Monday, September 25, 2023

A love letter to the original Steam Link: I’m sorry for taking you for granted

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

In 2018, I managed to get my hands on a physical Steam Link when Valve was thrashing them here in the UK for £2.50 ($2.50 in USD). I was actually buying a Steam Controller for my then-partner and saw the bargain while browsing the Steam website, so I bought the gadget on a whim. That little black puck has since left such a good impression on me that any alternative service has paled in comparison.

The Steam Link is quite simple. It’s a wireless box-shaped dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, allowing you to stream games directly from your PC through your home internet connection. I had great success using Wi-Fi and saw barely noticeable lag, but you can also connect the device directly to your network via Ethernet for a more stable connection. It even has three USB 2.0 ports that you can plug in wired controllers, mice, keyboards or headsets in case you don’t have the luxury of owning a bunch of wireless peripherals.

A Steam Link on a blue background.

With all those ports, I could pull out the old wired game controllers for couch co-op when friends were over. Bliss.
Image: Valve

I’ve had access to both a computer and several game consoles over the years, so I’ve never thought about staying true to either side of the PC vs. console debate. But there are some titles that just feel better to play with a controller on the couch. The physical Steam Link gave me the best of both worlds: I could play The witcher 3 or Skyrim with all my mods enabled from the comfort of my living room, or walk to my bedroom to play World of Warcraft directly on the same PC.

The Steam Link app has been giving me problems despite its apparent superiority over its predecessor

The aforementioned ex-partner got the Steam Link when we parted ways, after which Valve discontinued the gadget and removed the list from its Steam platform for good. The Steam Link app was released as an Android replacement in 2018 (later followed by a version for iOS in 2019) and can be downloaded directly onto most smart TVs. It works similarly to the original Steam Link, and on paper offers some advantages over the now-outdated box (such as regular software updates and support for 4K streaming where the Steam Link was capped at 1080p). But I’ve still experienced countless connection issues and terrible latency while using it – and now I’m craving the dongle again.

A screenshot of the Steam Link app showing controller settings that can be adjusted.

The Steam Link app allows you to adjust settings and controls remotely, but I find it constantly crashes if I’m in the Steam app menu for too long.
Image: Alice Newcome-Beill

For example, on the days it does work, the stream randomly freezes or crashes (despite a solid internet connection), and the input lag is so excruciating that I usually end my efforts and reluctantly play directly on my PC. Some days the app randomly disconnects from my PC or refuses to load, forcing me to uninstall and reinstall it on my TV. These are all issues I never experienced with the original Steam Link hardware – it worked effortlessly every time it was plugged in.

I can’t replicate the reliability of the original Steam Link despite a better technical setup and faster internet

I have better internet speeds and a more stable WiFi connection than ever. My Philips OLED TV is less than two years old. My current Ethernet-connected gaming console is more powerful and even closer to both my router and television than when I was using the Steam Link hardware. I’ve checked all relevant parameters and connections, and by all accounts the Steam Link app should work. And yet it doesn’t.

Other services have also failed to live up to my previous streaming experience. The GameStream feature on my Nvidia Shield TV (which works similarly to the Steam Link app) came pretty close, but Nvidia recently announced that it plans to discontinue the service in February 2023. now points users to the cloud gaming platform GeForce Now (which I’ve personally experienced mediocre performance with, despite paying for the Priority tier) or, frustratingly, the Steam Link app. I’ve also found that other cloud streaming platforms, such as Google Stadia, are actually unplayable due to latency. While cloud gaming technology is neat, it’s not yet a viable replacement for hardware like the Steam Link.

A suite of devices on a table, all running the Nvidia GeForce Now streaming service.

I’m getting mixed results with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, but the GamesStream feature for Nvidia Shield was close to perfect. Unfortunately, that service will be discontinued in February 2023.
Image: Nvidia

Outside of searching for used Steam Link listings online, there are two solutions left. One is to connect my TV directly to my router via an ethernet cable. That will probably fix at least some of the connection issues, but it’s a little irritating that I’ve never had to do the same for the physical Steam Link. It worked perfectly on my then-slower Wi-Fi connection over a much greater distance, and I didn’t have to drag cables around my living room.

The other (more drastic) solution would be to spend a pile of cash on a small, dedicated PC for my TV, like an Intel NUC. I’m only half thinking about that since that could cost well over a thousand dollars, and I already have a perfectly maintained gaming PC in another room. In the end, that’s an awful lot of money to spend to recreate an experience that once cost me less than a cup of coffee.

The Steam Link hardware was destined for obsolescence due to its limitations

Valve’s reasoning for discontinuing the dongle is sound – the 1080p cap would eventually have made it obsolete, and the software version can be used on non-HDMI devices. Still, I’m far from the only person experiencing similar dissatisfaction with the app. Reddit threads are still asking for help on a regular basis with troubleshooting, while other users have compared their experiences with the two Steam Link versions to see which offered better performance.

Despite the impending closure of Google Stadia, many companies have also been working hard this year to push cloud gaming to consumers. Gaming Chromebooks have been released with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service pre-installed, and Xbox Cloud Gaming is eventually making its way to Meta Quest VR headsets. Game streaming from the cloud is great when it works, but for people like me, it’s just not yet a viable alternative to LAN-based game streaming. Until cloud gaming really becomes the exciting frontier these companies promise, nothing can top that 1080p dongle.

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