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Steam Deck review: Expect an experimental gaming experience

Shadow of the Tomb Raider running on a Steam Deck.
Steam Deck
MSRP $400.00
“The Steam Deck feels like a first draft that will be rapidly improved upon.”
Pros
  • Tons of control flexibility
  • Excellent specs
  • Fantastic speakers
  • Clean Steam interface
  • Low price
Cons
  • Awkward design
  • Weak battery life
  • Inconsistent game compatibility
  • Finnicky Linux browser

Valve’s Steam Deck is an exercise in expectation setting. If you’re buying one hoping it’ll be the be-all and end-all of video game devices, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not going to replace your PC or Nintendo Switch, nor does Valve intend for it to. And if you’re imagining a future where you’ll be able to download any new release and seamlessly take it on the go, keep dreaming.

While it’s undoubtedly an impressive portable gaming device, it’s important to remember that the Steam Deck is very much an experimental one, too. It’s another attempt to give players unlimited freedom in a sea of competing ideas that range from gaming tablets to cloud services to conceptual home servers. Valve does what it does best here (no, not develop video games) to create a powerful piece of hardware, but the Steam Deck is an alternate vision of the future, not an inherently better one.

When the Steam Deck is functioning at peak performance, it’s a revelatory device that feels like it could completely disrupt the gaming hardware cycle as we know it. At the same time, it’s very apparent that this is a first draft that leaves plenty of room for improvement. Between questionable design choices, inconsistent software compatibility, and a weak battery that dampens its ultimate selling point, the Steam Deck is more of a spark than a full-blown revolution.

Carry that weight

Before diving into all the impressive specs, it’s important to get something very basic out of the way: Holding a Steam Deck is akin to lifting a cat by its armpits.

The first thing you’ll notice when you unbox the device is that it’s a giant. Let’s use the Nintendo Switch OLED for comparison. The Steam Deck is just over two inches longer than that device, coming in at 11.7 inches. It’s height is a bit more comparable at 4.6 inches, but those few extra inches are noticeable. I can comfortably pick up my Switch with one hand wrapped around its edges, but I have to go full-on claw machine mode to scoop up the Steam Deck in the same way.

A Steam Deck sits next to a Switch OLED.

Naturally, that means that the Steam Deck is heavier, too, but it’s not quite the workout you might expect when you first see it. Despite weighing in at 1.47 pounds (versus the Switch OLED’s 0.93 pounds), my immediate thought upon picking it up wasn’t “oh no.”

What makes it a little awkward to hold, though, is how it sits in your hands. Since all of its buttons are pushed to the very top of the device, that means there’s a lot of console unsupported by your grip. That’s where my cat analogy comes in. The bottom half of the device ends up dangling when I play like dead tummy weight. With the Switch, the bottom corners of the device end up resting in my palms, making it easy to hold up for long periods of time. With the Steam Deck, I often found myself resting it on my knees or a desk just to take some strain off myself.

I got used to it eventually, but I wouldn’t go as far as to use the word comfortable.

Granted, there are a few notable comfort considerations here. The rounded grips on each side are a natural fit in my hands, which is certainly a difference from the Switch’s pancake design. Even so, it’s a device you’re going to need to learn to work with. I got used to it eventually, but I wouldn’t go as far as to use the word comfortable.

Bells and whistles

When it comes to controls, the Steam Deck packs a lot of options in. It has a standard ABXY control setup with a trigger and bumper on each side, a pair of start/menu buttons, a D-pad, and two sticks. That’s a fairly basic setup, though button placement and size presents some challenges. It’s not just that everything is pushed up to the very top of the device; it’s that it can be hard to actually reach buttons.

The Steam Deck's ABXY buttons shown up close.

The bumpers are the worst offenders. If I’m playing a game that requires me to press both a bumper and trigger routinely, I’m suddenly doing a juggling act as I shift my grip on the controller. In my most comfortable resting position, I can’t reach the bumpers without changing my grip to something that feels less stable. The tiny menu buttons also feel a bit out of reach at the very top, and it doesn’t help that I have to wedge my thumbs behind the sticks to get to them.

Luckily, the Steam Deck does have a great answer to those issues: Four mappable back buttons. It’s an impressive addition that allows me to toss the triggers and key D-pad functions onto buttons that are much easier to access, which is a necessity in games like Elden Ring. The only annoyance there is that there’s no systemwide mapping option. It has to be done on an individual game level every time, which is a hassle considering I just want to use it for bumpers consistently.

The back buttons on a Steam Deck shown up close.

