Steam Link: great for console fans, but you might want to wait

My early impressions of the Steam Link after three weeks playing with Valve’s PC game streaming system.

For a long time, I had this problem. Valve would announce these great deals for PC games on Steam, and naturally I wouldn’t be able to pass them up. The issue was that I was actually a console gamer, and my laptop at the time wasn’t really built for games.

So why did I buy games on Steam that I couldn’t actually play? Well, you see, I had this plan to become a PC gamer. I was living in Australia at the time, and so I told myself that when I eventually moved back to the USA, I would build a desktop computer and play all these Steam games I’d been amassing.

We made the move back to the US this summer, and moved into an apartment a little over a month ago. It was finally time–I was ready to build a gaming PC.

Or so I thought. See, I’d just purchased a fancy new TV, and now I wanted to play games on that. I reconsidered my gaming plan. Maybe I should spend less money on the PC–use that for productivity–and get a PS4 for games. But then again, what about all those Steam games?

That’s when I started thinking seriously about the Steam Link ($49.99 on Amazon). The device, released last month, hooks up to a TV and streams games from the PC to the TV over a wired or wireless home network. It was October and Steam Link wasn’t due out until early November, so I had no idea how well this would actually work in practice. But early buzz was good, and it seemed like it would satisfy my two main gaming desires–playing Steam games, but doing it on a TV.

Some of you may be asking, “Uh, why didn’t you just connect a really long HDMI cord from your desktop to the TV? Didn’t you say you’re living in an apartment?”

To which I would reply, “I have a wife.”

Trust me, the concept of Steam Link as a seamless streaming device that avoids the need for long wires is a very good thing. Anyway, it’s only $50! Get over it!

So I went ahead! With the help of a good friend who knows his stuff when it comes to computers, I built a new gaming PC and pre-ordered the Steam Link and Steam Controller (also $50 — I’ll write up some impressions of this product at a later date).

Setting up the Link

My Steam gear arrived on November 10. I was amazed by the small size of the Link. You can look up the specs on your own time, but I’ll just say it’s got everything you need and nothing you don’t. And it disappears completely into the TV stand. Given how easily that can get filled up, that’s totally fine by me.

Connecting the Link to my TV was a breeze — the thing was pulsing on my TV screen before I even realized I had turned the thing on. It also recognized my controller right away without me having to do any setup other than connecting the wireless dongle to a USB port on the Link.

The Steam Link next walked me through connecting it to my network. Valve recommends a wired connection, but supports wireless networks including the fastest available, 802.11ac (5GHz). I’m doing a mix–my PC is hardwired by ethernet to the router, but I connected the Link wirelessly on the 5GHz network.

A quick word about my PC: My graphics card is an EVGA GeForce GTX 970 with 4GB VRAM. My PC has 8GB of RAM. The processor is Intel Core i5-4590 3.3GHz Haswell Processor. It’s not the highest spec PC you can get, but it’s pretty damn good.

Smooth video, but some audio annoyances

I put on Batman: Arkham Knight first. Maybe not a totally fair test, considering all of the issues the PC port has suffered. But the latest patch worked great for me, and it felt just like playing the old Arkham games on Xbox 360.

Next, I tried a game from last generation, Alan Wake, and encountered a major bug with Steam Link — audio crackle. In 1080p, the video ran smoothly, but the audio skipped and made crackling sounds. The next day, I tried Portal 2 and discovered the same problem. The video was running a silky 60 frames per second, but the sound kept making annoying crackling noises.

I started reading the Steam Link forums, and discovered quickly I was not the only one with the problem. A handful of users blamed some kind of interference involving wireless controllers, but most people seem to blame it on a bug related to using a wireless connection for the Link. What fixed it for everyone was downgrading the resolution to 720P.

I went back to Arkham Knight to see if I could figure out why that game wouldn’t have the same problem. Afterall, it was running in 1080p, too. As I went through the settings, I discovered the framerate had been set to 30fps. Shocked I wasn’t seeing the game in its full glory, I upped it to 60fps. As soon as I did, the audio started crackling.

Having to downgrade graphics settings for Link when they work fine on your PC is obviously not ideal. For their part, Valve has acknowledged the audio problems and appears to be working on it.

A recent update (Build 388) to the Steam Link included a “temporary” fix for the problem that seemed to resolve the problem for me in my games. According to Valve’s documentation, however, it seems that the fix merely limits the resolution on wireless networks to 1600×900. I’m still waiting for a more permanent fix that lets me play in 1080p.

Update: About a week after I wrote this article, a Steam Link update fixed most of the audio crackle issues I describe above. There are still occasional sound glitches, but these aren’t quite as distracting.

A lot of promise

It’s great to see Valve releasing a steady stream of updates to fix problems with the Link. And I should point out that the audio issue above is something you can work around. Unless your screen is massive, games still look pretty good in 1600×900 or even 720p. On the other hand, if you don’t absolutely need something like the Steam Link in your home right away, you might want to wait until all the bugs have been worked out.

Waiting will also mean you’ll have more features available. For example, you can’t today connect a USB or Bluetooth headset to the Link. It has USB jacks and Bluetooth, and the Link will recognize them. However, if you try to set it up for action via the Steam Link menu, the device will joyfully inform you that this feature is coming soon.

As an early adopter of the Steam Link, I kind of figured there’d be some kinks to be worked out going in. I mean, the thing works well enough. I’m playing games on the TV and having a lot of fun.

But I’m the kind of guy who enjoys installing updates and finding out what’s been changed for the better. A lot of people–especially console gamers–are used to their gaming systems more or less working right out of the box. They don’t want to play with settings or go to online forums to work out what’s wrong with their setup.

For those kinds of gamers, I really believe the Steam Link can still be a good option … but only in time.

The good news is that Valve seems to be working hard to make this product as perfect as it can. When I’ve had problems with other tech products in the past, I’ve looked online for answers only to discover the vendor had abandoned the product. This is not so with Valve and Steam Link.

But it still means we all have some waiting to do.

Are you using Steam LInk? What have been your impressions so far? Sound off in the comments! I’m also happy to answer questions or clarify any details about my Steam setup.

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