So, even though a limited number of retail units have been in consumer hands since some time last month, this week finally saw the general widespread public release of Valve’s Steam Link and Steam Controller to the general public. While many reviews of the devices went up around last month’s limited scale release, I’ll today be talking about both these devices as they appear today, with a month of updates, fan created controller mappings and bug fixes behind it.
So, let’s start off talking about the Steam Link.
Steam Link is a small box designed to facilitate playing games from your high end gaming PC on your living room TV with minimal fuss. Rather than having to drag your PC from one room to another, rearranging cables and potentially dislodging cable tidy’s, this small, cheap box allows you to run games using your PC gaming rig, then stream the visuals over your home network to another TV.
Focusing first on the design of the item and package, everything you’ll find in box is immaculate. A small, sleek black box emblazoned with the steam logo comprises the hardware, about the size of your average PlayStation Vita game box. You’ve also got a fairly lengthy LAN cable, an HDMI cable, a power lead with interchangeable adapters for different regions and, well, that’s it. The unit features three pen USB slots, and no power button.
The box itself is immaculately presented, reminding me a lot of Apple’s sense of sleek polish. Sure it’s just a box, but that was pretty impressive when receiving the item. Considering how bare bones the hardware is, the presentation and packaging definitely made it feel like a high end purchase.
So, let’s talk about initial setup. Once all the cables are hooked up you’ll be greeted with a screen asking you to connect some kind of control interface. Out of the box it straight away recognised USB Microsoft controllers for the 360 and Xbox One, the new Steam Controller (once the dongle was plugged in, more on this later), a usb keyboard or a usb mouse. From there it’ll search your wired or wireless connection for PC’s with steam open and running. Input a 4 digit code given on your TV over at your PC and you’re synced up. Open Big Picture mode and you’re ready to roll.
In my tests, the Steam Link worked remarkably well. Many readers of this review will know my internet setup in my current flat is an absolute nightmare jumble of WIFI repeaters, 50m LAN cables and powerline adapters. Regardless of the perilous journey to and from my router, I experienced minimal input lag or quality drops while playing games. Blacks felt a little muted and occasionally there would be a minor framerate hiccup, but generally the results were very impressive.
It is worth noting that your PC has to be running, with its screen unlocked, while you play these games on your TV. The Steam Link only mirrors your screen and audio outputs as they are on your PC.
The big problem I have however had with the Steam Link in my first few days with it is the number of times I had to get up to my PC to tweak things. From new games like Fallout 4 opening behind Big Picture Mode necessitating going to the PC to click a system tray icon, to games refusing to spot input devices properly. In my experimenting with the device I found getting up to make a minor tweak on my PC a fairly common occurrence, which is less than ideal.
Right, now it’s time to talk about the Steam Controller. There’s going to be some overlap her, and some discussion of how the Steam Controller and Steam Link work together.
So, much like the Steam Link, the Steam Controller is a very elegantly presented and designed package, which was most evident when doing something as simple as popping batteries into it. Seriously, the rear of this device does not get the attention it deserves.
The main device itself features two large haptic track pads, the left of which has a directional pad lightly indented into its surface. In the middle we have essentially our start and select buttons, along with a home button. On the bottom left we have a standard analogue stick, with a small set of Xbox style letter buttons on the bottom right. the device also features a pair of bumpers, a pair of triggers and an odd back panel which can be clicked on the left or right side.
My first moment of delight was at the build quality of this rear section. Removing the back panel to access the battery compartments was a simple matter of flipping a spring loaded switch, popping off the thin back panel. Batteries are snugly slotted inside the hand grips, pushing down tabs which can be pushed to rotate the batteries out of their tight compartment. Nothing about this felt cheap or flimsy, it all felt very intelligently designed and robust.
Holding the controller in my hands, everything felt like it was in roughly the right places. Touch pads were in comfortable reach, as were analogue sticks and face buttons The only button that took a little stretching to reach was the home button, which is not accesses in the middle of play.
The analogue stick felt comfortable and responsive, but unfortunately lacks the anglular surrounds I crave for menu navigation. The face buttons also felt responsive enough, no problems with them. While the bumpers are simple digital buttons with minimal movement, the triggers have some analogue give in them before ytou feel a click that they are completely depressed.
The controller came with a small USB dongle, emblazoned with the Steam logo to make it easily identifiable amongst your array of other USB dongles. It also came with a lengthy usb cable and small cradle you could insert the dongle into if preferred.
When I put that USB dongle into the cradle, I was physically unable to remove it. Oh well, I guess it lives in the cradle now, rather than being viable for use as a mini dongle.
The controller itself worked fine in big picture mode, much like a 360 controller would. Incidentally, if you refuse to use big picture mode, the right track pad can be used to control your mouse, with the right trigger acting as a left click. I found this oddly useful for surfing YouTube videos from my couch. Plug the controller into the PC, sit back on my sofa and bring up the next video without having to get up.
So, how does the controller actually work in games? That’s a tough question to give a single answer to.
The left track pad, which features an inset directional pad, doesn’t feel good to use as a directional pad. Because this four directional pad is set into a single circular clickable button, there’s none of the tactile sense of which direction you’re hitting, and where you are when rolling between directions.
The right track pad is more often used like a track ball mouse, with interesting results. You flick your thumb in a direction to start moving your camera that way, but after letting go you’ll continue to move and slow to a stop gently, much like a track ball rolling to a slow stop. This certainly takes some getting used to. While it works great as a mouse replacement for games relying heavily on pointer controls, it was harder to get used to as an analogue stick replacement. I certainly felt more able to make tiny movements accurately, but I felt less in control of larger sweeping movements.
In terms of ergonomics, the controller is comfortable in my hands, shaped nicely and with the right kind of weight to it. The battery life seems very strong, but it’s unfortunate that there is no option to have it charged up via USB.
In terms of controller settings for games, the community created layouts were pretty decent for most games. While new AAA releases like Fallout 4 have their own developer created mappings available, other smaller games like Undertale have to rely on community curation. I generally went with whichever controller layout had the most people listed as using it, and rarely needed to tweak my controls.
Generally, I came away from the Steam Controller feeling like I’d need time to really get used to it. It works really well for mouse focused games, and I feel like over time it could become my PC controller of choice, but it’s certainly not a controller my brain feels ready for. Especially that D-Pad, this is not a controller to get if you want a good D-Pad.