There are more consoles competing for your money than there have been in quite a while, with many people throwing their hats into the ring. Google was one of the biggest, though as we saw, the Google Stadia was far from a success. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for newcomers, as Valve had a successful release with their Steam Deck. After many months of waiting for my pre-order, Valve announced that shipments would be bumped up, and I finally got hold of this device. Was it worth the hype?
There are three models of Steam Deck you can choose from, which will be detailed below:
|First model||Second model||Third model|
|Storage||64GB eMMC||256GB NVMe SSD||512GB NVMe SSD|
|Anti-glare etched glass?||No||No||Yes|
I settled on the second model, with the first and third being unappealing for various reasons. For the first model, that’s a pretty small storage option, and it’s not an SSD, so it runs way slower. For the third model, the specs are ideal, but when I pre-ordered it, I didn’t really have enough money to cough up the extra $120 it would cost. It’s a shame too, because I’m already running out of storage on my SSD, and the anti-glare etched glass seems good. But still, having an SSD on your Steam Deck is well worth it for the speed alone.
The screen quality of all three models is pretty good. They all have a seven-inch LCD screen, a resolution of 1280×800, and are capable of handling a 60Hz refresh rate. The effect is that you have a 720p resolution, which, considering the size of the screen, should be adequate for your needs. The third model has anti-glare etched glass, which makes visibility so much better.
The Steam Deck has a ton of games that Valve personally verified to be compatible with it, including major titles like Elden Ring. Since they’re actively working on verifying more games, the number of games verified to be compatible with the Steam Deck will only grow larger as time goes on.
The Steam Deck is everything I wish the Nintendo Switch was
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the Nintendo Switch. It has a lot of my favorite games, including Splatoon 3, and it’s done me quite well at times when I had little free time to game other than on handhelds. However, five years on, it’s apparent that the Switch is starting to show its age. I’m seeing more and more games where I feel “gosh, I wish this wasn’t held back by console limitations,” which leaves me sometimes skipping the more intense games.
Steam Deck is basically a handheld computer, and it also has certain power limitations that prevent games from running optimally on it (if at all). However, I was shocked by how capable the Steam Deck was at running bigger games, as I was expecting to have more problems with these more graphics-intensive games. For the price, it’s a solid piece of hardware.
Perhaps the only thing I like about the Switch over the Steam Deck is the fact that the Switch comes with a dock, making it a lot more versatile. The Steam Deck does have a dock, but it’s sold separately, and it’s not cheap. It’s a great investment if you want that versatility, but if you’re like me and just want to have the versatility of a handheld computer, there’s simply no good reason to buy it.
The sound quality is surprisingly good
For a handheld, the audio quality of the Steam Deck is pretty solid. The Steam Deck has two speakers, one on either side of the bottom of the Steam Deck, and the sound quality is perfectly acceptable and clear. Additionally, if you want to play Steam Deck in privacy without anyone else being able to listen to it, you can plug your earbuds into its 3.5mm port.
The controls are solid
The Steam Deck has a pretty standard controller layout for the most part. On the left side of the Steam Deck, you have a control stick, d-pad, a trackpad, a Steam button for menu options, and a View button (the select button. On the right side, you have XABY face buttons, a Menu button (the start button), a control stick, a touchpad, and another menu button. Additionally, you have a pair of triggers and bumpers on either side, and two buttons on either side of the back of the Steam Deck.
From one quick look, however, you can see some problems with the design. The most obvious of these problems is how squished the face buttons are. Notice how the B button is kind of on the corner of the Steam Deck? Well, it’s just a little awkward, but thankfully, I honestly don’t notice it anymore. What’s more annoying, however, is the d-pad.
The d-pad itself is honestly not bad at all, but the placement is not so great. It’s one thing I wish the Steam Deck emulated about the Xbox controller, although I understand why they may have wanted to keep the controller mostly symmetrical.
Being that some games on PC don’t have a regular game controller setup and instead use a keyboard and/or mouse, there often has to be tweaks made. As far as the keyboard goes, text entry can thankfully be done using the virtual keyboard that the Steam Deck comes with. It’s not super graceful, but it gets the job done. A mouse is a little different, but the touchpads thankfully reproduce mouse movements and clicks pretty well.
The touchscreen is good enough, although it’s not the best. It’ll get the job done, at the very least! It can be used for both mouse control and any games that use a touchscreen, such as DS or 3DS games. I recommend buying a stylus to use with the Steam Deck, as it makes the touch controls that much more precise.
You can also customize the preset controller layout on a game-by-game basis, including adding certain functionalities to the extra buttons, like the back buttons. You can even make the back buttons do multiple actions at once, which helps for functions that require multiple inputs to work.
Solid storage space and options
As mentioned above, each Steam Deck model has a different storage size and option. The weakest one has a 64GB hard drive, while the other two models have a 256GB and 512GB solid state drive. For me, it was important that I went with at least the 256GB model, because the solid-state drive makes the Steam Deck run so much faster than with a regular hard drive. When picking between the two models based on size, it really comes down to whether you think you’ll use that extra 256GB of storage.
