What broadband is best for Steam?
By Dan Howdle | Monday, September 28th 2020
Steam is a PC games distribution platform which, at its most basic level, serves as an online shop for purchasing and downloading games to your PC. There is a lot more to it than that, though, with the platform also functioning as an online hub where you collect your games, review them, and connect to other players through your profile and friends list.
When it comes to the sort of broadband connection you need for Steam, it would be fair to say the sky is the limit. However, there are a number of things to be wary of, depending on your hardware. In this guide we'll be looking at what you need to use Steam effectively, and what sort of broadband connection is ideal for the average Steam user.
What is Steam?
At its most basic level, Steam is an online store. However, like Xbox Live or PlayStation store, it's also a launcher. A hub in which you collect your games – you can even add games not bought on Steam – and from which you can launch them. Your Steam profile also contains a friends list, so you can see who's online, who is playing what and so on. For some PC gamers, Steam is the only platform/launcher they want to use. It is also the oldest, starting life in 2003.
Sadly, not every PC game is available on Steam. Competing launchers such as the Epic Games Store have been snagging exclusives for themselves in recent years in order to pull people across to their platform – a move that has many Steam purists in uproar. You can add games from any other launcher into Steam. However, you cannot use Steam features such as your friends list, reviews, in-game chat and so on in those games.
Community is easily 50% of what Steam is about. Building a game collection is all well and good, but it's the ability to read hundreds if not thousands of user reviews to inform your purchase, as well as maintain a list of friends playing the same games as you that really makes Steam the number one choice for many. It's been around since 2003 after all, and that means it has had a lot of time to mature.
Another keen feature of Steam is its 'Big Picture' mode. This basically makes your PC behave like a console. All you need do is set 'Big Picture Mode' and 'Open Steam on startup' in the options and your PC will boot to a console-like interface where you can access most of Steams features using a game controller (or mouse and keyboard if you'd prefer). The idea here is to provide a mode where you can use your PC the same way you'd use your console – in a living room/TV environment.
Steam also has a well-featured in-game overlay. Pressing SHIFT+TAB will bring up a collection of menus which hover over your gameplay. In here you can access your friends list, send invites, set up screen capture or screen shots as well as a number of other quick access functions.
And although Steam does offer some Mac or Linux software, that's really not what it's about. Steam is and has always been primarily a Windows PC platform. It is, dare we say, essential to anyone who games on PC, and in terms of features, is light-years ahead of any competitor.
What do I need to use Steam?
You'll need a PC that's capable of gaming. That usually means a desktop or laptop PC that has a dedicated GPU (graphics processing unit). GPUs come in the form of (most commonly) a graphics card that plugs into your PC's PCIe slot. But you will also sometimes find GPUs integrated into the CPU (central processing unit) of your PC. These combined chips are called APUs (accelerated processing units).
Gaming on PC can be considerably more expensive than gaming on console on the hardware side of things, especially if you want a gaming PC capable of high resolutions and high graphics settings. However, games themselves, on Steam and other platforms, tend to be cheaper to the point that you will most likely save whatever excess you spent versus a console over the course of the PC's life. Here's a quick rundown of the bare necessities for gaming on Steam.
- A PC that's fit for gaming – As outlined above. Not just any PC will do. You will need one that has been built with at least one eye on its ability to run games
- A reasonably fast internet connection – With Steam being a purely online platform (boxed games barely exist these days and most modern PCs don't have optical disc drives) you'll be downloading your games. With modern triple-A titles weighing in at anywhere between 20GB and 180GB in size, a fast internet connection is going to be useful if you don't want to have to wait days for a download to complete
- A Steam account – You will need a Steam account. This is where you will set up your user profile and all games purchased will be attached to it. For this you will need a valid payment method if you want to buy games from the store, though feasibly, if you are a child, say, you will be able to get by on gifted Steam download codes
- Game control devices – You will need a means to control your games. All PC games allow control via mouse and keyboard, though this is less than ideal for some game types. Hack and slash, flight, driving and some RPGs just work better via a controller. Steam allows you to use an Xbox, PlayStation, generic PC, or Steam controller manufactured by Valve themselves. Though you should check your PC has bluetooth or whatever additional requirements there are for connecting your specific controller
How fast does my broadband need to be?
The act of gaming online actually requires very little bandwidth, with the most demanding multiplayer titles getting through around 500MBs per hour, or roughly 1Mbps. If you take a look around the web at the answer to this question, 'as fast as possible' when talking about game downloads on Steam is the most common answer. But it's not quite that simple.
You see, downloads can only run as fast as your computer can save the data onto a physical local drive. Not long ago, this wouldn't have been a consideration, since download speeds were much slower than the write speed of your average PC hard drive. But these days, speeds of up to 1Gbps download are becoming more and more common throughout the UK, and this creates a problem for older PC hardware. So, here is what you will need to make the most use out of your broadband connection.
If you have ADSL broadband
ADSL typically runs an average speed of around 10Mbps. Even the slowest PC hard drives will be able to keep up with this, so if you have ADSL there are no considerations on the hardware side of things when downloading games from Steam.
If your broadband is 'superfast' fibre
Entry-level fibre, with an average download speed of 30-33Mbps will create no problems even for old, slow hard drives. However, the faster the fibre you have, the more likely this is going to be to bottleneck on a traditional hard disk drive (HDD). Speeds of over 100Mbps such as those available from Virgin Media, are likely to be slowed because your HDD can't keep up.
