Review : Steam Deck : Opening the Valve

The echo of Alec Guinness’ voice reverberated in my consciousness when I opened my Steam Deck and gazed upon the sleek, new Valve handheld device. “An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age,” I thought, recalling Obi Wan Kenobi’s description of a lightsaber to Luke Skywalker. While the Steam Deck is big enough to be wielded as a weapon, it’s polished design and potential made me wonder if this device would stand as the true “chosen one” of mobile PCs.

While in the past I measured up the Steam Deck and compared it to other devices within the relative market, I felt like this device could be too good to be true. Decent specs, reasonable price point, and utility to boot! It seemed almost perfect from the outside. After many, and I am talking many hours, I can say wholeheartedly: Valve delivered above and beyond my expectations. Despite that, I would advise to not jump the gun just yet as there is much to discuss with this nifty new piece of hardware. Who is it made for? Is it worth waiting on a virtual line to get? Is the performance suitable? Let’s find out!

Before I dive into the Steam Deck, we first need to discuss the elephant in the room: the inevitable comparison to the Nintendo Switch.  The form factor is relatively the same if you reduce it to a screen with joysticks and buttons, but the Steam Deck is a full-blown portable PC. The features alone tower high above the Switch’s capabilities (which only recently got Bluetooth and folders). Comparing the Steam Deck to the Switch is apples and oranges, attempt to make this comparison would be disingenuous to both platforms as they both offer something different. The Steam Deck is bigger and more robust, giving users a suite of tools as well as embracing right to repair. The Steam Deck is diametrically opposed within the confines of ideology on almost every level. Now that is out of the way, let’s move on.

Form Factor

Surprisingly lightweight, the Steam Deck doesn’t feel as heavy as it looks (much like me). Weighing in at only 1.4 pounds makes this relatively easy to travel with especially with the included carrying case. While you’ll barely notice the weight impact, the sheer size of the device compensates. Measuring 11.7 x 4.6 x 1.9 inches, the Steam Deck is one big piece of machinery. This large footprint makes it a head scratcher when trying to make room for it in your daily commuter bag. The carrying case also lacks any sort of support for the included charger, so you’ll always need a little bit of extra space when going out for longer trips.

At first glance, the Steam Deck looks like an amalgamation of buttons, sticks, and touchpads that throws a ton of questions at you. Once the Steam Deck is in your hands, it all begins to make sense. Face buttons feel smooth with minimal sound and the joysticks glide with just enough resistance, but still take some getting used to. The dual 32.5mm haptic feedback touchpads never get in the way and provide another option for controlling some movement and aiming in some games. In most instances, using the touchpad is akin to using an old trackball mouse. The faster you flick your finger across it, the faster it moved. Sensitivity needs to be adjusted, but it feels awesome in certain situations.

Brazenly showing its inspiration of Microsoft’s Xbox controller, the Steam Deck features the familiar “ABXY,” “View,” and “Menu” face buttons as well as bumpers and triggers which makes a ton of sense considering the platform. Left and right bumpers feel a bit strange as their size and placement is not what I am typically used to which leads to an interesting concept: I can’t help but feel like the Mandalorian wielding the Dark Saber. I am constantly adjusting my hand positioning in various ways to get that optimal feel. This endeavor becomes more difficult when my hands begin to get a bit sweaty. After some proper movements, I get that perfect grip and it begins to really sink in: this is awesome.

The four back buttons feel perfect and rarely interrupt my gameplay. They require a heavier press and are not as sensitive as other buttons. The great thing about these buttons is how they are automatically tied to face buttons for “Verified” titles and can be customized when playing games that might not have the green checkmark. More on “Verified” titles later.

As far as sound goes, front-firing speakers are the best, delivering audio directly towards you. Volume adjustments are located at the top along with a 3.5mm audio jack, allowing you to use a wide range of headphones. Additionally, Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity supports compatible headphones (as well as other devices like controllers, but we will get into that later). You also get an integrated dual microphone array, and the USB Type-C port also supports audio (in and out) when not connected to your charger. The sound experience is fine, alas, I’m not an audiophile by any means.

Finally, we visit the 7-inch touchscreen display. With a resolution of 1280 x 800 (for a 16:10 aspect ratio) and a 60 Hz refresh rate, not only do you get a clear picture, but it is incredibly smooth in most games. While we were led to believe that the display would only support up to 30 fps, I have been getting a nice and smooth 60 fps for most of the games I played. You can adjust the brightness up to 400 nits, which is comparable to most notebook displays. In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel offers great viewing angles without washing out the colors. All in all, this is a solid display choice, I have no complaints. I went for the 256GB model, which didn’t come with the special etched glass, and I didn’t have many complaints. Glare was an issue on the train but that is my fault for always grabbing the window seat.

