Without even meaning to, I pretty much replaced my Nintendo Switch with the Steam Deck.
It didn’t happen because I necessarily think the Steam Deck is the better piece of physical hardware. Valve’s created a really impressive handheld Linux PC, and thanks to custom chips and software tricks, it can play most things your gaming PC can. But the Switch is still smaller and lighter in the hand, more approachable, cheaper, and readily available for purchase.
No, Valve’s best product is still the Steam storefront. The Steam Deck simply gives me front-row access to it. It's the ideal marriage of hardware and software, where with a little work, most of the games I want to play are a download (and some control tweaks) away. The Steam Deck is the clearest flex yet of Valve’s wallet, control of the PC gaming space, and technical prowess.
The Steam Deck is an imperfect Trojan horse into your gaming life, but I think if Valve continues to support it, the handheld PC might convert the next wave of people into impulse Steam sale purchasers. But is that entirely a good thing?
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Valve has money to burn when it comes to custom hardware. In its Year in Review for 2021, Valve revealed that Steam had acquired 31.2 million “new purchasers” and that overall spending on Steam had increased by 27 percent in comparison to 2020. Take into account the $4.3 billion in Steam revenue Valve was estimated to take home in 2017 and it seems safe to say it has the cash reserves to build something as out-of-left-field as the Steam Deck.
And did it ever! The Steam Deck is at first blush, kind of a thick Switch, with way more control inputs, and some important internal hardware worth mentioning, at least in passing.
Valve is using a custom AMD accelerated processing unit (APU) to power the Steam Deck, with both Zen 2 and RDNA 2 architectures; basically a punier version of the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X CPUs and GPUs. The device I’m personally using has 256GB of NVMe SSD storage (PCIe Gen 3 x4) and the standard glossy 7-inch, 1,280 x 800 multitouch LCD display. Valve, unfortunately, saves the anti-glare etched glass screen and the fastest storage for the $649 512GB model. The $399 Steam Deck has the slowest storage (64GB of eMMC), but benchmarks actually show that loading speeds are not that much slower than a model with an SSD. Loading games off the easily accessible microSD card is similarly as fast, not to mention these tiny memory cards are cheap and come in capacities as large as 1TB.
The Switch-like quality of the Steam Deck’s design comes most from the layout of the various inputs. There are two capacitive joysticks set parallel to each other on either side of the touchscreen; a directional pad on the left side; ABXY buttons on the right; and “view” and "menu" buttons up top. Below the joysticks are haptic touchpads for games that require mouse-based control (in use, they feel a bit like trackballs), and below those are a Steam button for pulling up a SteamOS menu and a “quick access” button (•••) for changing performance settings on the fly (you can adjust the fan curve whenever you want, you freaks).
“The Steam Deck is truly a device that lets you configure every input to exactly the way you want...”
There are left and right shoulder buttons and triggers along the top of the Steam Deck, and various buttons and ports (power, volume, 3.5mm headphone jack, and USB-C for charging). Finally on the back are four customizable "grip buttons" that are similar to — but don't quite feel exactly like — the paddles on an Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, mainly because they're so shallow. Controls can be entirely customized in SteamOS, just like the nearly forgotten Steam Controller, meaning you can use a more traditional console layout, load up a custom profile made by a rando, or create your own. The Steam Deck is truly a device that lets you configure every input to exactly the way you want, which is pretty terrific for accessibility.
If you so desire, you can even ditch all of the Steam Deck’s handheld features entirely and connect it over USB-C and Bluetooth to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Personally, I don’t understand the impulse, but I can confirm I had no issues connecting the Steam Deck up to my 1080p monitor. Valve’s official Steam Deck dock has been delayed, but it might be worth the wait if you are using the handheld in desktop mode, because the company is planning on including HDMI, DisplayPort, and multiple USB-A ports.
Even with all of the options the Deck gives you, they wouldn’t be worth anything without the compatibility software Valve baked into SteamOS. It’s called Proton, and basically combines tools like Wine and DXVK to make Windows games launchable on Linux. The compatibility layer was created with CodeWeavers, Wine’s creators, and it works surprisingly well most of the time, even without extra work from a game’s developers.
If you’ve never used Steam on a desktop computer, SteamOS thoroughly adapts the ancient game launcher into something much more handheld-friendly. Steam features like chat, friends list, and achievements are still deeply embedded all over the Steam Deck, but where it matters, SteamOS is easy to understand.
You can spend most of your time jumping into different sections from the menu that pops up when you press the Steam button and never have to deal with the complicated leftovers of desktop Steam. This approach, where the important parts have been console-ified and the fiddly bits are still accessible, is Valve’s strategy for this new hardware. The Steam Deck is a capable little machine, you should be able to dig into Steam settings if you want to, but most people aren’t going to want to if their main input method is a controller.
This same philosophy extends to how Valve is marking games that work well on the Steam Deck. There are basically four classifications for games in the Steam store:
- Verified: Valve has tested the game and it works well on the Steam Deck (controller support and legible text are just two possible criteria).
- Playable: With some tweaks the game will run.
