Steam Link | Tech News
The dream of streaming graphically intensive video games to handheld devices has long existed in the gaming world, with projects such as OnLive, Nvidia’s GameStream and GeForce Now, and more recently, the cross-platform Moonlight (based on Nvidia’s technology) having varying levels of success. Valve is the latest company to take a shot at the concept, with its new Steam Link app. In testing, Steam Link performed well, streaming Steam games to my phone without any issues. That said, the app requires a separate controller, and the mobile form-factor does not accommodate games meant to be played on larger screens very well.
Overview and Requirements
The name, Steam Link, should sound familiar. Back in 2015, Valve launched a set-top box with the same name that allows users to stream games to a TV. Valve’s Steam Link (still sold and supported by Valve) earned a 4-star rating and an Editors’ Choice in our review. The Steam Link app, on the other hand, is purely a software solution (though it does require an external controller and, of course, a mobile device) that casts Steam’s Big Picture mode to your phone. Keep in mind that Steam already offers its In-Home Streaming solution for mirroring games from a gaming rig to less powerful devices in your home.
At the time of publishing, Steam Link is only available on Android and Android TV devices, but it will likely make its way to iOS in the near future. Valve had already unsuccessfully submitted Steam Link to the App Store, but Apple rejected the app, presumably because it provided access to a third-party store. However, Valve reportedly has released a beta version of Steam Link to TestFlight without the store component, so an official iOS release may be just around the corner. In the meantime, check out our full guide on how to stream games to your phone or tablet, on both Android and iOS. Moonlight is one solution that currently works on both platforms.
Steam Link’s minimum requirements include a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection, an Android device (at least until Steam Link hits the App Store), a mobile device-compatible controller, and, of course, a gaming system running Steam.
For testing the service, I used a Nexus 5X running Android 8.1, a Nvidia Shield Controller, and my Dell Inspiron 5675 desktop PC running the latest version of Windows 10. I connected both devices to my home network (200Mbps download over Wi-Fi). For reference, I tested the internet speeds with Ookla’s internet speed test tool (Ziff Davis, PCMag’s owner, also owns Ookla).
Setup and Big Picture Mode
Before you jump into a game, you must meet three requirements. First, you need to make sure that both the mobile device and the PC running Steam are configured on the same local network. The Steam Link app includes a built-in network check for ensuring you have sufficient speeds. Next, you need to link your mobile device to the desktop running Steam by selecting it from among the connected devices and entering a generated verification code. The last step is to connect a compatible Bluetooth controller or Valve’s Steam Controller to your mobile device.
I didn’t have any major problems during setup; the only real holdup was downloading and installing a mandatory audio update for the Steam desktop client. My biggest gripe with the setup is with the local network
Once you complete these steps (green checkmarks should appear next to all of the steps), you are ready to play. When you hit Start Playing, your mobile phone mirrors Steam’s Big Picture mode from the desktop. For those who don’t know, Steam’s Big Picture Mode is just a full-screen mode for viewing and playing your library of games. It’s best to think of it as a console-like interface, similar to the software you use to navigate a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
From Big Picture mode, you can browse and launch games as you would from the regular desktop application. Since Steam Link is a mirroring app, both your gaming machine and mobile device show the same thing. One problem with this setup is that gaming on a smaller screen feels counterintuitive when a larger one is available and—because of the networking requirements—necessarily nearby. This doesn’t even begin to address the heat or battery issues inherent to smaller devices, which I will discuss in a moment.
Steam Link gives users the choice between three different stream qualities: Fast, Balanced, and Beautiful. I kept the default Balanced settings enabled and found the experience to be enjoyable. I couldn’t pick out too many issues of slow-rendering textures or screen tearing. I didn’t notice any input lag with the controller either. Valve states that Steam Link will stream 1080p gameplay at 60 frames per second over a 5GHz Wi-Fi connection. If your network, gaming hardware, and mobile device are powerful enough, however, you may be able to stream gameplay at 60 frames per second and 4K resolution.
I tested game performance by playing a couple of Rocket League matches. I didn’t experience any delays in matchmaking nor performance stutters during matches. For a fast-paced title like Rocket League, low latency is absolutely critical, and Steam Link definitely delivers in this regard.
For testing, I plugged my wired headphones directly into the Nvidia Shield Controller’s headphone jack. Game audio came in loud and clear and remained in sync with the gameplay. The hardware volume rocker on my device worked fine for adjusting the in-game audio levels.
One of the biggest limitations of the Steam Link setup is the relatively small size of most mobile screens. I consistently found myself squinting at my phone’s screen when trying to read menus. This scaling issue is particularly problematic for dialogue-heavy games, such as Night in the Woods. For those who don’t know, much of the Night in the Woods experience involves striking up conversations with local townspeople and chatting with your friends. The game displays these interactions in a series of speech bubbles with no audible voices, so reading the dialogue is the only option. Reading this text on my Nexus 5X’s display, while possible, was not enjoyable.
It’s not easy to appreciate a game’s visual design on such a small screen either, as larger screens typically help reveal more detail and are more immersive. Take Night in the Woods’ consistent, distinct, and beautiful art direction, for example. On my monitor, colors pop with vibrancy, characters’ subtleties shine, and the weather effects and day and night cycles set the mood well. On this larger screen, all of these elements expertly complement each other and beckon my attention, but my phone’s smaller screen size just ruins the appeal.
Other issues with the form-factor of a phone for gaming are heat and battery life. Even when not plugged into a charger, my Nexus 5X heated up considerably while I was streaming Rocket League—to the point of discomfort. I experienced a similar issue when running intensive Daydream apps on my Google Pixel, and I doubt that many phones are sufficiently ventilated for long-term, hardware-intensive activities such as streaming games. Furthermore, few phones have a large enough battery capacity to accommodate extended gameplay sessions. And if you plug in your phone to a wall charger to keep it running, the heat problem just gets worse.
One other minor limitation of the Steam Link system is that you are restricted to playing games from your Steam library. That means, for example, that you have to manually add any games from EA’s Origin or Blizzard’s Battle.net to your Steam library before you can play them. Still, the process is easy; just click the Add a Game option in the bottom left corner, then
Stream Games From Steam
Valve’s Steam Link app is a good way to stream games to your phone. Setup is simple and performance is strong in testing. However, there are a few caveats. First and foremost, the app requires you to use a separate controller, which is an extra cost if you don’t already have one. Steam Link also requires you to set up your device on the same local network as your computer running Steam, which limits the service’s viability for on-the-go gaming. I also encountered screen-scaling and heat issues during testing. Interested users may very well find these issues inconsequential, but everyone else is better off using Steam on a desktop computer or purchasing a dedicated handheld system, such as the Nintendo Switch.