How Steam in-home streaming can turn your old laptop or Windows tablet into a PC gaming force

In the old days, getting your PC game on away from your desktop was easier said than done, limited to laptops that were portable in name only: thick, hulking behemoths stuffed with discrete graphics processors and large cooling components to match. Sure, you might coax World of WarCraft or some indie titles into running on CPU-integrated graphics, but most modern 3D games? Fuhgeddaboutit.

That was then. This is now, and now, the new in-home streaming feature Valve recently introduced in its blockbuster Steam gaming platform can turn any laptop into a full-fledged gaming machine—even older notebooks with ho-hum power, or Linux or OS X machines or Windows 8 tablets. It's all done by streaming games from your primary gaming PC to any computer in your house in OnLive-like fashion, but Steam's in-home streaming only works on your home network—and it's dead simple to set up.

Here's how to start playing all sorts of modern games—WolfensteinWatch Dogs? Transistor? Why not!—on your clunker of a computer.

The basics

Steam's game streaming isn't magic and it isn't powered by remote servers, so as I said, you'll need an active gaming PC to use as the brains of the operation. The game itself actually plays on your "host" PC, but Steam encodes and sends an audiovisual stream of the action to your secondary "client" laptop (or SteamOS machine, or whatever), while simultaneously sending your controller or keyboard and mouse commands from your secondary laptop back to your primary PC.

how steam streaming works Valve

A high-level diagram explaining how Steam in-home streaming works. (Click to enlarge all images in this article.)

As with all PC gaming experiences, the graphical firepower of your host rig directly impacts the end results. If your gaming PC has a low-end graphics card, it'll only be able to send low-end visuals to your client laptop. (Obviously.)

At a minimum, Valve says you'll need a quad-core processor in the host machine, the faster the better—between encoding the video and, you know, actually playing the game, streaming hits your processor hard. You're probably going to want a discrete graphics card in your host rig, too, since the point of this exercise is to provide a better gaming experience than integrated graphics alone can provide. The host machine has to run Windows 8, 7, or Vista, as well. (Sorry, Windows XP holdouts.)

The requirements for client PCs are much less strict: The only thing you need is a PC with support for hardware-accelerated H264 decoding. The vast majority of PCs released in recent years can handle streaming, no problem—our hands-on with the Steam in-home streaming beta was partially conducted on a 2006-era MacBook, for instance.

steam in home streaming aciv macbook Hayden Dingman

Using Steam's in-home streaming feature to stream Assassin's Creed IV from a desktop with a Radeon 7850 graphics card (the black display) to an 8-year-old MacBook. Games run full-screen on both devices during streaming.

Beyond the PCs themselves, the quality of your in-home network makes a big difference to Steam in-home streaming. For best results, everything should use a hardwired connection, but that's not always feasible.

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Hayden Dingman's hands-on with the beta version was conducted on an older 802.11g network. While he was able to play slower games and even Just Cause 2 with minimal latency, he had a less pleasant experience with faster-paced games. Twitchier games like The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings and Bioshock Infinite stream fine enough on my 802.11n network with some basic tinkering, however. (More on that later.) Using the 5GHz band or an 802.11ac router would theoretically deliver even better results, and comments in this forum discussion largely back up that theory.

Using Steam in-home streaming

With that out of the way, now onto the (mostly) easy part: Actually playing games with Steam in-home streaming.

Keep reading to learn how to stream Steam!

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