• notebookcomputer
  • 31/03/2022

Steam Deck Hands On: Valve Successfully Frees PC Gaming From the Desktop

As someone who flew across the country to pick up a Steam Machine, only for Valve’s first attempt at merging gaming PCs and console concepts to go up in smoke, it’s telling that I’m still excited for the Steam Deck (starting at $399). After months of speculation and anticipation, we finally got our hands on Valve’s high-powered handheld gaming PC, a device that ships today to the first customers that preordered it. We’ll need more time for a full review, but here are our thorough first impressions of the Steam Deck, a handheld that delivers new joys to PC gamers who are willing to compromise on old standards.

All Hands on Deck

The Steam Deck is big, but not that big. The 7-inch, 720p screen is roughly on par with what the Nintendo Switch offers, complete with a prominent bezel. The thicker main body (1.9 inches vs. 0.5 inches) is where you’ll find the volume buttons and microSD card slot and USB-C charging port. I wouldn’t want to drop the unit, but it feels sturdy enough that I wouldn’t immediately freak out if I did.

Let’s just get this out of the way: expect a lot of references to the Nintendo Switch in these impressions. Although the Steam Deck leverages your PC gaming library, it’s also very much in conversation with Nintendo’s beloved handheld gaming device. Our review unit (the mid-tier, $529 256GB model) came with a nice carrying case, but I’m already looking forward to cases from WaterField, the company behind my preferred Switch case.

The Steam Deck’s bulk comes from its the prominent grips. I’m glad I bought the Hori Split Pad Pro for my Switch because it prepared me for what it’s like to experience such huge handles on a handheld device. Like that peripheral, the Steam Deck’s wide grips help distribute the system’s weight, making the device feel surprisingly light given its size. It’s a viable portable machine. Fans and vents keep the Steam Deck from overheating. Still, the Steam Deck became pretty toasty during a two-hour Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain play session. However, even as the main body became quite warm, the grips remained cool.

The large grips also leave plenty of room for the A/B/X/Y buttons, twin analog sticks, four triggers, four back paddles, and a D-pad. In terms of build quality, the Steam Deck’s buttons, sticks, and paddles feel premium, but don't compete with the Xbox Elite Controller’s excellent inputs. The touchpads improve on the Steam Controller’s faux-mouse functionality, and I enjoy their trackball-esque haptic feedback. Gyro controls make aiming smoother in supported games.

Ultimately, as a grown man who’s played the Nintendo Switch for thousands of hours over the past five years, I had no immediate ergonomic issues with the Steam Deck. I didn’t even mind that all the buttons and sticks sit on the same horizontal row. The only slight bummer is that the Nintendo Switch OLED really spoiled me on what to expect from a handheld screen. The Steam Deck's IPS LCD touch screen is just a bit duller in comparison, even if the games are much prettier. Like the Switch, the Steam Deck will eventually receive a dock to display games on TVs or monitors. I didn’t receive a dock for testing.

Steam Small Picture Mode

After logging into the Steam Deck with a Steam account, I was greeted by…Steam. Valve knows how to tweak its software for various displays, and Steam’s interface translates well to the smaller screen. Steam Deck’s slick interface successfully obfuscates the jankier aspects of PC gaming, while maintaining Steam’s famously robust features.

The dedicated, physical Steam button quickly opens a menu that houses shortcuts to your Home, Library, Store, Friends and Chat, Media, Downloads, and Settings. The Steam Deck takes screenshots more easily than the Epic Games Store. Meanwhile, the settings button lets you adjust brightness, pull up performance overlays, monitor battery life, and turn on airplane mode.

If you want to get really technical, out of the box it’s not difficult to activate developer mode, switch your preferred version of the Proton Linux compatibility layer, or launch a full desktop interface completely divorced from the Steam ecosystem. The desktop shows your installed games as icons, lets you manage files and system settings, and browse the web with Firefox. With the right mods, you can turn the Deck into a retro emulation handheld. After all, the Steam Deck is just a Linux computer.

