Back in 2018 I managed to nab a physical Steam Link when Valve was flogging them for £2.50 here in the UK ($2.50 in USD). I was actually buying a Steam Controller for my then-partner and spotted the bargain while browsing through the Steam website, so I purchased the gadget on a whim. That little black puck has since left such a good impression on me that every alternative service has paled in comparison.
The Steam Link is fairly straightforward. It’s a wireless box-shaped dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, allowing you to stream games directly from your PC over your home internet connection. I had great success using it over Wi-fi, seeing barely any detectable lag, but you could also connect the device directly to your network via ethernet for a more stable connection. It even has three USB 2.0 ports for you to hook up wired controllers, mice, keyboards, or headsets in case you don’t have the luxury of owning a load of wireless peripherals.
Having all those ports allowed me to crack out the old, wired gaming controllers for couch co-op when friends were over. Bliss. Image: Valve
I’ve had access to both a computer and various gaming consoles over the years, so I’ve never considered having an allegiance to either side of the PC vs console debate. But there are some titles that just feel better to play sitting on a couch with a controller. The physical Steam Link gave me the best of both worlds: I could play The Witcher 3 or Skyrim with all of my mods enabled from the comfort of my living room, or walk over to my bedroom to play World of Warcraft directly on the same PC.
The Steam Link app has caused me issues despite its apparent superiority over its predecessor
The aforementioned ex-partner got the Steam Link when we split, by which point Valve had discontinued the gadget and removed its listing from its Steam platform for good. The Steam Link app was released on Android as its replacement in 2018 (later followed by a version for iOS in 2019,) and can be downloaded directly onto most smart TVs. It functions similarly to the original Steam Link and, on paper, offers some advantages over the now obsolete box (such as regular software updates, and support for 4K streaming where the Steam Link was capped at 1080p). But I’ve still experienced numerous connectivity issues and abysmal latency while using it – and now I’m yearning for the dongle again.
The Steam Link app allows you to remotely adjust settings and controls, but I find it constantly crashes if I spend too long in the Steam app menu. Image: Alice Newcome-Beill
For example, on the days when it does work, the stream randomly freezes or crashes (despite having a solid internet connection) and the input lag is so unbearable that I usually abandon efforts and begrudgingly play on my PC directly. Some days the app randomly disconnects from my PC or refuses to load, forcing me to delete and then re-install 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 having a better tech setup and faster internet
I have better internet speeds and a more stable Wi-Fi connection than I once did. My Philips OLED TV is less than two years old. My current ethernet-connected gaming computer is more powerful and is even closer to both my router and television than it was when I used the Steam Link hardware. I’ve checked every relevant parameter and connection, and by all accounts, the Steam Link app should work. And yet it doesn’t.
Other services haven’t lived up to my previous streaming experience either. The GameStream feature on my Nvidia Shield TV (which works similarly to the Steam Link app) came pretty darn close, but Nvidia recently announced that it plans to discontinue the service in February 2023. Nvidia now points users towards its cloud gaming platform GeForce Now (with which I’ve personally experienced middling performance, despite paying for the Priority tier) or, frustratingly, the Steam Link app. I’ve also found other cloud streaming platforms like Google Stadia to be effectively unplayable due to latency. While cloud gaming tech is neat, it’s not yet a viable replacement for hardware like the Steam Link.
I get mixed results with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, but the GamesStream feature for Nvidia Shield was near perfect. Sadly, that service is being shut down in February 2023. Image: Nvidia
Outside of hunting for used Steam Link listings online, there are two solutions left. One is to hook my TV directly to my router via an ethernet cable. That’s likely to solve at least some of the connectivity problems, but it’s slightly infuriating that I 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 fork out a stack of cash for a small, dedicated PC for my TV, such as an Intel NUC. I’m only half considering that since that could cost over a thousand dollars, and I already have a perfectly serviceable gaming PC in another room. At the end of the day, that’s an awful lot of money to spend in order to replicate 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 — its 1080p ceiling would have eventually rendered it obsolete, and the software version can be used on non-HDMI devices. Still, I’m far from the only person experiencing similar discontent with the app. Reddit threads still regularly request help with troubleshooting issues, while other users have compared their experiences using the two Steam Link versions to see which offered better performance.
Despite the imminent shutdown of Google Stadia, many companies have also worked hard to push cloud gaming to consumers this year. Gaming Chromebooks have been released that come with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service preinstalled for example, and Xbox Cloud Gaming is eventually making its way onto Meta Quest VR headsets. Streaming games from the cloud is brilliant when it works, but for folks like myself, it simply isn’t a viable alternative to LAN-based game streaming yet. Until cloud gaming truly becomes the exciting frontier these companies promise, nothing will top that 1080p dongle.