Hands on: Steam Link lets you play Mac and PC games on iOS and tvOS with a few hiccups

Posted:
in General Discussion edited May 17
Steam Link, the iOS and tvOS application that lets you play your Mac titles on your other devices, launched on beta on Thursday. We spent the last few days testing it out on a variety of different games, and can tell you what to expect.



What you can do

Using the new Steam Link app, you can play nearly any Steam game that you can play on your Mac or PC on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. There are a variety of asterisks with that, such as the fact both devices must be on the same network and connected through Ethernet or 5GHz Wi-Fi, but this is a pretty minor limitation these days.

Valve's official Steam controller is also able to be paired directly with your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to control those games. If you either don't like the divisive Steam controller, any MFi controller will work as well, including the exceptional Steel Series Nimbus.

Steam Link App on iPad


In reality, what is happening is your computer is doing all the heavy lifting, and streaming a live video of the game on the screen. Steam has had a version of this out for a while, but it was limited to going from one computer to the other.

We tried out a whole host of different games streaming from our Mac to an iPad and an Apple TV. While there were a few hiccups along the way, we were pleased with the experience, overall.

Getting started

For us to get up and running, we only needed a few things: A Mac or a PC with the beta version of Steam running plus an iPhone, iPad or Apple TV with the Steam Link app installed.

Steam Link Touch Controls


We then went through a small pairing process with the host computer before we connected our Steam controller to our device. Technically, you don't need a controller for every game. On some, touch controls can be acceptable, but it is a much better experience using an actual controller over the touch screen.

In the Steam Link app, a summary screen let us know that we were successfully connected to our Mac, Steam was running, our controller was connected, and the host connection was solid. A quick tap or click on the "Start Playing" button jumped us right into the game after an exceptionally brief load time.

Playing games

We tested out a variety of different games, on several different devices. You know, for testing purposes of course. To start, we hopped onto our 12.9" iPad Pro and played several season matches of Rocket League. Rocket League, for those of you who haven't played it, is essentially an amped up version of soccer played with crazy vehicles, and a loose interpretation of gravity.

The experience was pretty smooth overall. During the game, we had absolutely no hiccups. The Steam controller felt extremely responsive as we played, with not a noticeable bit of lag to be found. After several rounds of gameplay, we did run into a minor issue on the menu screen. The live stream of the game was still coming through clear, as was the audio, but our Steam controller lost the ability to actually control the game. No amount of button mashing could register with the game. Fortunately, a quick exit of the game on the Mac and a relaunch fixed the issue.

We moved to our iPhone X next, which we were most skeptical about. The iPhone X is no slouch, being quite the capable gaming platform on its own. However, the graphics and smoothness were still extremely impressive on such a small device. We still did start to feel a bit old as we frequently squinted at our mobile displays to play a title designed for a computer setup -- but it was fun nonetheless.

Playing on the iPad and iPhone is great, but nothing like playing on a 60-inch 4K TV. Our 4K Apple TV was used while playing on the screen, and really it felt like we were playing on a console, and not Apple's sub-$150 set-top box.

An Apple TV is more expensive, but at least in our installation, it's vastly preferred over having to pick up one of Valve's Steam Link hardware boxes that will run you between $37-$49. Just a quick app install allows us to play all of our best PC or Mac games on our TV with no additional hardware.

Steam Controller


As far as the official Steam controller is concerned, it is still not an actual MFi controller, which means it won't work with any other games on your Apple TV that require a controller, or be used for other purposes on an iOS device. But, the controller can navigate the tvOS UI, as well as play/pause and other basic functions so at least in part, it mimics the Siri Remote in that regard.

We chose "Rocket League," "Portal 2," and "Team Fortress 2" to test.

We had a few hiccups at first, with the controller able to navigate the tvOS UI, launch a game, but somehow unable to control the game. But, quitting the macOS Steam client fixed the issue.

When we asked Valve what was going on, they said they saw rare occurrences where after an initial session the controller will stop communicating, and relaunching Steam on the Mac would fix it. This seemed to be the fix in our case because it did not happen after that first time on the Apple TV -- but we'd like to see it fixed in the future.

When playing games like "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal 2," we noticed a few other issues. Both titles are made primarily for keyboard use, and while the Steam Controller is compatible with both, the lineage is clear. On "Team Fortress 2," we had a hard time actually launching a game likely because of the keyboard-centric design. It ended up being easier to start the game on our Mac then returning to the Apple TV to play.

Games also didn't fill the entire TV screen, resulting in black bars on the sides. It became less noticeable over time, but something that wouldn't be present if we were playing natively.

Once we were playing on our Apple TV, the in-game experience was pretty solid. It wasn't a crystal clear 4K picture, but it looked good and we didn't have any issues with lag, even with everything going through the Wi-Fi connection we were using to test.