But feel free to ignore that stuff, too. Steam Deck has the casual convenience that you’d expect from a console or mobile phone when it comes to pairing a Bluetooth headset, adding another user profile, or activating Family Sharing or Remote Play. You won’t accidentally flip a switch that breaks the whole handheld. I didn’t encounter a problem or long load time that couldn’t be solved by turning something off and on again.

Steam Deck Hands On: Valve Successfully Frees PC Gaming From the Desktop

Even limited to my home Wi-Fi connection (60Mbps download), I was able to download as many AAA games as I could fit on the speedy 256GB SSD storage (so not that much) without overly lengthy waits. Being able to play games while others download also helps. As you play, you can quickly access other parts of the interface, including controller template layout mapping. Make sure to manually exit a game before launching another, so they don’t try to both run at once and tank performance.

Unless you’re a total Steam neophyte, the Steam Deck will have your game library ready to download, complete with cloud save data, once you log into your account. The seamless familiarity made this the warmest welcome I’ve had with a machine I’ve technically never used before. Thanks to Valve’s Deck Verified program, you’ll know which games are optimized for the machine, and those are the first games you’ll see in the game library’s “Great on Deck” tab. The Store automatically funnels you to Deck Verified games. Game pages have everything you expect from Steam proper, like community content and achievements.

You shouldn’t ignore a game because it lacks a greenDeck Verified check. Steam gives useful details explaining what issues you may encounter in yellow, non-verified, Deck Playable titles, so you can decide if those problems are deal breakers or not. Common early issues include small text, anti-cheat software, or needing to awkwardly use an onscreen mouse or keyboard instead of a controller preset. Everyone has their own definition of playable. However, some games just aren’t supported at all, such as Dragon Ball FighterZ and Fuser. Hopefully that changes later.

Many games have yet to be tested at all, so you may have more games fit for Steam Deck than you realize. Steam Machines wish they had this much flexibility. While writing this piece, Elden Ring, the hottest game at the moment, just got Verified status despite its lofty PC spec requirements. Meanwhile, after finally figuring out a functioning controller layout, 2009’s untested Batman: Arkham Asylum promptly crashed on me.

Steam Deck's Game Compatibility

I played a handful of Steam games from across different years and genres to get a feel for the controls, as well as roughly gauge the system performance. I mostly wanted to test games that aren’t on the Nintendo Switch, games that seem too powerful for that handheld, since extra PC power is part of the Steam Deck’s expensive pitch. Windjammers 2’s fluid 2D performance is great, but not exactly surprising. We’ll do serious benchmarking later, so I don’t have hard numbers. Generally speaking, the results were impressive, but maybe a bit more mixed than I would’ve expected from the Zen 2 and RDNA 2 graphics architecture with 16GM of RAM.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: Hideo Kojima’s gloriously incomplete end to the Metal Gear saga was far and away the game I was most excited to play on Steam Deck. Open-world games work great on the go, and few open-world games compare with this stealth sandbox masterpiece. However, while the opening hospital section looked gorgeous, the framerate took a noticeable hit once I entered the open world. I had to lower some graphical settings, and cap the cap at 30 frames per second. Once I did, I remembered why I adore this game. Considering MGS:V is a Deck Verified game, though, I was surprised its default settings were clearly beyond the Deck’s reach.

Death Stranding: Despite being a newer game, Kojima’s Deck Verified Death Stranding runs much smoother on Steam Deck than Phantom Pain, perhaps because of its Decima engine. I quickly fell into its surreal climbing rhythms, as I shifted my weight to stay balanced on my blighted journey to incinerate the president’s corpse. My only grip the slightly blurry overall image, a bit like playing a game on the Xbox Series S instead of the Series X.

Sonic Generations: This is another Deck Verified game with somewhat disappointing performance. Whether it was the classic, 2D Sonic sections or the modern, 3D Sonic sections, the game chugged whenever the blue blur went too fast. That’s a problem, because Sonic has got to go fast. Sonic Generations is a pretty game, but it’s also a 2011 game. It shouldn’t be too much for Steam Deck to handle.

