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If you’re a PC gamer with even a passing interest in a living room setup, you should grab a Steam Link. This gadget is the ideal way to extend your sessions to the big screen.
The Steam Link is a tiny, inexpensive little streaming device, made with one goal in mind: getting your PC games onto your TV. It’s not the only way to achieve this, but at the time of writing it’s the easiest and the cheapest, beating out alternatives like the NVIDIA SHIELD and Miracast.
Oh, and the $50 Steam Link is frequently discounted to an almost ridiculous degree: at the time of writing it’s just $2.50 during Steam’s annual summer sale.
The tiny circuit board in the Steam Link does just a couple of things, relying almost entirely on the software on your gaming PC to do the heavy lifting. The gadget connects to Steam via local network, either over high-speed Wi-Fi or gigabit Ethernet, grabbing the audio and video from your PC games and sticking them on your TV via HDMI. At the same time it uses controller inputs from your living room and routes the commands back to your PC, allowing you to control the game without needing to connect to the computer directly. The result is an itty-bitty box that sits in your entertainment center and makes a gateway to all the games in your Steam library.
The Steam Link is several years old at this point, and it’s been gently improved along the way. It makes liberal use of Steam’s Big Picture Mode, an alternate user interface made for large screens and controllers instead of monitors and mice. Initial issues with game compatibility and latency have been ironed out (for the most part), including support for non-Steam games or titles with annoying custom launchers. That means games that aren’t on the Steam store, like offerings from Blizzard, Activision, and EA, can still be streamed.
Controller-based games do best on TVs, and the Steam Link supports controllers with both Bluetooth and wireless dongle input, including console controllers from the PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Switch. But it’s best paired with the official Steam Controller, which features generous touch pads for emulating mouse-style controls. All controllers connected to Steam can be customized for specific inputs, and if you just can’t live without a keyboard and mouse, the Steam Link can handle those, too. Want some local co-op or split-screen action? The system can handle any combination of controllers for up to four players at once.
The Steam Link works at 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second, assuming that your PC can handle that for whatever game you’re playing and your local network has the speed required. It can operate at lower streaming resolutions and framerates if necessary.
First, you’ll need a local PC running Steam on Windows, macOS, or Linux. There are no specific hardware requirements for your gaming PC, but more power means better performance. Unlike NVIDIA’s similar GameStream service, you don’t need a specific brand of graphics card: Steam Link will even work with integrated graphics from Intel.
Next, you’ll need a television with at least one HDMI input. HDMI 2.0 or better is ideal, but the connection should work on any TV sold in the last ten years or so. The Steam Link supports 1080p or 720p resolution.
You’ll need a controller. As mentioned above, the official Steam Controller is ideal for its ability to control keyboard-and-mouse PC games fairly well, but the standard Xbox wired or wireless controllers are also excellent choices if you already have one for your PC. Keyboards and mice, USB-based or Bluetooth, are also an option.
And the last and most crucial piece of the puzzle: a rock-solid local network. A good Internet connection is important for online games, of course, but streaming high-resolution video and low-latency controller inputs around your home is more about the hardware in your local router. A direct connection via Ethernet is best, but the Steam Link also supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi. If you go the wireless route, make sure you have the strongest connection possible to your router: trying to connect to the local network through more than one wall is going to result in dropped frames and choppy controls.
The biggest competition for the Steam Link is NVIDIA’s SHIELD set-top box with its included GameStream service. (Not to be confused with NVIDIA GeForce NOW, which streams games from remote server farms instead of your own computer.) The SHIELD is a fine piece of hardware and easily the best Android TV gadget on the market, but it’s in a close second place to the Steam Link for local game streaming for a variety of reasons.
First, its dependence on an NVIDIA-branded graphics card in your streaming PC limits the potential userbase—both Steam and Steam Streaming are platform and hardware agnostic. Second, the SHIELD is full set-top box hardware with some pretty powerful guts of its own, and it has a high price tag of $200 to go with it. That’s an extra expense you probably don’t need, since its non-gaming capabilities are covered by smart TVs, Chromecast, Roku, and console apps. The SHIELD does have access to Android games played on its own hardware, but the selection and quality are pretty paltry compared to the vast library available to PC gamers.
The SHIELD does offer streaming at 4K, but to be honest, just playing games at 4K on your PC requires some pretty monstrous hardware. If you haven’t invested multiple thousands into your gaming PC and living room setup, spending an extra couple of hundred dollars on the SHIELD set-top box won’t enhance your streaming experience. For anyone who wants to give PC gaming in the living room a try in the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way possible, the Steam Link is the way to go.
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