One of our plucky team managed to get their pre-orders in and now they are here to give you their verdict after two months with the Steam Deck (64GB model). That’s right, the chonky beast boy has been in our hands and after a couple of months of rigorous play, we thought we’d share our opinions. For transparency, this review is based on the reviewers personal opinions and the unit was purchased by them. We have no affiliation with Valve.
Before we get into the review proper, let’s recap on what the Steam Deck is. To sum it up, the Steam Deck is a handheld gaming PC that is advertised as being capable of playing most of your Steam library up to, and including, some of the latest AAA PC games. It comes with Steam OS out of the box, but as a PC, can be booted with whatever you want to try. Technically, it could run Windows if you so desired.
There are 3 editions which we have listed below but the key difference is the onboard storage and screen coatings. We’ve included the 3 below. The Steam Deck was formally launched in Feb 2022 but even with a queue system in place, supply is limited and Valve are still trying to backfill pre-orders from the first day or pre-ordering. If you want one now, the current queue system extends to October. With the global chip shortage, this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. So let’s get into it.
Can you predict a good hardware at launch?
Hardware reviews at launch are hard nowadays. Because of constant updates and software catalogs, the launch of any new console or platform doesn’t mean you are able to see what the device will become. Will it have any failures down the line? I mean, look at Joycon drift on the Nintendo Switch. Will the UI and OS be improved and become more feature rich? What games will be released?
The Steam Deck is no different, although it handily solves some of the traditional console launch issues. It plays Steam games so you already have a relatively large library (more on that later). Replacement parts should also be less of an issue as the hardware can have most components replaced. Follow any Steam Deck groups online and you’ll see people already replacing and modding the hardware like mad.
Still, we decided not to rush out a review and instead concentrate on what we think is the most important for people considering the handheld. Firstly, what is it like to game on and secondly, a bigger question. Who is this device for and what would your use case be?
The Steam Deck… an interesting experiment.
Because the Steam Deck is an interesting experiment. It’s an attempt by Valve to appeal to existing PC gamers and possibly entice some new ones in by concentrating on what Valve feels make PC gaming special. Openness and flexibility (though preferably, by buying games from them).
Before we get into the innards and so on, let’s talk about unboxing and the actual unit. The box itself was fairly plain but out the gate the Steam Deck comes in a high quality case that is hard and protects the device very well. Which is important because we can’t emphasize enough that this device is MASSIVE. How to compare? Well we guess the nearest competitor in the popular device market would be the Nintendo Switch and this dwarfs that by a big old distance. Check it out:
So, from a comfort perspective, does this make it uncomfortable? Well, no not really. It is heavy, weighing in at 669 grams compared to 422 grams for the Switch OLED but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable to play. That’s largely due to the contours on the system. As opposed to the flat Switch, the edges have thick grips that fit comfortably. We actually found extended gaming sessions as comfortable as using a home console controller.
A chonky boi
So the experience is comfortable with one caveat. The size and weight really mean that you need to find a comfortable position. If you are in bed or on the sofa and can get cosy, you’ll be fine. Stuck in a position where you can’t find the right angle and your arms or neck may get stiff. This is sort of the same with many handhelds but the size and weight amplify it here.
The controller quality is great with a sensible layout as well as two programmable rear buttons on the back. Whether you use them is up to you but for a few games, we found them helpful. The buttons feel good, with nice triggers and very nice analog sticks. These are console controller standard.
The big control feature that the Steam Deck has is haptic touchpads on both sides, to help those who want to have the mouse experience. We hated these on the Steam Controller but as the Deck also has twin analog sticks, these actually complement nicely. We used them effortlessly to play some point and click adventures like Procession to Calvary and felt no drawback when compared to a mouse.
To RTS or not to RTS?
Would these be suitable for replacing a mouse in a hectic RTS or even FPS? We’d venture not though with practice you may find them playable. The haptics feel amazing and are a cut above the Steam Controller that always felt a little TOO haptic. Also, it has gyro too but… we aren’t fans of gyro controls in general so we can’t vouch for them either way. The build quality is good but it doesn’t feel incredibly premium in the same way as the Switch OLED does. It has a plastic feel overall.
