February 2, 2023

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A love letter for the original Steam link: I regret taking you for granted

In 2018 I managed to snag a physical Steam link when Valve flogged them for £2.50 ($2.50 in USD) here in the UK. I was actually buying a Steam Controller for my then partner and spotted the bargain while browsing the Steam website, so I bought the gadget on a whim. The little black puck has made such a good impression on me ever since that any alternative service has paled in comparison.

The Steam Link is pretty 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 using your home internet connection. I’ve had great success using it over Wi-Fi and hardly noticed any noticeable lag, but you can also connect the device directly to your network over Ethernet for a more stable connection. It even has three USB 2.0 ports so you can connect wired controllers, mice, keyboards, or headsets if you don’t have the luxury of owning a bunch of wireless peripherals.

A Steam link on a blue background.

With all these ports, I was able to pull 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 allegiance to either side of the PC vs. console debate. But there are some titles that just feel better 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 from the comfort of my living room with all mods enabled, or go to my bedroom to play World of Warcraft right on the same PC.

The Steam Link app gave me problems despite its apparent superiority over its predecessor

The ex-partner mentioned above received the Steam link when we broke up and by that time Valve had discontinued the gadget and permanently removed its listing from its Steam platform. The Steam Link app was released in 2018 as an Android replacement (later followed by a version for iOS in 2019) and can be downloaded directly to most smart TVs. It works much like the original Steam Link, and on paper offers a few advantages over the now-obsolete box (e.g. regular software updates and support for 4K streaming, where the Steam Link was capped at 1080p). But I still experienced numerous connection issues and miserable latencies when using it – and now I’m craving the dongle again.

A screenshot of the Steam Link app with controller settings that can be customized.

The Steam Link app allows you to adjust settings and controls remotely, but I find that it keeps crashing if I spend too long in the Steam app menu. Image: Alice Newcome-Beill

For example, on the days it works, the stream randomly freezes or crashes (despite a stable internet connection) and the input lag is so unbearable that I usually give up the effort and reluctantly play directly on my PC. Some days the app randomly disconnects from my PC or won’t load, forcing me to delete and then reinstall it on my TV. These are all issues I’ve never experienced with the original Steam Link hardware – it worked flawlessly 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 used to. My Philips OLED TV is less than two years old. My current gaming computer with an Ethernet connection is more powerful and even closer to my router and TV than it was when I used the Steam Link hardware. I’ve checked all the relevant parameters and connections, and by all accounts the Steam Link app should work. And yet it doesn’t.

Other services could not do justice 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 retire the service in February 2023. Nvidia is now pointing users to its GeForce Now cloud gaming platform (which I’ve personally experienced mediocre performance with, 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 virtually unplayable due to latency. While cloud gaming technology is decent, it’s not yet a viable replacement for hardware like Steam Link.

A row of devices on a table, all displaying 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 near perfect. Unfortunately, this service will be discontinued in February 2023. Image: Nvidia

Aside from searching online for used steam link deals, there are two other solutions. One is to connect my TV directly to my router using an Ethernet cable. That will probably solve at least some of the connection issues, but it’s a bit annoying that I never had to do the same for the physical Steam Link. It worked perfectly with my then-slower Wi-Fi connection over a much greater distance, and I didn’t have to run cables through my living room.

The other (more drastic) solution would be to spend a bunch of money on a small, dedicated PC for my TV, e.g. an Intel NUC. I’m only half thinking about it as 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 a lot of money to spend to repeat an experience that used to cost me less than a cup of coffee.

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

Valve’s rationale for discontinuing the dongle is solid – its 1080p cap 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 dissatisfaction with the app. Reddit threads still regularly ask for troubleshooting help, while other users have compared their experiences of the two Steam Link versions to see which offered better performance.

Despite the imminent shutdown of Google Stadia, many companies have continued to work hard this year to popularize cloud gaming for consumers. Gaming Chromebooks have been released that come with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service pre-installed, 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 people like me it’s just not a viable alternative to LAN-based game streaming just yet. Until cloud gaming truly becomes the exciting frontier these companies promise, nothing will beat this 1080p dongle.