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December 2023

Steam Deck

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Hardware
Publisher: Valve
Developer: Valve
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2022

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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Hardware Review - 'Steam Deck'

by Chris Barnes on June 1, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Steam Deck brings the Steam games and features you love to a powerful and convenient form factor that you can take wherever you go.

Valve's been known to remain silent for years while developing something that can push the limitations and expectations of the gaming industry. It was at the forefront of digital software distribution for PC gaming with a platform called Steam, and it has released a number of arguably revolutionary games in the first-person shooter genre with the likes of Counter-Strike, Half-Life and Portal. In recent years, it has embraced the creation of hardware within the gaming sphere. Some products, like the Valve Index, are successful and critically acclaimed, while others, like the Steam Controller and Steam Link, debuted to lukewarm reception. Regardless of the result, Valve's interested in pushing the limits of how, where, and why we play video games.

Enter Steam Deck: a new, handheld PC that is the culmination of Valve's past hardware successes and failures. With a mashup of trackpads, standard gamepad buttons, gyro, and Steam Input controller configurations, it revives the Steam Controller's skeleton to drive its various input methods. Steam's simple, digital storefront that's evolved into an entire PC gaming ecosystem is baked into all the different screens of the UI, and streaming games from your desktop to the Steam Deck is a breeze thanks to the streaming technology in Steam Link. Even SteamOS, the operating system installed on long-forgotten Steam Machines, has been revamped for Steam Deck.

Intentional or not, the Steam Deck seems to be the culmination of Valve's software and hardware releases from the past two decades. The elevator pitch is alluring: What if you could play your Steam games anywhere? It's a great concept, but with Valve's somewhat spotty track record with hardware, I was skeptical.

After Steam Deck was initially revealed in 2021, I was full of questions. Can it run graphically demanding PC games on an APU chip? How is it going to handle games that span across many genres and require different input methods? Can Proton, a compatibility layer that lets Windows games to run on the Linux-based SteamOS, play these games without much degradation in performance or stability? Why would I use this instead of my PC or Xbox — or Switch, if I want a portable system? I was down on the Steam Deck before I'd even used one, but Valve's aggressive pricing ($400 to $650, depending on storage size) was so good that my concerns didn't drive me away.

I'm glad they didn't.

My Steam Deck arrived in mid-April, just a month after its Feb. 28, 2022, release date. The packaging is simple and efficient. Inside is a 45w charging cable, a one-page setup guide, a microfiber cloth for screen cleaning, and a fantastic case that holds the Deck. I was pleased to discover that the case is hard enough to withstand shipment. It has a fabric handle for carrying, but I have to imagine that most people will put this in its case due to the system's bulkiness.

In many ways, the Deck's size will be the first thing that causes trepidation among potential customers. Weighing in at 1.47 pounds (nearly 50% increase in weight over the Nintendo Switch) with a 7" screen across the nearly 12" system, the Steam Deck is by no means small. We're a far cry from the Game Boys and PSPs of yesteryear.

Those worries eased when I laid my hands on the Steam Deck. My palms wrapped around its ergonomic side, and my fingers rested on the sticks, triggers, and back grips in a way that felt natural and comfortable. Despite its weight, the mass is centered in a way that the system never feels like a hassle to hold. After several lengthy play sessions over a few weeks, I still find the Steam Deck comfortable to hold, although some buttons are slightly cumbersome to use. My index fingers rest on the triggers, similar to an Xbox controller, with the bumpers just above them. On an Xbox controller, it's a minute motion to roll my index fingers upward to the bumpers, but the bulkiness of the Steam Deck means that it's more of a stretch to click the bumpers. It's not a problem for games that require quick clicks of a bumper, but it can be an annoyance in games that require constant holding of a bumper (e.g., blocking in Elden Ring).

Fortunately, the flexible nature of Steam Input's controller configuration settings let me map the back grip buttons to work as the bumpers. Unlike the Elite Series Xbox controllers, I find the Deck's back grip buttons to be comfortable to press mid-game without being so sensitive that I'm constantly sending accidental inputs. The location of the trackpads took me a bit to warm up to. Similar to the Nintendo Switch, the trackpads sit below the face buttons of the controller, which I find to be an awkward, cramp-inducing position for thumbs to reach. It's not quite as low as the Switch, but I readjusted my hands every 20 minutes when using the trackpads.

The first time you boot up the Steam Deck, you're introduced with a quick tutorial to demonstrate the various system buttons and settings screens. On the lower left-hand side of the Deck is the Steam button, which lets you access your library, store page, settings page, and more. The "..." button on the opposite side of the system lets you access battery management settings, notifications, and more. Unlike the rest of the buttons on the Deck, which feel tactile and responsive, these buttons feel mushy — a disappointment considering how often you're using them. You can also hold the Steam button in combination with other buttons for shortcut functions, such as bringing up the virtual keyboard, force-quitting a game, taking an in-game screenshot, etc. Once the tutorial is over, you're free to overwhelm yourself with all the freedom that comes with a literal PC in the palm of your hands.

Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities, I enjoy the overall layout of the Steam Deck UI. It's sleek and intuitive, and a home screen shows you recently played and purchased games. Your library can be filtered by install status, custom collections (similar to Steam on a desktop PC), and even Steam Deck compatibility based on Valve's verification process. Similarly, when viewing the store via Steam Deck, there's a section dedicated to games that are "Verified" or "Playable" on the system. It's a useful way to surface content that is "plug and play" for the system, with minimal tinkering.

I love the layout of the UI, but the actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. Navigating the store with the d-pad cursor is buggy. It jumps half-way down the page and forgets where it was when moving to a prior screen. One time, the cursor disappeared, leaving me unsure about what was currently selected. The bugginess gets worse when going beyond surface-level UI layers. When creating custom controller layouts for games, I've had controller configurations not export or use a different mapping from the one I'd set.

In addition to the per-game controller layouts, I have yet to find a screen that lets me create controller templates that can be shared across multiple titles. You can create a controller mapping for a specific game and export that layout as a template for other games, but that brings me back to my original issue where exporting controller layouts doesn't always work. Controller layouts can't have descriptions tied to them anymore, which is a step backward. When I share a Divinity Original Sin controller layout with the community, they won't know that the B button makes your characters enter sneak mode. Instead, they'll just know that the B button sends a keyboard input of "C," so you won't know what the controls do unless you're already familiar with the game and its key bindings. All the power that comes with Steam Input's flexibility is still there, but the presentation has been streamlined to the point of degradation.

While these have been two of my biggest headaches with the UI, there are other bugs I've encountered along the way. One time I noticed that the games installed on my MicroSD weren't appearing in the installed games library, despite the MicroSD card inserted in the slot. Re-inserting the card fixed the issue, but I accidentally installed Fallout 4 twice because I didn't realize it was already installed on my MicroSD and not visible in my library at the time.

I've noticed other screens in the UI don't support stick/d-pad navigation at all and rely solely on the touch-screen to navigate. The keyboard doesn't work when attempting to add a caption to a screenshot that I wanted to share with my friends. All of these bugs and oddities have been little more than minor annoyances to me, but I can't help but feel like a beta user despite sticking to the stable branch. I shudder to think what the SteamOS beta branch is like for those who willingly opt-in to that via the system settings page. Valve is pushing out updates at a ferocious rate with major features coming in at a nearly weekly cadence, so I welcome future versions of the system's UI.

Regardless, I've learned to live with these various hiccups, for one critical reason: gameplay. I've sunken many hours across games old and new in a plethora of genres, and most of them run well. Lengthier RPGs from current and prior generations like Tales of Arise and Yakuza 0 are a joy to play at 60fps from the comfort of the couch, and they work without a hitch since they're games that natively support a gamepad.

The Steam Deck has also revolutionized how I play shooters. No matter how much Nintendo, Steam Controller users, and the Dual Sense shoved gyro controls down my throat, I could never stray from conventional joystick aiming. Perhaps it's the addition of the screen moving with my hands, or maybe it's the joysticks and trackpads that activate gyro via touch. Whatever the reason, the Steam Deck has finally converted me to team gyro. Half-Life 2 felt like a new game once I wrapped my head around this new control method. I'm now using gyro as my preferred way to play shooters, and it is a game-changer.

Strategy games and city-builders like Timberborn play well, and the trackpads have a surprising level of accuracy despite their small size. Strategy games may suffer the most from the 7" screen, but if the game has a UI scaling option (most modern strategy games do), then that problem is quickly solved.

In many ways, I feel like a kid in a candy shop, bouncing between the various titles of my 600+ game Steam Library to see what does and doesn't work. Nearly 200 of my titles were flagged as "Verified" or "Playable," but the verification status isn't a guarantee. Chernobylite, a game marked as "Verified," is seemingly broken on Steam Deck. Various reddit posts indicate this is related to the Enhanced Edition update in April. Other verified titles may run below 60fps at their default graphics settings, but considering the system's form factor and price, I find this to be acceptable.

Users may find plenty of games in their library that are flagged as "Unsupported." This is most notable for popular online games like Destiny 2, Vermintide 2, and more. Perhaps the most deflating unsupported category of games for me was Xbox Game Pass games. It's no secret how great the Game Pass library has become in recent years, but none of them work natively on Steam Deck.

With a few, easy-to-follow, workaround steps, you can get Xbox Cloud Gaming up and running on the Steam Deck and play the games via streaming. I've been pleasantly surprised with how those games run, but it's still nowhere as smooth or crisp as native titles. It's made for some tough decisions. I can pay $30 to play games like Tunic natively, or I can stream a lesser version at no extra cost. It may be unfair to ding the Steam Deck for not playing games that it openly acknowledges don't work, but I feel a little let down when I'm taunted by game icons in my library that won't run on Steam Deck. That is the nature of this system, and some users may have to accept it.

Ultimately, the Steam Deck is nothing more than a PC. You're still playing PC games that aren't being optimized for a single, closed system or OS but must work across a number of builds and chipsets. For the multitude of games that are flagged with a status of "Verified," "Playable," and "Unknown," the Steam Deck handles nearly everything I've thrown at it shockingly well, sometimes feeling better than my desktop PC.