Vanquish: PlatinumGames’ unbelievably stylish take on the third-person shooter demands high-performance. You must slide across the battlefield on your knees, slow down time, and shoot enough enemies to make an arcade game blush. Fortunately, even at the highest graphical settings, Vanquish ran like a dream on Steam Deck, at 60fps. That’s a Deck Verified game you can trust.

Recommended by Our Editors

How Valve’s Failures Led to the Steam DeckCan't Buy a Steam Deck? 6 Of the Best AlternativesSteam Deck 101: Everything You Need to Know About Valve's Handheld Gaming PC

Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Lara Croft’s reboot trilogy capper didn’t get full Verified marks (it’s listed as Deck Playable),because of some keyboard snags. That said, I was blown away by how well Shadow of the Tomb Raider performed when I hopped in to tackle a challenge tomb. The lush jungles in the 2018 AAA game lost little of their detail. Steam itself says the game runs fine despite compatibility warnings.

F1 2021: Racing games are a great showcase for new hardware, even if F1’s professional driving sim isn’t the racing flavor I personally enjoy. Despite a warning about minor graphics issues, F1 2021 (Deck Playable) shined on Steam Deck. I only lost the race because of skill, not the hardware.

Resident Evil Village: Capcom’s latest nightmare hasn’t yet been tested on Steam Deck, and it only came out last year. So, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of performance. Fortunately, Resident Evil Village might have been the most impressive game I played on Steam Deck. The grainy, haunted European village became much more intimate and terrifying in my hands. Granted, I was in a part of the game where you’re confined to small spaces, which are much easier to render than massive landscapes. Still, between this and Monster Hunter Rise, I’m convinced the RE Engine runs on magic.

A Promising Portable PC

It didn’t take long for the Steam Deck to conjure the same magic I’ve felt from the Nintendo Switch since 2017. Playing big games on small screens just feels awesome. Although the Steam Deck is more powerful than Nintendo Switch, its similar handheld form-factor ultimately limits its raw power compared to its desktop PC counterparts. As a long-time Switch owner, I’m more than ready to sacrifice specs for impossible mobile ports. I played Doom Eternal and Witcher 3 on the Switch alongside Mario and Zelda. But it will be interesting to see if PC gamers obsessed with graphics are willing to swallow that same pill if it means carrying their entire Steam library with them on the go, away from comfy gaming chairs. Setting portability aside, gamers trade power for convenience all time. The PlayStation 5 is cheaper and more user-friendly than a high-end PC. The weaker Xbox Series S looks way nicer sitting in your living room than the bulky Xbox Series X. The Steam Deck is just another trade off, one I would gladly make.

The somewhat inconsistent game performances also suggest that developers need to optimize their game for Steam Deck, just like how they do for Switch. The Deck’s current open environment means you can technically download Steam games (or any PC games) that have no business running on the device, like a high-end virtual reality game. Still, with one set of specs to work with across the three Steam Deck models, devs games could also suck every drop of power they can out of the device. Steam Deck can run an okay version of a 2011 Sonic game through brute force, but who knows what wonderful versions of 2022 games (and beyond) that it can run through smart optimization. We shouldn’t have to wait for a Switch Pro or a Steam Deck 2 for next-gen handheld gaming.

Despite being in its earliest stages, Steam Deck is already the most compelling mainstream hardware Valve has ever made, and the most exciting non-Nintendo handheld since people stopped pretending the PlayStation Vita had a future. We have a lot more PC games to play on Steam Deck to get a better sense of what it can do (particularly in battery life, which Valves states is 2-8 hours), but so far it’s looking like the real deal.

Have more Steam Deck questions on topics like the 8-hour battery life and iFixit repair options? Read Steam Deck 101: Everything You Need to Know About Valve’s Handheld Gaming PC.

For more Steam game reviews and previews, check out PCMag's Steam Curator page. And for in-depth video game talk, visit PCMag's Pop-Off YouTube channel.

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