Steam has really been swinging for the fences as of late, some swings have been homeruns (Summer sales, linux & mac support, family sharing) while some have been long flyers that eventually foul out (I’m looking squarely at you, Early Access,) and some are still in beta and have yet to be fully realized such as SteamOS and In-home Steaming. Since I don’t want to bother wiping one of my computers to install SteamOS, which in and of itself is limited to what games it supports I decided to give the In-home Streaming a shot.
What is In-Home Streaming?
Do you happen to have a desktop and a laptop? Is your laptop not quite up to snuff for some or many of the games that your desktop can play easily, but you REALLY want to play them on your laptop for whatever reason? Maybe your laptop is in the livingroom and can easily be hooked up to a big TV or something. Well, In-home Streaming is going to allow that.
What it does, basically, is run the game on your desktop computer, encode the video/audio/etc and stream that feed to the other device. The inputs that you put into said device are transmitted back to your desktop to allow controls. What does that all mean? Essentially, if you’re client device, the one you are streaming the game to, can do something as basic as decoding a youtube video, then you can stream your games.
Cool, how do I get in on it?
If anyone else is interested, it isn’t a particularly hard thing to do although it will take time: Open your Steam client and in the Title bar click Steam > Settings > Account. In here go to “Beta Participation” and change that to “Steam Beta Update.” After that the client might say there is an update available and it needs to restart, go ahead and do that. Next, go HERE and join the group…. That’s basically it, after that it’s a waiting game. Yep, you have to wait to get accepted into the In-Home Streaming BETA. I don’t think you’ll even get a notification that you HAVE been accepted, you’ll just have an update for Steam (of which, while participating in the Steam Beta program, you will get MANY) and you’ll start seeing the option in the first picture when you are logged into other computers. a drop down arrow next to the “PLAY” button and it will say “STREAM.” That’s it.
Update 5.22.14: [ Steam JUST opened this up to everyone as of yesterday. If you were asked to update Steam, regardless of if you were in running a beta version of Steam, you now have the ability to stream games without having to join the group and qait for an invite. ENJOY! ]
Alright, is there a catch?
Of course there is! First, you are going to want a pretty hefty “Host” computer in order to be able to play these games and encode everything smoothly. My desktop is pretty beastly, so I didn’t have any issues actually with the games being encoded and sent to the clients, but on the discussion forums many people with older quad-core CPU’s were getting the “slow encoding” error while attempting to stream, which indicated their host computer was having issues.
You are also going to want a wireless-N network to even think about streaming games in high-resolution with high bitrates. Obviously wired all around is going to be best, but wireless N will do just fine. b/g might not be enough… scratch that, 802-B isn’t going to be enough and you should just upgrade, seriously, do you live in a cave?
While I’m waiting for my invite, what is it like?
It can be finnicky… hit or miss sometimes. But when it works it’s rather impressive. I tested this on my laptop and my girlfriends which have pretty vastly different specs and both where very playable with the games I tried. First, I’ll talk about my laptop and a weird issue I had.
Psychobitch-Lappy: Take 1
- AMD A-Series A8-3500M (1.5GHz) (OC’d to 2.1GHz)
- 8GB Memory
- 80GB HDD
- AMD Radeon HD 6620G
- Windows 7 64-bit
The first time I tried this I kept getting a REALLY annoying lag spike every three seconds or so. It didn’t really make the games unplayable, but it was annoying enough that I didn’t want to play for any meaningful period of time. I tried tweaking the streaming settings, restarting Steam on both the host and client and nothing would fix it. I decided to pick up my girlfriends laptop, which is connected to the same wireless AP, to see if it was just the bandwidth, which is what the In-Home Stream debug screen was saying it was, and her’s played smoothly. So, I went back to my laptop and uninstalled/disabled a couple weird networking things, such as Microsoft Mini Wifi Adapter, which I read was only for development anyways…not really sure why I even had it but I digress. I uninstalled that and it seemed to clear up the issue. So after that, I started to really dig into things.
PsychoBitch-Lappy: Take 2
In earlier versions of In-Home Streaming, games like Borderlands 2, that had a separate window that popped up and required you to hit PLAY, had a hilarious requirement. An error would open up and tell you that you had to go hit the “play” button on the host computer in order to play on the client. Think about that now. You had to go to the HOST computer, hit Play, and go back to the client. If you are at the host already just stay there and PLAY it, EMIRIGHT?! But that is fixed now, thankfully.
Borderlands 2 exhibited slightly less input lag than DiRT 3, and given it doesn’t flat out require pinpoint timing to play, the lag was very tolerable. The beauty of streaming a game like this is that my laptop can’t do the PhysX… like at ALL, while my desktop can do it on high. So, as you can see in the video, I go a little crazy to demonstrate that all that debris doesn’t really bog down the game. Now, is it still playable in multiplayer? I’m not sure, I’ll try that later and update if anyone is wondering, but right now:
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
I can’t see this game running real well on my laptop. Maybe if I turned everything down all the way it might top out at 15fps. Great thing about streaming it is I can have all the detail up and still push 60fps. This is another game that doesn’t require exact timing and is very playable with a little input lag. One thing to mention though is the game had a couple of odd lag peaks that stuck around, but eventually calmed down. It wasn’t devastating, but it was a little concerning. If it had happened a couple more times I would have said it wasn’t enjoyable to play. But the lag was manageable and it didn’t happen after the first couple times. Note, that these videos are each only a few minutes long, but I did play for about 30-45 minutes on each game to get a general feel.. Well, all but the last game…
…Yeah, this one..
