Consoles have always had two advantages over PC gaming – a bigger screen and AC relaxing lean back position. Valve tries to solve these problems first with its Big Picture Mode and now with Steam Link. The link box is an extender for your PC. Plug it into your TV and your home network and it’s as if the steam link is an external monitor to your gaming PC running the Big Picture software. In theory, this should give you the best of both worlds – your Steam library on a bigger and more comfortable screen.
There are two questions – how well does it react and how do you control it?
Reaction time is surprisingly good. The Link has an ethernet port and built-in MIMO wifi and although I found both works the ethernet is by far the better solution. I had my Link setup in the same room as my wifi hub and still had several loss of connection and lag using it. With a hardwired ethernet, it was near perfect with very little discernible lag. If you’re a professional FPS player it’s probably not quite going to work for you but for most gamers, it will not be noticed.
Control is somewhat more complicated. PC games are designed for the PC which means they expect to have a mouse and keyboard. The Link has its own USB ports and is surprisingly versatile accepting Xbox, Steam and even a mouse and keyboard and with a little extra tinkering – everything from HOTAS to steering wheels. The Big Picture software is easy to control with whatever you use but when you go into a game you’re at the mercy of the game developers. This isn’t a failing of the Link itself but you just have to accept that some games play well with some controllers and some don’t. Within 15 minutes of getting the Link running my daughter was happily playing her favourite Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed using an Xbox 360 controller but Lily had far more problems with a wireless mouse playing Civilization VI.
So that’s gaming – what else can the Link do? Big Picture has a simple browser-based on Firefox built into it which is perfectly serviceable and the Steam software can be minimised giving you access to your desktop and in theory anything on your PC. Five minutes trying to use Photoshop with a gaming Xbox controller showed the limitations involved but it’s a great extra. In particular, it means that whatever media you’ve got or can stream on your pc you can get on your TV. A word of warning – the Link mimics your desktop and mimics your sound. Start playing a video downstairs on the TV and it’ll also play on your PC – including the sound.
Retailer: Steam +
Price: ± £ 40
Paid extras: The Link needs an external controller which might be a Steam controller, Xbox controller, gamepad or a mouse and keyboard.
About Valve Corporation
Valve is one of the leviathans of the PC gaming industry. Over the year’s they’ve produced a number of seminal games including Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress and Dota 2 and with Steam control the vast proportion of downloadable gaming. They make a number of hardware products including Steam Machines that run SteamOS (Linux), the Steam Link and Controller and they are collaborating with HTC making the Vive VR headset.
They are based in Bellvue, Washington and are notable both because of the companies flat internal structure and the fact that they are the most profitable company per employee in the US.
The Steam Link box looks like a shrunken console and is a small black box with the majority of its ports along the back and a single USB port on one side. Plug in the HDMI to the TV, power and ideally an ethernet cable to your hub and the Link will switch on.
No specific trigger warnings but depending on what games you stream to your TV there could be any number of triggers.
The Steam Link is regularly available for £40 direct from Steam and I’ve seen it drop into some sales to very low levels – the lowest under £10. The fact that it doesn’t ship with a controller does theoretically add to the cost but the likelihood is that if you’re a serious PC gamer already you’ve already got them.
It’s difficult to compare with similar products as it’s not a console itself and similarly isn’t just a media player but a combination of both.
Product dimensions: 1.5 x 12.3 x 9 cm
Release date: November 2015
Power: 5v and 2.5 Amp / 12 Watts
Materials: ABS Plastic
Network: Wired 100 Mbit/s Fast Ethernet and Wireless 802.11ac 2×2 (MIMO) networking abilities
Connectivity: 3 x USB 2.0
Processor: ARMv7 1Ghz
Display: HDMI 1.4 Out
Warranty: Limited for one year.
The Link is an extender of your PC to your TV and needs a decent quality PC, a stable network and a modern TV. Specifically, this means a host computer running SteamOS, or Steam Big Picture Mode on Windows Vista or newer, Mac OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) or newer, Linux Ubuntu 12.04 or newer; A TV or display capable of running at 720p or 1080p resolution and a way to control the Link. Valve specifically support the Steam Controller, Xbox One or 360 Wired Controller, Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows, Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710, or a keyboard and mouse combination but many USB controllers can be made to work. A full list available here.
The Steam Link doesn’t quite fit into any of the normal categories – it’s not a console. It’s not a media centre PC. It’s not a streaming device. What it is is a simple way to get a good proportion of any of those abilities. If you’re a Steam user and want to play on your TV or want a simple way to mirror your screen to a TV the Steam Link is worth a look. It’s a niche device but well designed and made.
The review is based on the Steam Link during December 2016. This article was first published on 27th December 2016.