Alas, all that power comes at a cost. The battery life on the Steam Deck has received lots of scrutiny across the gaming community. With various media outlets and Youtubers criticizing it for only getting 90-120 minutes of life on graphically intensive games, I was worried about the practicality of the Steam Deck. In reality, I haven't found the battery life to be much of an issue. Most of my playtime thus far has been confined to my house. I use the Steam Deck on my couch after work, where it can charge while I play. When I'm ready to get cozy in bed, I can easily get another hour or two of gaming unplugged without fear of it running out of juice. My tune may change when I board a six-hour flight to California, but even then, I'm not too worried. Valve has incorporated useful features to mitigate battery drain. The Steam Deck has both a system-level FPS limiter and FSR (AMD's resolution upscaling technology) to reduce the overall power draw. Leveraging these two settings in tandem can nearly double the Steam Deck's battery life, allowing upward of 3-4 hours of gameplay on the most intensive offerings.

It's this level of flexibility and accessibility that's made the Steam Deck a ubiquitous piece of gaming hardware in my life. I was skeptical when pre-ordering the Steam Deck. I work from home and rarely leave the house beyond daycare drop-off and grocery pick-ups. Why would I use this over my Xbox, PC, PS5 or Switch? The Steam Deck fills the gaps and setbacks that I didn't know existed. My PC and PS5 are set up at the same desk that I work from nine hours a day, five days a week. Spending even more time in that same chair feels like punishment, not to mention the guilt I face each time I hole up with my headphones and make minimal contact with my partner after work. Could I use the Xbox that's hooked up to the TV? Sure. But then I'm hogging the TV when my wife likely wants to watch a show and unwind after a long day's work.

Then there's the Switch. It frees me from the chains of my work desk and lets me relax with my partner on the couch. It frees up the TV for her to enjoy her Korean dramas. Alas, now I'm playing a sluggish version of Witcher 3, and my hands are cramped up from those teeny, tiny Joy-cons. I never thought of these as problems until my Steam Deck arrived. I'm now happily gaming from the comforts of my couch without any sacrifice to game fidelity. The power needed to achieve that level of graphical quality means that the Steam Deck has to work harder than some may be accustomed to. Like it or not, Valve can't overcome the laws of physics. All that power generates heat, and it has to go somewhere. In this case, it's out the vents along the top side of the machine. The system never gets too warm, particularly around the areas where you're holding it, but it is certainly audible. It's not as loud as the F1 jet that was my PS4 at the end of its lifespan, but it's louder than the Switch. Fortunately, the speakers on the Steam Deck are very high quality. Regardless of your headphone preference, the fan noise is quickly drowned out by the game audio emitted from the front-facing stereo speakers.

Up to this point, everything I've described has been through the lens of Steam Deck's gaming mode. The Steam Deck is really just a portable PC, and that means there's a standard Linux-based desktop mode, too. Tucked inside the system's power options is the ability to switch to desktop mode. Doing so makes the system screen go blank for a brief moment before revealing what's a fairly 1:1 replica of a standard Windows desktop. The start menu on the lower left corner stores shortcuts to the various executables and documents saved on your drive. The lower right corner displays a clock, open applications, and ejectable drives. The bottom portion stores shortcuts for your go-to applications, such as Dolphin, the system's file explorer and web browser.

I haven't spent much time in desktop mode for two reasons. One, I really don't have a need. The Steam Deck is little more than a portable gaming machine, so I don't have much need to go into desktop mode other than the installation of some emulators and a few other non-Steam game-related applications. Second, navigating desktop mode with the handheld controls is less than ideal. You can edit the default desktop controller configuration buried within a settings page that's only accessible through Steam via desktop mode, but even then, it falls short. It's tiresome to watch the mouse jittering away from an icon as I double-click it or need to open the virtual keyboard for the umpteenth time to type in a URL or Google search. All of this can be solved by hooking up your Steam Deck to a dock or external monitor through its USB-C port, but there have been enough reports from the community on the reliability of this feature that I've avoided it altogether so far. Valve has an official Steam Deck dock on the way later this year. Perhaps that's when I'll take the plunge and make the Steam Deck more than a portable gaming machine. Until then, I'm perfectly comfortable using it the same way I have been for the last month.

The Steam Deck is the buggiest console I've owned at launch — and it's also the one that impressed me the most at launch. Initially, I thought it was just the novelty and awe of playing AAA games at high frame rates in the palm of my hands that had me excited, but my love for the handheld hasn't waned as the honeymoon period came to an end. I booted up Yakuza 0 mostly to see how it plays on the system, but I sank 15 hours (and counting!) simply because I was having such a good time playing it on Steam Deck.

Yes, there's a ton of flexibility, so there's an inherent level of complexity to the system. If you're primarily a console gamer, don't let that scare you away. Valve's done an admirable job of creating a UI and curating an extensive library of games that work with few to no additional tweaks. Steam Deck continues to do what I need it to do: play great games and play them well. Because of that, the Steam Deck has become my go-to game system whenever possible.

Score: 8.0/10

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