Valve’s In-Home Streaming beta: How it copes over a limited home network11 Feb 2014
Valve’s In-Home Streaming beta for Steam is effectively in open beta now. If you want to mess about with it, all you have to do is join the Home Streaming group and wait for an invite. They’re going out in waves, but everybody who joins should end up with access.
I’ve been playing around with Steam streaming since last week and found it to be quite impressive. Especially when taking into account the restrictions that my wireless home network clearly place upon the system.
My set-up is probably close to being a worst possible scenario for the effective streaming of games, short of using semaphore. The host (a decent desktop with i3-2100 / 8 GB RAM / HD 7870 inside) is connected to a dual band Belkin N450 router via an older wireless dongle that can only handle 2.4GHz over wireless n. I live in an apartment and, right now, can see four other networks sat on Channel 11 with me. Not really ideal for sending a bunch of game data to a router that’s about 20 feet away in another room.
Meanwhile, the client system is a fairly old laptop (T6600 / 4GB RAM / GeForce G210M) that at least can receive wireless n data on the 5.0GHz band.
Having read that, you might be wondering why I’m even bothering to try this at all. Aside from simple curiosity, Valve’s streaming system holds the potential to free me from spending so much time in my home office. Right now, if it’s a protracted news day and I’m writing a feature or reviewing a game, the hours can stretch into late evening. Please, quiet those sympathy violins, I realise it’s not exactly coal mining. But sometimes I do actually want to spend time with my wife.
The laptop can just about handle titles like Crusader Kings II on low settings, so I already know what it’s like to be able to review a game somewhere other than my office. It feels nice. I’d like to do it more.
There’s probably an existing solution involving a bunch of cables, but since this is rented accommodation we can’t just go around drilling holes everywhere. If you can’t neatly hide cables away, they’re not really an option.
So, streaming, in however limited a fashion, is quite an attractive idea. It doesn’t involve any additional equipment (unless I want to join the recent-present and get a wireless dongle for the desktop that can actually manage 5.0Ghz,) and it was surprisingly easy to set up. Once I’d opted in to the latest beta Steam client on both machines, that was … pretty much it. The list of games installed on the host popped up in the version of Steam installed on the client with a big “Stream” button.
There’s also a settings list that, for the time being, is relatively sparse. After fiddling around with the options on offer, I got the best results by limiting bandwidth usage to 5Mbits/s, locking the frame-rate at 30 and restricting the resolution to 1280×720. There’s also a “disable hardware decoding” checkbox which didn’t seem to benefit or hinder the streaming in any way.
Those are not ideal settings for PC gaming, obviously. The 60fps at 1980×1080 that I can get out of the desktop PC is clearly superior, but there are plenty of titles where I’d be prepared to sacrifice that for the ability to play somewhere other than at my desk.
The short version of my findings is that slower-paced games were all perfectly fine to stream. Crusader Kings II (which I’ve already mentioned just about runs natively on the laptop anyway) was playable in every sense, with a latency of 65-70ms and a ping somewhere between 5.00 and 7.00ms. These figures aren’t absolutely precise, they’re just what I noted down from Steam’s in-built streaming benchmark tool. It translated to a solid 30fps (not that this is a huge deal in Crusader Kings II) and pretty smooth map movement.
Football Manager 2014 was a similar experience. No mouse lag, decent latency, and very playable. The match engine had the occasional stutter, but nothing serious. Anything turn-based, most 4X games for example, or titles like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, would be easy and comfortable to play with this method. I’d be missing out on some graphical fidelity, but that’s about it.
My final test of the “no twitch reactions required” group of games was Gone Home. Latency and ping got a little worse here (90-100ms latency, 12.00-17.00ms ping) but again, thanks to the nature of the title, it didn’t really matter. Movement around the house and object interaction was smooth, with a rare frame-drop or stutter. Audio was clear, and hooking it up to my television via HDMI cable didn’t seem to make any difference to performance.
Things got a fair bit bumpier when I tried out a few games that actually require some kind of timing and precision. Sleeping Dogs actually seemed to run fine when I’d tried it the day before, but on the afternoon of testing my wireless connection was less stable and there was some noticeable input lag from the controller I had wired up to the laptop. Cruising around Hong Kong was relatively fine, but any kind of combat was much more iffy. It felt like the game was right on the cusp of being smooth and playable, but kept wobbling off the edge.
BioShock Infinite was just over the edge from the start. Movement was punctuated by jerks (and I don’t just mean racist Founders) and the kind of precision demanded by the aiming was at odds with the stuttering performance. It’d probably still be possible to get by on the easiest difficulty, but in this case it would’ve been an easy choice to simply head back to my office and play it in there.
In the interests of seeing whether Valve-made games had any kind of performance boost, I re-downloaded Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (mostly because it’s the smallest one) and bothered the crotchety old fisherman who hangs out on the docks. The 120-130ms latency wasn’t too awful, but again the prospect of having to actually aim at things in a hurry didn’t appeal when there was evident input lag.
Still, as I noted at the start of this piece, I’m impressed that I was able to even get the performance I did given this streaming system is still in beta and grappling against my rather rubbish network set-up. I’m sure matters could be improved immeasurably if I had a lengthy ethernet cable to stretch between my desktop PC and the router, but stringing wires all across the apartment would seem to rather defeat the purpose of no-fuss, no-mess streaming. That’s the sort of thing I, personally, am trying to avoid.
I’d recommend that anybody with an interest in streaming Steam stuff from a dedicated gaming machine to weaker, more portable devices just give it a try. It’s simple to set up, has minimal options to faff about with at the moment and might defy whatever meagre expectations you have of your home network set-up. At present it’s not going to change my gaming habits a great deal, but next time I have a turn-based title to review it’s handy to know I’ll be able to take it outside my office if necessary.