Steam's Home-Streaming Solution: A Practical Look at the Steam Controller and Steam Link
Recently in Australia, Valve partnered with EB Games to distribute the Steam Link and Steam Controller in stores, making the two devices easily available to us Aussies without the hassle of importing them from the US. The Steam Link is selling for $36AUD ($28USD) and the Steam controller for $63AUD ($48USD), making the Steam Link much cheaper than a Google Chromecast and the Steam Controller a decent bit cheaper than an Xbox One Controller. These devices may be cheaper than their respective direct marketplace competitors, but are they any better? I’ve been testing both devices out over the last week or so and I’ve got some thoughts I’d like to share.
Both the Steam controller and the Steam Link have been out for over a year or so at this point, so I’ll assume you have a basic understanding of what each of these devices are designed to do and what they’re capable of. I’d mainly just like to weigh in on a number of issues that frequently popped-up in reviews that I’d read about each of these devices before I tried them out for myself.
Let’s start with the Steam Link:
Almost all the reviews I read about the Steam Link were largely positive, with many critics praising the quality of the product for the price – and I completely agree. I have been consistently impressed with the performance and capability of the Steam Link. I was previously running a 20ft HDMI cable from my PC to the TV, and the Steam Link has been producing identical quality over my home wifi connection. I originally had the Steam Link running over Ethernet, but found the quality of the stream to be identical over wifi.
For reference, my PC is directly plugged into my router and my router is located approximately 30ft from the Steam Link in the same room. I wanted to test the limits of this connection, so I moved my router into another room to weaken the signal for the Steam Link and I did notice very slight input lag despite my Steam Link reassuring me I had full reception. So the strength of your wifi signal will greatly influence the performance of the Steam Link if your going for wireless streaming – something you’ll need to consider before purchasing.
Setting up the Steam Link was very easy and booting the thing up is as simple as turning on the controller plugged directly into the Steam Link and switching to the required HDMI channel on your TV. The Steam Link takes control of your PC and boots directly into Steam Big Picture mode, which I found to have a nice and simple interface.
One of my favourite features of the Steam Link that was largely underrated in the reviews I read is its ability to minimize Big Picture mode and directly stream your desktop. It’s a feature that is available right from the menu and is now my preferred method of watching Netflix on my living room TV, as it is significantly faster than booting up the Xbox and launching the Netflix app.
Browsing Steam Big Picture Mode and your desktop is also super easy with the Steam Controller, which works very nicely with the Steam Link. So now let’s get into the controller:
In contrast to the Steam Link, reviews for the Steam Controller seemed to be either mixed, or downright negative. After my time with the Steam Controller, I can easily see why people would hate this thing – but I’m definitely a fan.
First off, the Steam Controller was often criticized for it’s ‘feel’ and build-quality. Many critics claimed the controller felt too round and bulky, and that the whole thing felt cheap and flimsy. I completely disagree on both of these issues. I love the way the controller sits in my large, skeletal hands and I think the big, bulgy triggers feel nice to press down. The triggers on the bottom of the controller did feel bizarre and uncomfortable when I first used the controller, but they soon felt natural and beneficial to the control schemes I was using.
Which brings me to my next point: one of the things every review of the Steam Controller praised was the device’s button-mapping customization options - and I can confirm that it is indeed very impressive. Every game I played with the Steam Controller had a huge list of community-made control schemes available to apply and customize. More often than not the top rated community control-scheme would work well for me, and the few times I wanted to change a few things, I did so very easily. This button mapping and community sharing aspect is a huge advantage the Steam Controller has over an Xbox controller.
The other big divisive issue with the Steam Controller is the track pads. I was somewhat familiar with the track pads after using them quite a bit on the Vive Controllers, but even with this familiarity, they still felt strange. Even after my week or so of playing with the Steam Controller, my control over the track pads hasn’t really improved – but I have gotten used to them. I think the track pads are fantastic for some games and straight-up terrible for others. Civ V, Wasteland 2, GTA V, Grim Dawn and Stardew Valley are all examples of games that I now prefer to play on my couch with the Steam Controller and the track pad controls. Shooters and platformers like Doom and Shantae felt awful with the Steam Controller - Doom in particular gave me a weird sense of motion sickness when I was playing, as I just couldn’t get a handle on the controls.
I wouldn’t say the Steam Controller has any advantage over the Xbox One controller for traditional controller games like GTAV or Dirt Rally. I personally find it slightly more comfortable than the Xbox One controller over long periods of time, but the face buttons are significantly smaller on the Steam Controller, which some may find problematic. Also the lack of a physical D-Pad is a bummer for those of us that like using that thing for platformers.
It’s for these reasons that I can’t recommend people go out and buy a Steam Controller without trying it first. It definitely feels strange, and it doesn’t have any advantages over a traditional Keyboard and Mouse setup in terms of control – but it is a very capable half-measure if you desperately want to play certain traditional KB+M games on the couch. Civ V is one of my favourite games of all time and lying on my couch is one of my favourite things to do, so the Steam Controller was a worthy purchase for me.
As for the Steam Link: it’s a very impressive little device that works fantastically if you can run it with Ethernet or if your home wifi signal is strong. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone looking to stream their PC on their TV or someone considering buying a Chromecast.