Steam Deck review – a buggy but brilliant handheld gaming PC
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  • 02/05/2022
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Steam Deck review – a buggy but brilliant handheld gaming PC

27/02/2022 We’ve added further clarifications since the review was first published, including that the Steam Deck’s desktop mode uses KDE Plasma.

We’ve come a long way from the days of 8-bit games and screens with no backlight, as the Steam Deck reinvents everything you know about handheld gaming. It’s not the first of its kind, nor is it the most powerful portable gaming PC out there, but Valve’s software-first approach and staggeringly low starting price puts it in a class of its own.

There’s nothing quite like the Steam Deck on the market. It carries the same hybrid magic as the Nintendo Switch while marrying it with the versatility of an entry-level gaming PC. Backed by the overwhelming size of the Steam catalogue, no device has ever launched with such a wide array of games to choose from. Valve’s even sifting through them all to ensure they’re compatible with the device, and you shouldn’t be afraid to dive into unverified titles – most I tried worked with the combination of trackpads and intuitive controller customisation.

But you shouldn’t get sucked into the vortex of potential and promises. The Steam Deck is not yet a finished product, and it’ll take more polish for it to join the ranks of historical hall of famers like the Game Boy.

Valve very kindly lent me a 256GB Steam Deck to test, but there are three models to choose from. The main difference is the size and type of storage available, which won’t matter too much if you plan on popping the best SSD of your own in there. The top-tier version also includes an anti-glare coating on the screen, and although I can’t say whether it’s worth it since I’ve not tried it myself, it might well be with how the test model handles harsher lights (see for yourself).

All models include a robust carry case and a charging cable. Mine didn’t come with the correct plug and I had no adapters on-hand, so I’m happy to report that USB Type-C laptop chargers work just fine to juice it up.

Steam Deck hardware

The Steam Deck is an absolute chonk. It’s noticeably bigger than the Nintendo Switch, and at 669g, it’s almost twice as heavy. I didn’t really notice the difference considering the weight distribution is wonderfully even. You might feel it more the longer you play, but you’re likely to contend with diminishing battery life before fatigue.

Valve casts a wide net claiming that the battery can last between two to eight hours when locking things to 30fps and medium settings, and it’s largely on the money from my limited tests. It’s pretty difficult to hit that ceiling, mind you, and both uncapped frame rates and higher settings can see the Deck run out of steam in 90 minutes or less.

The more you put into setting up the Steam Deck per game, the more you get out of it, but it sometimes takes more elbow grease than your average gaming PC and more forgiveness than you’d usually grant. It’s best to keep the charger or a power bank within arm’s reach when travelling and religiously plug it in overnight so you’re not caught short on your next trip.

I personally find the Steam Deck a little bulbous compared to the Aya Neo, but it’s more function over form. Your mileage may vary depending on the size of your hands, but my medium paws are an ideal fit for the grips, as all buttons sit within reach. It’s designed this way not only for comfort, but so your hands never heat up from the AMD APU and 16GB of RAM below.

There are four macro buttons on the back, which double up as A, B, X, and Y by default so you never have to move your thumbs from the analogue sticks. And if you don’t like that, there’s a staggering amount of controller customisation so you can map these as entirely new keys for button-heavy games. The possibilities are endless, considering Steam Controller users have already submitted a wealth of configurations you can choose from and you can submit your own.

Valve's trackpads make the Steam Deck a joy to use, both in-game and out

It’s difficult to call the Steam Controller a failure when trackpads are one of the most welcome features on the Deck. They give subtle vibrations as you drag your thumb and are significantly more precise than navigating operating systems via touchscreen – which is the only option you have on alternative devices. Unfortunately, this is the only place where Valve gets the rumble right.

Haptic feedback is so weak in-game that the moments it tries to punctuate fall flat. Now, I’m not advocating for a device that’s only supported by my two hands to start flailing like a fish out of water, but I would like to see the Steam Deck 2 give a little more oomph. Valve simply needs to look at the best PC controllers for inspiration, as Xbox, PlayStation, and Razer have it nailed.

A 1,280 x 800p resolution and 60Hz refresh rate might sound tiny compared to your average gaming monitor, but it’s perfect for a 7-inch screen. It makes prioritising the battery life that much easier because it’s largely difficult to notice the details lost when cranking the settings down. Valve’s tuned the brightness perfectly, going so low as to not blind you of a night time and just high enough to combat most outdoor reflections short of the sun itself – in these instances, the top-tier model might fare better.

Steam Deck software

Although you’ll eventually have the option to install Windows, I was unable to test this as Valve still needs to release compatible GPU drivers. That said, ditching Microsoft’s operating system is a blessing.

Steam Deck review – a buggy but brilliant handheld gaming PC

Windows 10 makes the Aya Neo feel clunky since the user interface isn’t designed to navigate with a controller and there’s nothing worse than accidentally booting the wrong app with an errant fat-finger. Valve’s Proton compatibility layer is still very much in-development and comes with several hiccups, but its separate handheld and desktop modes make it easy to use in most situations.

The handheld mode that greets you runs on SteamOS, which will be somewhat familiar if you’ve ever used Big Picture. It uses Valve’s Proton compatibility layer (built on top of Wine) and gives you the store, your library, downloads, and everything Steam at the tip of your fingers. I can’t overstate how simple it is to zip from one page to another, or use apps simultaneously as you suspend your game and hop into Spotify or Discord.

You need to learn shortcuts, but handheld mode makes navigation fun

There are a couple of shortcuts you need to learn, such as ‘Steam + X’ to bring up the on-screen keyboard, ‘Steam + R1’ to take a screenshot, and holding the power button to access desktop mode, but Valve gives you all the tools you need. You can even download Chrome with a single click, where you can access Netflix or browse the web.

