II can’t remember my first Steam Deck “I can’t believe it could do that” moment and it’s probably because there were so many. The dizzying new technologies that make it feel like maybe, maybe you touch the future invaded by GameGear. The first may have been when I was sitting on the couch watching a stream announcing a demo for a game, downloading it from the store and playing it seamlessly 5 minutes later without having to edit a single parameter or to move a muscle.
Or maybe I noticed that I was playing Eternal destiny at 60fps without a hitch. Or maybe when I paired a new set of noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones in seconds. Or I realized I could play Itch.io games and suddenly experienced the monochrome delights of Kids using only the touch screen. The versatility of the Steam Deck cannot be underestimated.
But let’s back up for a minute. Valve’s Steam Deck, actually a portable Linux gaming PC designed for portable access to your Steam library, first launched in February 2022. It comes in three different flavors. A 64GB model with eMMC storage for £349, a 256GB model with a faster NVMe SSD for £459, then the 512GB model with what Valve calls the “fastest” NVMe SSD with a screen in bonus anti-reflective glass for £569.
All models come with a handy – not to mention surprisingly sturdy – carrying case with handle and the first two come with an exclusive set of Steam Community profiles. It’s worth saying that if you’re looking to buy one, Steam is currently quoting a wait time of at least October 2023. For the purposes of this review, I spent a month with the mid model of range.
Upon release, reviews of the Steam Deck were mixed with many reviewers citing a slew of bugs and stating that the console simply wasn’t ready for release. The good news is that almost five months later, the Steam Deck is now fully ready. Valve updates are regular and I can count all the bugs I’ve encountered on one hand. The most memorable certainly wasn’t dramatic with a game losing audio after the console was asleep for a while causing it to reboot. Basically the buggy equivalent of a shrug emoji.
After reading the first reviews, I was particularly surprised at how smooth everything is. Pick a game from your library, load it up, and the Deck will tell you which control scheme the game is automatically set to. If a game has a controller configured as standard, a handy on-screen Steam Deck will briefly show you highlighted analog sticks and buttons, if you need a mouse, you’ll see haptic trackpads glow instead. And if you want to customize them further, the Steam Deck is happy for you to do so.
The physical design of the console is where much of its versatility comes from. If we take a quick tour of the almost comically handheld, you have your directional buttons, analog sticks, face buttons, two pleasingly responsive haptic trackpads, menu and guide buttons positioned on either side of the screen touch screen, a Steam button, and the so called quick access button to let you change performance options etc. on the fly. Flip the console over and there are solidly reassuring shoulder buttons and four rear paddles that can be programmed in the controller settings. At the top are your volume and power buttons as well as a USB-C charging port.
Layout wise, everything feels compact around the vibrant HD display and yes, the directional and face buttons look dangerously close to the edge of the console, but in practice it doesn’t get in the way of gameplay. Nintendo Switch gamers People will first notice the extra eight-and-a-half-ounce weight, but the Steam Deck never feels particularly heavy in the hand, and gaming on the couch is perfectly comfortable. Even if you play House Flipper – or whatever meditation game you choose – too long in bed, you’ll experience the usual Vita/Switch arm ache and need to change positions. Games without native controller support are also handled deftly. The touchpads are responsive enough for precise control – yes, I even played Getting Over It with Bernard Foddy – and the touchscreen is often extremely handy for more precise clicks. It’s also fairly accurate, although not extremely oleophobic. After a session of Stacklands, my Steam Deck felt like an iPad after a run with a sticky-fingered toddler. A microfiber cloth is an essential accessory.
It is also important to note the fans. There are vents on the back and top of the console and you’ll gradually get used to how they work, but at first the heat and noise might be a little shocking. It’s entirely up to the game you’re playing as to how loud they’ll be – and an update has reduced the noise somewhat – but they’re never loud enough that you can’t gently crank up the volume to balance things out . Oh, and speaking of volume, the Steam Deck’s stereo speakers, sitting at the front of the console, are outstanding. Whether you’re listening to bullets whiz through the air in Sniper Elite 5 or the satisfying sound of a high-pressure hose bouncing off a giant plastic dinosaur in Powerwash Simulator, the soundscape is rich and dynamic. Alternatively, Bluetooth connectivity means you can quickly connect wireless headphones as well as other accessories such as mice, keyboards or even an Xbox controller.
