This is turning out to be a big year for cloud gaming. Nvidia’s GeForce Now service is still in beta but going strong, and now Valve has extended its game-distribution platform Steam’s in-home game-streaming capability to iOS and Android devices that connect to the same network as the host system.
The Steam Link app, which Valve launched today, brings the ability to sling your game library to an Android phone, tablet or TV or an iPhone, iPad or Apple TV ($179.00 at Walmart), as long as you’ve got a Steam host system connected to the same network as your device. Like many cloud services, Steam requires a 5GHz or Ethernet connection between the host and the router, as well as between the host (which can be Mac or PC) and the device.
I only had a few hectic hours to try out the prerelease version of the app, so didn’t I get to test important features like the Android version (I love my stopgap Moto G5 but discovered post-purchase that it doesn’t support 5GHz Wi-Fi), voice chat handling, multi- and third-party controller capability (I only used the Steam Controller) or tablet performance; I’ll update this once the final Android app is available and the iOS app has been approved by Apple and become available via the App store.
How it works
Valve’s been lagging in its app development if you judge by its current Steam mobile app (on both Android and iOS), which is clunky, ugly and missing some capabilities. So it’s set the bar pretty low in what we expect from the company on mobile. In that sense, the clean, easy-to-use interface is a welcome surprise.
There are three steps to setting up the system. First, you enable and set up Steam’s in-home streaming feature within the desktop Steam application on a host system attached to your network. If you’ve never used Steam’s streaming, you should note that it completely takes over your system, simultaneously displaying the streamed game. That’s because it sends whatever’s coming off the video card to the app. It also means your streaming box or phone has to be attached to the same network and the bandwidth needs to be pretty constant.
Then you connect your Bluetooth controller to the device. As noted earlier this week, Steam quietly enabled Bluetooth support in the Steam Controller in preparation for this launch. This can get tricky, especially if you move it from device to device, because of Bluetooth idiosyncrasies.
When you launch the Steam app on your device — I used an Apple TV 4K to connect to a Sony XBR-65A1E as well as an iPhone 8 Plus — it lets you choose a host computer to connect to, pair a controller (if you haven’t already) and test the network connection. The default bandwidth requirement is 15Mbps and the best is 30Mbps. The latter is sufficient in part because you’re capped at 1080/60fps. That looks surprisingly good on a 4K TV, though, both at full screen and letterboxed, and it’s perfectly fine on smaller phone and tablet screens.
When you hit play, it looks and behaves just like in-home streaming: Big Picture mode launches on the host computer and from there on you use Steam on the target device as usual.
How it fares
As a replacement for a Steam Link box to play on a TV, it’s great; now that streamers are common, the extra box is superfluous (if the app is available on that platform). It may take some fiddling to figure out the optimal display settings if the host system’s display has a different aspect ratio or resolution, but trial-and-error doesn’t take long.
The in-network low-bandwidth requirements also make it less sensitive to latency caused by other people using the local network. Even letterboxed, the game Ori and the Blind Forest looks stunning and full-screen Cuphead is a retro-modern masterpiece.
I’m less sold on it as a way to play Steam games on a phone because a lot of PC games don’t translate well, both to the small screen and to the controls. Text is borderline too small. For a lot of the biggies, like Fortnite, you’re probably better off using the more optimized mobile app, plus puzzlers like Gorogoa are a lot cheaper on mobile than on Steam and play just as well.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make your games mobile. Since you’re tethered to the same access point as the host system, the best you can do is play in another room, which is convenient but not terribly compelling by itself.
And it suffers from all the other issues that plague similar streaming approaches. Bluetooth controls get laggy and it’s subject to occasional audio dropout and popping, as well as lag and sync artifacts like tearing, which is a bit disappointing as well; remember, the GPU doesn’t know anything about your phone screen, so optimizing that takes more effort.
Performance also depends on your host system. It’s terrific running off a 16-core, dual-GTX 1080 system. Less terrific on a host with a Core i7-7700HQ and GTX 1060.
And you’re basically forced to use a controller for games optimized for keyboard and mouse, which will make KBM devotees sad. (If you can get Bluetooth to simultaneously handle keyboard and mouse game-speed input without lag, I salute you).
The ideal experience — at least given the current state of technology — would be a GeForce Now-like sign-in from any network that streams mobile-control-optimized versions of the games from a high-powered server farm to whatever access point you’re on or via the cell network. Then they’d be truly mobile. Plus, it’d be awesome if the mobile and desktop versions of a game could sync progress, preferences and so on, though that will never happen because they’re usually created by different developers.
But Steam Link is a baby step in the right direction. And it’s free, so there’s no reason not to try it yourself.