The Steam Deck has plenty of room to grow, but already makes an astounding first impression
TheThe Steam Deck promises to play the bulk of video game history whenever you want, wherever you want, with all the comforts of console gaming and all the freedom of a gaming PC.
As with the Nintendo Switch, you can connect the Steam Deck to a TV, throwing the game onto a large high-def screen, or you can play on the go with the device’s built-in 7-inch 1280×800 screen. And with pricing starting at $399, the Deck is dramatically cheaper than most brand-name gaming laptops, and competitive with modern consoles. You can snag one for $50 more than Nintendo’s OLED Switch or the same price as the digital edition of the PlayStation 5.
On paper, it’s perfect.
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Nonetheless, a healthy skepticism of Valve’s surprise entry into portable gaming has been justified ahead of its debut. Even if the company can procure enough chips during an unprecedented shortage amid a pandemic, it will have to enter and survive one of the most competitive corners of the video game industry — one with many losers (Sony, Sega, Nokia, Atari) and only one consistent winner: Nintendo.
So a couple of weeks ago, when the Steam Deck appeared on my doorstep, one question loomed above all others: Could a company that has never before released a game console or computer compete against the most established hardware maker in games and, arguably, its best device? Does the Steam Deck have a legitimate chance in the Age of Switch? Could it really be perfect?
THE STEAM DECK HAS THE GREATEST LAUNCH LINEUP EVER
Out of the box, the Steam Deck connects to Steam and its thousands of games, including any you may have purchased over the past decade and a half in your Steam library. (How well all of those games run is something we’ll unpack in a moment.) Those willing to tinker can also install the Windows operating system, granting themselves access to other storefronts like itch.io, subscription services like Game Pass, and the unpaved roads of open-source emulation.
The result is the best launch lineup in the history of game consoles. I understand how hyperbolic that sounds, but I can’t overstate the scope of video games immediately available on Steam Deck on day one. Classic point-and-click adventure games for the Gen X set! A forgotten mid-2000s indie gem! Elden Ring! In my first hours with the portable, I opened my Steam library and loaded a trio of games I’d most wanted to play on a handheld: Half-Life 2, Nier: Automata, and the recent Vampire Survivors. Everything played without a fuss, just as I’d expect from any traditional portable game console.
But the Steam Deck isn’t quite a portable game console — it’s a portable gaming PC. And though I love PC gaming, I associate it with a reliable pulse of little frustrations. So for the past two weeks, I’ve put the Steam Deck through a gauntlet of games spanning the past three decades. I expect big-budget games, including ones published by Valve, to run smoothly, but what about everything else?
Surely, I thought, not everything would work.
FOR BETTER AND WORSE, THE STEAM DECK IS A PC
Yes, for a moment, the Steam Deck appeared to be everything I’d dreamt of. But as you’ve probably guessed, the more I test the Steam Deck, the more games I find that don’t quite work. How and why a game doesn’t work can be unpredictable and unclear.
Some games are completely unplayable, like 2009’s Arkanoid-inspired Shatter, failing to load or getting stuck on a title screen. Other games (most notably Persona 4 Golden) are playable but have occasional audiovisual problems. Valve representatives have told me that most of the issues pertain to Proton, the company’s tool that allows Windows games to run on the Steam Deck’s Linux-based operating system. Valve must ensure that a game and Proton can play nice together. Once a game is checked, it gets added to the list of Steam Deck-approved titles.
Proton flaws, Valve reps tell me, are fixable and can be specific to particular games. Individual game fixes have been and will continue to be prioritized for repair by a variety of factors — most notably, how much time a game has been played by Steam users who’ve pre-ordered the Steam Deck. To put it another way: Popular games will often get a FastPass to the front of the queue.
THE STEAM DECK IS AN ENTIRE GAMING PC CRAMMED INTO A HANDHELD FORM FACTOR
Other games run fine but require me to remap the controls, like Everyday Shooter, a brilliant hidden gem of an arcade shooter from 2006. The game loaded instantly, but I couldn’t get past its title screen with the default gamepad controls. So, I experimented with remapping the controls in the Steam overlay, and after five or so minutes of tweaks, the game ran swimmingly on my Deck. I have the option to upload my customized control profile onto Steam for other players to download, just as I’ve downloaded user-made profiles for other games. I expect to see lots of user-made profiles for cult games like this, the kind of titles that won’t be prioritized by Valve for Steam Deck compatibility.
And if you have to map the controller yourself? To be clear, I have remapped controls on an emulator one time before this. And remapping games on console, for me, begins and ends with inverting the y-axis. I’m no expert — and yet, I found the process a minor inconvenience at worst.
