Linux+Steam Streaming=Awesome

The problem: I have a nice TV and a nice gaming computer, but they’re on opposite ends of the room. It would be really cool to be able to play games on my TV, but I don’t really want to use my TV as a permanent monitor, and fiddling around with cable switching is annoying (and the HDMI port on my graphics card is a little iffy anyways, so I’d really rather just leave my monitor plugged in and forget about it).

The solution: Steam’s new in-home streaming feature.

Remember that laptop I talked about a while back? Well, I still haven’t bought anything new, but I breathed new life into the old one by splitting the hard drive down the middle and installing Linux on the new partition, keeping Windows available on the main partition in case I ever want to go back for some odd reason. I’ve been flirting with Linux since college, but I’ve never done much with it, mostly because the vast majority of games (and optimized graphics card drivers) are only available for Windows. But, as I discussed, my laptop isn’t terribly useful for gaming anyways, so I finally took the plunge. I went with Xubuntu, a flavor of Ubuntu with the XFCE interface. The reason is twofold. First, and most importantly, is that XFCE is designed to be very resource-light, which is nice for a laptop, especially for my purposes since it allows me to throw as much of the power of the computer at streaming as possible. Second is that I really don’t like Unity, the default interface on Ubuntu, for various reasons. Regardless of the distro, Linux never ceases to amaze me. Windows took at least 15 or 20 minutes from power-on to useability (i.e. after boot up and all of the background processes get finished… doing whatever it is that they do after you log in), but with Xubuntu my boot times rival my desktop with Windows 8 and a solid state drive. Granted, Windows was probably slow because it was horrifyingly fragmented because my tiny 320 GB hard disk (remember when that was a lot?) was crammed full, but even when it was new it never booted nearly as fast as Xubuntu does.

Anyways, that was probably way more information than you wanted. But hey, this is my blog and I can ramble about whatever I want. I was able to install the Steam client through the Ubuntu Software Center (between the Software Center and apt-get, I don’t think I’ve ever downloaded and installed anything manually on Linux) without incident. I’m able to stream full quality, 1080p video and audio over my wired (gigabit) network without any breakup; it’s just like having my desktop computer plugged into my TV. On wireless I occasionally get a second or two of hiccups, which isn’t a big deal on turn-based or slower-paced games, but on action games it can be a problem (I had a terrible time with it stuttering at the worst possible times on the praying mantis boss in Freedom Planet, which is an amazing game that you should buy right now). I had better luck on WiFi when I lowered the audio and video quality a little, and neither were terribly noticeable, but it wasn’t very inconvenient to run an Ethernet cable to my laptop, so I did that. Protip: if you’re looking to stream over WiFi, you may also want to dig around in your router settings for Quality of Service (QoS, not to be confused with Qo’noS) settings. Not all routers have it, but I’ve read that they’ve helped some. I’ve used similar streaming products in the past, but they’ve always used so much processing power that they slowed the game down and my CPU was ready to boil water after 15 minutes of Skyrim. Also I usually noticed other annoyances like input lag and audio synchronization problems. Valve seems to have found some magical way of screen streaming without noticeably impacting performance. There’s a little bit of tearing every now and then in fast-moving scenes, but other than that, like I said, it’s just like having my computer plugged into my TV.

My only complaint is that I now have to find somewhere to put my laptop. My TV stand is already pretty full with other gadgets, so it’s currently residing on the floor in front of the TV (#firstWorldProblems). I’m considering, at some point, buying a small (“booksize”) computer that I can tuck behind the Wii or something and forget about it. I would probably go with one of the Intel NUC line, although the Gigabyte Brix is tempting just because it’s so small. I’ll probably wait until we get more details about the Steam Machines before buying anything, but thus far those have been vaporware, and I’m not that interested in the Steam controller since I already have two wireless controllers (and the reviews I’ve seen of the prototype controllers have been less than stellar). Right now, though, I’m quite happy with the way it works with the laptop.

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