15 obscure Steam features that can power up your PC gaming
- 27 January, 2017 23:45
Let’s cut to the chase: For many people, PC gaming is synonymous with Steam. Valve’s ubiquitous gaming client is both storefront and service, delivering a one-stop shop for buying games, playing and managing those games, and even building out a friends list to chat with while you game.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Steam’s rife with hidden features that can help you get more out of your PC gaming experience—tricks that few people ever touch. Here are some of the most useful, starting with obscure (yet helpful) library management tools before diving into more exotic tips.
You can jump among them all using the table of contents on the left side of the page, but for sanity’s sake, all of the nifty library tricks mentioned on this page are lumped under a single entry in the ToC.
Optimize your Steam library
Add non-Steam games to your library
From DRM-free indie titles to EA games sold exclusively through Origin, not every PC game graces Steam’s digital shelves—which can be a problem if you game and socialize exclusively through Valve’s service. Fortunately, Valve lets you add non-Steam games to the Steam client.
Steam still won’t keep the rogue title up to date or save your game to Steam Cloud, but adding non-Steam games to your library lets your friends see when you’re playing the game, and unlocks the Steam overlay feature (Shift + Tab), including full screenshot and in-game chat functionality.
Got it? Good. Now open the Steam client and head to Games > Add a Non-Steam Game to My Library. The process is straightforward from there. If you want to add a custom image for the game in your Library’s grid view, just right-click it and select Set Custom Image, then go from there. The fine folks in r/steamgrid on Reddit will whip up custom images for games if you’d like. You can find a ton of custom grid images on the Steam Banners website or Deviant Art, as well.
Manage where your games land
Maybe you want to shift all your titles onto a blazing-fast SSD, or maybe you installed a spacious new traditional hard drive that’s just begging to be filled with gaming goodness. Either way, Steam makes it a cinch to add new folders in which to store your games.
Open Steam and head to Steam > Settings > Downloads, then click the Steam Library Folders button. From here, you can add as many folders for game installations as you’d like. Once you’ve added folders, you’ll be given a Choose location for installation option when you’re installing a new game.
Even better, it’s dead simple to move your previously installed games between directories now. Moving game installs (from, say, an SSD to a hard drive) used to require arcane trickery, but now all you have to do is right-click on a game, select Properties, then Local Files, and at the bottom you’ll see a Move Install Folder button. Clicking it brings up all your available Steam folder locations. Easy-peasy.
Batch install or uninstall games
Good news for folks migrating to a new PC or simply looking to clear out a lot of space in a short amount of time: Steam can install or delete games in bulk.
Open your Steam library in Detail or List View and select the games you’d like to install by Crtl + clicking on each. (The games you choose will appear highlighted.) When you’re done, simply right-click on one of the games and select the Install option. Boom! You’ll be greeted by bulk installation options for the entire mass of games.
Conversely, you can also select multiple games that are already installed on your hard drive, then right-click and choose Delete Local Data to wipe them all off your PC in one fell swoop.
Sort your installed games by size
Speaking of deleting stuff, if you’re trying to free up storage for new games, the ability to sort your Steam games by install size can help you find the biggest space-suckers. It’s hidden in a fiendish spot, however.
Enter your library and set it to List View using the View options near the upper-right corner. Once that’s enabled, click the little + icon at the far right of the screen, just underneath the View options. You’re going to want to click the “Size on Disk” option at the bottom of the list that appears.
That adds a new “Size on Disk” column to the list view. Click it once to sort in ascending size order, and again to sort by descending size order.
Back up your games
Sure, the Steam Cloud keeps your save games nice and secure on Valve’s servers, but it only backs up your save games—and only on titles that support the feature. Backing up your games themselves protects against life’s “Oh crap!” moments, ensuring that you don’t risk corruption or angering your Internet provider by re-downloading your entire library if your hard drive gives up the ghost.
Guess what? Steam can handle your game backups, too. Head into your library, right-click on any installed game, and select Backup Game Files. A dialog box will pop up with a list of all your installed games, allowing you to select which titles you’d like to backup. The process is straightforward from there.
