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Using Steam Link at all, downloading 10 patches and watching it break in a different way, helps me understand why PC users so mad alla time.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) December 20, 2015
Last month I received my very own much-anticipated Steam Controller and Steam Link. I have not thoroughly explored the controller’s potential yet, but I have sunk quite some time into the link, a tiny black box meant to allow streaming of Steam games from one’s Steam-enabled computer to one’s television.
I do not recommend the purchase of this device, at least not for my fellow Mac users.
Over several weeks of usage, I have concluded that it simply doesn’t work nearly as well as it itself hopes. The little box brims with confident optimism, you see: I found its whole usage-experience right up to the point of actually launching a game quite pleasurable. It detected my new Steam Controller quite easily, and let me browse the Steam store and my library with all the easy friendliness of a dedicated game console.
Upon actually launching a game, however, things go awry quickly.
Initially, the problem seemed obvious: local network lag. The picture quality looked terrible, and controller responsiveness felt not at all immediate. A friend on Twitter helped me see that my home’s 802.11_n_ WiFi network, while cutting-edge in 2009, failed to clear a modern computer-game player’s bar — one simply must have a more modern 802.11_ac_ setup to have any expectation of success here.
To the Apple Store for a new router, then! Well, no: while new routers do support the latest and fastest WiFi standard, my laptop, a circa-2012 MacBook Pro with 100% Apple-style non-upgradeable components, most certainly did not. Now, I’ve upgraded my main computer for the sake of a single game or software package before, but in this case it somehow didn’t feel like the right path.
Ultimately, I rectified this initial problem in a crude but effective way with the purchase of an inexpensive Ethernet adapter for my MacBook — a machine which, on Jony Ive-driven design principles, has for years pooh-poohed native support for such unseemly fat connectors. Then I ran an ancient twisted-pair cable from my TV to my office. I couldn’t close my office door anymore, but now Steam at last looked great on our TV.
For a little while. Quickly, we discovered that after a few minutes of play, every game attempted would melt into a colorful glitchscape on the television, even though it continued working on my Mac, over in my office. This would render the link completely unusable until given a hard reboot. (As the Steam Link itself has no hardware interface, this maneuver means crawling behind your nest of set-top boxes, pulling the power cord out, then plugging it back in.)
The very young device has new firmware updates available with each most every new session one has with it. I would wait a day, accept these updates, and find either no change, or this problem replaced with a different one. After the most recent raft of patches, the device immediately and irretrievably freezes on the launch of any game at all.
From the on-screen settings menu, the Steam Link offers quite prominently a choice to toggle between the “beta build” or “public build” of the Steam Link firmware. Each such switch-flip takes several minutes, as the link downloads and applies yet more patches. The presence of these options tempts one to think that perhaps the solution to one’s current problems lies behind whatever the opposite of one’s current build is, and the wait involved encourages rising hope that this time, this time, we may actually, finally, play our games. I have found this to always end in disappointment.
Through this toggle and other exercises, I have by now spent hours fiddling with the Steam Link, attempting to carry it to a point where it can dependably bring Mac games to my TV without further fiddling. The link itself contains no documentation other than wordlessly ultra-minimal IKEA-style setup guide, and suggests both here and in its on-screen “support” options that one can find help by visiting the Steam user forums, figuring things out together with your fellow link owners.
This makes sense to me, or anyway it jibes with my understanding of self-identified “PC gamers”. These people enjoy a hobby that, when practiced to its fullest, involves constant contact with a larger user community in order to keep up to speed with the latest game and PC hardware news and trends, such that one can make informed decisions as they continuously tune, maintain, and periodically upgrade or replace one’s own game-playing hardware. I get how this can easily take up at least as much time attention as one spends actually playing the games that run on this hardware. I understand the appeal, for those to whom this appeals — I really do.
Alas, I today myself simply lacking the disposable attention required for this aspect of the hobby. This is, in large part, why I prefer to use Macs. I understand that this likely represents a personal failing. I have no doubt that many would eagerly treat my problems with the Steam Link as a puzzle to overcome. For me, though, I really can’t see it as anything other than a black box that does not work.
Tonight I disconnected the link from my television, rolled up all its cables, and put it away. I intend to try it again in several months’ time, or maybe after the next time we move, in hopes that its software will have stabilized by then. I feel sad and frustrated over this, because I saw in the fifty-dollar device a very cost-effective way to share computer games with my family and friends in our living room, rather than playing them all by myself, hunched over my laptop. On the other hand, I can close my office door again.
I can still hope that the stand-alone Steam Machine consoles, perhaps, will end up worth the deeper investment they demand. I eagerly await verdict of these boxes from my friends.
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