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.
Steam in-home streaming
Let's start with a powerful yet quietly advertised feature that has revolutionized the way I play games around the house: Steam in-home streaming.
Steam in-home streaming lets you play even graphically intense games on technologically crappy PCs and Windows tablets. It uses the power of your main gaming rig to actually run games, and then streams the game in Netflix-like fashion to your secondary PC. Think of it as OnLive 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, and my colleague Hayden Dingman leveraged the feature's power to play Assassin's Creed IV on an ancient 2006 MacBook.
Activating Steam in-home streaming 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.
Update your graphics cards 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.
Both companies offer control panels to 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.
Add non-Steam games to your Steam 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, however, 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 on 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.
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 you when a game is already in your library or wish lists, show the pricing history for individual titles, reveal just how much money you'll save in a games bundle, 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.
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 additional folders, you'll be given a "Choose location for installation" option when you're installing a new game. Easy-peasy.
Moving already installed games is much trickier and involves the use of symbolic links, which essentially trick your PC into thinking the file it's looking for is still in its original location after you've moved it. We explain the manual way to create symlinks in PCWorld's guide to proper SSD management, but you'd be better off just using the incredible Steam Mover software. No, really--just go download that and follow the instructions. It's way easier than the DIY method.
Moving your entire Steam installation is a guide in and of itself. Just follow Valve's step-by-step instructions if you want to move all of Steam to a whole new drive.
Read on for secret game management options, tips on how to get the most from Steam's Jump List, and the really advanced stuff.
Batch install or uninstall games
A recent update made it much easier to reinstall all your games if you do need to move Steam to a new computer. Yes, Steam can now 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 chose 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.
Remote game installation
You can also remotely install games you buy when you're out and about, assuming your home PC is on, connected to the Internet, and logged into Steam. It's a welcome feature when you go on an impulse buying binge at work or on public transportation.
To install a game from afar, first log into your Steam account on the Steam Community website. When you're in, click your Steam account name in the list of options at the top of the page, then click Games option the right-side options pane that appears. In your Games page, open the All Games tab to view your entire library. Click the Installation icon to the right of the listing for the game you'd like to install and it'll promptly begin downloading on your home computer.
Hide games from your library
In a world where Summer Sales and Humble Bundles threaten to swell backlogs to ridonkulous proportions, gamers have pleaded for a way to hide games from their libraries for years. And finally--finally!--Valve has delivered, though Steam doesn't advertise the handy-dandy feature in any way.
To hide a game in your library, right-click on it and choose Set Categories. Then, check the "Hide this game in my library" box and click OK. Done! The game disappears from your library, banished to a "Hidden" filter accessible only by clicking the small Games button next to the library's search box and clicking--you guessed it--"Hidden." There, you can dive back into the game's category options and un-check the "Hide this game" box if you want to return it to the light.
Customize Steam's taskbar Jump List
Pinning programs to the taskbar and utilizing Jump Lists is one of the fastest ways to cruise through Windows. (Right-clicking on an program pinned to the taskbar reveals its Jump List.) By default, Steam's Jump List shows your most recent game played as well as links to various corners of the client--news, Big Picture, library, Friends, etc. But there's really no need for most people to have a Jump List option to leap straight into, say, your screenshots or Friend activity. Fortunately, you can tinker with Steam's Jump List settings to reveal fewer of those ho-hum entries and more of the important stuff--games!
Head to Steam > Settings > Interface, then click the Set Taskbar Preferences button. In the dialog box that appears, just uncheck the boxes of any Steam locations you don't want included in its Jump List, then press OK when you're done.
Now right-click the Steam icon in your taskbar; for every default Jump List item you deleted, your list of recent game entries grew by one. Selecting a recent game entry drops you right into the game itself, making it a quick way to leap back into the titles you're currently plowing through.
Back up your games locally
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. (I told you it was a one-stop shop!) 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 other 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 save games themselves. Check out PCWorld's guide to backing up your PC save games to be certain that the princess comes with you to another castle.
This rabbit hole goes even deeper if you want it to. If you aren't scared of riding the bleeding, buggy edge you can behold the future of PC gaming by registering for the Steam Beta Client or trying out SteamOS, Valve's beta Linux operating system based around Steam. (We even have a guide to building your own $560 Steam Machine with a small footprint and big-time performance.) If you just want to be aware of the latest and greatest Steam happenings, be sure to follow the unofficial Steam Database blog and Twitter account.
And finally, Steam is nothing without games, so be sure to check out PCWorld's guides to finding cheap (or free!) PC games and getting the most bang for your buck during a Steam Sale.