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Steam Deck vs. cloud gaming: How do they compare?

Before I actually got my hands on a Steam Deck, I was skeptical of the concept. It’s not that I thought it wouldn’t work. In fact, the idea of having my entire Steam library available on a handheld was extremely appealing. My only question was whether or not the gadget was necessary.

Ever since the Nintendo Switch redefined how we play games, companies have tried to replicate its flexibility in their own ways. One of the earliest, and most experimental, attempts was cloud gaming. Companies like Google and Amazon bet big on streaming, envisioning a future where you don’t need a powerful PC or console to run games at all: You just need the devices you already own.

Players have been understandably skeptical about cloud streaming. While it seems like a dream come true, it’s one that’s entirely dependent on a stable internet connection, which is tall ask if you’re not in a major city. Despite the hesitance, cloud gaming has continued to grow with services like GeForce Now and Amazon Luna upping the ante in terms of what’s possible. But how do those experiences compare to a portable PC like the Steam Deck? Are they a viable alternative or does dedicated hardware still hold the edge?

To answer those questions, I decided to set up a friendly competition between the Steam Deck and a phone running the same games streamed via GeForce Now. The results reinforced that there’s no right answer to the flexibility problem at the moment, with everything feeling experimental in its own way.

Setup and caveats

In order to test this, I wanted to make sure I was using cloud gaming at its peak potential. To do that, I used a Samsung S21 phone connected to Razer’s excellent Kishi controller attachment. I also used a GeForce Now priority account to test various titles that were available on Steam Deck and GeForce Now alike. I also had the benefit of being in New York City with a high-speed connection, both via Wi-Fi and AT&T 5G. That would theoretically give me the best testing conditions possible.

There’s an important caveat here, though: This isn’t the experience most people will have. Cloud gaming requires the kind of stable, fast connection that isn’t available everywhere. This test illustrates how well it works operating at 100%, but don’t assume the data collected here will be the same for your situation.

The other elephant in the room is the fact that cloud gaming requires a connection, limiting its flexibility. I can play the Steam Deck on an airplane, but I can’t load up GeForce Now. The Steam Deck wins by default in a battle of portability. So instead of comparing the two in that regard, I’m merely checking how both work in a home setting for those who might be looking to get something less expensive than a pricey gaming PC.

With that in mind, here are the results.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

I started with Shadow of the Tomb Raider because it’s a high-quality game that runs quite well on Steam Deck. My benchmark test on the device saw the game hitting an average of 51 frames per second (fps), which is impressive. The same benchmark test on GeForce Now blew that number away, hitting a 111 fps average. That’s entirely to be expected. GeForce Now runs off of dedicated servers with more powerful guts than what’s inside the Steam Deck.

Looking at pure image quality, there’s no comparison. Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks remarkable while streaming. Looking at screenshots from each device side by side, the textures are sharper on GeForce Now, with the Steam Deck version displaying fuzzy edges. It’s noticeable in terms of motion too, as I experienced a fair amount of texture pop-in on Steam Deck. It likely helps that the Samsung S21 has a smaller screen than the Steam Deck, so any flaws are harder to spot.

A comparison of Shadow of the Tomb Raider on Steam Deck and GeForce Now.

It’s worth mentioning battery life, too. Playing the same 30-minute snippet, the game drained 6% of my Samsung S21’s battery. It ate up 25% of the Steam Deck’s by comparison, leaving the device with just over an hour of charge left. Battery life is one of the primary issues with the Steam Deck right now, so that doesn’t come at a surprise, but it’s an area where cloud services do gain an edge, depending on your devices.

There’s a catch. While the game was a powerhouse on GeForce Now, the eccentricities of the cloud did pop up during my play time. While latency wasn’t a problem here, I did get a few micro-stutters throughout. They were all small and non-disruptive until I entered a cave. Suddenly, the frame rate dropped to a slideshow and the app crashed. The experience was visually muddier, but uninterrupted on Steam Deck.

Rocket League

To further test stability, I wanted to jump into some online games. Rocket League was an obvious choice, as it’s a fast-paced game that’s recommended on both platforms. The story was largely the same here, with GeForce Now getting an edge in visuals, but Steam Deck offering a smoother experience. However, the visual difference wasn’t nearly as pronounced, with the two more or less on par with one another. The Steam Deck may even have the edge here.

Rocket League running on GeForce Now and Steam Deck.

More cloud quirks did pop up here. In addition to the sudden frame drops, I had a few instances where the screen would quickly glitch out. Quality dips like that tended to pass by in a flash. I was never stuck in a malformed screen for more than a quick second, and stutters didn’t negatively impact any shots in particular. But it’s a reminder that the cloud brings an experiential aspect to gaming. Rocket League is going to run consistently between every Steam Deck, but it’ll be completely different for each GeForce Now subscriber.