Inevitable downsides

There are going to be clear downsides to a service like this. Aside from a bit bit of stuttering that happened on occasion, the biggest limitation is the fact you are tied to your home network.

Steam Link, while great in its own right, is still no full replacement for more of these games getting ported to other platforms as they mature. That won't ever happen completely though: there will always be games that are exclusive to Mac or PC that just never make the jump to iOS, tvOS, or Android, regardless of how powerful those platforms become.

Also, be aware that if something happens on your Mac to change the app focus, such as a FaceTime call came in or when an alert appears in Safari, you have to go back to your computer to return to our game.

Love it or leave it

Steam Link Library on Apple TV


Sure, we had our fair share of minor issues while playing through Steam Link, but it was so much fun once we actually got into the games.

In-game, the stream was smooth, controller responsive, and graphics fairly impressive. Within settings, there are options to change the graphics to faster, balanced, or beautiful if graphics fidelity is important to you.

Steam Link is also a free app, just offering another way to play some of your favorite games. While it was pretty entertaining playing on the Apple TV, our favorite experience ended up being our iPad, which had the utmost portability within our home.

Some games we will continue to prefer to play directly on our Mac. But others have found a new life through all the different devices we have in our home.

Availability

Steam Link will be launching in beta, starting on Thursday. It is available as a free download on Android and will be available on iOS and tvOS as soon as it passes Apple's review process.

Later this summer, Valve will also launch the Steam Video app which provides access to TV shows and movies owned by the user. It will work over Wi-Fi as well as LTE, and includes streaming and offline modes.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    claire1claire1 Posts: 100unconfirmed, member
    Why these games just aren't just available on tvOS is inexcusable. How hard is it for Cuphead to run on Apple TV 4K?

    Apple needs to take these lost billions seriously.
    elijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 13
    D_CMillsD_CMills Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    Does it support two-player gaming? That is the one thing I desperately want on my Apple TV. The thing supports it, but the games are sparse. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 13
    supadav03supadav03 Posts: 350member
    Finally a way to make the Apple TV not suck at gaming. Don’t play many games on my Mac but I do have a steam account. Can definetly see myself using this often. Reviews seem to be pretty positive so far. 
    claire1watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 13
    22july201322july2013 Posts: 163member
    At first you say "you can play nearly any Steam game" then in the video you say "you essentially get a live stream of what's on your computer screen. ... If another application pops up that's what you're going to see". So which is it? Is it for playing games or is it a live stream for anything from games to apps to whatever? If the second quote is accurate, then this product is not really game-specific and the introduction should say so. I am actually totally confused if this product is in some way specific to games or if it's a generic streaming solution. If it's generic, I may buy it.
  • Reply 5 of 13
    talgoretalgore Posts: 4member
    Did you test it with games that have launchers? When I've tried that in the past, it never worked.
  • Reply 6 of 13
    claire1claire1 Posts: 100unconfirmed, member
    supadav03 said:
    Finally a way to make the Apple TV not suck at gaming. Don’t play many games on my Mac but I do have a steam account. Can definetly see myself using this often. Reviews seem to be pretty positive so far. 
    No it still sucks. it's not a standalone app. Even if it was, that would be weird buying games from a 3rd party service to play on Apple TV.
  • Reply 7 of 13
    MacProMacPro Posts: 17,291member
    Thanks, great review.

    Questions to the testers: I assume this would work fine for the host machine to be the Mac running in Bootcamp?  Given there are so many more games available for the PC, e.g. GTA V, I generally run Steam that way on my late 2013 6 core Mac Pro.  

    I realize I need the controller for the Apple TV but it sounds fun and I am tempted to get one. Regarding 4k, I have a 4K monitor as one of three screens on the 6 core Mac Pro using HDMI and running GTA V at 4K it slows down to about 30 f.p.s. from the 60 fps I get on the 2560 x 1440 size second monitor using Thunderbolt.  Obviously I have the graphics set to high settings in GTA V.  So given the Mac Pro has Catalyst on the two AMD GPUs and struggles at 4K, what Mac can stream to the Apple TV on a 4K TV at 60 f.p.s.?  I have a new Mac Book Pro with Touch bar arriving any day, will that be better than the older Mac Pro?  Or is this all about Bootcamp AMD drivers?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 13
    Andrew_OSUAndrew_OSU Posts: 128member, editor
    At first you say "you can play nearly any Steam game" then in the video you say "you essentially get a live stream of what's on your computer screen. ... If another application pops up that's what you're going to see". So which is it? Is it for playing games or is it a live stream for anything from games to apps to whatever? If the second quote is accurate, then this product is not really game-specific and the introduction should say so. I am actually totally confused if this product is in some way specific to games or if it's a generic streaming solution. If it's generic, I may buy it.
    It meant for Steam. So when you launch it on your iOS or tvOS device, Steam will become full screen, and the game will be streamed to your device. However, you can still control your Mac. So you could go to your Mac and purposefully move the window so you're looking at a webpage or a video.

