Steam Link Review

Score 80If you have a gaming rig outside of your living room, owning a Steam Link is a must.  Not only does it stream your catalogue of games seamlessly, but it can also be used as an extension of whatever other software you want.  While there are some hiccups, and you will be standing up quite a bit to keep it working, I can imagine this technology will only get better once they get past their Beta software.  While these minor hiccups make it feel a little premature coming to market, I can’t fault this piece of hardware that I’ve been dreaming of for years.  Now, if only they would allow mouse emulation through my equipment, without forcing me to buy their awkward looking controller.

What We Liked:
Smooth gameplay on wired connection.
Small, slick design is convenient and well built.
The plethora of other options the Link offers.

What We Disliked:
It has no distinguishable way to turn it on.
Wireless streaming is an option you’ll never use.
Audio is compromised and sounds tinny.

If you’re someone who’s ever wanted to play your PC games from the comfort of a couch, you had a few options.  You could either move your gaming rig into the living room, put a couch in your roomy office, or run HDMI wires and USB ports across your home.  Steam Link, part of Valve’s three prong approach towards invading the living room, is in my opinion probably the most economical and convenient option.  Promising a seamless streaming option, I wasn’t ready to run out and throw down 50 bucks on an unproven idea.  Thankfully, the Link does everything it sets out to do- although it’s not a perfect solution.
Unboxing the unit, you’ll find the Link is smaller than a standard cell phone, is about the size of a small external hard drive.  The unit is nicely weighted with a rubber gripping bottom, meaning it won’t get shifted around as easily as you’d think.  The unit has a power port, HDMI port, Ethernet port, and sadly only three USB ports.  This could be unfortunate if you and your three friends only have wired controllers.  While that’s a slim chance, at least you can get three types of control in, in case you have more than just a keyboard and mouse.
Hooking up the Steam Link is pretty easy- you can either connect through wireless dual-band or a wired connection.  Let me save you some discomfort by pulling this band-aid now; wi-fi is not a viable option for this setup.  There simply isn’t a strong enough connection to not only stream the video footage but also sending back button inputs in a way that doesn’t result in unplayable lag.  Maybe if you only wanted to play old-school RPGs, but anything 3D or requiring twitch-based gaming.  Stick with a wired connection, and surprisingly, you’ll find that this little box does a lot of good things.
Using Steam’s Big Picture mode does feel more natural when you’re sitting back on a couch and feels much more like a console than your average Steam experience.  However, if you don’t mind forgoing the slick visual layout, you can still use your computer’s desktop.  This amazingly undersold feature is also a great opportunity for secondary purposes, but I’ll get to that a little later in my coverage.  For now, let’s focus on the main components.  
While I did have a little initial trouble with the system, after a few small adjustments thanks to Steam’s message boards, I now have my link running my games at a consistent frame rate, and with hardly any lag to notice.  It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s a real joy being able to play some of my favorite games while sitting back in my living room.  My benchmarks were always acceptable.  Audio does take a hit however, which I can imagine is sacrificed for the demanding video- but if something had to go, I’d rather deal with slightly sub-par and downgraded audio over laggy video with skipping high-quality sound.  I’m not saying crisp audio isn’t important- I’m simply saying they chose the right evil for this product.
Out of my moderate Steam collection, most of them play through Steam Link, and the company keeps updating the compatible software.  So far, most of my games were able to be played on my big screen with very little problems.  Probably the biggest hurdle is control.  While I didn’t pick up the Steam Controller, I’m starting to think about it.  Personally, I imagine Steam is attempting to hold your mouse and keyboard games hostage, by only allowing their inverted sticks to work as a mouse.  Why, exactly, can only the Steam controller emulate a mouse when I can do it just fine with my PS4 controller outside of the steam platform?  Sure, it might not be perfect, but there’s no reason I can’t use the sticks or trackpad on the controller as an option- I just want to play SCUMM games!
Now, with that grievance stated, they do allow you to hook up Bluetooth controllers- and man, that is worth its weight in gold.  I love hooking up both of my PS4 controllers without any hassle to the Link and playing some of those split screen games with ease.  You can also hook up XBox controllers, but from what I understand they can only be used when attached via USB- so grab your best Bluetooth or PS4/3 controller, and get to gaming.
One of my biggest problems with the Link is that there’s no clear way to turn on the connection.  Switching over to the HDMI, you’ll notice there’s no power switch at all.  Hitting the center button on your connected controller, you’d think like with most consoles, would jump the Link on.  This, unfortunately, isn’t the case, and the best I can fathom is the designers figured we would just slam on buttons until the system decides to kick on.  I still have no idea how to activate it when I want it on.  Turning it off is handled entirely through the menu- which can cause some problems if you lose your Bluetooth’s connection.
And finally- my biggest complaint of them all.  Steam is supposed to eliminate the frustration of having to sit at your computer desk.  And it does- but it won’t be the last you’ve seen of it.  You may open a game, only for Big Picture mode to stay active, while the game boots in the background.  Time to stand up and get back to that desk.  You’ll play for a while when suddenly one of your computer’s many notifications will jump you out of the action.  Stand up again.  Sometimes, the link will just stop, and you’ll need to restart Steam again.  The Link doesn’t automatically troubleshoot problems, and Steam doesn’t seem to handle these small inconveniences well when streaming, so any minor problem will result in a trip to your rig.  This, for me, isn’t a deal breaker- but it is undesired exercise when I’m trying to relax.
Now, here’s the cool bits Steam doesn’t mention and are opportunities everyone should know about.  The Link also acts as an extension of your computer so that you can play not only video players on the setup but also non-Steam games and emulators.  Now, I wouldn’t condone emulating games you don’t own- but if you want to play your backed up games, man this is an amazing option.  You have to ensure Steam is running in the background, but it can be minimized and out of your hair.  The ability to use the power of your computer in your living room is breathtaking, and the prospect of working on long editing jobs in the comfort of my lounger is well worth the fifty bucks.  This isn’t the first product to allow people to do this, but for the price and functionality, you can’t go wrong.
I couldn’t recommend the Steam Link enough.  It runs the most intensive games with very few hiccups, has a wide variety of uses outside of Steam, and is small enough to tuck somewhere in your entertainment cabinet.  With the only flaws being some functionality issues that could be fixed with a future patch and the downgraded audio, I have to say, there’s very little reason you shouldn’t pick up the hardware.  I’m even thinking about getting the controller after picking up the Link- a peripheral that feels like it’s being forced on me, but I’m fine with it as long as it works as well as the Link does.
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