Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Valve releases in-home streaming service from beta

For those who have not used Steam before, Steam is a game distribution network created by Valve. It includes a game and DLC store along with a social network and content sharing platform (mods, screenshots and videos). Recently a few weeks ago Valve brought its streaming service out from beta and released it to the public. This seems to be a direct response to the streaming of the Nvidia Shield with select Nvidia graphics cards. In terms of what it can do, it's basically a way to remote control your computer playing a video game. Normal remote control clients like Teamviewer are not built for video games. Most of them do not support full-screen programs like DirectX and OpenGL. And they are not built to transmit the screen images fast enough in order to reduce lag in a game. That's where the Steam streaming service comes in. It allows streaming of almost any video game (even ones not bought on Steam) in 720p or 1080p (select devices) to any client running Steam. Right now you can only stream from Windows computers, but the client can be Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux (including SteamBoxes running SteamOS). And the service is optimized to run on slower computers. I performed a test using the following computers:

Host (the computer running the game)

  • 2.6 GHz single-core AMD Athlon CPU
  • 2 GB RAM
  • AMD 7750 GPU
  • Windows 7 64-bit
Client (the one playing the game)
  • 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Atom CPU
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Integrated Intel Media Accelerator GPU
  • Windows 8.1 64-bit
Both computers were running nothing but the Steam service. I started with something simple. I fired up Just Cause 2 and began to play on my laptop (the client). Normally I can't run Just Cause 2 on my laptop (the game refuses to run on integrated graphics), but it worked out pretty well. Just running around in an empty desert I had about 29 FPS on a 720p quality stream over my home Wi-Fi network. During a couple of frantic fire-fights, the framerate dropped down to 20 FPS, but then it shot back up to 45 FPS when it downgraded the quality to 480p. The controls remained very responsive, it seemed like they had programmed it so that controls were always a higher priority. I then wanted to test it in a more intensive environment, so I launched Super Hexagon. For those of you who have never played Super Hexagon before, it's a game that requires total concentration. It's a game built on reaction time and how quick you can process information on a screen. While playing, it stayed locked in at 30 FPS at 720p. But there was a slight noticeable lag in the controls. The game moves at such a fast pace, you will notice every millisecond of lag in the controls.

In all, this seems like a very promising feature. While it only works under your own network, Valve may follow in their competitor's footsteps and add streaming over the internet. And in my tests, I pushed two, 6 year old computers to their limits by encoding and decoding 720p video in real time, and I was surprised by the results. For the record, my laptop has never been able to play any game (including Super Hexagon) at above 10 FPS. This service really breathed new life into my laptop. If you want to check it out, head over to steampowered.com to download Steam.

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