    BUT, the audio is not going to go through, you don't really have control of such stuff, and there are simply far better ways of screen sharing to your devices.

    Steam specifically routes the game audio, and passes the controller inputs to the game.

    Also, it's free. So this isn't something you have to go and drop money on. You can just use it and try it for yourself.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 13
    Andrew_OSUAndrew_OSU Posts: 128member, editor
    MacPro said:
    Thanks, great review.

    Questions to the testers: I assume this would work fine for the host machine to be the Mac running in Bootcamp?  Given there are so many more games available for the PC, e.g. GTA V, I generally run Steam that way on my late 2013 6 core Mac Pro.  

    I realize I need the controller for the Apple TV but it sounds fun and I am tempted to get one. Regarding 4k, I have a 4K monitor as one of three screens on the 6 core Mac Pro using HDMI and running GTA V at 4K it slows down to about 30 f.p.s. from the 60 fps I get on the 2560 x 1440 size second monitor using Thunderbolt.  Obviously I have the graphics set to high settings in GTA V.  So given the Mac Pro has Catalyst on the two AMD GPUs and struggles at 4K, what Mac can stream to the Apple TV on a 4K TV at 60 f.p.s.?  I have a new Mac Book Pro with Touch bar arriving any day, will that be better than the older Mac Pro?  Or is this all about Bootcamp AMD drivers?
    It will absolutely run on Windows, even in Bootcamp. So that shouldn't be an issue.

    As far as streaming quality, Valve is telling us it is capable of 4K and 60fps, though most games will be sent over in 1080p. It would depend on your network connections and the preferences in settings.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 13
    crowleycrowley Posts: 5,421member
    Oh cool, I didn't realise there would be an Apple TV version too, so I can get rid of my Steam Link.  One less box!

    I wish that as part of this the Steam Controller could be usable with the Apple TV outside of the Steam app, i.e. as an MFI controller.  Is there any  chance of that happening?
  • Reply 11 of 13
    I've been advocating for this for some time now. Glad to see it happen. It helps fill the dearth of games on the AppleTV. Valve has made some very astute moves with Steam and I hope they continue to push their cross-platform paradigm. I had contemplated getting a SteamLink, but it's pretty hard to justify yet another box just to stream games, especially when I have the best streaming boxes available already connected with SteelSeries game controllers ready to go. I'm very pleased with my AppleTVs but there are still not very many games available, especially not with controller support. It's pretty sad considering that there are a few outstanding titles already on it that show how impressive games on it can be. Even more odd is that some great games available on the iPhone/iPad are missing entirely from the AppleTV. It probably doesn't help that Apple limited the storage so dramatically, but it's hard to imagine that it's really that difficult to port from iOS to tvOS. My $0.02, as ever.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 13
    22july201322july2013 Posts: 163member
    At first you say "you can play nearly any Steam game" then in the video you say "you essentially get a live stream of what's on your computer screen. ... If another application pops up that's what you're going to see". So which is it? Is it for playing games or is it a live stream for anything from games to apps to whatever? If the second quote is accurate, then this product is not really game-specific and the introduction should say so. I am actually totally confused if this product is in some way specific to games or if it's a generic streaming solution. If it's generic, I may buy it.
    It meant for Steam. So when you launch it on your iOS or tvOS device, Steam will become full screen, and the game will be streamed to your device. However, you can still control your Mac. So you could go to your Mac and purposefully move the window so you're looking at a webpage or a video.

    BUT, the audio is not going to go through, you don't really have control of such stuff, and there are simply far better ways of screen sharing to your devices.

    Steam specifically routes the game audio, and passes the controller inputs to the game.

    Also, it's free. So this isn't something you have to go and drop money on. You can just use it and try it for yourself.
    Good point about the thing being free. What I meant, but didn't say clearly, was that I might buy a more up-to-date Apple TV to be able to use it. But you also have the same ambiguity as the main article (1) "It is meant for Steam" and (2) "you can still control your Mac." This is the same ambiguity in the article that confuses me. I don't care what the developers "meant" it for, all I want is an accurate description of what it can do. I'm sorry to hear you say "the audio is not going to go through" but then you also say "Steam specifically routes the game audio" so once again I'm confused in that I don't know exactly what audio, if any, goes through. I'll be the first to admit I'm dim... so I need accurate and unambiguous product descriptions.
  • Reply 13 of 13
    22july2013, the article does leave out a few important details, but here’s what you need to know:

    The Steam Link app provides a way to stream video games to your preferred iOS device. The app connects to your gaming-capable PC or Mac running on the same local network. It takes control of the Steam client, and enables you to navigate your Steam game library to choose a game and launch it.

    Once the game is running it streams the game audio and video back across the network to your iOS device.  That’s it in a nutshell. If you are trying to get  some other experience out of a Steam link you may want to look elsewhere. 

    Hope that helps!
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