- Unsupported: Valve has determined a game isn’t functional on the Steam Deck.
- Unverified: Valve simply hasn’t checked yet.
Games that are Verified automatically populate a new “Great on Deck” category in the store so you know what to try first when you boot up your Steam Deck.
This system is far from perfect and really should be taken as more of a guidance than anything else. For example, Hardspace Shipbreaker is listed as Unsupported but seemed to run without issue on my Steam Deck. Red Dead Redemption 2 is Playable but burns through battery fast enough that I wouldn’t recommend it. And then there's the ugly reality that not all Verified games work flawlessly as Valve’s stamp of approval might suggest, though personally, I haven’t run into any issues yet. These problems aren’t enough to write off Valve’s compatibility program, but I do think it reflects the side of the Steam Deck that’s less polished and user-friendly. When it comes down to it, this device is a little PC, and a certain amount of experimentation comes with the territory.
Some of the Steam Deck’s unevenness also extends to other parts of the experience. It’s more comfortable than pretty much any other handheld I’ve owned, but it’s also more awkward to use for an extended period of time because of how heavy it is (669 grams or 1.47 pounds). Battery life can also vary wildly depending on the game you’re playing and the settings you use. Valve says you can get anywhere between two to eight hours of gameplay, but I usually got around six on average. Also, I haven’t been able to recreate it, but once, I booted up the Steam Deck and none of the controls worked except the touchscreen until I launched a game and everything randomly worked again.
These are first-generation hardware woes that combined with the general unavailability of the Steam Deck (new orders made in June won't arrive until Q3 2022 or later) absolutely keep the device from being a straightforward fit for the average console player. But they don’t really extend to the performance of the Steam Deck now that Valve’s ironed out a lot of bugs.
Playing games on the Steam Deck is impressive, even if its construction imposes some natural limitations. In my experience, using the Steam Deck is like using a console. Games defaulted to high settings, framerates rested anywhere between 24 to 30 frames in games like Resident Evil Village or Control, and I really never experienced any major hiccups (though obviously, the fan kicked in pretty liberally to keep performance up). The Steam Deck also sounds surprisingly great for a handheld of its size, definitely richer and clearer than the “improved” speakers on the Nintendo Switch OLED, and preferable to what I get on my phone. They could be louder when they’re competing with the fan, but color me impressed.
The big difference between the Steam Deck and what I could play on my TV at home is the screen, which is 60Hz and has the aforementioned 1,200 x 800 resolution, and the customizable performance. As a Switch owner, I really have no complaints about the Steam Deck’s technically higher resolution screen, and as someone who generally doesn’t like to futz with settings, locking framerates has never been my cup of tea. But the point is because these are PC games and the Steam Deck is a PC, you can get granular with your performance, adjusting graphics, fan speeds, and more until you do get that 60 fps of your dreams. That’s just not something you can do on a Switch or a home console.
Even with some problems, I don’t think Valve’s core offer is really harmed. The Steam Deck offers the easiest access to Steam’s library when you’re not in front of your computer or you don’t have one that can run them.
New PC games era
When it comes down to it, the best part of the Steam Deck is it lets me play games I’ve never been able to play before. As primarily a console player, there are some releases, particularly from smaller publishers or independent developers, that never make it to consoles at launch. The fact of the matter is that if you want to keep up with indie games, you have to play them on PC. And if you’re publishing games on PC, you have to sell them on Steam if you hope to get any traction. The Steam Deck opens those options up for me in a serious way.
In the same vein, some console games are never going to come to handhelds. With the Steam Deck, I can play a game like Death Stranding on the go. I can only play it for a few hours before the handheld completely poops out, but I can play it. That combination of unlocking new games, and making other ones better (either run more smoothly or on the go) is a hard plus to pass up. And with not too much extra busy work you can even extend those benefits to games purchased on Itch too.
That reflects the Steam Deck’s level of openness, which on the whole is good. But since what really stands out about the Deck is how it streamlines using Steam, I can’t count flexibility as totally positive, because I’m not sure how many people will actually take advantage of it. Valve would very much prefer if you keep your purchases in Steam, and considering the work it takes to install Windows or bring in games from other stores to the Steam Deck’s launcher, there’s not a ton of incentive to not follow the company’s lead.
“Am I really comfortable getting all of my games from one store just because it happens to be the default option?”
I feel a certain amount of queasiness feeding into Valve’s dominance of PC gaming. On a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X, I don’t have any other choice, but PCs are supposed to be different. They’re supposed to be aggressively open. The Steam Deck makes it too easy to only buy from Steam and too easy to only buy games that Valve has verified. Neither are entirely bad things and given the number of updates Valve has put out for the Steam Deck since it launched, it seems like it plans on supporting its handheld and future models for quite a while. But it does give me pause.
The Steam Deck has proven to me that flexibility in where and what I play is important to me, far more important than I thought. But it’s also introduced new questions in much the same way that the continued success of the iPhone does for the App Store. Am I really comfortable getting all of my games from one store just because it happens to be the default option? The more I play, the less I’m sure.