Let's get this out of the way first, if you're considering buying these two pieces of hardware it should be because your setup needs a change. If you're content to play MMORPGs and PC games from your desk, using mouse and keyboard or an Xbox 360 controller, you don't need either of them. If you’re the kind of player that would like to play their PC games from the couch, however, or are simply looking for more customization in your game pad, then each of these items is worth your time to consider.
The Steam Link is a quick and unobtrusive way to stream your PC games to your television, not unlike Google's Chromecast. Retailing for $50, the unit automatically discovers the PCs on your network and connects for streaming capability at the push of a button. As long as the program can be launched through Steam, it should, theoretically, stream seamlessly to your television.
The unit itself is small and lightweight without feeling chintzy. It features a power input, an ethernet port, and three USB inputs for mouse, keyboard, and a controller. Out of the box, Valve offers support for most of the major gamepads, including the Xbox 360 controller and Sony’s Dualshock 4, but also works, albeit unsupported, with most other standard controllers. Racing wheels and flight sticks are the current big exceptions, so you’re out of luck if you’re looking to use a wheel in The Crew. The go-to control method, however, is easily the Steam Controller.
Valve’s first controller is a bit of a mixed bag. Physically, it leaves something to be desired. While not feeling cheap, it does feel lighter than a standard Xbox 360 gamepad. The grips angle also upward compared to the typical controllers initially making it feel odd in the hand. However, more unique replaced both the right joystick and D-Pad with laptop-like touchpads. Both pads attempt to fill these gaps with moderate success. While the rest of the pad is similar, the controller also features clickable triggers and grips for extra inputs.
What truly makes the Steam Controller special is its customization. Every button can be remapped to standard mouse, keyboard, and gamepad inputs. The face buttons can also be held to shift the controller into multiple modes, allowing every input to carry multiple bindings. As if this weren’t enough, most inputs also allow you to tweak “advanced options” to modify touch bindings, dead zones, response curves, and more. This is especially important with the touchpad, which is finnicky between the different presets, and downright annoying on the “joystick” settings.
The software makes playing with these settings a breeze. Backing out to the customization screen is just a few presses away from any within game and doesn’t require a restart to take effect. Steam also provides a number of templates and even lets developers recommend presets. Users can also upload their own remaps for games native to Steam. In the future, I could see this being a huge boon to getting up and running, as I routinely spent an inordinate amount of time playing with settings, but for now user templates are hit or miss, and without any rating system it’s hard to tell what’s worth trying.
How Do They Work?
Note: Beyond initial testing, this hardware was used on a wired ethernet connection with speeds of 100Mbps down, 1Mbps up, dual nVidia 580GTX video cards in SLI, and an Intel i5 2500k CPU.
It’s hard to say that this little device is anything less than fantastic. The ease of getting it up and running was astounding. Within five minutes of plugging it in, it updated itself, founding Steam running on my gaming PC, and was ready to stream. This was the case using wired ethernet and WiFi.
I did have some problems on launch day but they been cleared up with updates. There was noticeable video and audio lag, but, taking some advice from Steam forum users, I disabled hardware encoding/decoding to fix the video. The audio lag required an update to my audio drivers and opting into Steam Beta downloads to solve.
Today, I can stream games to my television with only the barest amount of delay. Lag is nearly imperceptible in all but twitch shooters like Planetside 2. This is not the case when using WiFi, which provides a far worse experience. For every other type of game, and especially MMORPGs, the Link’s in-home streaming is a revelation.
The Steam Controller took a much longer time to weasel its way into my good graces. Trying to play my first game with the “gamepad” preset -- the most natural thing in the world -- gave a terrible first impression to the right touchpad. “Mouse Joystick” or, in games that support dual control schemes, “Mouse” provides a much better experience and has some of the best haptic feedback I’ve ever felt. Regardless, for most games designed with a gamepad in mind, the Steam Controller felt like a well-meaning substitute. It wasn’t bad, and sometimes worked pretty well, but never felt like the go-to option it should.
That said, where the Controller excels is bringing mouse and keyboard games to the palm of your hand. It’s not easy to get things programmed just right but once they are, games you never thought could be played on a controller suddenly are, and with ease. This isn’t a universal, of course, and there will always be games where a mouse and keyboard are simply required, but after programming everything in, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction that I was making my own console experience. Since you can upload your presets, spending all of that time programming things in felt worthwhile because it might actually help somebody. It cannot be overstated just how powerfully customizable this controller is.
All told, between the existing face buttons, clicks, double taps of the touch pad, outer ring of the D-pad, and mode shifting, there are upwards of 40 mappable buttons. With movement and mouse clicks factored in, this is closer to 35. The controller also features a gyrometer for motion control of the mouse or binding actions to flicks in a certain direction. No other game pad in this price range offers this much customization. It opens up a whole new way to play your games and that’s exciting.
Read on for how it works with MMORPGs!