by Santiago P
PC gaming and portability do not come together easily. PC gamers always have to compromise in performance, weight, cost, or other things that makes PC gaming fun. Some people just give up portability and let their gaming PC stays in one place just so they can have good graphics and performance. Others end up getting gaming laptops which are portable but less powerful and more expensive.
This problem has been known in the PC gaming industry and companies like Nvidia and Steam are taking a shot at fixing it. Both companies knew that there is no way they can make PC gaming portable without heavily compromising performance. Thinking out of the box, both found the answer in the form of local network streaming. Instead of making the gaming PCs smaller, why not just use the gaming PC as a server and stream the games to another device within the network. Nvidia decided to build a device called Nvidia Shield that lets PC gamers stream their games from their PCs. Steam took a different approach, they decided to build software instead. This approach has a couple of advantages in costs and convenience. Currently, Steam’s in-home streaming software is in beta testing. It is free for anyone to download and most likely going to stay free even after the software is finished. Another PC will be needed but an old laptop can do the trick. In comparison, Nvidia is currently being sold for $299 (Hollister).
Streaming games faces many challenges. The biggest one is latency. Latency is the time it takes for the signal to bounce back from one device to the other. Streaming through the cloud has been done before but the “cloud can add a good bit of latency between an action and the expected result” (Sharp). By streaming games within home network only, Steam managed to reduce the latency to the lowest possible. Local network streaming allow for more stable, high quality connection between the computers. The Steam software acts as a H.264 encoder for the server PC and as a decoder for the remote PC. This achievement was thought to be nearly impossible a few years ago according to Ron Sharp because “encoding needs to be much more effective to reduce packet size” which in turn reduces latency (Sharp). Steam, however, seemed to have pulled it off.
Steam in-home streaming allows gamers to use their gaming PCs as a server to stream games within their own network to another device. It uses the power of a Windows based gaming PC and lets gamers enjoy that gaming performance on any device that can run the Steam client anywhere in the house. With that said, gamers can stream their games to a Mac, Linux, tablets, or even an old computer with adequate CPU processor. The server PC is the only one that actually runs the game. PCs like Mac and Linux that don’t natively run PC games can be used as the remote PC. It is also possible for gamers to hook up their PCs to a television with high resolution and play game their PC games right on their living room.
Using a gaming PC running on an Intel i5-3570k with an overclocked Radeon Sapphire 7850 GPU and streaming to a 2006 MacBook using an 802.11g network, the quality of most of the games that can be run are clear, crispy, and smooth but there are some considerable lag on some of the games. Games like Batman Arkham Origins and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 run smoothly while Europa Universalis IV and The Stanley Parable are both playable (Dingman). However, it does give somewhat better experience than that of Nvidia Shield, which is an already finished product compare to Steam’s which still in beta version.
There are a few requirements and limitations for the Steam software. The performance that gamers can get on their remote PC is only limited to what they have on their server PC (Welcome to Steam In-Home Streaming). For example, if the user only have 720p display on the server PC, the remote PC can only get as high as 720p resolution to display even if it is capable of displaying higher resolution than that. However, if the server PC has a higher resolution than the remote PC, the remote PC can scale down the resolution. In addition, the server PC cannot be used for other purposes other than running the game that is being streamed (Davison). In fact, the game will be displayed on both screens at the same time. Additionally, only one person can remotely access the server PC at a time. However, Steam is developing Steam Family Sharing that will enable multiple people playing different games from the server PC all at the same time. Since the game is streamed through the home network, a good and fast router is required. Upgrading to the next-gen 802.11 ac routers or using wired connection would improve the gaming experience tremendously (Hollister). Lastly, Steam in-home streaming is still in beta version. It “isn’t perfect yet” as Hayden Dingman from PC world says, “but you can see its potential to change the way people consume games” (Dingman). There are bugs to be fixed and only a few games are working flawlessly.
Davison, P. (2013, December 12). Valve Explains Steam In-Home Streaming | USgamer. Retrieved February 12, 2014, from http://www.usgamer.net/articles/valve-explains-steam-in-home-streaming
Dingman, H. (2014, January 29). Hands-on: Steam’s in-home PC game streaming beta already feels like magic | PCWorld. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from http://www.pcworld.com/article/2092220/hands-on-steams-in-home-pc-game-streaming-beta-already-feels-like-magic.html
Hollister, S. (2013, July 31). Nvidia Shield review | The Verge. Retrieved February 13, 2014, from http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/31/4573596/nvidia-shield-review
Hollister, S. (2014, January 26). Steam In-Home Streaming lets you play away from your PC | The Verge. Retrieved February 13, 2014, from http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/26/5345364/steam-in-home-streaming-preview-a-short-range-slingbox-for-your
Sharp, R. (2012). Latency in cloud‐based interactive streaming content. Bell Labs Technical Journal, 17(2), 67-80.
Steam Community :: Group :: Steam In-Home Streaming. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2014, from http://steamcommunity.com/groups/homestream#announcements