Low-latency gaming across devices often has mixed results. If you’ve ever tried to do it on the cheap with Chromecast… well, just don’t. It’s terrible. Not that Chromecast is sold as a game-streaming device, mind you, but it’s definitely not up to the task.
There is, of course, Steam Link, which is purpose built for game streaming. If you’re in the mood for importing, Steam Link’s big international competitor Nvidia TV is an option, too. I’ve had mixed results with Steam streaming. Big Picture Mode works well when both devices are using an Ethernet connection, but it ranged from okay to unplayable when streaming from my Ethernet-connected desktop to my wirelessly connected laptop.
Steam Link works better because I have it wired, too, so gaming from desktop to TV is seamless. I found it interesting that Steam Link merely replicates what’s on your Steam PC, so if you switch between windows, it’ll show up on the TV, too. Obviously, it’s designed to do that at low latencies, which is why it’s a better fit for gaming than Chromecast.
I recently stumbled on some in-development software called Parsec. There are versions for Windows 7 (and beyond), macOS, Linux, Raspberry Pi, and Android. You can read all about it and download it for free here, but after watching a few trial videos of low-latency gaming, I was eager to give see if it delivered on its promise of ultra-low-latency streaming.
Instead of starting small, I dreamt big and went straight for the online tests. Parsec was, after all, showing off videos of games being played in different US states, or streaming from a home desktop to a laptop in a coffee shop. Thankfully, one of my friends was willing to try it out and is also armed with a 100/40Mbps internet connection.
There were some initial configuration hiccups we had to overcome. You have to install the software (obviously) and create an account for online streaming. That’s easy enough. Then we had to add each other and select the option to ‘Share servers with them’. There’s also an option to give your Parsec friends admin privileges, but that lets them connect to your computer at any time without permission, so that option is probably best used between your own devices.
When my friend connected to my desktop, I had to give him permission to access my computer with a quick keyboard shortcut (that I was prompted to do). Without the permissions shortcut, your connected Parsec friend can see your desktop but can’t interact. Like Steam Link, Parsec is effectively low-latency desktop-sharing software.
This means my friend was able to see and hear what I was watching on Netflix at the time (thankfully, it wasn’t anything embarrassing). It also meant he was remotely logged in to my computer, so trust is a must, and active windows are a concern. This is why it’s best to get into a game before you invite a Parsec friend to connect to your machine assuming, of course, that particular game plays nice with alt-tabbing. In fact, on that point, Parsec recommends playing in windowed borderless mode
We took Duck Game for a whirl, eager to test out Parsec on a quick-to-download, low-res game with local multiplayer. Duck Game accepted my friend’s controller as connected to my machine, and we played a few rounds.
According to him, there were a couple of small moments of latency issues, but this might be because I’m on 100/2 internet, or it could have been because I was a filthy casual and something was hogging the bandwidth in the background. Regardless, we tried it the other way around—me connecting to his rig—and it worked flawlessly.
I didn’t experience any networking issues while playing Duck Game on his machine, and the responsiveness was beyond impressive. Put simply, it was like I was sitting there next to him, kicking his arse at the game he introduced me to. We shifted on to a few rounds of Gang Beasts. Just to clarify, while both Duck Game and Gang Beasts both have online multiplayer, we were playing both in local multiplayer to test Parsec.
Again, Parsec treated my controller like it was connected to his PC, and my friend beat the snot out of me in Gang Beasts. That wasn’t because of the latency, mind you; once again, controller input felt as responsive as if I was playing next to him. But it was time to do a real test.
I got my friend to fire up Battlegrounds to test whether an online PC shooter would be playable via Parsec. To be honest, I was expecting Parsec to drop the ball here. But it didn’t. In fact, it was very, very playable.
This was particularly weird because Parsec didn’t perform anywhere near as well on my local tests between my Ethernet-connected desktop and my Wi-Fi connected XPS 13 laptop. From desktop to laptop, it would go through stretches of being playable, but then it’d ignore input commands for a second or two before returning to normal. I tried tweaking the quality settings and switched encoding between hardware and software, but the results were the same.
Even low-res games like Nidhogg struggled to stream from desktop to laptop without occasional input hitches. The other way around, though—from laptop to desktop—it seemed to work fine. Go figure. It’s worth noting that regardless of whether you’re connecting to a local or remote device, Parsec doesn’t play well with User Account Control (UAC) stuff on Windows. In fact, it’ll likely break the connection if such a UAC pop-up occurs.
Parsec offers a script hack for this, which I’ve used and it works well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Parsec to work between my Windows 10 desktop and Android tablet. Despite this, and the local streaming hiccups, my early Parsec tests reaped promising results, most notably for online streaming. It’s inspired me to buy a Raspberry Pi 3 to test it out with game streaming between two wired devices.
Yes, Steam Link can already do that, but this would allow me to access more than just my Steam library without having to play around with the settings of other digital platforms to get them to play nice. I’m not sure how long Parsec will be free for, but if you’re interested in low-latency gaming or desktop sharing, it’s definitely worth taking for a spin in its current form.