a marvel from a miniature gaming PC

II can’t remember my first Steam Deck “I can’t believe it can do that” moment, and that’s probably because there were so many of them. The dizzying new technology that feels like maybe, just maybe, you’re touching the overgrown GameGear-driven future. The first might have been sitting on the sofa watching a stream announcing a demo for a game, downloading it from the store and 5 minutes later playing it seamlessly without having to change a single setting or move a muscle.

Or maybe it noticed that I was playing eternal doom at 60fps with no hiccups. Or maybe when I paired a new set of Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones in a matter of seconds. Or realized I could play Itch.io games and suddenly experienced the monochrome joys of children only via the touch screen. The versatility of the Steam Deck should not be underestimated.

But let’s rewind for a minute. Valve’s Steam Deck, essentially a portable Linux gaming PC designed for mobile access to your Steam library, was first released in February 2022. It is available in three different variants. A 64GB model with eMMC storage for £349, a 256GB model with a faster NVMe SSD for £459, and then the 512GB model with what Valve calls the ‘fastest’ NVMe SSD called, with a bonus anti-glare glass screen for £569.

All models come with a handy – not to mention the surprisingly sturdy – carrying case with a handle, and the top two models come with an exclusive Steam Community profile pack. It’s worth noting that Steam currently states a wait time of at least October 2023 if you’re looking to buy one. I spent a month with the mid-range model for this test.

Some Steam Deck pre-orders are being delayed
steam deck. Credit: Valve

Upon release, reviews for the Steam Deck were mixed, with many reviewers citing a ton of bugs and stating that the console just wasn’t ready for release. The good news is that after almost five months, the Steam deck is now pretty much complete. Updates from Valve are regular and I can count on one hand all the bugs I’ve encountered. The most memorable of these was certainly not dramatic, as one game lost audio after the console fell asleep for a while, prompting a reboot. Basically the bug equivalent of a shrug emoji.

After reading the early feedback, I was particularly surprised at how smooth everything feels. Choose a game from your library, upload it and the deck will tell you what control scheme the game is automatically set to. When a game has a controller set up by default, a handy on-screen Steam deck briefly shows you the highlighted analog sticks and buttons. If you need a mouse, you’ll see the haptic trackpads glow instead. And if you want to customize these further, the Steam Deck is happy to do so.

The console’s physical design accounts for a large part of its versatility. If we take a quick tour of the almost comically chunky handheld, you’ve got your directional buttons, analog sticks, face buttons, two comfortably responsive haptic trackpads, the menu and guide buttons positioned on either side of the touchscreen, a steam button, and what’s known as the quick access button , which lets you change performance options, etc. on the fly. Flip the console over and there are solid 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.

In terms of layout, everything around the vibrant HD screen feels compact, and yes, the directional and face buttons look perilously close to the console’s edge, but in practice this doesn’t distract in-game. Nintendo Switch gamers will initially notice the extra 8.5 ounces of weight, but the Steam Deck never feels particularly heavy in the hand, and playing on the couch is perfectly comfortable. Also, if you play house pinball – or your chosen meditation game – in bed for too long, you’ll experience the usual Vita/Switch arm pain and need to switch positions. Even games without native controller support are skilfully handled. The trackpads are sensitive enough for precise control — yes, I even played Getting Over It with Bernard Foddy — and the touchscreen is often exceptionally handy for more precise clicks. It’s also accurate enough, if not hugely oleophobic. After a Stacklands session, my Steam deck looked like an iPad after a crash with a toddler with sticky fingers. A microfiber cloth is an essential accessory.

steam deck
steam deck. Credit: Valve

The fans are also important to mention. There are vents on both the back and top of the console and you’ll gradually get used to them running, but at first the heat and noise might come as a bit of a shock. How loud they get depends entirely on the game you’re playing – and an update has reduced the hiss a bit – but they’re never loud enough that you can’t gently turn the volume up to even things out. Speaking of volume, the Steam Deck’s stereo speakers, which sit on the front of the console, are exceptional. Whether you’re blasting bullets through the air in Sniper Elite 5 or hearing the satisfying sound of a high-pressure hose ricocheting off a giant plastic dinosaur in Powerwash Simulator, the soundscape is rich and vibrant. Alternatively, the Bluetooth connectivity means you can quickly connect a wireless headset, as well as other accessories like mice, keyboards or even an Xbox controller.

