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Hands-on: Steam's in-home PC game streaming beta already feels like magic

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 30, 2014
Last night I played Assassin's Creed IV on a 2006 MacBook — the cheap, white plastic kind. It's a machine with a 1.83GHz processor and 4GB of RAM, and it might as well have no graphics card at all. It's a machine that was long ago relegated to backup status, good for word processing and Web surfing, and little else.

So Valve's hoping Steam's in-home streaming feature can provide a stopgap long enough to convince developers to join the SteamOS revolution. Whether or not that'll work is to be seen, but one thing's for certain: Valve's in-home streaming technology is off to an optimistic start.

The in-home streaming beta, for a beta, is far more polished than other things we've seen come out of Valve recently.

Once you're invited into the program, an In-Home Streaming preferences section appears in Steam's settings menu. Here you can tweak the bandwidth, framerate, and resolution that Steam sends out from the host PC, though Valve says you should leave each set to the default for optimal session performance.

Then you have to go and opt in to the beta on Steam on the other computer you plan on using. It'll run the same update, and you'll be all set — assuming everything goes perfectly.

Of course, things can never go perfectly. In my case, I updated my first computer, and then Valve released a new beta build before I updated my second computer, prompting an hour's worth of troubleshooting. In the end, all I had to do was trigger both computers to check for Steam updates again.

Once I'd overcome that hiccup, in-home streaming was fairly seamless. You can check whether your computers can see each other in the same In-Home Streaming settings menu. If they do, you'll notice that your library of "Installed" games is shared between your machines.

Clicking on a game that is installed remotely gives you the "Stream" option (in place of the traditional "Play" or "Install" options) and tells you which machine will stream the game. Games that are installed locally and remotely give you a drop-down menu so you can choose whether to play on your current machine or stream from the other. The process is intuitive and requires minimal setup.

If, at any time, your streamed game is interrupted by, say, a notification from the host machine's desktop, Steam streams a virtualized version of the host machine's desktop so you can navigate back to the game.

Valve also provides useful tools for keeping tabs on the stream's health. At any time during a streamed game you can press F6 and pull up an overlay showing how much latency is between your machine and the host, plus a handful of other important stats (resolution output, and so forth).

A bit magical, a bit off
I tested out a bunch of games across three different machines, all on the same 802.11g network. In every case, my gaming PC served as the host. It's a mid-range machine, with an overclocked Radeon Sapphire 7850 and an Intel i5-3570k. Powerful, yet affordable — something similar to what you may be running in your own household, as opposed to a fancier (and less common) dual-Titan machine.


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