While a game like Shadow of the Tomb Raider might have me gravitating toward a cloud stream for the higher visual payoff, online games benefit from consistency. Granted, the Steam Deck is a wireless device, so it’s still dependent on a good network. A wired connection is always going to be preferable here, but the less data that has to be transmitted through Wi-fi, the better.

Destiny 2

OK, this one’s a joke. The Steam Deck can’t actually run Destiny 2 naturally due to its anti-cheat system that requires players to jump through hoops to get it functioning. By contrast, you can boot the game up via GeForce Now and start running it in an instant with no downloads. Destiny 2 tends to be my go-to test game for any device, and the fact that I can’t even launch it on Steam Deck due to compatibility issues is notable.

It’s not a fair fight (if we get into what’s playable on Steam Deck versus what’s in the GeForce Now library, the latter would take a beating), but it does highlight how experimental Valve’s device is. While it might seem like a simple console that runs any Steam game, that’s not the case. Some games will work just fine, others won’t at all. Cloud gaming has its own problems, but this isn’t one of them. You can run the most powerful game available on the service on a five-year-old iPad, no specs required. What something like GeForce now loses in consistency, it gains in compatibility.

Cyberpunk 2077

It was time to put the two to the ultimate test. I wanted to see how both platforms would handle a gigantic game that, frankly, doesn’t even run well on most computers. Of course, I’m talking about Cyberpunk 2077. The open-world game had a disastrous launch in 2020, with performance issues across the board. Funny enough, one of the best ways to play the game in its roughest state was through Google Stadia, as it was running on capable machines. With the game’s 1.5 patch bringing more stability to the game in 2022, it was a perfect final challenge for both platforms.

In case you’re wondering, no, Cyberpunk 2077 is still not in great shape. Within one minute of playing on GeForce Now, my car had fallen underneath the map and the game kept endlessly loading my descent. Less than 10 minutes later, I got soft-locked again when I entered a ripperdoc chair and the game didn’t give me any prompt to exit or progress the story. That’s not the service’s problem, but it gives you an idea of how crucial it is to remove any additional friction to get the game functioning.

Cyberpunk 2077 running on GeForce Now and Steam Deck.

Performance-wise, I was impressed by the experience on GeForce Now. The game runs smoothly when streaming from the cloud. I didn’t notice any real latency issues when engaging in twitchy shootouts, and its RTX-ready status meant that I could do the game’s excellent lighting justice. Naturally, the same tech hiccups popped up every once and a while — sudden frame drops, quick sound glitches, etc. — but considering how volatile the game is, my experience playing on a phone wasn’t so different from playing on a PC (save for the impossible-to-read text).

Playing on Steam Deck required more tweaking, which is why the game isn’t “verified” for the console. On a “high” graphics setting, the frame rate hovered around 30, sometimes dipping even lower. Medium settings allowed me to get closer to 40 fps, though I’d have to go down to low to maintain that in shootouts. Battery drain was at its worst here, but it was totally playable once I made the right tweaks. Though, like Elden Ring, it’s likely not the way many would want to experience the game.

Cyberpunk 2077 running on GeForce Now.

Cyberpunk 2077 highlights a fundamental philosophical difference between the two platforms. The Steam Deck is very much for those who come from a PC school of thought. If you like tweaking settings and getting a game to work just right on your rig, Valve’s device offers that flexibility. Cloud services are more for people who just want their games to work right out the box. I never even thought about touching the settings menu on GeForce Now. All I had to do was click play.

Everyone’s a winner

Based on my casual experiment, there are no winners and losers here. Both approaches to portability have their own unique downsides, but are perfectly plausible ways to play. The potential is higher with a cloud service (again, if you have the right connection), but a dedicated device like the Steam Deck offers more consistency when it comes to compatible games (which in itself is a big asterisk for the device). The latter is my personal preference, but I love the fact that I have options.

The Steam Deck has eased my initial skepticism, proving that it isn’t redundant in the age of cloud gaming — at least not yet — but I’m still confident in cloud tech as a whole based on my tests. Games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider looked and performed better on my phone than they do on my PC. Considering that the current component shortage has made it difficult for me to upgrade my rig, I could reasonably see a world where I stream games on underpowered devices that I own instead.

For me to make that switch, the tech will need to keep its momentum up, though I can say the same for the Steam Deck-style handheld computer, too. Gamers are currently living through an age of experimentation, where companies are asking players to become early adopters to rapidly changing tech. No one can be blamed for their skepticism as companies build the tracks in front of a moving train. There’s still much work to be done, but neither platform I tested feels in danger of cartoonishly plummeting off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote.

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