Hands-on with Valve's fantastic Steam Link streaming box

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I’m surprised how painless it is

Although the Steam Controller and Steam Link aren’t going to be available in wide release form until November 10, anyone who pre-ordered directly through Valve (myself included) is set to get them today.

I immediately unpacked my shipment this morning and put them through the paces, and I’m pleasantly surprised with how the Link turned out.

The unit itself is small and light, which means that it won’t be an eyesore in any location you decide to place it in. There’s two USB slots on the back, one on the side (just like the Xbox One), an Ethernet slot, and an HDMI out. It comes with a power cable, three power converters for worldwide regions, and an HDMI cable.

The Steam Link was incredibly easy to set up, and took me about five minutes from opening the box to access my account. Basically all you do is power it up, hook up an HDMI cable, and either use a keyboard and mouse or Steam Controller to access the UI. From there you’ll either run off of your wired connection or enter your Wi-Fi password, download a few updates, and that’s it. Of course this isn’t a proper Steam Machine, so you’ll need to be running Steam off of your core PC to stream it to the box (you can also add multiple PCs if you wish).

The system uses a modified version of the Big Picture UI, which works quite well. Recent, installed, and favorite games are located on the side, along with your total game catalog, videos, music, and current downloads. You can also easily search your library or activate a product directly from the Link. Users can also readily view which games are installed (indicated by a green checkmark), so you don’t have to individually check everything. Just like Big Picture proper, if you want to install something, you can do so from the Link. Also, the web and chat functionality is greatly improved thanks to the Steam Controller’s added input methods if you don’t have a keyboard handy.

The only issue I’ve had so far is that the Link will sometimes have problems with the resolution, bumping it up to a ridiculously high level after my host PC pushes an update. To fix it, I just have to move the mouse a bit on my host. For now it’s not that big of a deal since I have it in the living room right next to the Link, but I’m eventually planning on moving it into the basement, so I’ll have to tinker a bit to see what’s causing this (I would suspect my multi-monitor setup might have something to do with it). Other than that, it’s been painless, and the stream quality is superb. Through a 50 Mbps connection I’m not getting any input lag.

As a note, you’ll want to opt into the Steam client beta (system settings panel, big picture UI) to gain access to all of the updates prior to the official November launch. Also, there is already a firmware update for the Steam Controller itself as of today — you’ll have to connect it directly to the host PC to get it, as the Steam Link cannot actually push firmware. You can, however, remotely turn off Steam Link, which reverts your host PC back to the standard Steam UI, and automatically shuts down your Link and Steam Controller.

I’ll be touching on the Steam Controller once I’d had more time with it, but I like how it interfaces directly with your OS. In other words, start is mapped to enter, and the right pad functions as a mouse. As for the pad itself, I’m reallynot digging the d-pad, especially for platformers, but I like that it’s a multi-purpose unit that doesn’t just cater to one genre. Valve also offers configuration options through Steam for titles that don’t normally support controllers, though they obviously can’t alter the hard-coded keyboard-specific tutorials. If you’d rather go the old-school route, Xbox controllers work as well (wired is best, but the current 360 wireless dongle works too).

So far my Steam in-home experience has been rather smooth, which is good news since it’s still technically in beta. I still need to put the Steam Controller through the paces, but I can recommend the $50 Link at this point.

[This impressions piece is based on a retail build of the unit purchased by the writer.]