First Look at the Steam In-Home Streaming Beta

Intro, setup, and assumptions

 

We had previously written on Steam’s In-Home Streaming feature as part of the SteamOS, but recently Steam opened up a limited Windows beta for the streaming service. I was excited when I received the email inviting me to the beta, as I had two Windows machines I really wanted to test this on – my custom-built desktop and a laptop connected to my TV:

Custom-built desktop in home office:

  •  Processor: i7-2600 (3.4 GHz), quad-core
  • RAM: 16 GB DDR3-1600
  • Hard drive: 128 GB SSD (OCZ Vertex 3) x2
  • Video card: AMD Radeon HD 5850 (1 GB GDDR5)
  • Display: 22″ monitors (1680×1050) x3
  • OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit

Laptop connected to den TV:

  • Processor: i5-2520M (2.5 GHz), dual-core
  • RAM: 4 GB DDR3
  • Hard drive: 320 GB HD (7200 RPM)
  • Video card: Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • Display: 13.3″ laptop display (1366×726)
  • OS: Windows 7 Enterprise 64-bit

I had bought a Xbox 360 controller just for this occasion, which I planned to use on the laptop.

In-between the two rooms are ~30-40 feet of physical walking space, and a Powerline adapter for the network (laptop connected via Ethernet to the router (router is right behind the TV), with an Ethernet cable going from the router to the Powerline adapter; then, in the den, an Ethernet goes from the other Powerline adapter to a switch, with another Ethernet going from that switch to the desktop).

Before I setup anything in Steam, here were my assumptions:

  • This is one of Valve’s latest efforts, so it’s going to be quality.
  • This is a beta, so the quality may be limited.
  • While the host computer running the game will need to be decently beefy (at least enough to play the game well), the client computer that the game’s being streamed to will really just need a solid network connection. (It’s important to note that the Steam In-Home Streaming beta intro page doesn’t give minimum specifications for the host or client computers, as part of the beta is Valve assessing computer performance. They direct you to the discussions pages for sharing your experiences, which I plan to do with the info in this article.)

So how did my assumptions pan out, and what kind of experience did I have? (Hint: I was wrong.)

 

Round 1!

 

First thing I did was follow the streaming introduction link from the email Valve sent me. The most important piece of info was to opt into the Steam client beta, which I did on the desktop. I then made sure to open Steam on both computers and log into each, and then went to the Settings page and clicked on In-Home Streaming to check the connection.

First roadblock was that the Steam client wasn’t the same version on each computer. I hadn’t used Steam on the laptop much at all over the past six months, so I had to get that updated before the in-home streaming would allow me to continue. (Note that I didn’t mention opting into the Steam client beta on this laptop. More on that later.)

I connected my controller to the laptop, made sure it loaded fine, and I was ready to go!

I started up a Skyrim streaming session…and to be honest, it sucked. There was a good bit of stuttering, and load times took forever (and keep in mind, my desktop has some well-performing SSDs; a normal load time for any portion of Skyrim is ~5 seconds or less) – to the point that I would walk away in frustration.

I decided to try something else as the client computer – maybe there really does need to be some power present for in-home streaming to be effective?

On to round 2!

 

Round 2!

 

This time I chose a higher-end laptop to connect to the den TV:

  • Processor: i5-2520M (2.5 GHz), dual-core
  • RAM: 8GB DDR3
  • Hard drive: 500 GB HD (7200 RPM)
  • Video card: NVIDIA N12P-NS1 (1 GB)
  • Display: 15.6″ laptop display (1600×900)
  • OS: Windows 7 Enterprise 64-bit

Note that the major differences are the RAM and display, but most notably the video card. This one has a discrete (not on-board) video card with 1 GB of video memory, and I’ve played Skyrim on it before with no issues (however, load times are higher because this is a HDD instead of a SSD).

I was pretty excited when I was getting the laptop set up, anticipating the higher-quality experience from this set of hardware. I loaded Steam, it was fully updated…but the In-Home Streaming area in Steam’s Settings said the clients were different versions. What? I checked on both the desktop and the laptop and both said the same thing – different client versions. I uninstalled Steam on the laptop and reinstalled it – same error. I looked at the client version numbers on each computer – just like the message stated, they were different numbers. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me – why, if I just reinstalled it, is it showing a different version number? It was a fresh install!

Then I stumbled upon the issue online – I hadn’t enabled the Steam client beta on the new laptop.

That’s why there was a different version number – the Steam client beta has a completely different version number, one that would be the same as the desktop (where I had already enabled it). For some odd reason I already had the beta enabled on the original laptop (remember, while setting up the In-Home Streaming I never enabled the Steam client beta on that laptop, yet it still worked), but hadn’t activated it previously on the new laptop.

Lesson learned: always make sure the Steam client beta is enabled on both computers.

After that fiasco I connected my Xbox 360 controller to the new laptop and got to work. I started Skyrim, and it was much better. Noticeably better. While there was the occasional stutter it wasn’t nearly as often, and while load times would occasionally drag on they weren’t nearly as long. It was a much more enjoyable experience.

One wonderful, amazing thing to note: this can work for non-Steam games when you’ve added the shortcut to Steam. I don’t launch Skyrim from Steam normally, I use a different executable (SKSE) with a link in Steam. I was able to play Skyrim both from the Steam version and the SKSE version executables.

 

Choices, choices, choices

 

Despite that recent success, I had a choice to make: did I really want to play Skyrim with a controller? While the game worked this time (and the controller worked about 1,000,000,000% better than the $10 cheap-o controller I had previously purchased), I much preferred playing Skyrim with the precision I could get from a keyboard and mouse.

So I switched to trying out Grand Theft Auto: Vice City instead. Unfortunately the game wasn’t made to work 100% with a Xbox 360 controller. While I’ve since found a solution online, I decided to try out CounterStrike: Global Offense instead.

CounterStrike was a lot of fun to play via In-Home Streaming, but it took a little bit of effort to get the 360 controller working with it. I enjoyed playing it for about 30 minutes until I started yearning for the precision of my keyboard and mouse.

But overall I’d say the beta was an awesome success, and here’s why:

While I started out very disappointed, I was able to rectify the situation with a little bit of hard work and research. I don’t mind that, especially where a beta’s involved. And maybe my experience will help others have a better in-home streaming experience as well.

But this goes much, much farther than that. I’m no longer restricted by where I can play my games. If I want an immersive, multi-screen, keyboard and mouse experience, I’ll stick with my desktop. If I want a TV and controller experience, I’ll head over to the den and start up some streaming. The choice enables me to pick the appropriate method and go with it. Home-wise, I’m only bound by the ability of Steam to stream.

That’s amazing. That’s revolutionary. That’s Valve.

All I can hope is that this ability continues, and that it becomes a bit more stable. Its impact on the gaming industry (especially PC gaming) will be exponential, far-reaching, and exciting. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Valve does with it, and to trying out even more games on my TV in the den.

Anyone want to create a PC port of Project Gotham Racing 2 for me?

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