The Steam Link is a fantastic piece of kit, streaming all the joys of your gaming PC to a screen of your choice. I picked it up on a whim in a sale not too long ago and was surprised at how well it worked through a home plug adapter.
But it wasn’t long before I started getting a little more experimental with it.
Beyond streaming your entire Steam library, the Steam Link can also be used as a general desktop streaming device, so you can use it to stream Netflix, do some Web browsing, or play non-Steam games from within Steam Link’s “Big Picture” interface. You can even play emulated old-school games directly through your Steam Link. The following tutorial will show you how.
Boot Steam Link App Straight to Desktop
In mid-2018, Valve released the Steam Link app, which runs on Android devices including phone, tablets and TVs (Samsung also has its own separate Steam Link app). This app has a slightly different boot UI to the Steam Link hardware that the rest of this guide talks about, and it offers a quick-and-easy way of booting Steam Link straight to the desktop.
On the main Steam Link screen in the app, before you hit “Start Playing”, go to “Settings -> Streaming -> Advanced”. At the top of this screen, you can select to enable or disable “Start Streaming Desktop”. Set it to “Enabled”, and your Steam Link will boot to your desktop when you start playing!
Minimize Steam Link to Desktop
Even though Valve hasn’t made much fuss about how easy it is to exit Steam Big Picture to your Windows desktop (presumably because they want to keep you gaming and spending in their little ecosystem), it’s actually very simple.
Once you’ve connected your Steam Link with your PC and are in Big Picture mode, click the power icon at the top-right, then “Minimize Big Picture.”
That’s it! You should now be on your Windows desktop and able to control it using a mouse, keyboard or Steam Controller. If you have any trouble with the graphics at this point (green or black screen, etc.), try updating your GPU drivers.
Create a Notepad File If You Can’t Minimize Steam Link
Quite a few users have reported that the Windows desktop doesn’t function after minimizing Big Picture mode. One possible solution here is to link an outside app (even something like Notepad) to Steam by activating it as a non-steam game on your Steam Link. To do this, follow the instructions below, because it’s exactly the same process.
Stream Non-Steam Games on Steam Link
It goes without saying that if you have access to the desktop, you can run pretty much whatever you like on your PC, but if you’re confined to a gamepad, then you want to set yourself up to run non-Steam games from Big Picture Mode.
This isn’t too difficult, thankfully. You can even do it from Big Picture mode. Click the cog icon (Settings) at the top-right, then under the System heading click “Add Library Shortcut.” (The equivalent action in the desktop version of Steam is to click “Add a Game” at the bottom left of the Steam window, then “Add a Non-Steam Game.”) From these lists you can add pretty much any game or other program from Windows to your library, then run it using Big Picture mode and, by extension, Steam Link.
Stream Emulated Games on Steam Link
Unfortunately, the previous tip won’t help if you’re trying to play your favorite old-school games through an emulator because the Steam Link won’t identify your controller when you try to use them (i.e. the Steam Link only recognizes your controller as a game controller with the Big Picture UI).
To stream emulated games is a bit more complicated, as you’ll need to set up parsers using an excellent tool called Steam Rom Manager. If you want to do this, check out our dedicated guide on streaming emulated N64, PS1, SNES, and other games through your Steam Link.
The Steam Link is underrated. Many people made the mistake of expecting it to stream games flawlessly over WiFi, but it only really shines when you use it over a wired connection. The added perk of being able to use it for non-Steam stuff makes it more robust than something like a Chromecast and pretty much the perfect piece of kit for the gaming-inclined PC streamer.
This article was first published in Nov 2017 and was updated in Dec 2018.