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The RPS Verdict: Steam In-Home Streaming Beta

The power to play PC games IN ANOTHER ROOM

Featured post A computer and a stream, yesterday

The first raft of people have been allowed into the beta of Steam’s upcoming In-Home Streaming tech, which enables you to stream pretty much any Steam game (and even a few non-Steam games) from your main games PC to another PC elsewhere in the house. Among those people are Graham and Alec, who’ve been trying it out on assorted hardware, and who here sit down to have a good old chinwag about their respective experiences. It’s a great idea on paper, but does it really work? Yes, obviously it does or they wouldn’t have released it. But does it work well? Sir, you are being clickbaited.

(Yes ok it works quite well, sort of, depending on your setup and which games you try, but please read the article anyway).

Big fat proviso to all of the below is that this is a beta. Nothing in it can be considered finished or feature-complete, and everything in this article may be irrelevant a few months from now. With that out the way, here is our true and honest and maybe even occasionally accurate document of our experiences over the last week.

Alec: I was very disappointed that Home Streaming cannot stream my home to somewhere else, for instance the Caribbean. Other than that, I’ve been reasonably impressed with its initial beta. How are you feeling about it, broadly?

Graham: I caught a cold immediately after using it, and so am beginning to suspect “in-home streaming” was code for what it would do to my nose.

(boom boom)

My feelings are that it is very impressive. It doesn’t quite work well enough for me to use it, but it gets 95% of the way there, and I’m pretty sure the last 5% is my fault. What are you streaming to and from? Hardware-wise, I mean.

Alec: I’ve got Surface Pro 2 as client and a Core i7-920 PC as server, overclocked to 3.8ghz, which although about five years old seems totally happy with everything, including this, just about. Though I am now tempted to finally upgrade to see if it drops the lag, as I am really, really keen to do a lot of PC-Surface streaming, with the Surface plugged into my telly as an alternative Steam machine kinda thing.

The source PC’s processor appears to be a major factor, as apparently there’s no hardware encoding of the videostream yet – so basically it’s taxing your chip pretty hard, and if you’ve not got a relatively modern quad-core kinda thing that’s not going to work terribly well, unless you set the resolution pretty low.

My experience is that – presuming one does not have an ideal networking setup – it very much depends on the game. For instance, I pretty much exclusively played Might & Magic X streamed from my main PC to my Surface Pro thinger, as it’s turn-based nature meant lag wasn’t much of an issue. DayZ was… ill-advised, however. It looked as though it was running well, but the lag was untenable.

Graham: I have issues on the other end. I went straight for the lag-sensitive games, trying it with OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast and Nidhogg. I get a “Slow Decode” message, which means that the four-year-old netbook I’m streaming to isn’t up to the task.

Alec: ah, that’s interesting. It’s going to get better for lower-end laptops when they bring in hardware encode/decode, but I don’t know if a netbook’s integrated graphics is up to that or not. The Surface, painful price aside, is kinda the ideal device for this, as it has a decent chip and a lovely screen – just lacking graphics, which this in theory resolves.

Your first port of call should to try lower resolutions I think. You can set that in the Steam settings, rather than tweak the game whenever you switch machines.

Graham: To the software’s credit, it does its very best to compensate for whatever hardware and network you’re running it on. It automatically lowered the resolution of games, and watching the log, would try to target a stable fps.

Alec: What’s your networking setup for this?

Graham: I’m with BT Infinity, which means a modern, fast router. My main PC is connected to that router via a USB dongle however, which is less than ideal. The router is also at the other side of the house from the machines I’m streaming between. But I do a lot of streaming in my house without too much trouble, running Plex Media Server to bounce video around and streaming my PC desktop to an iPad for gaming in the past. So I know the network is up to the task. How about you?

Alec: Surface on wifi, which is sometimes hitting about 270mbps but more often than not is about 108 even when about two foot away from the router, due to something terrible in the walls. PC is in my weird tiny boxroom outside the flat, on powerline networking. So I’ve got two different kinds of lag and slow-down, basically, as nothing’s directly wired to the router. I’m going to buy some very long network cables to temporarily use, just to see what difference it makes.

Like I say, turn-based games are absolutely fine, and I can manage 1080p for that which looks lovely, but the beautiful dream is to plug the tablet into the telly for bigscreen meathead games. I think it’s viable, for singleplayer stuff at least, if I can persuade my partner to let me run cables all over the place.