And oh yes, games. Which ones can you play and how well are they doing? Well, that’s all helpfully outlined by the slick user interface. Once you’ve logged into your Steam account, Valve has helpfully divided your library into Great on Deck and then, well, everything else. Great on Deck means the game can run on the system with a green tick proudly showing compatibility, but that doesn’t mean the rest of your library is lost. Click through the rest of your library and quite often you’ll see a yellow circle with an “i” inside it, meaning the game does play, but there might be some compatibility warnings. You can click into the game and check them out in the notification area. You may occasionally need to manually invoke the on-screen keyboard by pressing the Steam and X keys, some text may be too small and difficult to read, or you may need to use a combination of the touchscreen and other keys.

Other games haven’t even been tested yet, so you’ve got a question mark next to each one, basically telling you to try it out and see. Luckily, these icons are also clearly visible on the Steam Store, so you always know what you’re buying. Unfortunately, however, there are some titles that only have a no-entry sign. So if you are counting on a steam deck being a single game machine, check online if it is playable on deck. This can be for anti-cheat reasons or just because the code isn’t playing with the deck. Most games are playable and I’ve even seen my Great on Deck section grow by about ten games in the last month, but there are definitely limitations here. Testing is most fun with demos as you don’t have to worry about whether the game is running or not and there’s a real sense of complacency when you find a brand new demo that runs just perfectly thanks to controller detection. Also note that this isn’t just a gaming UI. Press the Steam button and you can enter the desktop mode of the handheld Linux PC. Here 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 toolset.

Steam Deck plays Prey
steam deck. Credit: Valve

In terms of performance, the Steam Deck is pretty much a marvel, but it’s also a balancing act, and that’s where the battery limitations come in as well. In practice, the Steam Deck can play some triple-A games at up to 60fps, but if you want to play them consistently for a long period of time, you’ll want to dive into the quick-access menu and cozy up to the performance settings. Here you’ll find a performance overlay to see how many frames you’re getting, as well as a predicted battery life so you can see the direct effect in hours and minutes of adding hard frame rate caps, increasing refresh rates and capping thermal power. The Steam Deck’s AMD GPU is powerful, but it knows how to use it and is okay with how much you’re willing to sacrifice to play on the sofa or on the go. The Steam Deck Dock has been delayed for use with your TV, but the handheld will work with some USB-C to HDMI adapters.

PC techs will love playing around with custom settings in conjunction with game options, but even limiting the frame rate makes a big difference. eternal doom with no frame rate cap at high settings with a capped resolution, you can deftly run monsters for an hour and a half, while dropping to 30 gets you two hours and 23 minutes. But if you want to play Horizon Zero Dawn on a handheld with original settings between 30-40 fps or just play Sniper Elite 5, you will find that the battery is missing when you want to play the Steam deck on the go. Valve says the battery can last up to eight hours, but I haven’t been able to find even the most basic Indie that can. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth clocked in at a respectable five-and-a-half, though, so there are games you can take with you on train and plane trips if you don’t mind shoving this in a bag and possibly scouting for an outlet.

Where the Steam Deck sings positively is as a sofa PC. 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 to race through. The games you’ve always wanted to get to, now you can play them while watching TV. It sounds silly, but in the month since I’ve had the console, I’ve reconnected to my Steam library in a whole new way. It’s no longer a scary behemoth of half-baked Steam Sale purchases, but an instantly accessible playground that can sit next to a cup of tea and a blanket. The Switch still claims the most basic and portable option, but the Steam Deck is a literal game changer when it comes to breaking free from your gaming PC.

The judgment

While the Steam Deck has limited battery issues, its power and sheer versatility in terms of controls mean this is a handheld with exceptional gaming chops.

advantages

  • Good performance
  • Your Steam library in a handheld
  • Ultra versatile controls

Disadvantages

  • Limited battery life
  • Fans can get noisy