How to Make Your Steam Library Portable

August 12, 2012
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When recently confronted with the challenge of bringing my entire Steam library to a LAN party, I initially thought my options were limited to dragging my large desktop tower to the event or copying tons of files from one computer to the other and hoping Steam would recognize them all when I fired it up.  But alas, I found a better solution that solves the problem for the foreseeable future.

First, you’ll need an external hard drive, preferably USB (getting 2.0 or 3.0 is entirely up to you), probably one with its own power adapter (i.e., not USB-powered) is a good idea.  The drive is going to be pretty busy, so having its own dedicated power supply will ensure that you don’t run into issues, but again, this is ultimately up to you.  It’ll need enough room on it to house all the Steam games you’re planning to keep regularly available.  I have over 200 games and it takes up about 544GB, so with 1TB external drives getting cheaper all the time, that’d cover your bases and leave plenty of room to grow.

Hook up the external drive to your computer, download the Steam client from SteamPowered.com, copy it to the external, and run it.  The actual location of the MSI when you run it isn’t important, but if all of your Steam stuff is going here anyway, might as well be consistent.  Install the client to the external drive, noting the path to Steam.exe.

TIME SAVING TIP!  If you already had a bunch of games installed from Steam on your local hard drive, copy everything in the Steam directory to the new Steam directory on the external drive; if not everything, at the very least copy everything in “\Steam\SteamApps\common” as this will be where most of your games get stored.  Steam is smart enough to recognize these files are already in the on-disk library when you go to download the game again (it doesn’t pick them up automatically sometimes just on start-up), will catalog them, and not waste time trying to download things you already have.  You can always verify the game cache is intact and up to date after any remaining downloading is complete.  To do this, go to the games list in your Steam library, right-click the game in question, choose Properties, then under the Local Files tab, click “Verify Integrity of Game Cache.”

With the Steam client installed, browse back to the Steam.exe and run it.  I advise against getting too attached to a desktop shortcut launching it since the external drive’s letter may change from one system to the next.  Same goes for making desktop shortcuts to games you download later; just launch them from your library to make sure drive letter paths don’t create problems.  When the Steam client opens, apply any suggested updates, and then start downloading things from your library.

When you’re ready to travel, unhook the external drive from your system, plug it into the next computer you want to play on, browse to the same Steam.exe on the external drive, run it, and voila – all your games are there for the playing.  I even noticed that it kept track of in-progress downloads across this leap, resuming them on the new machine as soon as the client loaded up.  And it still knows to put them on the external instead of cluttering up the local machine with any files.

Performance-wise, you have the added benefit of spooling game content off a second drive.  The spindle and heads on traditional platter-based hard drives face read/write limitations, especially when trying to queue up a bunch of game data while keeping your operating system functional at the same time.  If you rock USB 3.0 or eSATA, all the better.  What’s more, if you do run out of space down the road, just buy a bigger drive and copy everything off this drive to the new one.  It should fire up and maintain all your settings, installs, and tweaks.

And this, my little lovelies, is how you can take your Steam library wherever you want without having to download everything when you get there.  Great for visiting your relatives in the boonies who still use dial-up, and with all the content on the disk, you can just use Offline Mode to get playing if need be.  With growing Steam Cloud support for saves and settings, taking your library on the road doesn’t mean you have to leave your in-game progress at home.

Of course, for safe keeping and saving yourself a bunch of time, might as well pick up two of those external drives while you’re out, one for the main library, and one as a backup mirror of it.  With ISP bandwidth caps popping up all over the place, it’s not only time consuming, but also potentially costly to have to re-download your entire game library someday.

Also, should Steam shut down for good someday, you’ll have all your games stored locally, and can start looking for modifications that will allow them to run without Steam.  It can be done, often without much fuss, but that’s a conversation for another day.

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