Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Steam Link - Review

Steam Link


Linking your PC to the outside world

Measuring slightly larger than a pack of cards, the Steam Link is one of the most anticipated PC gaming gadgets of 2016. Promising to unshackle your gaming PC from the study or gaming den, this tiny box of streaming wizardry allows you to utilise your rig anywhere in the house. Some games simply demand to be played in the living room on your 60-inch LCD with surround sound – be it the new Tomb Raider, GTAV or even a spot of Rocket League. And when it works well, the Steam Link is the ideal way to bring those kinds of experiences to your living room. Unfortunately, it’s still very much a work-in-progress, with varying performance that doesn’t seem to be at all predictable.

Valve hasn’t publically announced what hardware powers the Link, but we did find a post from one of the developers stating that it uses a, “…smartphone-like ARMv7 processor with dedicated h.264 video decoding circuitry, running a custom Linux kernel and a Valve-developed software stack”. Three USB 2.0 ports allow the user to plug in a range of USB devices including mice, keyboards and control pads, while Bluetooth 4.0 supports wireless controllers and some headsets. We had no issues detecting and using both Xbox and Steam controllers, while our wireless Logitech mouse and keyboard also worked without a hitch. A single 100Mbps Ethernet port supplements the interior 802.11ac 2x2 (MIMO) Wi-Fi support; we would have liked to see Gigabit Ethernet, but Valve claims 100Mbps is more than enough to handle 1080p game streaming at 60fps. A single HDMI output handles both video and audio, and Valve is nice enough to also include a HDMI 2.0 cable in the box.

Setting up the Link couldn’t be simpler. Plug it into your TV, navigate the super-quick wizard to patch it into your network, and within a minute or so it will automatically download the latest firmware. Provided your gaming PC is on the same network, you’ll then need to log into Steam on your gaming machine. The Link then detects your PC on the network, and spits out a PIN code that has to be entered on the host PC to allow access.

Steam Link Setup

Steam Link Setup

STEP 1: Make sure your home PC is turned on and you're logged into Steam.
STEP 2: Connect your Steam Link to your TV and to your home network
STEP 3: Connect a controller to your steam Link and follow on-screen instructions to stream your games to your TV!

Provided your host copy of Steam is running in Big-Screen Mode, navigating and starting games from your Steam Library is a breeze. So far, so very good, but the actual game play experience varies greatly depending on the game being played. We had two gaming rigs set up on our network; the first is an i5 6600K overclocked to 4.5GHz with twin GTX 980 Ti GPUs, while the second is an i7-2700K at default speed with a GeForce GTX 970. Both gaming PCs were connected via Ethernet to the brilliant ASRock G10 802.11ac ac2600 4x4 MUMIMO router, and the Link was initially connected to the 5GHz band. Running a Wi-Fi speed test via Smartphone in the same location as the Link showed we were getting 80/30Mbps speeds, which should be more than enough to handle 1080p at 60fps.

While the image quality on our Panasonic 60” Plasma was excellent, with a crisp and clear picture that looked almost as good as the source PC, we had major issues maintaining 60fps. Some titles like Homeworld Deserts of Kharak ran flawlessly, while others such as Rainbow 6 Siege struggled to maintain 45fps on the Link. Yet Siege ran faultlessly at 60fps on the host PC. When using Steam’s In-Home Streaming to stream Siege from one PC to the other, it maintained 60fps on the client machine without any issues, pointing to the Link as the, well, weakest link.

To remove the factor of wireless networking, we then ran the same tests but with the Link now patched into the network via Ethernet cable. This didn’t appear to make any difference to performance; it was only after we changed the image quality setting from ‘beautiful’ to ‘fast’ that we saw a slight framerate increase, but at the cost of vastly reduced image quality. Streaming from the slower PC saw the framerate decrease even more. One tangible benefit was visible when using Ethernet though; input latency seemed to decrease from barely noticeable to non-existent.

A range of other network settings can be tinkered with on both the Link and the host to improve the image quality, including total bandwidth used, enabling network prioritisation and whether or not the host machine uses NVIDIA, AMD or Intel hardware video encoding, but we couldn’t perceive any noticeable difference regardless of setting. Further testing revealed that performance between different games was all over the place, yet not in the ways that we expected. Some games that didn’t require much horsepower ran poorly, while more demanding games ran much better. It was only when we dropped the outputted resolution to 720p that we were able to hit 60fps regularly, which looked rather soft on our large 1080p plasma.

We’re not sure whether it’s the relatively cheap hardware within the Link, or the fact that the software is still so new, but our experience with the Link shows that it’s not as capable as a decently specced NUC or laptop when it comes to In-Home Steam streaming. If you’re happy to play at 30fps at 1080p or 60fps at 720p, then the Link is an extremely affordable and convenient way to bring your games to the living room. Unfortunately, the promise of 1080p 60fps gaming hasn’t been realized yet, but given Valve’s brilliant support of the Link so far, we’re hoping that dream becomes a reality by the time it officially launches in Australia in the next couple of months.


Verdict

Provided Valve figures out the 1080p/60fps issue soon, the Link will become a must-have item for PC gamers.

ͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦ Very convenient
ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦ Fantastic value
ͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ Tiny silent
ͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ 1080 60fps isn't reliable
ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦͦ ͦ Requires decent host PC specs
overall score

80   %


Specifications

Product Dimensions: 3.9 x 2.8 x 0.5 inches ; 1.9 pounds

By Bennet Ring

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