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

In 2018 I managed to catch a physical steam link when Valve whipped them for £2.50 here in the UK ($2.50 in USD). I was buying a steam controller for my then partner and I spotted the deal while browsing the Steam website so I bought the gadget on a whim. This little black puck has since left such a good impression on me that every alternative service has paled in comparison.

The Steam link is quite straightforward. It’s a box-shaped wireless dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, allowing you to stream games directly from your PC through your home internet connection. I’ve had great success using it over Wi-Fi, seeing hardly any detectable lag, but you can also connect the device directly to your network via Ethernet for a more stable connection. It even has three USB 2.0 ports so you can plug in wired controllers, mice, keyboards, or headsets in case you don’t have the luxury of owning a charge of wireless devices.

A Steam link on a blue background.

Having all these ports allowed me to crack old wired game controllers for couch co-op when friends were away. Happiness.
Image: Valve

I’ve had access to both a computer and various game consoles over the years, so I’ve never considered allegiance to either side of the PC vs. console debate. But there are certain titles that feel better playing while 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 my mods activated from the comfort of my living room, or go to my bedroom to play World of Warcraft directly on the same PC.

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

The aforementioned ex-partner got the Steam link when we parted ways, by which time Valve had discontinued the gadget and permanently removed his listing from his Steam platform. the Steam Link App was released on Android as a replacement in 2018 (later followed by a version for iOS in 2019) and can be downloaded directly to most smart TVs. It works similarly to the original Steam Link and, on paper, offers some advantages over the now outdated box (like regular software updates and 4K streaming support where the Steam Link was capped at 1080p). But I still encountered many connectivity issues and abysmal latency while using it – and now I yearn for the dongle again.

A screenshot of the Steam Link app showing controller settings that can be adjusted.

The Steam Link app lets you adjust settings and controls remotely, but I find it constantly crashes if I spend too much time in the Steam app menu.
Image: Alice Newcome Beill

For example, on days when it works, the stream freezes or crashes randomly (despite a strong internet connection) and the input lag is so unbearable that I usually give up trying and reluctantly play straight on my PC . Some days the app randomly disconnects from my PC or refuses to load, forcing me to delete it and then reinstall it on my TV. These are all issues I never had 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 better technical setup and faster internet connection

I have better internet speeds and a more stable Wi-Fi connection than before. My Philips OLED TV is less than two years old. My current ethernet-connected gaming computer is more powerful and is even closer to my router and TV than it was when I was using the Steam Link hardware. I checked all relevant settings and connections, and by all accounts, the Steam Link app should work. And yet this is not the case.

Other services also fell short of my previous streaming experience. The GameStream feature on my Nvidia Shield TV (which works the same as the Steam Link app) is very close, but Nvidia recently announced that it plans to discontinue service in February 2023. Nvidia now directs users to its cloud gaming platform GeForce now (which I’ve personally experienced poor performance with, despite paying the priority tier) or, frustratingly, the Steam Link app. I also found that other cloud streaming platforms such as Google Stadia were effectively unplayable due to latency. While cloud gaming technology is neat, it’s still not a viable replacement for hardware like the Steam Link.

An array of devices on a table, all displaying the Nvidia GeForce Now streaming service.

I get mixed results with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, but the GamesStream feature for Nvidia Shield was near perfect. Unfortunately, this service will be closed in February 2023.
Picture: Nvidia

Apart from searching for used Steam Link ads online, there are two solutions left. The first is to plug my TV directly into my router via an Ethernet cable. This will likely fix at least some of the connectivity issues, but it’s slightly infuriating that I’ve 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 shell out a pile of cash for a small PC dedicated to my TV, like an Intel NUC. I’m only half thinking about it, because it could cost over a thousand dollars, and I already have a perfectly usable gaming PC in another room. In the end, that’s a hell of a lot of money to spend to replicate an experience that cost me less than a cup of coffee.

Steam Link hardware was doomed to obsolescence due to its limitations

Valve’s reasoning for ditching the dongle is sound – its 1080p cap would have ultimately made it obsolete, and the software version can be used on non-HDMI devices. Still, I’m far from the only person to feel similar dissatisfaction with the app. Reddit threads are still regularly asking for help with troubleshooting issues, while other users have compared their experiences with the two versions of Steam Link to see which offered better performance.

Despite Google Stadia’s impending shutdown, many companies have also been working hard to push cloud gaming to consumers this year. Gaming Chromebooks were released with Nvidia’s GeForce Now service pre-installed for example, and Xbox Cloud Gaming is finally making its way to Meta Quest VR headsets. Game streaming from the cloud is great when it works, but for people like me, it’s just not a viable alternative to LAN-based game streaming yet. Until cloud gaming truly becomes the exciting frontier promised by these companies, nothing will beat this 1080p dongle.

Leave a Reply