Steam Link Review: A Great Alternative To Anti-social Desktop Gaming

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Steam LinkShortly after moving into a new home, I ran across a deal on the Steam Link. As noted in an earlier article, it was a perfect fit because in my previous home, I had directly connected a desktop PC to my television but it wasn't possible in the new space. The gaming PC would need to be on the other end of the home. Realistically, that meant that my wife was likely to see a lot less of me since I would probably be in that room. Instead, I added a Steam Link to the primary television, allowing me to enjoy my normal gaming (sometimes even with my wife) without needing to cloister myself in a separate room.

I'm nearly six months into that arrangement now, and I believe that I have a pretty solid feeling for exactly what the strengths and weaknesses are of the Steam Link. Long story short, I highly recommend the device, especially if you can catch one of the occasional deals that Steam offers for the device.

Current Articles About the Steam Link

What Is The Steam Link?

The Steam Link is a device that allows Steam games to be started on a remote PC and then streamed to your television via the Stream Link. In addition to Steam games, however, you can do anything via the Steam Link that you could do on your PC if it was physically in the room with you.

The Steam Link's specs aren't too exciting. The device comes with 512MB of RAM, and is powered by a Marvell DE3005-A1 processor and a Vivante GC1000 graphics processor. If neither of those names means much to you, don't feel bad. Those are parts more commonly found in cell phones, tablets, or a Chromecast. However, that isn't terribly surprising since the Link's specs don't need to be used to render your favorite game - the Link only needs to process the image being sent to it across the network, and potentially decode any compression used for the transmission. It probably has more in common with your Android tablet or a Raspberry Pi than it does with any other device in your home.

The Link provides three USB connections (for controllers or other input devices), an HDMI connection (1080p), and a 100Mbit/s ethernet port. The Link includes Wi-Fi, too, but I found streaming over Wi-Fi to be too inconsistent to recommend. If you can't connect the Link to your PC via a wired home network, you probably won't enjoy using the Steam Link. In addition to making sure that you have a sufficient network connection, the device will be streaming things from your home PC - so obviously whatever you want to play will need to run smoothly on that PC, or you will suffer poor performance as a result of that lag, too.

What About the nVidia Shield?

There isn't really a direct competitor to the Steam Link at the moment, but the nVidia Shield offers some similar capabilities at a much higher price. The nVidia Shield, however, takes a different approach. Unlike the Link, the Shield is an android device that offers third-party apps for streaming services like Netflix. The Shield also allows you to use nVidia's online game streaming service in addition to streaming games from your Steam PC.  The Shield also packs more power and features, offering 4K streaming and coming with a controller and a remote by default. All of these additions come at a cost, however, and the nVidia Shield starts at approximately $200.00 -- about 6-7 times as much as the Steam Link (assuming that you can't find the Link on sale for even less).

To be frank, the nVidea shield is a nice product, but it just isn't in the same category as the Link. I find nVidia's online service to currently be underwhelming, and the price for the device is obnoxiously excessive if your only goal is to stream games from Steam. While the two devices are competing in the same space, they are clearly targeting different groups and use-cases. If you're looking to just stream your PC to a television, the Steam Link is clearly the better option. If you're looking to have the equivalent of an Apple TV or a Roku device that also happens to stream games, then the nVidia Shield might be the device for you (although I might argue that you would be better with either of those devices and the Link for less money).

My Experiences Using The Link

Outside of some of the setup tasks discussed in my article about setting up the Steam Link, the Link has been a great addition. My Link is synced both to a PS4 controller and a wireless keyboard/mouse combo. As a result, the device works flawlessly both as an extension of my desktop and as a platform for any PC games that I might want to play from my living room (replaying Skyrim was the latest experience). I happened to have a spare Playstation 4 controller around the house, but if you aren't as lucky, you can either purchase the Steam Controller or -- and this is my recommendation -- you can get a Playstation 3 controller for dirt cheap and it will work just as painlessly as the PS4 controller.

The Link has played all of the games that I have thrown at it flawlessly, and the network connection has been reliable enough to not notice any input lag or visual lag on the television. I have not, however, tried playing any twitch-based shooters where even a tiny amount of input lag might be relevant. I have also added Retroarch to Steam, which has added a number of old-school emulated games to Steam, too. those also play flawlessly, although each system requires the controller to be configured, and those configurations are sometimes remarkably weird. For example, several emulators required that I use a keyboard keybinding in the emulator options, and then create a Steam controller profile that bound the controller to those same keys.

The audio, after some initial troubles related to my hardware, has also been painless, although the Steam Link forums are filled with folks having audio issues. It's difficult to tell if these are legacy problems that have been fixed by the Link's firmware updates, or if I'm just lucky enough to have avoided the problems. Having said that, I sometimes have to change inputs on the television to get the sound to work since the Steam will sometimes be silent after connecting. None of the existing complaints seem to be the same as my problem, however, and I imagine that the problem is more likely to be my questionable television than the Link itself. A similar problem previously presented itself when the PC was directly connected to the television.

It should also be noted that the Link is quite tiny and can be easily hidden behind a wall-mounted television. As a result, using the Link has substantially cleaned up the television area in my home by removing the PC and all of its mess from the living room. The PC is now back in the office where it belongs. An unexpected benefit of this is that the living room also stays substantially quieter. It's easy to forget just how noisy a gaming PC can be when under load. Since the Link doesn't do any of the heavy lifting (which remains on the PC), all of that noise stays several rooms away. There is an obvious counter-point to this benefit, however. Since the Link is merely mirroring what exists on the gaming PC, you will not be able to use that PC for anything else while streaming.

Perhaps my only complaint is that I wish that Steam had something like "apps" for Netflix, YouTube, and other streaming services. While it might seem pretty trivial to load these pages since you're technically using a desktop PC, when you're controlling that PC using a controller, browsing the internet isn't as simple as it sounds. Typing in URLs or even just moving the mouse becomes much more frustrating. The frustration led to me creating a handful of desktop shortcuts to the specific services that I use.