Restoring those backups is just as easy. Simply log into your Steam account, then open the backup folder and run the steambackup.exe file (which you can grab here if you’ve lost it). Follow the on-screen prompts from there. Note that the executable should auto-run if you’ve backed your games up to a CD or DVD. If you run into trouble, check out Steam’s backup FAQ.
Steam’s backup isn’t flawless. It won’t, for example, back up mods, custom configuration files, or games that utilize third-party installers, such as MMOs and many other free-to-play games. Nor will it back up any games that don’t call Steam home. You’ll have to handle those manually. But most importantly, Steam’s game backup feature won’t backup your local save games. Check out PCWorld’s guide to backing up your PC save games to be certain that the princess comes with you to another castle.
Next page: Family sharing, in-home streaming, and more
Family game sharing
This tip bridges the gap between our initial library management tips and the forthcoming barrage of random helpful extras. Steam family sharing is a digital reimagining of a central home gaming console, letting your family and friends play your Steam games when you’re not.
Before you start, Steam Guard protection (Steam > Settings > Account > Manage Steam Guard account security) will need to be enabled for all accounts for which you want to enable family sharing. Once that’s done, log into your Steam account on your friend’s computer, then head to Steam > Settings > Family and check the box next to “Authorize Library Sharing on this computer.” You’ll then be asked which local account(s) to authorize for family sharing. (You can let up to five other Steam accounts play your games on up to 10 specified devices.)
Once that’s done, simply sign out of your Steam account. From then on, the account you authorized on that PC can download and play your library of Steam games—though that sharing only works when you aren’t playing games, and when the other person has an active Internet connection. Lather, rinse, and repeat as needed for other PCs and family members. Bonus: Their in-game progress won’t affect yours.
Update your graphics card drivers
Always run the most current drivers for your graphics card: It’s a core law of PC gaming. Nvidia and AMD pump out constant driver updates to support the latest games and optimize older titles, so you’re leaving precious graphics performance on the table if you stick to old drivers.
Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming
Both graphics card companies offer software that helps keep drivers up to date, but if you’re not looking to tinker with arcane graphics settings, you can do the same through Steam. Just open the client and head to Steam > Check for Video Driver Updates in the menu bar. If new drivers are available for your card, Steam will let you know and offer to install them right there.
Show your in-game FPS
Staying on the graphical firepower beat, Steam offers an in-game FPS overlay so you can see how many frames per second you’re getting at any given time. It’s a great tool when you’re tinkering with in-game graphics options, trying to achieve the highest frame rate possible.
To activate it, head to Steam > Settings > Interface. Look for the In-game FPS counter option, then click on it and select which corner of the screen you’d like the FPS counter to appear in.
Steam in-home streaming
Steam in-home streaming lets you play graphically intensive games on technologically crappy PCs and Windows tablets, or even on your TV via Valve’s affordable Steam Link ($50 on Amazon). It uses the power of your main gaming rig to run the game, and then streams it in Netflix-like fashion to your secondary PC. Think of it as OnLive or GeForce Now for your Steam collection, but only on your home network. I use it to play games on my cheap laptop from my couch or bed almost daily. It’s magical.
Activating Steam in-home streaming on a computer is easy: Just log on to Steam on your laptop while your gaming PC is connected to the same network and also running Steam. A pop-up notification will let you know the two machines are aware of each other, and a new “Stream” option will appear in your library for games installed on your primary PC. There are some caveats and nuances—most involve balancing your network connection and graphics settings—which you can read all about in PCWorld’s guide to Steam in-home streaming.
Playing games on your TV with Steam Link is even easier because the device focuses solely on streaming. A wired Internet connection works best with the Link, and if you plan on playing PC games that work best with a mouse and keyboard, consider picking up the Steam Controller ($50 on Amazon). Valve’s gamepad has a bit of a learning curve, but once you’ve mastered it you’ll be able to play even controller-hating games like Civilization on your big screen.