It’s not without its bugs, though. Valve deserves credit for the sheer amount of patches it pushed during the test period – there were so many, I actually lost count. But most updates seemed like two steps forward and one step backwards, introducing new functionality while breaking others.

WiFi connections became inconsistent and wouldn’t reconnect automatically, text fields became unresponsive to the on-screen keyboard, and most bugs seemed to occur right after resuming from sleep mode. These all eased up after a restart, but this closes your suspended games so you can’t pick up right where you left off. Valve’s investigating any and all reports, but there’s no time frame when a fix might be on the way.

Desktop mode opens up KDE Plasma, a version of Linux that closely resembles Windows. It’s familiar layout makes it comfortable to use and aims to do everything a gaming PC can, but there’s still a learning curve if you’ve never ventured into Linux before.

‘Discover’ is your best friend here, with plenty of programs bundled into ‘flatpaks’, which you can install with a single click. All the usual suspects are here, including Spotify, Discord, and several emulators. The Heroic Games Launcher is working on a flatpak so you can easily access your Epic Games Store and GOG collection, but you’ll need to install the appimage from Github until this is ready.

It’s not quite as refined as its handheld counterpart and there’s no guarantee how well things will get along with the Deck’s form factor. On one hand, I can play Eastward easily enough through Epic Games via Heroic, but it doesn’t let me add it into my non-Steam library. Axiom Verge 2, on the other, doesn’t even boot.

Don't consider the Steam Deck as a gaming PC replacement, even with a mouse and keyboard

Desktop mode benefits from hooking the Steam Deck up to a gaming mouse and keyboard, which requires a dock. Valve’s official dock is on its way, but the developers assure me that any USB Type-C hub will do the trick and shouldn’t brick your device like the Nintendo Switch once suffered from. Still, I didn’t have one available, so I rose to the challenge of using desktop mode with the handheld controls – spoiler alert, it’s not that fun.

You can easily use the right trackpad to navigate the cursor and R2 to left click, but you’ll have to source your own on-screen keyboard since SteamOS’s shortcuts don’t work here. Fortunately, CoreKeyboard is a couple of clicks away in Discover, but it makes me miss the dedicated keyboard button on the Aya Neo – which incidentally isn’t on the latest Ayaneo Next for some reason.

We’re told that desktop mode will improve given time. It’s very likely that Epic Games is mulling over a better solution, Xbox might consider Game Pass for the Deck, and Netflix could eventually release a Linux app so you can download your shows rather than needing a broadband connection. The reality, however, is that none of this exists yet, and the Steam Deck is not a replacement for your desktop gaming PC.

Steam Deck games

The Steam Deck is a fantastic alternative to the Nintendo Switch given it hits up to 60fps, and in some cases could replace your gaming laptop if its only purpose is to play games on-the-go. There’s no doubt that the device fares better with oldies and indies than your latest triple A affair, but the fact I can take former PlayStation exclusives like Horizon Zero Dawn with me on a train – and they look almost as good as they do on PS4 – still boggles my mind.

Valve’s verification system goes a long way towards giving the Deck a similar plug-and-play experience as consoles. A green Verified badge for games that work best, yellow Playable emblem for games that might lack superfluous functions, a grey question mark for untested titles, and a red symbol for those that are outright incompatible. It’s even transparent enough to tell you why a game’s earned a certain certificate.

Valve's verification is good, but don't be afraid to jump into the unknown

I’m fortunate enough that nearly 25% of my library is already Verified or Playable, but Valve has barely scratched 2% of its 65,000 back catalogue, so you shouldn’t be afraid to break away from the mould. The first game I tried was Inscryption before it was certified as Playable. While it doesn’t have native controller support, the Steam Deck automatically adopted a mouse and keyboard layout, activating the right trackpad and changing the left analogue stick to W, A, S, and D. I enjoyed it so much, I never went back to the desktop version.

PC gamers have always tussled with the right settings for games, and with battery life now hanging in the balance, this becomes even more important. Keen to get you spending more time playing games rather than sitting in the settings menu, Valve lets you lock the system to 30fps at the click of two buttons, which is a quick and easy way to lengthen the amount of time you can play. This is probably going to be mandatory for new games like Elden Ring, but the choice is in your hands if you’d rather crank up the details instead.

Be prepared for the fan to whirr at full blast if you plan on pushing the Steam Deck to its limits, though, which could bother those around you. Relatively speaking, I don’t think it’s all that loud, but I might be jaded by the time spent next to different desktops.

Is the Steam Deck worth it?

When the Steam Deck works, it’s the most innovative device I’ve ever tested. It’s helped broaden the variety of games I play beyond Rainbow Six Siege, not just because Battleye isn’t compatible at the time of writing and I don’t like the idea of playing my favourite FPS game with a controller, but because Valve’s crafted a device with so much potential I can barely put it down even when I’m sitting in my gaming chair.

It doesn’t quite fulfil its promise of being a fully-fledged gaming PC, however. You can’t yet install Windows, other libraries from Epic Games Store and GOG are a pain to access, and there are so many bugs that I wouldn’t blame the average user if they tried to return it.

The Steam Deck is a work-in-progress that Valve released before it’s fully ready, and the developers say they’re committed to shaping the device up post-launch. I’m inclined to believe them with the effort I’ve seen so far, but it’s difficult to fully endorse a product on what might come in a future patch at some point.

At the very least, there’s no harm in joining the queue given that Valve’s backed up with half a year’s worth of pre-orders. You can always review how far the Steam Deck has come before you submit your payment, and I’ll admit that even with the current pitfalls, it might be too competitively priced to pass up the opportunity.

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