I am a massive fan of what Nintendo have done with the creation of the Switch. They basically pointed out to the world that life is better when you have more flexible gaming options, and I love it.
There are a few problems with the Switch, though, chiefly being that I don’t own one. Most of the games are also rather expensive and, although there are some properly amazing exclusive titles available, I don’t relish the thought of having to buy another game library…
I already own 287 games in Steam, with a further sixty-two on my wish list! That represents many, many years of careful collection, and a whole heap of invested capital, which just can’t be ignored or easily replaced with a new system. The downside to this is that it’s locked to my PC, which lives in my house and even though it is (currently) a laptop, isn’t what I would call ‘portable’. I have a Steam Link, which allows me a small degree of flexibility — but nothing I can easily veg out on the sofa with while my better half uses the TV to watch all the ‘great shows’ I have very little interest in. I need a second screen…
There have been a number of possible solutions to this problem over the years. Anyone remember the Smach Z? This was alleged to be a scam, but looks like it might actually come to market and it could be the answer to my prayers — apart from the price!
What about the GPD Win 2? Well, I can tell you that this looks like a very tempting little device, but also rather expensive — at $649 during the campaign and a whopping $899 afterwards! Anyway, I already own the hardware I need to play my games; I just want to be able to get to that machine from an alternative device, like I do with the Steam Link.
But wait! What’s this in my pocket? Why, it’s a mobile phone! It has a screen and I can use it to play games, so can I use it to get onto Steam?
OK, so most people in this situation just Moonlight and use Nvidia Gamestream to achieve what I want to achieve. Trouble is you need a fairly up-to-date Nvidia graphics card and I have an AMD Radeon. So I guess I’m stuffed, yes? Well, no. As it turns out, there is another way… I can use Parsec.
What is Parsec?
Parsec connects two devices to let you play your PC games from anywhere on any device. Play your games from the couch, work, or a friend’s basement.
So is this it? Is this the answer to my prayers? It certainly seems to be… According to their website, it should be able to tick all the boxes on my wishlist and a few more besides. Being able to play local-only multiplayer games with friends online would be an awesome bonus, and it all seems pretty easy to set up and use…
…and I’m sure it probably would be if I was using any sort of conventional set up. For example, my mate installed Parsec on his gaming tower at home (with an AMD card in it) and was able to connect and play games immediately on his phone… sort of. He didn’t have any input devices to hand, so he was only able to look at his desktop — but he could click on things and it did open Goat Simulator!
However for me, I hit a raft of problems. The first was that my graphics drivers were out of date — easily solved if Windows would recognise the updated ones and allow them to exist for longer than two minutes before overwriting them with older ones… My next problem was that my laptop has both discrete and integrated graphics, and Parsec was using the integrated ones, which causes an error. After disabling the integrated drivers I was then hit with another error, telling me that Parsec was unable to change the resolution. Then there was a further unexplained error with the phone app (the Android APK is ‘experimental’, so I guess can be forgiven). Then the phone app logged me out and refused to let me back in. Then it told me an update was required. Then I was back to the resolution error again…
Suffice it to say that it was not an easy process to get it working in my — apparently niche — situation. I eventually came to the conclusion that Parsec was just not going to play ball with my gaming laptop…
Patience, young grasshopper…
It’s now two weeks later and I am the proud owner of a five-year-old ‘gaming’ PC. It’s not bad, with an i7 CPU, 16GB RAM and a 240GB SSD, but the graphics card is certainly past its best. Will Parsec play ball? Short answer: Yes… kind of. I can fire up Parsec on my phone and connect to my new PC — it works, my phone works, my controller will control the PC through Parsec via my rather DIY setup and there is very little sound or input latency. The display, however, runs at about 1fps. Totally unusable.
And with that, my dream died. I was unwilling to sink any more time into Parsec and for three months I was denied any (more) gaming flexibility… until one day, Valve announced the Steam Link App.
