Test Notes: Steam's In-Home Streaming Beta

By Will Smith

On Thursday, Valve opened the beta for streaming between Steam clients to more people, including Will. Here are his initial impressions.

Yesterday, Valve widened the beta for Steam's upcoming in-home streaming. In-home streaming lets you play games that are installed on one computer running Steam on any of the other computers running Steam in your home. If it works as advertised, in-home streaming will let you play those Windows-only games that require a big GPU on a laptop or small set-top box.

This isn't a new idea. Nvidia's SHIELD handheld, which we tested, came out last year. You can stream pretty much any game that plays on the Playstation 4 to the Vita. The scale and open nature of Steam is new though. While the previous implementations required proprietary hardware, Steam's in-home streaming beta seems to work with anything that will run Steam, using whatever controller you want. Steam's new streaming beta also allows you to connect across a wired Ethernet network for the first time, which has made a significant difference in our testing.

Once you're running the in-home streaming beta client on your computers, your Steam Library page will change a bit. Streaming works in both Big Picture mode and in the default desktop client. Instead of seeing just the games that are installed locally, the Library shows every game installed on every machine on your network (there's a new option that lets you filter local games only). When you launch a game that's available to install, already installed or available to stream from another computer on the network, Steam lets you choose the action you prefer.

Once you launch a game to stream, the game takes over both the server PC and the client. That means that you can't connect multiple clients to one gaming PC and expect to play more than one game at a time. As it is right now, you can't even do lighter tasks, like watching video or browsing the web on the machine that's actually rendering the game.

If your machine that hosts a game isn't available, it doesn't show up in the list. It's quite simple.

I spent a few hours last night testing more than a dozen games with the in-home streaming beta last night. For the first round of testing, I used my gaming PC (a hexacore Intel machine with a GeForce GTX 780 and 12GB of RAM) as the server and my SteamOS test box (an Intel NUC DC3217IYE) as the client. Both machines are wired into my home's Gigabit Ethernet network.

When everything worked well, I was surprised by both the quality of the streamed video and the imperceptible (to me, at least) latency between the two computers. The video was crisp and sharp, and while I did see an occasional compression artifact, they weren't distracting or intrusive. Most of the visual glitches took place in pre-rendered video, think cutscenes or transition screens. The only obvious The colors were slightly muted, compared to playing on the same monitor using a direct HDMI connection.

These images were captured on the client and server. Note the saturation of the red and blue balloons and Ben Franklin's purple jacket.

To evaluate latency, I tested a handful of high-precision games, which I had problems playing when I tested the SHIELD. Super Meat Boy is my go-to test for latency, and while I haven't busted out the high-speed camera yet, there was enough lag that I felt like it affected my ability to stick tight landings.

But, at least for me, indie games with relatively small install sizes and native Linux and OSX versions, like Super Meat Boy, aren't the kind of games that I'm interested in streaming. I want to play those AAA, Windows-only games on my TV without having to have a gaming PC in my living room. To that end, I streamed Bioshock Infinite to the SteamOS box for an hour or two last night. Aside from the occasional video compression artifact and a slightly muted color palette, the experience was indistinguishable from playing locally.

That's not to say there weren't bugs. I had trouble getting games with launchers, like Borderlands 2 or anything that uses UPlay to work. (Editor's note - Valve has since updated the app to support some of the titles Will had problems with. You can either launch the game twice in quick succession or use the -nolauncher launch option in Steam). I had several games that ran fine, except sound wouldn't play on the remote computer, including Batman: Arkham Origins and Saints Row IV. I had some problems with games that didn't properly capture sound, but those were fix by adjusting the default audio device in my Windows machine's Sound Preferences control panel. There were a couple of games that just crashed, including Call of Duty: Ghosts, FEZ, and Dishonored. The funniest bug I encountered was probably in Injustice, where every fight took place in super slow motion.

I also tried playing games over Wi-Fi, using my MacBook Air as the client. While this also worked, the latency was more pronounced and support for the gamepads was limited, probably due to OSX's lack of native gamepad support, more than a problem with streaming. Neither the the Xbox 360 controller (using the Tattieboogie driver), nor the PS3 controller (using the built in driver) worked well in the games I tested. However, I was able to play a bit of Torchlight 2 using the laptop's built-in trackpad. While the experience wasn't terrible, playing the same game on the same hardware using an Ethernet connection was a much better experience.

What's the conclusion? Steam's in-home streaming is pretty rough, but it's improving quickly. This isn't a demo disguised as a beta, it's software that's still in heavy development, with plenty of showstopper bugs and rough edges left to fix. If you're in the beta and have a couple of computers running Steam, there's no reason not to try it out though. Expect crashes and some things to fail in particularly exciting ways.

If you want to play PC games in your living room today, your best bet is still to run a long HDMI cable between your TV and PC, or just move the PC into the living room, at least until Valve works out the kinks with in-home streaming. When I found games that worked well, like Bioshock and Spelunky, the experience is very promising. While I can't imagine I'd ever play multiplayer games or competitive twitch games streamed across the house, what I've tested so far leaves me optimistic that I'll be using this technology to play single-player, story-driven PC games on my couch in the future.

If you want to know more about Steam's in-home streaming, you should read the FAQ and join the Steam discussion group. There's also a rough list of games that work and don't work in this Google Doc, but your experiences may vary from those listed. Mine certainly did. Unfortunately, there isn't a good list of hardware that does and doesn't work yet, it seems that part of the goal of this beta is to collect that information from testers.

We'll do a video about in-home streaming in coming weeks, but in the meantime, if you're in the beta, I'd love it if you'd share your experience in the comments below.

Editor's Note - 1/27/2014: Updated with info from further testing.