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