Similarly, a few unusual design choices with the hardware itself are reminders that the Steam Deck is an entire gaming PC crammed into a handheld form factor. The fans, which are quieter than those in most gaming PCs, are noticeably louder than those in the Nintendo Switch, and they rev whenever I launch a game. To allow for compatibility with mouse-and-keyboard games, two trackpads have been given prominent placement where the joysticks would typically rest. Then there’s the battery life.
For work, I use a Razer Blade 15, a very nice gaming laptop that will guzzle battery life if I dare to play a modern game without first plugging into an outlet. The Steam Deck can miraculously maintain three hours or more of battery while playing a game, but that requires tinkering with frame rate, resolution, and FidelityFX Super Resolution settings — the sort of stuff that a Switch owner has never had to worry about. That said, I managed to get two hours from a full charge while playing Elden Ring with no adjustments. Not great, but better than my gaming laptop.
All of which is to say, Valve has consciously chosen to keep one foot in the world of PC gaming at the expense of some creature comforts expected from a traditional gaming portable — sometimes for the worse, but just as often for the better.
THE QUEST FOR THE ‘DO-IT-ALL’ VIDEO GAME MACHINE
I haven’t had the opportunity to test one of the Steam Deck’s most powerful features: dual-booting Windows. During the review period, Valve was still waiting for a GPU driver. So consider the following an informational detour on what the Steam Deck ostensibly can do, but I’ve yet to actually see.
The advantage of dual-booting Windows would be the ability to run games natively on the Windows OS and gain access to many games, storefronts, and subscription services outside of Steam. In theory, I could access decades of games through Windows with Game Pass, the Epic Games Store, indie shops like itch.io, and classic console games via emulation. (The emulator RetroArch is available on Steam, so it can be played without a Windows install. However, you’ll need to import your own ROMs.)
In the coming weeks, we will undoubtedly see YouTubers posting tutorials to explain these options and guide users through installing them onto the Steam Deck. But even once these features become available and tutorialized, they will still require considerably more work to get up and running than games through Steam.
“READY BUT WAITING TO GO LIVE” IS SORT OF THE THEME OF THE STEAM DECK
Tinkerers will have both easier and more difficult options, too. If you’re familiar with Linux, you can enter Steam Deck’s Desktop mode and install apps via Flatpak. If you accidentally break something, you can re-image and recover the Steam Deck, but if you’re at all familiar with any of these terms, I strongly encourage you to hold off for now. The easier route to games outside of Steam will be cloud gaming via Chrome, the Steam Deck’s browser of choice. Unfortunately, Steam Deck controls won’t work until Google releases a patch. It’s ready, but just waiting to go live.
“Ready but waiting to go live” is sort of the theme of the Steam Deck beyond Steam itself. The platform has unprecedented potential for portable gaming, blending the mostly separate worlds of portable consoles, cloud and subscription services built for smartphones, and emulator handhelds into one ultra-powerful device. But for now, the potential is just that: potential.
For tinkerers and retro game enthusiasts, this may be reason enough to delay a purchase. But for everyone else, these options were always going to be the cherry on top. Nice, sure, but not necessary.
THE STEAM DECK SHINES AS AN ULTRA-POWERFUL SWITCH
I enjoyed the Steam Deck most when I treated it like a powerful Nintendo Switch instead of a hybrid portable PC.
For these purposes, I spent the majority of my testing in handheld mode, though I did enjoy a couple of hours in Elden Ring with the Deck connected to my TV. Unlike the Switch, it doesn’t require a special dock, but you will want a USB-C dongle with an HDMI converter and another USB-C port for power. An official Steam Deck dock will be available later this spring, though Valve hasn’t announced a price and the dock won’t provide any additional benefits to the hardware.
The Deck is comparable in capabilities to a midrange video game console — much more powerful than the Switch, though short of the frustrating-to-find PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. This abundance of power is helpful when running brand-new games on medium or low settings (Elden Ring, Dying Light 2), but frankly more impressive when playing slightly older or simply less demanding games. When it was connected to a TV, I had no issue running games at 1080p resolution. The Deck can output 4K video, though it’s not nearly powerful enough to render most modern games at that resolution.
But as I said, I’ve most enjoyed the opportunity to play PC games at my leisure on the couch or before bed. I recently returned to an abandoned save file from last year’s brilliant Japanese role-playing game Tales of Arise, and found that it looks just as spectacular on the Steam Deck as it did on my 4K TV. Dragon Quest 11 ran on top settings; Red Faction: Guerrilla maintained a steady 60-frames-per-second frame rate; Half-Life 2’s wonky, old-school load times flashed by thanks to my Steam Deck’s NVMe SSD (available in the 256 GB and 512 GB models, which cost $529 and $649, respectively).
