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Pressing Valve's buttons: Hands-on with the Steam Link and Steam Controller

Hayden Dingman | March 6, 2015
"Who cares about Steam Machines?"

"Who cares about Steam Machines?"

Believe me, readers — I've heard you. You've asked that question a lot in the past year in comments, on Twitter, to my face at conferences. And I get it. You already have a PC (or at least I assume you have one, since you're reading PCWorld) and you don't want to buy another $500-$1000 machine for the living room.

I'm in the same situation. Piece by piece I built my computer into quite a capable little gaming rig, and I'm loathe to shell out the same cash twice — I'd rather just upgrade my main machine.

So look for my colleague Gordon Ung to talk about Steam Machines and all the different configurations available in a report tomorrow. I want to talk about the things that will potentially change the way I personally play games: The Steam Controller and the streaming-centric Steam Link.

Go get Victor

There's certainly a Frankenstein-esque quality to the Steam Controller, which was originally conceived as a way to replicate keyboard-and-mouse functionality in a gamepad. It's like someone cobbled an Xbox controller together from parts found in a back room with only a vague recollection of what an Xbox controller is supposed to look like. It's the Xbox controller other Xbox controllers are afraid lives under their bed.

Two massive, circular touchpads with haptic feedback built in. Four low-profile shoulder triggers (two digital and two analog, with digital clicks at the bottom). The standard ABXY diamond, with a color scheme lifted directly from the Xbox. Two rear "grip" buttons activated by your remaining fingers. A Start/Select pair and a Steam jewel in the center. And then a single analog stick sticking out on the left side.

It looks absurd, after years of conditioning. It looks, in all honesty, like the kind of wacky input devices Nintendo devises in its unending quest to make a controller no human on earth could use.

And I'm awful at using it. That's the other takeaway I've gathered so far. Fifteen years of muscle memory have trained me to be a pro with a dual analog stick controller. Fifteen minutes with a Steam Controller is like watching baby's first steps all over again.

For its part, Valve says it should only take an hour or two to get used to the controller. I don't know how true those claims are, but the point is it's like any other skill — you practice, you get better, and eventually you're a master.

Is the Steam Controller worth mastering? I think so, yes.

Yeah, it looks ridiculous. Yeah, the analog stick is a weird and awkward concession that somewhat ruins Valve's original vision. But that's the most interesting thing about the Steam Controller: It's a fascinating piece of hardware hidden under a mountain of compromises.


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