There are two other types of hard drive to consider in these cases. The first is a solid state drive, or SSD. This will attach to your PC, either internally or externally, and has no physical moving parts. SSDs are more expensive for the storage you get, but will be able to keep up with most of the faster speeds you will get from Virgin Media. However, for its 516Mbps package, or its new Gig1 package, you'll need something faster still.
If you have gigabit or ultrafast broadband
The third type of drive you'll commonly find in a modern PC is called NVMe M.2. This is a card-like storage drive that plugs directly into your PC's motherboard with no cables. It is often hidden in its own covered housing, which also helps disspate the heat it generates. These things are lightning-fast, but also the most expensive storage there is. An NVMe drive will easily keep up with 1Gbps downloads.
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Alternatives to Steam
Steam – much to the chagrin of Steam users – is no longer the only game in town when it comes to launchers/stores to buy and play PC games. Every big publisher now has their own launcher, some of which with exclusive games that will force you to use them.
- Ubisoft Store/uPlay – Ubisoft games are also available on Steam, though Ubisoft's own launcher allows you to collect points and rewards under your 'uPlay' profile. You will also find 'uPlay+' here, which is a subscription service allowing you to download and play all of Ubisoft's games for a fixed monthly fee
- Rockstar Launcher – Offers only Rockstar Games, which is a pretty short list on PC. Only Red Dead Redemption 2, GTA IV and GTA V are available. Rockstar made it so RDR2 is only available via its own launcher, which naturally annoyed Steam users
- GOG Galaxy – Is a launcher from CD Projekt Red, the developer and publisher behind The Witcher series, and the much-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077. Its best feature is it allows you to actually connect all these other launchers and launch your games from one place
- EA Play Desktop App – Formerly called EA Origin, like Ubisoft's uPlay launcher, you'll find mostly EA games to purchase here. EA also offers EA Play, another monthly subscription service that allows you to download and play all of the games available
- Xbox App/Gamepass – Is a launcher bringing together titles form a wide array of publishers. Xbox Gamepass for PC offers almost everything on the store to download and play for a fixed monthly fee and is one of the better value such offerings as it pulls in titles beyond just the ones it publishes itself, and its monthly fee is very low
- The Bethesda Store – Is one of the least developed launchers. There aren't a huge amount of Bethesda titles out there, so you won't be using this one a lot. We imagine the Bethesda launcher will be axed fairly soon. Since Bethesda has been bought by Microsoft, we expect its game to soon be rolled into the Xbox app and be available via Gamepass PC
- Epic Games Store – Is famous right now for throwing large amounts of money at certain developpes and publishers to obtain exclusive rights to sell games on its store. This makes the Epic Games Store a necessity, which is an annoyance for many since it is very under-developed compared to Steam
How to save money on Steam
Buying new games from the Steam store for retail MSRP prices is not the best way to be frugal. There are a few different ways to purchase games on Steam that can and will save you money. They are…
Buy to try, refund where necessary
Steam has an excellent refund policy. Basically, if you buy a game, play it for under two hours, then decide you don't like it, you can get an instant refund with just a few clicks. You won't need to justify it to anyone, you just need to click the box, say you didn't like it and you're done. This allows you to try out games you're not sure about to see if they're for you. Which will ultimately save you money.
Wait for a sale
Steam holds regular sales. The big ones are four times a year and labelled by season – the Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall), and Winter sales. But year-round, there is always something on sale. In the main Steam interface, just click 'Specials' to see games with reduced pricing at any given time. The amounts to be saved during a Steam sale are not trivial. If the game is a year or two old, you could be saving up to 90% on the asking price in some cases.
Purchase a Steam key from a reliable third party
A Steam 'key' is a code that allows you to download and own a game from the Steam store. These are useful for gifting games to others on the one hand, but there are also sites out there that purchase these keys in large quantities and at reduced pricing. You can then purchase one of these keys from them. A site we recommend for this is CDKeys.com as we have always found them to be reliable.
Even brand new games have money knocked off if you go this way. So what's the catch? Simple. There are no refunds. If you buy a game this way then decide you don't like it, Steam's excellent refund policy doesn't apply. So you're saving money in exchange for greater risk, in short.
Frequently asked questions
What speed internet do I need for Steam?
For actually playing games online you do not need fast internet. However, for downloading and updating games you own, the faster the better. Just bear in mind the faster your internet the faster your storage solution will have to be. At the top end you will need an NVMe M.2 drive to keep up with the very fastest download speeds.
What are the best Steam settings to maximise my download speed?
Steam will let you choose which server you want to download from. Usually it'll make the right choice for you, but if things are slow you can manually change it to see if it helps. Likewise, you can allocate 'unlimited bandwidth' to Steam, which will allow it to use your entire internet connection during downloads.
What sort of hard drive is best for Steam?
For a 'slow' ADSL connection, a regular old HDD will suffice. For faster fibre connections you will need an SSD to keep up, and for ultrafast – 300Mbps+ – you will need to download to an NVMe M.2 drive.
How fast does my broadband need to be to play Steam games online?
Not very fast at all. For actually playing games rather than downloading them, you only need about 1Mbps. Even the slowest connections will cope just fine.
Can I use Steam offline?
Yes. Though only on the same computer you have your game collection already stored. If you want to access your game collection from a different PC, it will need to be online so Steam can verify it's you.