaming on your PC as easy as firing up a console. It's sort of an alternative to buying a Steam Machine, for those of us who already have a gaming PC: hook it up to your home network and your television set, grab a controller, and you'll be able to stream all of the action on your PC to your television. It's not perfect, and only works with things that you load in Steam. But at $50, it's an inexpensive way to extend your hobby to a larger display. International pricing and availability hasn't been announced, but that works out to £33 or AU$71.
Playing PC games on your TV is a fairly straightforward, if awkward process: move your PC near your TV (or vice versa), and connect the two with the appropriate video cable. You'll want to tweak your PC's resolution so that using Windows is bearable on a big screen, or use something like Steam's Big Picture mode if you're just looking to get some gaming done. Set up a keyboard and mouse or controller (preferably wireless), and you're all set.
Or, you could connect a Steam Link to your home network, pick a controller to use, and...well, that's it. So long as your gaming PC is on and Steam is up and running, you'll be ready to stream games to your PC. And while the Steam Link is technically limited to stuff running on Steam, it's just streaming content from your PC. If you've got PC games that aren't on Steam, or are part of another service like GOG.com or Origin, you can just add them to Steam -- they'll show up on your Steam Link. Mac users can get in on the action too -- eventually. The Steam Link won't be supported at launch, but Valve has promised that the software issues will be sorted out soon.
The Nvidia Shield Android TV can also easily stream games from your PC to your TV, and it can stream up to 4K -- a neat option if you've got a TV and gaming system that can handle 4K resolutions, or are planning an upgrade soon. But that requires using an Nvidia GPU, which will rule out AMD Radeon owners. At $200 or £150, It's also about four times more expensive.
A Steam Link will set you back $50. A Steam machine will cost more -- Alienware's latest effort rings up at $449 (there are no UK and Australian prices yet, but that works out to about £290 or AU$615). This makes sense of course: a Steam machine is a fully fledged gaming PC, whereas a Steam Link is just a streaming device. But for those of us who already have a dedicated gaming rig and are just looking for a cheap way to access our PC game library while we flop about on the couch, the Steam Link is a great value.
The Steam Link will support most of the input devices you plug into It, including wired controllers for the Xbox One and Xbox 360, a wireless Xbox 360 controller (if you have a wireless gaming receiver ) or even a keyboard and mouse. But then there's Valve's Steam Controller. It's sold separately, and there's a bit of a learning curve you'll need to put up with, like the need to customize inputs for games that aren't built for SteamOS, or the touchpads that replace the traditional analog sticks on a console controller. But the Steam Controller is a dizzyingly customizable contraption, equally at home playing first-person shooters and turn-based strategy games. I'm not about to hang up my keyboard and mouse, but it's a great option when I want to stretch out on the couch.
Once you buy the Steam Link, you're pretty much set. Your gaming PC will evolve over the years, and consoles will come and go, but you technically don't need to do anything but keep your Steam Link plugged in, and keep gaming through Steam.
Don't get me wrong -- I imagine there'll be sequels in the coming years, with hardware that allows for great streaming bandwidth to handle 4K streaming amicably. A future Steam Link might support more advanced video output options, or maybe we'll move to some glorious wireless future and a slimmer Steam Link will ditch everything but the power cable. But if you're content with 1080p at 60 frames per second over your wired home network, you can set your Link up and forget it's even there.
But it's not all grenade launchers and dune buggies. There are some caveats you'll want to consider before breaking out your wallet.
Lag: it's one of the most abhorred three-letter words in gaming, and if you're using a Steam Link you're probably going to run into a bit of it. Forget about Wi-Fi -- the Steam Link can technically stream games wirelessly, but you'll have a far better time if you plug it into your home network. Even then, your mileage may vary. My CNET cohorts on the east coast found their Steam Link streaming experience to be a bit stuttery at times, whereas mine was rock solid.
And if everything there's flawless? You're still likely going to run into that oft-ignored buzzkill, input lag. Your TV probably has a "game mode" that'll dial down much of the video processing that happens when your TV receives and displays a signal, but it's still going to pale in comparison to the response time of a monitor.
This isn't going to be a deal-breaker, and in ideal circumstances most gamers might not even notice a difference. But it remains a barrier to that perfect experience that you should be aware of -- if only to have something to blame your terrible Team Fortress 2 performance on.
Games crash -- it's one of those facts of life gamers have grown to accept. And some games -- particularly MMOs -- require their own separate launcher, which will unceremoniously boot you over to a jarred approximation of your desktop, requiring you to click a button, or enter a password. Getting up off the couch and trudging over to your gaming PC might not be all that onerous for most of us, but it's still a reminder that you're still beholden to the beast.
And then there's performance: one of the beauties of PC gaming is pushing beautiful games as far as they can go, with stunning visuals pushed to the limits that your gaming rig can handle. But the Steam Link streams content out at 1080p, running at a maximum of 60 frames per second. Is dialing everything down to a 1,920 by 1,080 pixel resolution good enough for you? I'd say yes -- I have two displays, and I'll miss having a second screen to turn to far more than I will gaming at a slightly lower resolution. But if you've built a screaming firebeast of a gaming PC and have hooked it up to a 1440p or even 4K display, a Steam Link might feel like so much wasted potential.