However, no matter which one you go with, you can always expand your storage via the microSD card slot. You can get a 32GB microSD card for pretty cheap, but for me, I had to go with a 1TB microSD card, just because of how many games I own for Steam. Even that, however, doesn’t fit all my games, so I can only hope we get that announced 1.5TB microSD card soon.
Steam Deck’s compatibility assessment is misleading
When you see this section, you might be worried. Yet, it’s actually all good news, because Valve seems to be on the side of caution by identifying a lot of games as explicitly not Steam Deck compatible. For example, some games, like Cyberpunk 2077, have settings explicitly designed with Steam Deck use in mind. I’ve played numerous games that are either not confirmed to be compatible or confirmed to not be without any issues. However, there are still games that may not run well or at all on Steam Deck. So, how do you know what you can install?
Besides rolling the dice and downloading a game that may or may not work, the best way is to go on the website Proton Database. This website is a user-created hub intended to provide a more thorough and expedient compatibility assessment. The absolute cream of the crop is either Platinum or Native. Platinum means that it runs perfectly, while Native means it runs on Linux (the basis for Steam Deck’s operating system).
Lower tiers of compatibility include Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Borked. These compatibility grades work so:
- Gold games run perfectly after tweaking certain settings
- Silver games run with only minor issues
- Bronze games struggle with playability due to, among other things, crashes
- Borked games are either unable to start, or are so broken they may as well be unable to start
Of course, if there have not yet been enough impressions to rank it, it will not be given any of the above-mentioned ranks.
If you find that your experience differs from the consensus, you can even contribute your own assessment, which may either affect the rating, or get attention from others to see if your assessment is correct.
The battery could be better
For such a strong device, you should not be surprised at all that the battery is lacking. It’s pretty much the most powerful handheld game console, and even the next-most powerful – the Nintendo Switch – has a bit of a weak battery too.
Valve’s official estimates have a low of two hours, and a high of eight hours. However, while I have certainly had some good battery life when I play lighter-duty games, the heavier-duty games definitely drain the battery faster than two hours. If you want to get eight hours, you have to do the most basic things at fairly low settings.
The battery longevity of the Steam Deck is also affected by certain features, including whether you are currently connected to Wi-Fi and how high or low your brightness is set. That said, I tend to get 3-5 hours, so I guess I don’t play the heaviest-duty games out there. Ultimately, just as you will rarely ever hit eight hours, you will also rarely ever hit below 2 hours.
The Steam Deck can be charged using a USB-C cable, though make sure that you charge it into a wall outlet or surge protector instead of via a computer, for example. Additionally, be sure not to use your Steam Deck for too long while plugged in, as this is not great for your battery.
Desktop Mode is serviceable, but not much more
One nice feature of the Steam Deck is the ability to switch between Gaming Mode (the default mode) and Desktop Mode, which feels more like a traditional computer experience. This mode can be controlled through multiple ways, including the two trackpads located below the control sticks and the touchscreen. However, neither of these really worked all that well for me, and I found it somewhat tedious to manage files using these methods.
Thankfully, there is actually a way to modify your Steam Deck’s controls to make mouse use easier. What I did was go into Steam in Desktop Mode, and switch to Big Picture from the taskbar menu. Go into Settings, Base Configurations, Desktop Configuration, and then adjust the controls. What I did was map the mouse pointer to the left stick, left-click to A, and right-click to Y. This means that you can’t play games in Desktop mode, but it makes navigation SO much smoother.
Another way to make the process smoother is to use an external keyboard and mouse, although it’s a bit cumbersome to use this method on a handheld. It’s still the fastest way to navigate, so if you’re willing to shell out money for these, it’ll make it a lot more worthwhile.
As a side note, Desktop Mode runs on Linux, which creates a barrier if you want to use executable software. There are three ways you can get around this limitation. The first is to get the Linux version of said software, and the second is to add Windows to your Steam Deck, which is a whole thing in and of itself. The third is to just use Wine, which allows for the use of Windows executables.
You’re not just limited to Steam games
As one would expect, the Steam Deck’s biggest bread and butter is Steam itself, and you are able to access nearly every game in your library. However, Steam is not the only platform available on this platform, although if you want to do more than that, you will have to go through some hoops. For example, if you want to use games from the Epic Games Store or GOG.com, you need to use an additional program in desktop mode to set them up, such as Lutris or Heroic Games Launcher.
Despite this, I never felt that either launcher was especially convenient to use, such that I almost considered rebuying certain games on Steam just to not have to use them. For instance, I own The Witcher III: Wild Hunt on GOG.com, but I haven’t been able to successfully launch it in Steam Mode or Desktop Mode (because of what I assume is the platform it’s on).
If you’re a Game Pass subscriber, however, then I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that you cannot download Xbox Game Pass games to your Steam Deck. However, the good – or at least goodish – news is that you can run Game Pass games.
