In-Home Streaming Faceoff: Steam Remote Play vs. Moonlight

Between Stadia, GeForce Now, Microsoft xCloud, and other competitors like Shadow, gaming streaming is experiencing a real resurgence. The core infrastructure and encoders of the Internet have grown significantly since OnLive’s epic failure a decade ago.

Equally important, the idea of ​​streaming media is now embedded in the public consciousness: we have Netflix, we have Spotify, so why not games too?

Remote game streaming still has a lot to do, however: not everyone has gigabit internet, and some latency is inevitable unless you are physically close to the servers.

But what about in-home streaming? In these domestic times, “secluded” usually means your bedroom as opposed to your work place or another city. In-home streaming solutions have come a long way too. Unlike remote streaming, however, a premium in-home streaming experience with modest hardware requirements is within reach.

Whether you just play Skyrim in bed or want to take your work apps into the living room, solutions like Steam in-home streaming and Moonlight offer an almost flawless experience. As I write this article, I happen to be using an iPad Pro 10.5 “streaming Windows 10 desktop through Steam Remote Play.

In this article, I’m going to share my experience with these two local streaming options. Which one is better? How much does latency affect the experience? Really, can you play Skyrim in bed?

What is Steam Remote Play? What is moonlight

If you’re an iOS or Android user with an Nvidia graphics card, these are your options for in-home streaming. However, they are both implemented differently.

Steam Remote Play is (obviously) tied to your Steam account and the Steam app on Windows. You need to be running Steam for Remote Play to work. Moonlight, on the other hand, uses an open source implementation of Nvidia’s GameStream technology and works with GeForce Experience. However, both apps do basically the same thing: they stream compressed audio and video feeds from your PC games to your iOS or Android device.

Since these solutions are embedded in Steam or GeForce Experience, you do not need any additional software on the host side, but have to download a game client to your mobile device. You can get them here:

Download Steam Link


Why would you choose one over the other? In our tests, we tried to measure certain aspects of the experience like latency, high refresh rate support, image quality, compression, and touch controls.

A GeForce RTX 3080 and a Ryzen 9 3900X run on our desktop test bench. We used a Netgear R6260 AC1600 router with its PC connected via ethernet. This is extremely important: a hardwired connection between your PC and the router can reduce latency significantly.

Our primary streaming device was an iPad Pro 10.5 “and an LG ThinQ G7 to test Moonlight’s input latency. We did this because the iOS version of Moonlight doesn’t have a full performance overlay. We set the bitrate to 50 on both Mbps limits devices with x265 encoding enabled and a rendering resolution of 1080p. This is more or less standard usage conditions. Steam Remote Play’s video quality setting has been changed to “Fast”. If you select “Balanced” or “Nice” instead, you will slightly improved both image quality and latency.


Both setups delivered remarkably similar results with a latency in the region of 20 ms. This is an order of magnitude better than the 150 to 200 ms latency found in most Google Stadia titles. Moonlight performed slightly better, with gameplay occasionally running in the 18-20 ms range. In practice, however, we found it difficult to distinguish the latency in Moonlight or Steam Remote Play. Comparing head-to-head with a native keyboard / mouse experience, both streaming options felt a bit sluggish. But without that frame of reference, it was very difficult to tell.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is treated like a typical iOS or Android game. Considering that many mobile titles run at 30 FPS (with dips below), the input lag was actually less than the typical native gaming experience.

From the latency standpoint alone, it’s a mistake: both Steam Remote Play and Moonlight deliver equally excellent results.

High refresh rate support

Manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple are increasingly using high refresh rate panels on flagship smartphones and tablets. This opens the door to silky smooth streaming of high update games, if that’s a supported feature. Unfortunately, Steam Remote Play reaches 60 Hz.

Moonlight, on the other hand, supports 90 Hz and 120 Hz panels. We tried Moonlight’s 120 Hz mode on the iPad Pro’s ProMotion display. This took a little fiddling with custom resolutions in the Nvidia control panel, but we were impressed with the results.

The perceived input latency was lower at 60 Hz than on Steam Remote Play and very close to the native PC experience. Interestingly, the motion blur was less on the iPad compared to our 1440p QNIX monitor. This meant that, at least in some ways, the streaming image quality was better than native.

Image quality and compression

Both Moonlight and Steam Remote Play support HEVC encoding (x265). HEVC offers x264-equivalent image quality at a lower bit rate or superior compression at an equivalent bit rate.

When streaming higher resolutions and frame rates, HEVC is critical to ensure low latency. While the frames held up well in both Steam Remote Play and Moonlight, we found that Remote Play generally looked better on the move when everything else was the same.

Despite the high pixel density of the iPad Pro display, fast-moving scenes deteriorate noticeably. Image quality is important here to distinguish motion blur from compression artifacts. As mentioned earlier, moonlight motion blur is less when using high refresh mode. But in the middle of the action, Steam Remote Play holds up a little better. The image quality modes “Balanced” and “Beautiful” further improve the image quality at the expense of 5 to 10 ms latency.

Touch controls

Steam Remote Play undoubtedly wins here. Moonlight has extremely simple touch controls: essentially a virtual Xinput controller with buttons placed like an Xbox One controller. It is almost impossible to press several buttons at the same time in the moonlight or to aim reasonably well with the virtual thumb stick.

Steam Remote Play, on the other hand, supports remapping of Steam Big Picture controllers. This gives you virtually unlimited flexibility in mapping touch controls, keyboard shortcuts, and target styles. Even better, you get access to Touch Control profiles created by the community and developers.

In games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, these custom configurations have customized the controls to be close to a native mobile experience. If you don’t have a mobile controller on hand, Steam Remote Play’s touch controls are more than adequate.

We also tested both streaming clients with one GameVice controller. While some games, like 2D platformer and ARPGs, work reasonably well with a touchscreen, a physical controller itself is way better than custom touch controls. We found that Moonlight’s input latency benefit is more pronounced when GameVice is connected, especially at a higher refresh rate.

closing remarks

Both Steam Remote Play and Moonlight offer a solid (and free!) Streaming experience at home. Both offer great input latency and picture quality, so streaming is as good or better than native mobile gaming. However, both have their own advantages and caveats. If you want to stream games at a high refresh rate, Moonlight is the only option right now. You’ll have to put up with slightly inferior image quality, but the lower input latency and smoothness are worth it.

Steam Remote Play, on the other hand, offers customizable touch controls. If you don’t have a controller on hand, this is the only way to go, considering Moonlight’s standard, frankly, cruel touch controls.

Steam Remote Play also seems like a better option if you want to use in-home streaming for productivity workloads (to stream your entire desktop). When we tested it, Moonlight suffered from an iOS bug that hides your mouse pointer and makes it difficult to navigate Windows. Steam Remote Play doesn’t have this problem.

The real takeaway: In-home streaming is absolutely feasible. Use your mobile devices as clients, coupled with a powerful PC and router for entry into the mid-range, and you’re good to go. We’ve definitely come a long way from Splashtop days.

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