And oh yes, games. Which ones can you play and how do they work? Well, this is all helpfully described by the sleek user interface. Once you’ve logged into your Steam account, Valve has helpfully separated your library into “Great on Deck” and then, well, everything else. Great on Deck means the game is verified to work on the system with a green tick proudly displaying compatibility, but it doesn’t mean the rest of your library is lost. Click on the rest of your library and quite often you’ll see a yellow circle with an “i” in it, meaning the game Is play but there may be some compatibility warnings. You can click on the game and check them out in the information section. You may occasionally need to manually invoke the on-screen keyboard by pressing the Steam and X buttons, some text may be too small and difficult to read, or you may need to use a combination of touchscreen and keyboard. other buttons.
Other games won’t even have been tested, so you’ll have a question mark next to each one basically asking you to try it and see. Luckily, these icons are also clear on the Steam Store so you always know what you’re buying. Unfortunately, though there are a few titles with just a no entry sign, so if you’re relying on a Steam Deck as a single-game machine, check online to see if it’s playable on Deck. This may be for anti-cheat reasons or even simply because the code does not play with the Deck. The majority of games are playable and I’ve even seen my Great on Deck section grow by about ten games over the past month, but there are definitely limits here. Where it’s the most fun to test is with the demos because there’s no need to worry about whether the game will work or not and there’s a real sense of smugness when you find a brand new demo which works perfectly thanks to controller recognition. And that’s also noting that it’s not just a gaming UI, press the Steam button and you can switch to desktop mode of the Linux laptop PC. This is where you can run installers like itch.io, add them as non-Steam games, and then see them in the gaming UI. It’s a powerful and impressive set of tools.
In terms of performance, the Steam Deck is pretty much a marvel but also a balancing act and that’s where battery limitations also come into play. In practice, yes, the Steam Deck can play some games triple A up to 60fps, but if you want to play it consistently for a while you’ll want to dive into the quick access menu and indulge yourself with the performance settings. Here you’ll find a performance overlay to see how many frames you’re hitting, as well as projected battery life to let you see the direct effect in hours and minutes of adding frame rate limiters. hard images, increased refresh rate and limited thermal power. The Steam Deck’s AMD GPU is powerful, but you have to know how to use it and accept whatever you’re willing to sacrifice for gaming on the couch or on the go. The Steam Deck Dock for use with your TV has been delayed, but the handheld works with select USB-C to HDMI adapters.
PC tech makers will love to fiddle with individual settings in conjunction with gaming options, but even limiting the frame rate makes a huge difference. Eternal destiny no frame rate cap on high settings with limited resolution will let you run monsters smoothly for an hour and a half, while dropping to 30 will give you two hours 23 minutes. But you want to play Horizon Zero Dawn on a handheld with the stock settings between 30 and 40 fps, or just play Elite Sniper 5, you will find that the battery is missing if you want to play the Steam Deck. Valve says the battery can last up to eight hours, but I haven’t been able to find even the simplest indie that can do that. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth however, there are games you can take for train and plane travel if you don’t mind bagging that and keeping an eye out for a plugpoint.
Where the Steam Deck sings positively is as a couch PC. Like access to all – or at least most – of the games you want to play but don’t want to sit at your desk to play. The little Steam Next Festival demos you can rush through. The games you’ve always wanted to get around, but now you can play while watching TV. It sounds silly, but in the month since I received the console, I’ve reconnected to my Steam library in a whole new way. It’s no longer a terrifying behemoth of unplayed Steam sale binge purchases, but an instantly accessible playground that can sit next to a cup of tea and a blanket. The Switch still claims the easiest and most portable option, but the Steam Deck is quite the game changer when it comes to freeing you from your gaming PC.
The Steam Deck has limited battery issues, but its power and versatility of controls mean it’s a handheld with exceptional gaming chops.
- Good performance
- Your Steam library in a handheld
- Ultra Versatile Controls
- Limited battery life
- Fans can get noisy