Graham: With previous streaming attempts, I always stuck to turn-based stuff. I use the Splashtop app on iPad to play Football Manager from the couch. But I want Steam streaming mainly so I can stick action games on my TV and play with a pad on the couch.

It’s basically unusable for me right now, but I’m completely sold on it in theory, and already impressed by its early implementation. I’m getting a new mini-PC in a couple of weeks that it might work better with, and excited about that. I wasn’t quite expecting to be so quickly convinced.

Alec: All told Home Streaming’s an elegant solution – I love that it all happens within Steam, just by being signed in at two place at once, and obviously you’ve got all your saves available from wherever.

But yeah, I think PCs with decent processors are ultimately going to be more important than networking is. I’m really impressed by however they’re compressing the video – stuff like Splashtop always looked pretty… YouTube to me, but M&MX at 1080p looked near-indistinguishable from the real thing.

Basically, I’m impressed enough that I’m probably going to spend an unreasonable amount of time and money getting it running as well as possible

Graham: Yeah. Do you know if it’s doing any on-the-fly scaling of that compression? Splashtop will adapt to look like a low-res jpg if your network is struggling.

Alec: I’m not sure, nothing I’ve noticed first-hand

Graham: Steam seemed to decide that it should try to stream games at 15fps, but I didn’t see compression artefacts, just dropped frames.

Alec: Oh, one issue I hit was that my wireless mouse interfered with the stream, so it was incredibly jerky and unplayable. But I switched the Surface’s wifi to my router’s 5ghz network rather than the usual 2.4ghz and that got around that. Which is a good tip for anyone with a router/PC that supports 5Ghz wifi – dedicate that channel to the devices you’re using for home streaming, and leave poor old 2.4ghz for your phone and consoles and stuff. Less people use it so you’ll get less interference from neighbours’ networks.

Graham: Does this make something like the Surface suddenly more desirable? Would you strengthen your previous praise for it?

Alec: Yeah, while M&MX isn’t the prettiest game, seeing a full 3D thing running at 1080p with antialiasing and everything on what’s essentially a tablet was very much The Dream Realised. A vision of these things’ near future, I suppose – shortcutting to the time when they actually have decent onboard graphics.

I would imagine Valve are thinking hard about how to get this working on iPads and Nexuses and things. As, perhaps, are Sony.

Graham: Yeah, definitely. It’s exciting that in another year or two, this stuff will almost certainly be commonplace and trivially easy. In the meantime, I too am going to spend unreasonable time and money getting it to run as well as possible.

Alec: But the key to that is probably people like you – getting this viable on the older, weaker laptops and tablets people might have lying about. What it can’t be is the sole domain of people with two highish end devices (which I only have because they count as tax expenses. Rest assured I’m suitably impoverished otherwise).

Graham: Yes, definitely. I wonder how much more efficient they can make it. Video streaming works pretty well even with low-end parts, like say a Raspberry Pi. I wonder if there’s ever hope of Steam aiming that low.

Alec: Yeah, once they get the hardware decoding thing implemented, in theory that’s possible I think. And generally, Android stuff that people will find all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to connect controllers to is going to be appealing here.

I dunno, part of me thinks if this gets any better it’s shooting steam machines in the foot. Why have a thousand pound box under your telly if some tiny ARM box can stream whatever from a cheaper main PC?

Graham: Yeah, it’s strange. I wonder if the Steam Machines are there mainly for people who don’t have or want that main PC. They’re noisy and take up a lot of space. If you’ve offloaded a lot of general computing tasks to tablets, and you simply want something to game on, a Steam Machine might fit your life better.

Alec: I wonder if Steam Machines are more to do with making gaming PCs sexy and desirable rather than perceived as the ugly province of shut-ins. And also the whole taking down Windows thing – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I think Home Streaming’s off to a good start, and perhaps in a few months we’ll do another one of these to see how it’s come on. Also how many holes we’ve drilled into our walls to run cables through.

Graham: And how much money we’ve spent on new computer bits.

Alec: Yeah. It’s fascinating that this, not some big game release, is the prompt for an upgrade. Anyway, I’m going to go have another fiddle now. AND THEN I’LL TRY SOME HOME STREAMING.

Graham: I’m going to go stream my nose some more. BYE.

Alec: BYE

If you want to try Steam In-Home Streaming, you’ll need to join this here Steam group and wait patiently until your name is drawn from whatever invisible hat Valve are using to pick beta participants. Graham and I were super-keenos and joined the group as soon as we heard of it, hence having access already, so more than likely Johnny Come Latelies will be waiting a little while yet.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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