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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.

Valve's in-home streaming instead dips the framerate — how many frames per second the game renders. This keeps each singular frame of the game looking pretty, but it makes games feel stuttery. As a result, everything is far harder to control, because you're constantly battling a stream that's flipping from 60 frames per second, down to 30, down to 12, and then back up to 60 again.

But here's the good news: Things can only get better as routers and home networks improve. There's no huge amount of hardware and distance lag to overcome, as with OnLive. As gamers upgrade to speedier, next-gen 802.11ac routers, Valve's service can only get better.

And let's not forget: This is first and foremost a beta, not a full release, and the in-home streaming is already pretty impressive.

Bottom line
Steam's in-home streaming technology isn't perfect yet — not even close — but you can see its potential to change the way people consume games. Hell, it already has changed the way I consume games. Last night, I played a game from the comfort of my bed on a laptop. PC gaming has a reputation as a lonesome activity that chains people to their desks. In-home streaming could turn that around, at least a little.  

This beta is also a pretty strong proof-of-concept for SteamOS and Steam Machines. If Valve wants to sell people on its ecosystem, it really needs in-home streaming to work. Congratulations, Valve — it does. It's not the optimal way to play these games just yet, and due to hardware lag it may never be, but at least it's shaping up to be a viable alternative that will help Valve's Linux-based OS stand on its own terms.

 

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