While there are quirks with the basic controls, it’s the extras that really make the Steam Deck stand out. Each side has a trackpad, which I’ve found surprisingly useful as a mouse replacement. The device supports gyroscopic controls, and while I don’t know how many games will use them, they worked perfectly well in Aperture Job Simulator.

Though what I appreciate most of all is that it supports touch controls. When I loaded up Dicey Dungeons and realized I could tap on my map and throw my dice without touching a button, I realized that there are some PC games I’m going to play on this device exclusively from now on.

The beast incarnate

While it’s awkward on the outside, it quite literally is the inside that counts here. The Steam Deck is a true powerhouse for what it is, which is what makes it so exciting in spite of its quirks. That’s thanks to its RDNA 2 GPU and AMD Zen 2 CPU, the same tech that’s used in the PS5 and Xbox Series X. It’s not as powerful as those consoles, with the cut-down chip performing closer to the power of a PS4, but it’s impressive all the same.

Elden Ring running on a Steam Deck.

When I booted up Nier: Automata expecting it to struggle, I was stunned to find that it ran as smooth as butter (graphically speaking — I’ll get to the rub later) at a consistent 60 frames per second 9fps). I blindly started downloading random games from my library just to see what would happen and was routinely impressed with everything from the indie to AAA level. Shadow of the Tomb Raider hit a 52 fpsaverage in its benchmark test. Even Elden Ring managed to work well enough. Sure, its frame rate fluctuated between 30 and 45, but I could get on an airplane tomorrow and play a brand new game that’s available on today’s most powerful consoles with little friction.

That’s the power of the Steam Deck in action. While the Nintendo Switch’s wow factor has worn off in recent years as its hardware ages, it’s incredible that I can take much bigger games on the go with the Steam Deck. And that doesn’t require a wireless connection like a cloud gaming service would, either. I played Red Dead Redemption 2 underground on the subway. If you had told me that would be possible even two years ago, I would have laughed in your face.

The Steam Deck is a true powerhouse for what it is, which is what makes it so exciting in spite of its quirks.

I’m perhaps most surprised by how fantastic the Steam Deck’s speakers are. Usually, onboard speakers on devices like this are obligatory, but weak. That’s not the case here. When I loaded up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, one of the best games I tried on it, I was shocked to hear its binaural audio effect come through perfectly. I could clearly hear voices whispering from each side of the device as if I had on a great pair of headphones. It’s one of many moments that genuinely blew me away during testing.

The 60 Hz LCD screen gets the job done, though I’m a little spoiled by the Switch OLED at this point. The Steam Deck’s screen is noticeably less vibrant by comparison, which took me off guard the first time I used it. It does fare pretty well in bright sunlight, which is a necessity for portability potential.

Elden Ring running on a Steam Deck.

The tech rabbit hole goes even deeper. Users can set its GPU to a fixed clock, enable FSR scaling, enable a full performance overview on any game, and so much more. Options like that are what make the Steam Deck stand out over something like a Switch. It brings the nitty-gritty customization of a PC to a gaming handheld, which nothing else on the market can really match right now — especially at such a low price point.

Here’s the rub

I teased a rub, so here it is: Software compatibility is an absolute gamble. Valve uses a verification system, which tells you which games that you own will most assuredly work on the Steam Deck without tweaks. When I first turned on the device, I had around 180 games in my library. About 35 of them were in the verified tab.

That doesn’t mean every other game won’t work. On the contrary, many just haven’t been tested by Valve yet and work without a hitch. Steam has a “playable” marker ,too, denoting that a game will work with some quirks. For the aforementioned Dicey Dungeons, all that meant was that the mouse showed up on screen. Otherwise, it’s a perfect experience.

Your experience with it is going to entirely depend on your Steam library.

But testing showed that the device can be unpredictable. Destiny 2 won’t launch at all because its anti-cheat software isn’t compatible with the Steam Deck. Nier: Automata may have looked incredible, but none of its music would play and the game would automatically skip through all dialogue. While I could run Elden Ring easily, the much less powerful Splitgate is borderline unplayable on the device, with fuzzy visuals and missing textures (even in its offline tutorial). Red Dead Redemption 2 froze during its benchmark test, forcing me to power it off entirely. None of these games are verified, mind you, but that’s what to expect if you roll the dice.

This is the inherent challenge in reviewing a device as experimental as this. I could pick 20 games at random and all of them could work amazingly well, leading me to believe this is a reliable system. Conversely, I could download 20 games that have bizarre compatibility issues that would make me feel like I’d wasted a lot of money. Your experience with it is going to entirely depend on your Steam library.

Splitgate's tutorial runs on a Steam Deck.

