The Steam Deck was announced back in 2021 and if you were lucky enough to get an order in early then you may be holding one in your hands at this very moment, or be looking forward to Monday when Valve sends out the preorder emails. I was one of those lucky people and have been getting to know the Steam Deck over the past few weeks. Nintendo has dominated handheld console gaming since 2017 with the Nintendo Switch, and even before then with iterations of the Gameboy and Nintendo DS. That’s all about to change though, as now you can hold your whole Steam library in your hands and play on the train, plane, couch and even in bed.
The Steam Deck is one of the most anticipated pieces of gaming hardware in years and most of the time it lives up to the billing. This is a handheld PC, which outperforms the Nintendo Switch in many ways, plus you can play true current-gen games like Final Fantasy Remake Integrade, Elden Ring, God of War, Monster Hunter Rise Sunbreak and Apex Legends.
It’s a mini-pc through and through. Natively it runs a Linux-based Steam OS, but if you want you can load up Windows on it, and take advantage of all the benefits there. For what I am using it for, a mobile gaming platform where I am focused on my Steam Library, the Steam OS is just fine for me at the moment. If you like to take these things apart and tinker, then the options are there for you. However, it pretty much turns it on and you are ready to play with minimal set-up other than signing into your Steam account.
The Steam Deck runs a good portion of Steam games, and some big hitters like I mentioned before – Playing Elden Ring in the palm of your hands just feels incredible, and it’s something out of the kid version of myself’s dreams. However, it doesn’t play all the games I have in my Steam Library, Destiny 2 being the main missing game (I believe this is something to do with the anti-cheat software running on my PC, but I could be wrong). Long story short, Steam Deck isn’t compatible with every game on Steam yet, and there is a long way to go. But, there is a lot there and Steam does give you an easy way of navigating Steam games that are ‘great on deck’. Some gams are verified to work on Steam Deck, some work fine, and some have issues. Some don’t work at all, and hopefully, Valve will work towards getting everything on there in the months and years to come.
The console itself is pretty big. It’s not too heavy although it does feel chunky in the hands. This is especially noticeable if you play with a Nintendo Switch for a time, and then move to the Steam Deck, you’ll notice it instantly. It’s 11.7 inches from one end to the other, which is 2 inches bigger than the Nintendo Switch. It’s much heavier too. Valve has done a great job with the product design because it does feel good to hold. It’s not quite as stylish as the Nintendo Switch, especially the OLED model. What it lacks in hardware design, it makes up for in power and hardware capability.
The screen is LCD and runs at 1200×800 60Hz and looks very good. It doesn’t pop as much as the OLED Switch, but the graphical fidelity is excellent, plus games can run at 60 frames per second. On the left-hand side, you have a d-pad, plus you have a left thumbstick and a touchpad, which can be used as a mouse. On the right-hand side, you have the face buttons, and standard ABXY configuration, similar to the modern Xbox Controller. The buttons feel good to press and overall the controls are comfortable whether you are using the d-pad or thumb sticks. As well to the standard directional controls there are also gyro controls in there too, which is particularly good in Neon White when you are speed running to the finish line.
The trackpads are a nice feature which offers a little haptic feedback when you touch them. These trackpads are used instead of a mouse and they do a good job of mimicking the ‘mouse feel’, which is great on a handheld device. I found myself not using the trackpads too much in my time so far with the console, the standard sticks and d-pad have been good in terms of navigating menus or playing games. The controls are finished up with L1/R1 button and L2/R2 triggers, plus you have paddles on the back.
In terms of other ports and controls, you have a USB C port on the top of the console, plus you have the volume buttons there too. There is a fan which is constantly cooling the machine working overtime, and always seems to be on, but this makes sense given the complex miniature hardware in your hands that needs to be temperature controlled. The Steam Deck also has performance monitoring built into the software so you can see the GPU and CPU temperatures, frame rates, memory and core use.
Regarding the interface, it looks and behaves in a very similar way to the Steam desktop app. It’s easy to navigate and everything is clearly labelled. There’s also a nice Steam Button on the actual Steam Deck itself, which will bring up a useful quick access menu.
There are a couple of versions of this first iteration of the Steam Deck. It comes in 64GB, 256GB and 512GB models. I went for the middle option, given that 64GB didn’t seem big enough for a modern game library. This can easily be extended with a microSD card, and you can add up to 2TB extra, which should be more than enough for a short while. You can also upgrade the SSD inside the machine if you are more technically minded, although it’s not something I will be getting into myself.
Load times on high-performance games like Elden Ring or The Witcher 3 can be fairly sizeable, taking up to a minute in some cases. Game loading also takes a fair amount of time. If you mainly play indies like Neon White, Hades or Celeste, then load times won’t be an issue, but for bigger games like Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order you’ll likely notice the load times.
Here are some of the games I have been enjoying on the Steam Deck so far; OlliOlli World, a sidescrolling skateboarding game which feels like it was made for Steam Deck and mobile play. I’ve been playing plenty of Neon White, the new speed-running FPS game that is currently taking the world by storm, plus another breakout indie hit of 2022 in Vampire Survivors. I dabbled in a few Steam Next Fest demos too like Cult of the Lamb, Old Skies and Midnight Fight Express. I have bought The Witcher 3, Jedi Fallen Order and Portal 1 and 2, but I haven’t gotten into those yet. All are rated as ‘great on deck’, so I am looking forward to getting stuck in when I am away for work next week, and the following week I’m travelling on a plane, so I intend to put this thing through its paces.
The battery life has some issues, it doesn’t last very long and the battery runs down even when plugged in while playing games. This thing eats battery energy at an incredible rate and you’ll only get a few hours of play from a full battery. At the moment this isn’t going to be suitable for a long plane journey unless you are plugged in and take some breaks. A big feature that is missing at the moment is optimisation settings that allow you to customise the game’s performance and balance that with battery life. Ideally, you want a good balance of visual fidelity, performance and battery life. This is the first iteration of the machine, and this gives Valve some room to improve.
Overall, the Steam Deck is an impressive machine when it works as it should. It plays a lot of games, games that we’ve never been able to play handheld before. It’s also going to provide Nintendo with some stiff competition in the mobile space, so hopefully, they are going to have to up their game with the Super Nintendo Switch or Switch Pro. The fact I can play my entire Steam library on the go almost turns my Nintendo Switch into an exclusives machine only. Support for indies has been great on Nintendo Switch, but with the Steam Deck’s release it’s really going to make me think about where to buy the games, especially given Steam often has sales and events like Steam’s Next Fest. I’m really impressed with the console overall, and I am looking forward to taking it out on the road for a full test while travelling. At the minute I am happy playing my Steam Library on the couch or in bed, and there’s nothing like playing Elden Ring on the go, it impresses me every time.