The Steam Deck ships with Steam OS 3.0 which is a linux based operating system and has a full desktop mode enabled. However, when you boot, you’ll go into the dedicated Steam Deck front end which is really close in feel to their app. You can see your library, installed games, options for the system and a web browser to the store.
Sound and Vision
Let’s talk a bit about the screen – sure the screen is good but not OLED incredible (not that we would expect it to). That said, it’s not the best on the market. It has an odd 1280×800 16×10 resolution with a little light bleed and no variable refresh rates support. Playing in direct sunlight is possible but only with high brightness. Like the build quality feel, it gets the job done but we get the sense this is where Valve made a slight compromise.
The speakers are pretty solid and sound good for a handheld. The volume levels feel nice and we felt that it handled music and sound effects well. The only issue with sound is one we’ll come on to when we talk about cooling later…
Linux and Windows gaming
In theory, your entire Steam library is visible when you turn on the deck and sign in online. The only but is whether the Steam Deck is able to actually run all of your library. You see, as a linux based OS, the Deck uses an API layer called Proton to run Windows based games so that devs don’t have to put out linux versions. This is a smart way of ensuring that devs don’t necessarily NEED to go out of their way to support the console.
That means that Valve, with community and developer support, categorise games as being fully ‘Verified’, ‘Playable’, ‘Unsupported’ and ‘Unknown’. The descriptions are pretty obvious so we won’t labour it but Verified means that Valve are confident it will play on the Steam Deck with no significant issues.
So when we first received our Deck in March, we had a library of about 370 Steam games. Of which 40 were deemed Verified. The rest was fairly evenly split between Playable, Unsupported and Unknown. By the time of writing this, a little over 2 months in, we have over 100 Verified games, far more marked as playable and a far smaller number as Unsupported. Valve are clearly testing games a lot.
In our experience, we had no issues with verified or playable games. You can check what games actually run and why they have been marked that way. There is also nothing to stop you trying out a game that is marked as Unsupported or Unknown. As an example, we downloaded Ender Lillies: Quietus of the Knights, a title marked as unsupported. It played fine for us.
Now, after checking again, it’s a Verified title. We have been really impressed with the effort put into the compatibility of the game library. Of course, if you are buying the Deck for a particular title, we would recommend checking it first. From what we have seen, these tend to be larger multiplayer titles or those with DRM. Halo: Master Chief Collection is one we have noted is not supported.
If you are in it for the games and want to just log in, install and play, the Steam Deck is very very easy. Within an hour of receiving it, we had downloaded a bunch of games and started on Elden Ring. It was great. The saves sync when online so you can quickly pick up and play on your PC without any effort.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, PC Gamer.
This brings us to performance. Valve knows their audience and knows that PC gamers want options. As such, you can tinker with performance on games. For pretty much all indies and AA game titles, you are probably going to be fine out of the box. For more demanding games, you are going to want to tweak settings.
Obviously there are the in game settings, and you can experiment as you would on all the various graphical settings to your heart’s content. At the software level of the device though, you get some handy quick configuration in terms of limiting framerate, defaulting it to 30 FPS for example, reducing refresh rate, the power draw, GPU clock speed as well as FSR 2.0. Fidelity FX Super Resolution 2.0 (or FSR because that is a mouthful) is a way of running games at lower graphical settings then essentially upscaling them to something better in a way that takes less computing power.
Phew – that was a lot to type. As a user of the Steam Deck though, what does this mean? It means that you have a true PC gamer experience. To run modern AAA titles, you are probably going to have to tweak to get the best result. It will make a decent stab at it but you should have a play.
Silky Smooth Elden Ring
As an example, we spent some time fiddling with settings for Elden Ring to get the balance between frames per second and detail. Ultimately we got a silky smooth experience but it looked a lot prettier on our actual PC. Which is fine for us. PC gaming has always been about trade offs unless you have some sort of super rig.
A useful improvement that came up during our time with the Deck is that you can now configure the device per game so you can save your settings at game level. This seems obvious but we were wondering why the Deck couldn’t play the Witcher well until we realized we were using settings for Elden Ring on a game that didn’t need the same limitations applied.