Unlike the Switch, which has required me to subscribe to Nintendo’s online service to access classic games that I’ve bought many times already, my Steam Deck can access my entire PC back catalog. And Steam’s seasonal sales offer much greater and more regular discounts than any on console storefronts.
They might not make for the flashiest back-of-the-box bullet points, but they deserve that emphasis:
- cheaper games
- better visuals
- faster load times
- a comprehensive, legacy gaming library
Of course, other companies have made handhelds and gaming laptops with similar benefits, only to fall to Nintendo anyway.
Nintendo controlling the world of portable games for decades is an example of how success breeds success. Nintendo knows how to make a portable device holistically. A portable console is a bit of a Voltron containing complex software and multiple pieces of otherwise stand-alone hardware, all smashed together into an impossibly small space. The Switch, for example, contains the console guts that power the games, plus the controller, screen, power source, and operating system, all of which must work together seamlessly, while also vying for priority. Nintendo and its manufacturing partners have learned from each successive handheld how to harmonize these conflicting parts.
Valve, on the other hand, is best known for selling and distributing video games over the internet, not crafting consumer-friendly hardware. The Steam Link, Steam Controller, and the exceptionally pricey Valve Index VR Kit have their die-hard fans, but Valve’s hardware has been little more than a mosquito bite on the console business: barely noticeable, sort of annoying.
And yet, the Steam Deck feels like a portable console made from years of experience. If ever there were an heir to the PlayStation Vita, the closest Nintendo has had to a legitimate threat, this is it. It doesn’t look the part — not at first. The Steam Deck, when plucked from the included carrying case, appears humongous, with a noticeable heft. The joysticks initially feel too high to be comfortable, and the haptic feedback is, in a word, funky. And yet, all of these quirks fade into oblivion after an hour of actually playing with the contraption. It feels incredible.
All of the design quirks, in hindsight, have been considered, even justified. The high joysticks, for example, aren’t inconvenient, because the ergonomics of the handgrips allow my thumbs to comfortably rest wherever they need to be. And this may surprise you, but I don’t make a lot of time to lift weights these days. Even so, a couple of hours with Elden Ring caused zero muscle fatigue. What’s more, the bulky size means more room for the screen, along with buttons that feel like a legit controller, not a portable compromise. (The joysticks worked so well that I managed to beat two of Elden Ring’s big bads while playing on the Steam Deck.) The haptic feedback still feels too weak, but Valve tells me it will be improved with upcoming software updates. Considering how many of my assumptions have been proven wrong, I won’t be surprised if the company somehow fixes the rumble with a patch.
The Steam Deck reminds me of the Xbox Elite Controllers. It’s a higher-cost but higher-quality update to what’s already available. It feels like the Switch, but better. The joysticks far surpass those of the Switch and even the ones on Hori’s improved Switch Joy-Cons. Furthermore, the four paddle buttons on the back of the device allow for greater customization, with a simple press of the Steam button. Lastly, the speakers are uncommonly loud and clear, and Bluetooth headsets and controllers can be easily paired, no dongle required.
On the hardware level, Valve has delivered an exceptional gizmo, though in hindsight, this shouldn’t be a total surprise. The company has more experience than I gave it credit for. Experiments and side projects like the Steam Controller, the Big Picture Mode user interface, and the Steam Link — while not breakout hits — have afforded Valve opportunities to learn how to adapt PC gaming to a handheld controller, simplify its user interface, and work with manufacturing partners to convert its designs into honest-to-goodness products.
The Steam Deck isn’t an overnight success; it’s the culmination of years of experimentation, incremental updates, and failures. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great.
STEAM DECK AND THE FREEDOM TO MAKE THE MOST OF TIME
Even in this early stage, the Steam Deck already delivers what I want from a modern portable console.
I love the Nintendo Switch because it makes video games approachable to more people than ever before, allowing them to easily enjoy games at their convenience without any additional investment of time or space. No TV required — hell, no living room required. And I still believe that for newcomers, and people unfamiliar with PC gaming, Nintendo’s device remains the best starting point for this hobby.
But for people who already have a Steam library, or are eager to dip their toes into the waters of PC gaming, the Steam Deck already feels like a legitimate alternative. It builds on the Switch’s pitch of playing anywhere and everywhere, because now my games and save files aren’t tied to a console. They live in the cloud, following me wherever I can access Steam — from my Steam Deck, to my gaming PC, to my work laptop, and wherever else I might want them in the future.
The Steam Deck is now my default gaming device. Fortunately, I won’t have to say, “This game’s great, but I’ll wait until it’s on Steam Deck.” Because if it’s available on Steam, then it’s probably already there.
The Steam Deck was released on Feb. 25. The device was reviewed using a 512 GB NVMe SSD model provided by Valve. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.