Steam Link: Streaming to Your Smartphone with a Dual Shock 4 as Controller

The Steam Deck is going to be out in a few days for the ones that were quick to order. What to do if you have to wait much longer, while eager for some serious handheld gaming? You have a lot of options actually:

  • You could buy something like an Odroid Go Advance (or even the Super one) if you want a Linux-based device that can mostly play emulated games as well as cross-platform engine games like ScummVM or GZDoom. It’s great if you like retro titles.
  • If you want to play recent titles, I guess you could buy a Switch and buy back all your indie games catalog once more, emptying your wallet in the process, and making the Italian Brothers really happy (and rich) once more.
  • You could grab an Aya Neo, or a GPD Win 2, 3 (our friend cow_killer tried that recently) or Max, and enjoy running recent Steam games with decent settings. Only problem is that such devices are super expensive.
  • You could go all DIY like cow_killer and make your own handheld Steam device with a Lattepanda board (or similar hardware) – actually a very decent option if you feel adventurous.

And the other option is… well, if you don’t really go out, you can actually use pretty much any phone or tablet to play your Steam games using the Steam Link app. Since touch controls suck, and you are very likely to already have a controller (unless you are one of the 33%), you just need a controller attachment and you are good to go! It’s really cheap.

I found that there’s a good enough solution if you have a Dual Shock 4: just buy this kind of adapter, which is basically a piece of plastic that clips itself on your DS4 and has a spring mechanism to keep your phone into place. There’s quite a few variants available on Amazon and other markets, but since they all pretty much look the same I assume they work equally well.

smartphone steam link dual shock 4

Since I could not make my phone (LG V20) work well with the Bluetooth mode of the DS4 for some reason (the DS4 connects but the buttons are all over the place even when I try remapping them) I went for a USB host cable (USB-C Host to micro USB). Once you connect them together the gamepad is immediately recognized, and works as you would expect with Steam Link.

Now, how good is that whole setup? Well, it works: if your stream quality is good enough, you will be able to enjoy your PC games on a smaller screen this way, without noticeable latency most of the time. Compared to using Steam Link on the PC, I did find that the stream seems to drop frames: it certainly does not seem as smooth as on the x86 Linux client. It could be linked to various factors (the fact that I am using an older Android version? The Wifi chipset of my phone? Who knows…) – It is especially noticeable when in first person view mode when you will see some jerkiness when looking around (a sign of dropped frames).

The other issue that is more problematic, is the fact that most PC games are made for larger monitors. When playing them on a 7 inches screen, you will find that some of the text or the UI is a little too small. This is where games would benefit from having a DPI setting in their options (or maybe directly at the Steam Client level) so that they could resize essential elements appropriately. I guess we will see and more of such settings as the Steam Deck and the upgraded SteamOS rolls out, so this may be only a temporary problem.

Playing with the DS4 is absolutely great: I’d wage it is better that most Chinese controllers you can attach on your tablet or phone, just because of the build quality and extensive experience from Sony on how to build the best gamepads around. Now, attaching the phone to the DS4 certainly puts an additional weight on your wrists – it did not become an issue for me yet, because I was never playing in such a setup for too long anyway, but I can imagine that after 1 or 2 hours some people may develop wrist pain, depending on how heavy your phone actually is.

While trying it out was fun, I can’t imagine myself playing on the phone at home too much: it is very easy nowadays to get a laptop on the cheap with a much larger screen than a phone, and that should always win in the “at home” context whenever several screens are available. There are very few games that do not benefit from a larger screen estate.

To summarize:

  • The Steam Link application works fine, while in my case there are some dropped frames now and then.
  • Attaching a controller this way works, but may cause wrist pain for longer play sessions.
  • Not sure if this setup makes sense anyway if you have larger screens available at home on other devices.

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