This wonderful little application basically mirrors the functionality of the Steam Link, but running on your phone. Of course, you still need a controller to play your games (though it does support basic touchscreen functions) so Valve updated the firmware on their Steam Controller to turn on Bluetooth.
Now I’m able to pair my Steam Controller to my phone and my phone to my PC through Steam itself and everything just works! With the phone on the same network as my PC, gaming is smooth and unfaltering.
After using the Steam Link App for a couple of weeks, I was quick to pick up and address a few issues. For starters, it turns out that it is physically impossible to hold your phone at a good angle whilst trying to use a controller at the same time. What I needed was a mount I could use to attach my phone to the controller…
After a lot of Googling, I purchased a ‘Front Rider’ from UtorCase. This delicate and fragile-looking thing is actually incredibly strong and robust. It fits to the Steam Controller perfectly and holds my OnePlus 6 (the more observant of you will notice the phone upgrade from my original test rig) firmly in place. I am really impressed with the build quality and attention to detail that the creator has put into this mount, and would heartily recommend them.
My second ‘discovery’ was the lack of ability to play games from a remote location, which is to say ‘not on my local network’. This wasn’t actually part of my original requirements, but sometimes you just want to bust out your phone and have a quick game when you’re out and about. The Switch can do this (obviously), so why can’t I? Fortunately, it turns out I can with a bit of basic tinkering with the settings on my router. I’ve written a guide on how to set up the Steam Link App to work over the Internet, in case you want to do the same.
Following almost directly on from this comes my third problem: the Steam Controller is a bit bulky to lug around with you everywhere you go. My solution? Buy another controller! The 8BitDo Zero is the perfect companion for most of my gaming needs when away from home, and can be bought fairly cheaply. It’s not quite small enough to fit on my key chain (though you could do this if you want to), but it’s small enough to easily fit in my pocket or bag, the battery lasts for ages and it charges over USB.
So here it is — my attempt at creating a Switch-like PC experience:
The question is, does it work? Well, yes and no.
My original requirement was to play PC games on a second screen in the lounge whilst my wife uses the TV. This works perfectly — though with the caveat that some games with small UI elements can be a little challenging to operate. Also, controller support on some games is either non-existent or lacklustre, but using Steam and the Steam Controller does circumvent this quite well and a decent experience can easily be had with a little remapping of buttons from the built-in controller settings menu in Big Picture mode. Basically, if you are happy playing a specific game with your controller at the moment, this solution will work fine.
My secondary requirements have been accomplished similarly well, but also with a few caveats. The mount is perfect and I love it. The smaller 8BitDo Zero controller works well but can cause hand cramps if gaming for a long time. Also, it’s missing a couple of shoulder buttons, which you might require for some games.
Using the Steam Link App remotely has a few issues, though. You need a decent internet connection, and if you’re using your mobile data plan you might want to check your data allowance… If you have a less-than-stellar connection you will find issues with lag and dropped frames. It’s still usable, but you might want to play games that don’t require precise controls, such as puzzle or strategy games.
What did it cost?
Ignoring the outlay for a PC in the first place — and the phone upgrade that, while beneficial, was not strictly required — your shopping list should look something like this:
- UtorCase Phone Mount – prices vary but mine cost £17.
- Steam Controller – you can use any bluetooth controller, of course, but I love mine and it allows me to play more games than a regular one – £40.
- 8BitDo Zero – more of a nicety than needed, prices vary by design – £6.
Total cost of setup: £63
Of course, I already had the Steam Controller, so my cost was just £23. Versus the Nintendo Switch that costs £280, I have saved a whopping £257!
Yes, it’s not a Switch, it’s not as elegant a solution as something that has been specifically designed to be a portable and flexible system, but it allows me to play anything from my massive game library anywhere at home and most of my games when out and about. When you factor in the cost saving, I reckon this quest has reached a successful end.