When Valve first officially unveiled Steam Machines at CES 2014, there was a significant contingent (myself included) who said “Yeah, these are nice but I don’t want another computer. Just give me a small, cheap box to hook to my TV for in-home streaming.”
Enter Steam Link, which Valve showed off at GDC earlier this year. It’s not the only streaming-capable box on the market. There’s the NZXT Doko, there’s the Nvidia Shield console—but both come with some significant drawbacks. The Doko is limited to 30 frames per second and retails for $100. The Shield only works with Nvidia hardware.
Steam Link, on the other hand, is only fifty dollars, is hardware-agnostic, and integrates seamlessly with your Steam library. And it works pretty well, too.
If the goal is “blending into your entertainment center,” Valve wins. I love the minimalist look of Steam Link. There’s nothing to indicate this is a gaming-centric device, unless you by chance recognize the Steam logo emblazoned on the top. Otherwise it’s a nondescript black box. No lights. No buttons. Nothing. It’s the sort of Apple-esque design most companies reach for and don’t quite nail. Valve—not even known for producing hardware—hits it on the first try.
I don’t think I quite realized how miniscule Steam Link was until I saw it in my own living room. At 3.5 by 5 by 0.75 inches (give or take) this thing is literally smaller than my cable modem, to say nothing of the Xbox One/PlayStation 4. I’ve taken to setting it on top of the Alienware Steam Machine, where it looks sort of like a baby computer. Here it is on top of the Xbox One.
It’s also heavier than expected, due to a heat sink in the bottom of the casing. Not heavy. You won’t get buff curling your Steam Link hardware. But it’s reassuringly solid, dense in a way you wouldn’t anticipate from its footprint.
There are three USB 2.0 ports on the Steam Link—one on the right side, two in the back. The rear also features the power input, a 100Mbps ethernet port, and HDMI-out. At least one of those USB slots will be taken up by your controller, be it a Steam Controller or an Xbox controller or something else. I’ve been using the side port, though that’s obviously not quite as sleek.
It’s small, it’s inconspicuous, it’s a black box. There’s not much else to say about the Steam Link’s design, and that’s a good thing. Valve’s designed the ideal living room machine, inoffensive to a 'T.' It makes me wish Valve would work on more hardware; there’s clearly talent at that company.
The streaming experience
It’s not a computer. It’s just a conduit for Steam in-home streaming.
That’s the important thing to remember with Steam Link. This is a dumb box that decodes compressed 1080p, 60-frames-per-second video sent from your PC over your network and routes it into your TV, then interprets your button presses and routes those back to your PC. Turn it on and you’re immediately asked which computer you want to stream from on your network. The first time you connect you’ll need to enter a four-digit verification code on your computer, and then Steam Link remotely launches Big Picture Mode on that PC—not SteamOS. Plain ol’ Big Picture.
Maybe that’s obvious, but I feel it’s an important distinction to make. Why? Because it means you can’t use Steam Link and your PC at the same time, because they are essentially the same. If you’re, for instance, thinking of hooking something to the TV for the kids to play while you get work done, well, don’t get Steam Link. The games will take over the screen on your PC, too.
It also means there’s nothing for me to talk about as far as traditional specs. The performance you’ll see from Steam Link relies entirely on what you already own at home. Got a powerful PC packing a GeForce GTX 980 Ti, a solid processor, and a healthy LAN? You’ll see pseudo-980 Ti-level performance. Trying to run a GTX 750 Ti over wireless, using an outdated router and a low-end processor? Best of luck.
Personally I’m more in line with the former situation, so I can tell you how Steam Link works given near-optimal conditions. In short: Pretty damn well, with the occasional hiccup.
NOTE: All the numbers below came direct from Steam’s own overlay, which can be enabled in Settings > In-Home Streaming > Advanced Client Options.
Let’s talk Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which I chose because I figured a twitchy, fast-paced shooter would be a good starting point. Wired in on both ends, using hardware encoding, a GTX 980 Ti, and an i5-3570K I could maintain 1920x1080, 60 frames per second in perpetuity with around 15-30ms of latency (borderline noticeable, especially on the few occasions it spiked higher, but far better than I got out of the Doko) and a bitrate of 12.5 to 15 Mbps. That’s with all the graphics settings maxed out, which is pretty damn nice.
The Witcher 3 was much more punishing. Here, Steam claimed I was running 1080p, 60 frames per second, but the image compression was much more severe and I had near-constant microstuttering and frame loss. I’d classify it as borderline playable on my system and network, even on High settings.
These are examples that push the limits of what you’d do with Steam Link, though. Call of Duty is twitchy, The Witcher 3 is a current PC tentpole. And they’re notable because they’re games you couldn’t play on a SteamOS-based Steam Machine natively, as neither offers a Linux version.
They’re also relatively system-intensive games, ones where any amount of latency is not just noticeable, but an active detriment. Steam Link can keep up, but it seems far more suited (in my mind) to the unique opportunities extended by the Steam Controller—playing 4X strategy games like Civilization, for instance, or point-and-click adventures. Here, any latency is negligible due to the less-strenuous system demands, and also because the game plays out in a way where latency is a non-issue.
Still, it’s good to know that if all you play is action games Steam Link will still work. You’ll likely lose a bit of performance off the top—say, 10 frames per second—and may lose a bit more to the network. You’ll probably see some pixelation and crushed blacks. But every game I tested this week has been playable: Call of Duty, The Witcher, Rocket League, Type Rider, Portal 2, and the list goes on.
There are some important edge cases to note, however:
Did it matter if I unplugged my router (an Asus 802.11ac Gigabit model)? Answer: Not much. My ping went up by about 4 milliseconds, which is negligible, and otherwise I got the same performance out of the Steam Link wired as I did wireless. My desktop PC stayed wired because it’s always wired. This of course depends on how far away the two devices are, how much network penetration you get in your house, et cetera. I can’t promise it’ll work unplugged for you.
I’m noticing a lot of latency but Steam says the network is fine. Could my TV be to blame? Yes. Absolutely. TVs are typically slower than a monitor. My monitor, for instance, adds only one millisecond of latency to the equation. My TV? Quite a bit more. If you’re having trouble but your network seems fine, try plugging your Steam Link into your computer monitor and see if you notice a difference. If yes, then it might be your TV that’s the issue—not Steam Link or your network. Some TVs offer special gaming modes that reduce latency.
Can I run Steam Link off a laptop? Answer: You could certainly try, though all it did with the MSI GTX 970M-equipped model I tested on was crash Steam.
Speaking of crashes, if a game ever locks up or needs to install an update or what-have-you, there’s a good chance Steam Link will kick you back to your desktop. If you’re running a dual monitor setup this can be really strange. In my case, Steam Link ended up streaming my two 1080p monitors as one long 3840x1080 desktop with massive black bars on the top and bottom. Not a great experience.
Valve’s promised “lots of updates” between now and launch, which is why this isn’t an official review yet. But they’re playing it overly safe. Steam Link is already the best game streaming device you can buy, and it’s a steal at $50. With a strong network and a powerful PC already in your home, the differences between Steam Link and a full-fledged Steam Machine are negligible—and the Steam Link’s only a fraction of the cost. Is it perfect? No. You’re going to see some compression artifacting, you’re going to encounter latency occasionally, you’re going to drop frames.
But here’s the deal: From the day you buy a full Steam Machine, it starts to degrade, and the internal hardware becomes increasingly outdated. Steam Link? As Valve further optimizes in-home streaming and as you upgrade your primary PC, the Steam Link experience can only get better, year after year after year.
Editor's note: This article originally published as an impressions piece on October 16, 2015, but was updated to review status on November 10.