Software Suite

Let’s discuss this software, which is designed with a custom operating system that leverages Linux Proton. The Steam Deck provides you with an almost identical experience as the Steam desktop application, except it is tailored to the Deck. You get your access to Steam Chat, notifications, cloud saves, store, community, and you can also enable remote play so you can stream your PC games onto your Steam Deck, for some games that might not run perfectly.

There are times where the Steam Deck interface is easy to use and navigate, but not everything is spelled out for you. When adjusting controls or enabling select functions, you need to pay close attention to the directions and what the software requires from you as the user. There are plenty of options hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the operating system, which is both good and bad. I had to Google how to make some adjustments, even take a couple of visits to the subreddit, which is just folks discussing how they must wait for their Steam Deck, so not much help there.

The vast number of settings is what really makes the Steam Deck stand out. While the “Steam” button brings up a standard console menu, there is a “…” button that gives you instant access to quick settings. This allows you to adjust brightness levels, view your notifications and friends list, and keep an eye on your battery power. Even cooler, you can add overlays to your game which feed you real-time information. You can check your frames per second (which I have on all the time) to clock speeds, temperature readouts, to even core-consumption. There are so many tools, it can be overwhelming at times to keep track of them all. Of course, those are not made for the average gamer, but perhaps folks who want to measure every exact detail.

Now, I have some complaints. Granted, I am reviewing the Steam Deck in a point where it is the (relatively) finalized retail software. Others have reviewed it prior to launch and that caused a lot of issues as constant patching was occurring during that process. With the software in its finalized state, the issues fluctuate between easily dismissible to problematic. Although, I will say that most PC gamers are familiar with the latter.

The first thing I noticed was how the device slowly adjusts to whatever you are playing. In some games, it would chug along and then finally smooth out after five minutes or so, like a drunk man sobering up. If you have games downloading and you attempt to play something, you can expect performance to dive. Also, if you do not restart the system every so often, you can expect performance to tank further down than the Titanic and James Cameron will not try to make a movie out of it.

Then there is a slew of warnings, runtimes, and handshaking that require loading, taking up more time than it should. The Steam Deck relies on Wi-Fi signal, so if you are out of range the system will operate at a slower pace. Games will still work, but the system will attempt to validate the software by connecting to Steam, it can’t, then gives up like a defeated father who was asked “why” too many times. Sometimes I will receive an error that a game is already being played on my PC and starting this game will sign me out of that PC, but a quick restart fixes that issue (amongst others).

Despite these occasional software issues, there is still a lot to really like. While some functionality is still missing (looking at you dual booting), there is a strong set of bones within the software. Desktop Mode brings up a literal Linux desktop distro with Mozilla’s Firefox ready to go so you can download Chrome instead. The on-screen keyboard is neat, customizable (with some themes included with the 2nd and 3rd tier models) and can be pulled up with a simple button combination. On top of that, everything syncs together smoothly. I can go from playing Elden Ring on the Steam Deck over to my PC within moments.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how many games are supported on the Steam Deck. There are four categories of compatibility, each represented by symbols so you can see what works at a mere glance. Before, I mentioned how there are “Verified” titles. These are games that are good to go right away and require nothing more on the user’s part to play. “Playable” titles require some tweaking to play, typically changing the resolution or graphical settings. If it needs some sort of adjusting, the game will tell you in a separate screen.

The “Unknown” titles are hit or miss. Just because they are classified as “Unknown” doesn’t mean they will or won’t play, it just means that Valve has yet to test them for compatibility. In some cases, most of the titles I have played that were “Unknown” seemed to understand that I was playing a game and that I was using an Xbox controller. More games will be tested for compatibility as time goes on, but for older titles, it can be a toss-up.

There are “Unsupported” titles that consist of games that require a lot of power, peripherals, or are outright incompatible with various anti-cheat software. VR titles are not supported, so unfortunately, we cannot play Half-Life Alyx on it. There are not many games that show up within the store with this classification, and chances are you will not see them unless you own them in your library.

Performance

At the heart of the Steam Deck is an AMD Zen 2 4-core/8-thread CPU, boasting performance speeds between 2.4 to 3.5 GHz. The 8 RDNA 2 CUs operate between 1.0 to 1.6 GHz, and 16GB of LPDDR5 on-board RAM keeps everything running as smoothly as possible. Keeping the system cool is an internal fan that gets rather loud at times, but like a white noise machine, you tend to get used to it. Fair warning to not leave this device inside the case when charging or downloading games as the fan will blow and the case blocks the rear intake vent as well as the exhaust port.