We are PC gamers but we will be honest and say we are not necessarily massive tweakers or hardware nuts. Still, we have had a play around with doing some things like installing emulators for devices (hey, PS3 is even possible on this baby!) and getting Epic or GOG games to work (short answer is you can but you need some workarounds). The opportunity is there for those that want to and it’s quite fun to experiment.
Storage and jet engines
We used the 64GB model with a 500gb Micro SD card in it. It can’t hold everything but we have so far got about 25 titles ranging from large to small with some space to spare. We don’t have a version with built-in storage to compare. They should be faster, but we haven’t noticed load times to be an issue on the smaller model.
Now, we can’t discuss the Steam Deck without highlighting two points. The first is the heat dissipation. You can monitor this but all this hardware generates heat. The device never feels hot but that’s because of the Deck’s active fan cooling. Which is…loud. In fact, playing a graphically demanding title will generate some noise. To the point that we felt we needed headphones on to be able to hear the game and block out the noise.
To be real, this isn’t base PS4 fan noise. The unit isn’t a jet engine taking off but it isn’t silent. Playing it while your significant other is going to sleep may be a no no.
Then we have the battery. The battery is a big 40Whr but, depending on settings, you aren’t getting more than a couple of hours of Elden Ring in on a charge. We managed nearly 3 after tinkering with screen brightness etc. but that was a push. It is compatible with a battery powerbanks but then you are adding to the weight. We get why this is the case because this system is doing a lot but you should be prepared.
So as a handheld, the Steam Deck is impressive, especially at this price point. You can AAA game on the go with your existing library at an entry level cost only slightly higher than that of a Nintendo Switch. It is comfortable, strikes a pretty good balance between plug in and play and PC gaming configuration. It feels incredibly well designed and it is clear, so far, that Valve is putting a lot into supporting the library and updating the system regularly. Which bodes well for the future.
Does this mean you should queue up to buy one? Well, this is the million dollar question and we have to say… it depends? Is the tech cool? Undoubtedly. Will you use it? That depends on you and your use case.
Our personal life means handhelds get a lot of use in our house. With a partner and kids, the TV and PC is often in use by someone. The Switch and other handhelds have been a godsend when the other half falls asleep in front of the latest series of Bridgerton. So for us, being able to continue our PC games away from the PC without needing good wifi for streaming has been great.
Is it portable though? Well herein lies the issue. We recently went for a week away on the train to London. One of the Any Button Gaming team asked if we were taking the Deck with us and the answer was… no.
Firstly, because it was still quite new and we didn’t want to get it stolen given its rarity. The real reason though was that with lots of baggage, it was just too big to comfortably pack and play. It doesn’t slide neatly in a small case that can squeeze in our luggage. It is big to break this out on the train and needs a comfortable position to play.
Lastly, the battery life means that you are going to need to charge it a lot. Instead, we took the Switch OLED with us. With an average life of 5 hours plus, a smaller profile and better screen for lighting etc. it just made more sense.
Two months with the Steam Deck
If you are someone who plays games predominantly on PC but wants some flexibility on where you play or perhaps spend time away from home with space to pack, we think the Steam Deck is a fantastic option and will suit you more than a Switch.
If you have a Switch though, and find it gathers dust, then you probably aren’t really in the market for a device like this. It is a portable that isn’t very portable or suitable for commuting. As impressive as it is, it doesn’t feel quite as essential as Nintendo’s console when that launched.
So that’s our view after two months with the Steam Deck. If the above sounds good to you then you are the right demographic then pull the trigger and get in the pre-order queue. If not, maybe wait for a future revision.
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- Overall - 9/109/10
+ Your Steam Library on the go in a simple UI + Comfortable in the hand +Amazing to play AAA games in bed!
– Not particularly portable – Fan is loud and battery life can be problematic – Need to understand your use case for investing
Rudy Manchego has been gaming since the days of the BBC Micro Computer and spreads himself thin with a love of retro, indie and mainstream gaming. He’s one half of the Jambags Comedy Gaming podcast and likes nothing better than kicking back with a nice pot of lapsang souchong, a good game and a background podcast on the intricacies of Spanish cheese making.