Not to sound arrogant but I’m kind of the shit at the DiRT series. I never play on anything other than Hardcore and rarely use a rewind. With that, I know that ultra-low latency and super fast response is the key to being any good at these or any other racing games and In-Home Streaming is absolutely not the way to play them. The game itself ran “alright,” only showing a few dropped frames and lag spikes, but the latency just wasn’t low enough to maintain tight reaction times while driving. I mean, you can see in the video above. it was around a 35-40ms delay from pressing buttons to the reaction, and in racing that just doesn’t cut it. Also, on odd little thing that you will notice in the video is that the HUD is squished to the center of the screen. Why is that, you might ask… My desktop has 3 screens in portrait and I think the game was just forcing the HUD into the center screen and streaming it out like that… weird. Anyway, I personally have to label this one:
While my laptop isn’t a beast, I’d still consider it “modest” and it could run a couple of these games without streaming, albeit with lower detail, but it could still run them. My girlfriends, on the other hand, has no chance of running them natively, so streaming would be the only option. Here are the specs on it.
- Intel Core Duo Processor T2500 at 2.0 GHz per core.
- 3GB RAM
- Integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 (ugh, right here)
- 100GB HDD
That Integrated video card is what kills it for games. This can barely run Left 4 Dead on the lowest settings. It has no hope of running Assassin’s Creed 4. Note that I don’t have video of her computer running these games but I’ll still comment on the ones I played. Again, default settings in Steam, I didn’t degrade the stream quality.
Assassin’s Creed 4:
“Holy crap this thing is running AC4!” That was my first thought when I started it up. Her screen is better and I could notice more deblocking issues from the stream, but it didn’t bother me and was still HD-youtube quality in my book. input lag was a different story and it seemed to be higher. Pushing the stick left or right resulted in about a 100ms lag. Not disastrous, but very noticeable this time. the stream on her’s exhibited less spiking and was generally “smoother,” but again, had a higher amount of input lag. So, if you are someone that can handle a delay when pressing buttons then this might be a viable option for you:
Dead Space 2:
Again, another game that could never run on her laptop, and here it was in hi-res, full detail. Input latency was less noticeable but the game seemed darker then usual. I thought it was a fluke but then I realized I have SweetFX installed on my Host PC and it was streaming how it looks to the client. Very interesting. While walking around the lag, which I’m guessing felt about 75-80ms off, wasn’t all that noticeable until you got into a fight, then it felt more frantic, but still not bad. It actually seemed to add to the game. A sense of “weight” almost. I don’t know. But it wasn’t a negative experience.
This is where the extra lag got more noticeable. While I could handle it, or even liked it in the other games, the added latency in the controllers for Borderlands was almost too much. I kept playing though, and it never got to the point of “NOPE, I’m out!” but I nver quite got used to the late input and I actually full on died during a gunzerk that I’m sure would never have happened if it wasn’t for the lag. Again, it’s probably a doable straight off, though, for a system that could never dream of playing the game otherwise.
UPDATE 5.22.14: [ My pal BeefSquatch and I played a couple hours of Borderlands 2 online while I was streaming to my girlfriends laptop. Aside from a couple instances of the game just kind of shitting on itself after about an hour each time, it ran about the same as before. I didn’t notice more instances of stutter, but it wasn’t anything game breaking. We played while I was hosting, and then while he was hosting and I did notice some traditional network latency, where shooting an enemy doesn’t cause an immediate reaction. Again, manageable, and this wasn’t present while I was hosting. ]
Just Cause 2:
This is where some weirdness started to creep in. It didn’t happen every time, but it did a couple of times I ran the game. Check the screenshot above. Notice anything, I don’t know, streaky about the sky? Yeah, the sky texture would smear across the screen, stretch and distort as I was playing. Noticeable? Hell yeah. Distracting? Not really. Just some weirdness that never happened in the game when I wasn’t streaming it. Again, input lag was around 75-80ms and while on foot it was very tolerable, but driving in vehicles was really hard. Good thing grappling around with the parachute is more fun anyways, right? I’m going to call this one playable…unless you like to drive in this game then I wouldn’t say it is.
PLAYABLE (unless you like driving, then it’s unplayable)
So, that was my experience with In-Home Streaming. I’m going to keep messing around and playing games, so how it keeps improving. Overall I feel this is a great option for those with middling or even low-end laptops to play games they otherwise couldn’t, well, on those devices. I really hope to see this pushed to their Android app. Imagine being able to play OutLast or the Wolfenstein: New Order on a Galaxy or HTC One phone? It’s completely possible now.