Playing classic games on Steam Deck
For fans of classic games, the Steam Deck does a great job with letting you play them on your Steam Deck. Heck, you can even get a lot of the most popular emulators on Steam Deck’s Discover storefront. However, the only way to actually get these emulators running is to get BIOS, and then you need to get the respective game files.
The Steam Deck is capable of playing a wide variety of game systems. These include all of Nintendo’s library, all the way back to the Game & Watch and as recently as the Nintendo Switch, although not all Switch games will necessarily run as well as they do on Switch.
One of the best advantages of playing Switch games on Steam Deck is that various mods can be applied to make the games look and perform better. Some hacks take non-HD games and put them in HD, some give games widescreen, some increase the frames per second, etc. It’s really hard to go back to some games on the Switch after having played them on Steam Deck! Besides, I love being able to mod characters in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
You can also play games from other consoles, such as Sony, Microsoft, and Sega game catalogs. Dreamcast and Saturn games run especially well on this device, and both Sony and Microsoft’s catalogs run well for the most part. The later consoles are not as consistent, however. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have mixed results, and newer consoles from Sony and Microsoft have even more mixed results, so your mileage may vary.
Certain games do just fine with the standardized control setup, but there are still plenty of games where you have to do a lot of tweaking to make the controls make sense. For example, the Nintendo 64 is a little awkward when it comes to button mapping. This is because the controller has six face buttons, unlike most other Nintendo controllers.
By default, the four C buttons are assigned to the right stick. This works okay for controls, but Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask struggle with it. It’s especially bad for it since the joystick wells don’t have the eight notches like the N64 controller does, making it easy to accidentally make the wrong input.
There are, however, games with more significant control issues, the most obvious being Wii games. There are some Wii games that could not possibly work without the Wii Remote, but some motion controls can be reproduced with a normal controller. For example, a simple shake motion, like in Super Mario Galaxy, can be made to work with only a button press.
While you can find both the ROMs and BIOSes for the games and consoles respectively, it’s important to know that these are not legal to upload or download. The only way for you to legally use ROMs and BIOSes is by creating backups from your own games and consoles. You can also find these files online, and while we can’t tell you where to find them, they’re not entirely hard to find if you do a Google search. That said, we do recommend you use your own copies nonetheless.
A weighty console
The Steam Deck is an excellent handheld in a variety of ways, but to be honest, the one way it isn’t is its weight and size. For reference, the Nintendo Switch with JoyCons attached weighs 0.88 pounds, and the Steam Deck nearly doubles that number, coming out at 1.65 pounds. It’s definitely not the kind of device you can easily lug around with you wherever you go. Instead, its best use is as something you don’t have to be tethered to one room to use.
Being 1.65 pounds, not everyone is going to be able to comfortably handle it, at least not for a long period of time. I must have good wrist strength because I can play it for quite a while without any pain, although I have had some discomfort if I don’t take occasional breaks over a week. The weight is also a lot more manageable thanks to how balanced the weight distribution is. It feels really good to hold, and for its size, it’s lighter than I expected.
Be mindful of potential defects
Like any console, there is inevitably going to be an issue that pops up with the Steam Deck, and in fact, there already have been. The shoulder buttons in particular have given Steam Deck owners a lot of guff, with some reporting that the shoulder buttons either gradually started to stick, while others reported sticking very early on. My friend had to send his Steam Deck in for repairs for this very reason, and he was and still is bummed out while he waits for its return.
There are also occasional firmware issues. I’ve not had anything debilitating happen, but the Steam Deck has been known to crash every once in a while for me. Hopefully, the firmware will be improved to avoid this from happening in the future.
Despite all the issues I’ve had with the Steam Deck, I can’t deny that it is a solid piece of hardware. Much like how the Switch is what I needed back in 2017, so too is the Steam Deck what I needed in 2022. The Steam Deck makes a lot of PC games, like Stardew Valley and Slay the Spire, so much easier to pick up and play. I have both on Switch, but to be honest, not being able to mod them makes them way less fun.
The Steam Deck is not the cheapest thing out there, and it certainly has some problems that need to be ironed out. However, in my experience, I had more fun with the Steam Deck than I had complaints for it.
If you aren’t sure whether to take the plunge, it may be worthwhile to wait and see if there is a future revision. There’s certainly room for improvement, whether it be making it lighter, fixing the firmware, or refining button placement and functionality. But hey, if you want to try it out, Steam Deck has more availability than ever, so give it a shot!
- PC gaming on the go
- Being able to back up games from other platforms onto it makes it a great all-in-one device
- Sound quality is surprisingly good for a handheld
- Storage space can be expanded
- Can play non-Steam games (if you put in the effort)
- D-pad placement is awkward
- The fan gets a little loud
- Desktop Mode has a lot of flaws that need to be ironed out
- Occasional crashes
- No Game Pass app on Steam Deck without streaming