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August 7, 2018

Steam Link Beta: A cool concept with limited use cases

by John_A

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Steam Link lets you play PC games on your phone, and it works surprisingly well!

The Steam Link mobile app is like a dream concept for anyone who’s ever thought how neat it would be to play PC games on your phone. In an age of gamer phones and the Nintendo Switch offering outstanding options for gaming on the go, whatever clear distinction there was between “gaming” and “mobile gaming” is disappearing fast.

Valve’s contribution with the Steam Link app to let you stream your favorite Steam games from your PC to your mobile phone over a Wi-Fi connection. It’s still very much beta software, but it’s functional and available in the Play Store so I had to give it a run.

Download: Steam Link Beta (Free)

Surprised by how well it all works

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The first thing I’ll say is that I’m really surprised how easy it is to set up. To create a connection you need your PC and phone to be on the same network and you’ll also need a controller to pair with your phone. The app recommends a Steam controller, but any Bluetooth controller should work (I use the SteelSeries Stratus XL).

Setting up the connection is dead simple, as the app walks you through the steps each time you load it up. You’ll need to pair your phone to your PC using a unique code generated on Steam on your PC, and once the connection is made your PC will start displaying the in-home streaming menu interface. My Steam library is fairly sparse, but I was able to load up Rocket League and Gonner which I figured would be good games to test as any amount of input lag would ruin the experience of gaming online or the precise controls needed for a platformer in a hurry.

Steam Link is dead simple to set up and a blast to play when the wireless connection is solid.

I’ve tested Steam Link on a couple different devices including the Razer Phone, a Galaxy S8, and a Pixel XL running the Android P beta. Both the Razer Phone and Galaxy S8 looked amazing with the latter’s higher screen refresh rate and Samsung’s outstanding display, but I was most surprised by the Pixel XL, which was the most consistent performer despite running a beta operating system. There was negligible input lag across all phones I tested and outside of a few weird bugs (to be expected with beta software),

When the connection was strong and there was no noticable lag, playing games using Steam Link was a blast. I couldn’t help wondering if my Rocket League opponents would be extra salty knowing that I was scoring on them while playing on my phone — or what my teammates would think when the app would glitch up for sometimes 30 seconds at a time and my car coasted aimlessly around the arena. In my experience, the app never crashed and while the action hung up every once and a while it always came back and seemed to be more an issue with my internet connection than an issue with the app itself.

Justifying the experience

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Overall, I found the setup process dead simple and the results to be satisfactory overall for an app still in beta testing, but the one thing that I had the most difficulty figuring out is real life scenarios where I would actually use this app. The novelty of being able to play PC games on your phone feels redundant when you know your phone is just mirroring another larger display in your house.

The first time I tested the Steam Link app, I stayed in the room with the computer and caught myself looking up at the monitor to play instead of down at my phone — which really defeats the purpose of linking the PC to my phone, no? It got me thinking: if you’re at home and wanting to play computer games, what exactly would compel you to use Steam Link? It’s not like your PC is freed up from running the game itself, and it’s not like it frees you up to play in your backyard as you need your Wi-Fi signal strength as strong as possible to avoid lag.

To get the most out of Steam Link, you need to justify a reason to use it in the first place.

But as it happens, the following day my roommate had set up in the computer room to recording some music on her laptop, so I quietly set up the Steam Link connection on the PC and retreated to my room to test the app. Had my roommates wanted to use the PC while I was gaming I would have been out of luck, but in this specific instance, Steam Link made sense and let me game without disturbing my roommate.

Beyond that, I guess you could also use Steam Link to play PC games on the toilet or while you take a bubble bath (which sounds quite nice, actually), but again in its current state and given the restrictions of needing to stay within your home Wi-Fi network, I’m still not sure how much practical value the Steam Link app offers to gamers outside of the novelty of it all.

The dream of playing PC games on your phone

Valve’s impact on gaming is well-documented. Since launching Steam back in 2003, it’s been the de facto destination for PC gamers eager to discover and download new games and the Steam community has become a great place for developers to get direct feedback and help from one of the gaming industry’s biggest distributors.

At its core, the Steam Link app is basically just a screen sharing app that casts your PC’s display to your phone — if you click an in-game link to a website you’ll be taken out of the game to your web browser on your PC desktop — but it does it really well and lets you sync up PC gameplay on your phone that looks and plays great when it’s working but is more than a bit frustrating when it lags.

It’s a huge step for gamers everywhere, though, as technology like this is bound to improve over time.

Download: Steam Link Beta (Free)

Have you tested out the Steam Link Beta?

Let us know your thoughts on this new way of gaming on Android! What’s the best game you’ve tested?

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