Next page: Advanced server options, download optimizations, and more.
Advanced server options
Servers are king in online gaming. A solid server with friendly players can feel warmer and more inviting than a nice pair of wool socks. It doesn’t really highlight the fact, but the client keeps tracks of all the dedicated servers connected to Steam, and you can use that to keep track of your favorites.
Head to View > Servers to see several tabs’ worth of information about all the servers connected to the service. The Spectate and LAN tabs could be intriguing depending on what you’re looking to do, but I get the most use out of the History and Favorites options. The History tab tracks every multiplayer server you’ve recently used, with detailed information about the server itself as well as when you’ve last accessed it. If any particular servers strike your fancy, right-click it and select Add server to favorites to permanently save it in the Favorites tab—because home is where your favorite server is.
Broadcast your games
Twitch reigns supreme when it comes to streaming your games for others to watch, but Steam also packs native broadcasting tools. Head to Steam > Settings > Broadcasting to set it up. You’ll find numerous options to tweak the stream, such as video quality and the ability to broadcast your microphone’s audio so you can actually chat with viewers.
The Privacy setting is the most important option, though. You can use it to disable broadcasting completely, allow friends to request to watch your games, always allow friends to watch, or allow anybody to watch (which puts your stream in the public Broadcasts portion of the Steam Community hub). Fear not: Steam will only start broadcasting your game once somebody starts to watch it, so your computer won’t use precious resources recording your gameplay if nobody’s around.
Change Steam’s opening page
By default, Steam opens to the store homepage when you boot it up cold or open it from the Windows system tray, but you can change that if you aren’t interested in window shopping.
Head to Steam > Interface and look for the Favorite window option. You’ll have several options to choose from; I personally find the Library or Friends defaults most useful.
Optimize your downloads
While you’re poking around in settings anyway, head back over to Settings > Downloads to reveal all sorts of granular options that help you manage how you install both games and their updates. (This is also where you can assign new folder locations to install your games.)
Steam auto-selects the closest available download server, so you probably don’t want to touch that particular option. But you may just want to go through the Download Restrictions options, which allow you to limit the bandwidth allocated to downloads and set a specific time frame when downloads can occur. On the flip side, if you’re lucky enough to have wider Internet pipes, you can opt to allow Steam to download games and updates while you’re actively playing games. By default, Steam halts all downloads when you fire up a game.
Change Steam’s skin
Did you know you can change the way Steam looks? It’s really simple, too.
Steam doesn’t include any alternative aesthetics by default, but you can find downloadable skins in various places on the web. PCGamesN has a fine roundup, while I have a soft spot for the Pressure² and Air skins. (The elegant Air is the skin you see above.)
Just plop those in Steam’s root skin folder in the Windows File Explorer—the default location is C: > Program files or Program files(x86) > Steam > Skins. Once that’s done, launch Steam, then head to Steam > Settings > Interface and choose your new skin in the Select the skin you wish Steam to use drop-down menu. Simply restart Steam and boom! You’re good to go.
Power-up with Enhanced Steam
The powerful (and free!) Enhanced Steam browser extension might just convince you to start shopping on the Steam website rather than within the Steam client itself. Enhanced Steam packs a multitude of handy-dandy features designed to help you know when to buy—or not buy—a particular game. It’ll show the pricing history for individual titles, tell you when a game is available for less in competing stores like Humble or GOG, warn you when you have a coupon available for a game, and heck, even sniff out games with third-party DRM.
And that’s just the beginning. Seriously; if you’re a PC gamer, there’s no reason not to go install Enhanced Steam right now.
One for the road
For kicks, check out SteamDB’s account calculator tool while you’re at it.
If you’ve left your Steam profile public, the tool scrapes its info to spit out details about how many games you own, how much you’ve spent on them, play-time statistics, total hours on record, and much, much more. It’s enlightening… and maybe just a bit depressing, too.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 29, 2014, but was updated to include new information.