All of that is before even getting into the device’s weak battery life, which adds more complications to the mix. Valve says the battery should last anywhere between two and eight hours. Unless you’re playing some miniscule indies, you’re usually going to be on the shorter side of that spectrum. Elden Ring drained the battery so fast that I went from a 10% battery warning to dead in minutes (I didn’t even have time to plug it in before it went black). If you have an hourlong commute to work, you’ll need to keep a charger at your office, because there’s no guarantee it’ll survive the trip there an back.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t like a PC insofar as you won’t be able to upgrade its parts down the line. What you’re getting here is what you’ll be locked to until Valve makes a new one. If a new release like Elden Ring is already having trouble delivering a consistent frame rate, how does a new game that releases one year from now fare? You could argue that the same would be true of a laptop, but the Steam Deck is a little more unpredictable since it’s an entirely new device with its own compatibility barriers.

That’s why expectation setting is crucial here. You have to go into this expecting that some of your favorite games aren’t going to work well on it. Valve may say that you can take your entire Steam library on the go, but that’s not going to be the case. Even with that in mind, it’s absolutely thrilling when games do fully function, even if they’re smaller titles that could run on a Switch. I was able to buy Vampire Survivors on the device itself and take it on the subway, even though it’s a PC-exclusive game at the moment. There are very few ways for me to do that, which makes the Steam Deck feel revolutionary when working at its best.

Work in progress

If it’s not already clear by now, the Steam Deck is a work in progress. That’s especially evident when getting into some of the device’s UI, which is a mixed bag. On the positive side, the default Steam interface is better than the standard view available on PC. It’s much easier to browse your library, the store, friends list, and download progress. The console’s Steam button streamlines all of it in ways I wish I had on desktop.

What gets complicated is the system’s Linux browser. Theoretically, it’s a powerful tool that could let you download games beyond your Steam library, including emulators. It’s not easy to use currently, though. Part of that is just because Linux can seem alien if you’ve been raised on Windows, but there are some quirks beyond that.

The Steam Deck ultimately reminds me of putting on an early VR headset in the mid-2010s.

When I click on a text box, the keyboard doesn’t always populate on screen. I’m supposed to be able to bring it up at any time by pressing the Steam button and X at the same time, but it doesn’t always work. I would also routinely try to exit back to the standard Steam view, only for Linux to tell me an app that wasn’t open was blocking it. I had to power down the device on a few occasions because I just couldn’t figure out how to get out otherwise. If you want to play with it, bring a mouse and keyboard.

Some of that will surely be fixed over time, though I think an upgraded model could do a lot more to make the device easier to use. The Onexplayer Mini, for instance, includes a button that automatically calls the Windows keyboard up at any time. It also includes a USB-A port and two USB-C ports, which make it easy to plug any device in, whereas Steam Deck only has a USB-C port that’s used for charging (though it’s Bluetooth-ready, which mitigates the lack of wired options).

The Steam Deck's UI appears on screen.

The Steam Deck ultimately reminds me of putting on an early VR headset in the mid-2010s. I remember throwing on a gigantic Vive around 2014 and being incredibly impressed by the experience. But I also walked out knowing that the tech would evolve fast, making me skeptical about investing. Anyone who waited for the much cleaner Meta Quest 2 didn’t really miss much.

The Steam Deck is going to be a similar kind of experience. For early adopters, it’s going to be a revelatory game-changer. But if you’re already on a years-long wait list, don’t feel too much FOMO. The later you buy a device like this, whether it’s this version of the Steam Deck or a copycat, the better it’s going to be.

Our take

There’s a lot I could criticize the Steam Deck for. It has an awkward design, terrible battery life, unpredictable software compatibility, a quirky Linux browser, and much more. Even with all those issues, I still find myself thrilled that it exists. This is a powerful gaming device that’s simply unmatched by anything else on the market. The fact that it can run Elden Ring, a brand new AAA release that couldn’t run on my PC, speaks to its overall value as a portable device. Valve has a lot of tweaking to do if it wants this to have an audience beyond the techie crowd, but the hardware seems capable enough to handle the long journey ahead.

Is there a better alternative?

Frankly, no, but there will be eventually. The Steam Deck blows its eclectic early competition away, though it’s an imperfect first draft overall.

How long will it last?

I find it hard to believe that Valve won’t release a better model in a few years. Still, the Steam Deck has some impressive specs that should make it perfectly usable until then.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you play a ton of PC games and just want extra mobility, no other device is going to let you take your games on the go this freely. Just know that you’re going to be working with an experimental, sometimes unpredictable device.

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