I spent around 40 to 50 hours of playtime with the Steam Deck and loaded a decent mix of titles which ran either really well or barely ran at all. I went from “Lumines Remastered” to “Cyberpunk 2077” so I could get a real grip on performance. I even threw a few hours into Elden Ring on the Steam Deck to balance it all out. Unfortunately, Destiny 2’s BattlEye anti-cheat software rendered me unable to test. Although, Lost Ark uses Easy Anti-Cheat, which is the same software behind Elden Ring. So, I’m asking Smilegate to kindly get that port rolling.

So, what are my findings between all these games? For one, Elden Ring on a portable device is amazing. The game keeps a steady 30 fps and rarely has any issues when playing. I had one glitch where my enemies became invisible, yet I still defeated them (get gud). When I fired up the game, I didn’t have to mess around with the settings or anything, it was good to go immediately. Loading times were phenomenal, occasionally beating out modern gen console load times (due to lower demand and settings). If you are eager to own a dedicated Elden Ring portable device, look no further.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Cyberpunk 2077 which made me laugh with how poor the performance is. Granted, I knew better, but I couldn’t help myself. The game ran poorly with low-resolution, awful textures, and so much fuzziness you think you just walked onto the set of Sesame Street. I did end up achieving a solid 30 to 40 fps though, so there is one win. Now, Cyberpunk 2077 is an “Unknown” game so I came to understand that it might not run perfectly, if at all.

Right in the middle we have Borderlands 2, which required some adjustments. Another “Unknown” game, I am surprised it ran at maximum settings with 60 fps. Borderlands 2 is an older title from the Xbox 360 days, but it still looks and plays amazingly. There were moments of performance stutter, but it was rare and didn’t take me out of the experience completely. The oddest issue I had with Borderlands 2 is how the Steam Deck version didn’t pull my save data from the cloud, leaving me to restart the game I already had 30 or so hours in. I believe this to be due to the operating system differences as the full Windows PC version has a dedicated launcher and the Steam Deck version does not. This would be one of those times where your mileage will vary. Borderlands 3 on the other hand didn’t have a single issue besides some aliasing but it is passable.

Then I threw in a couple of hours into some Bethesda titles. I don’t know if Todd Howard knows, but the Steam Deck can run Skyrim, so I guess we may see a special edition of that any day now. I also ran Fallout 4, and both titles ran much smoother than I expected. Skyrim is an older title so I didn’t expect much of a performance issue, but Fallout 4 could be a bit demanding from time to time, yet it still worked at an acceptable level.

There is an endless number of games that you could play on this device, but out of the box it is limited to the Steam Store (hence the name). As for other stores, this is where it gets a bit tricky. You can find a couple of tutorials online that will help you run other shops like the Epic Game Store but be warned, this is an advanced feature, and your performance or device could potentially become damaged. So, make sure you know what you are doing before you jump into that territory.

I must mention the difference between the three models for just a moment. The entry level model for $400 USD only has 64GB of eMMC storage, meaning you have incredibly limited space for most modern games, and because it is eMMC memory, the performance may be a bit slower. The 256GB and 512GB models are priced at $529 and $650, respectively, and both have M.2 PCIe 3.0 x4 SSDs. While the two more expensive models offer plenty of space in a format that operates much quicker, I’m going to say that the 64GB model seems to be directed to folks who may want to run emulation software or only tends to play one large game at a time. Let it be known that a microSD card slot is available for storage expansion.

Conclusion

Valve really outdid themselves with the Steam Deck and it will only get better with time, which is why you might consider waiting a bit longer if you can. There are plenty of bug fixes that need to be ironed out along with missing functionality needs to be added. As of right now though, if you are used to dealing with the more nuanced ideals behind PC gaming, this device is for you. The Steam Deck is both accessible and aggravating at times. It runs games very well, and sometimes it doesn’t. There will be a ton of growing pains with this device, and I am happy to be there every step of the way.

After the many hours I have poured into this device and naming it my “2021 Most Anticipated Hardware” list, then moving it to the “2022 Most Anticipated Hardware” list, I cannot express how happy I am with the Steam Deck. For users who want something a bit advanced yet simple, this will scratch all those itches for you. Once again, Valve struck gold with the Steam Deck, making yet another device worth remembering, and for the entry level price of $400, even you can become a PC gamer!

By Steve Esposito

Steve Esposito is a dedicated content creator with a focus on his love for technology, video games, and the very industry that oversees it all. He also takes part in organizing the Long Island Retro and Tabletop Gaming Expo as well as a Dungeons and Dragons podcast: Copper Piece. You can find him on twitter @AgitatedStove

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