I’VE BEEN PLAYING PC GAMES SINCE I WAS A CHILD, and I remember playing SkiFree on my mother’s computer when I was too ill to attend to school. Since then, I’ve built a sizable library of titles on Steam, Valve’s platform; it’s how most people play games on their PCs. (Valve is also the designer of popular games such as Half-Life and Portal.) When Valve revealed the Steam Deck last year, a tiny portable gaming machine that allows you to play PC games anywhere, I was interested. It may be the motivation I need to work through my ever-growing Steam backlog.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been using the Steam Deck to play AAA and indie games on my sofa, in bed, while sitting in an office chair, in my vehicle, in a café, and on a plane. Some of my first concerns about the device were confirmed: it’s big, and the control arrangement isn’t very ergonomic, both of which are undesirable qualities on a portable console.
Valve could’ve also utilised a few additional weeks (months?) to fine-tune the software experience. (The Deck was meant to be released in December, so it has already been postponed.) It’s hardly unexpected that this console has been in development for four years, despite a pandemic, so there are some last-minute snags to iron out. However, Valve has published system upgrades every single day since I received it, which means I’ve had to retest various functionality several times. After launch, Valve claims it would continue to provide frequent updates to address issues.
That is both a good and a negative thing. It indicates that the programme requires more work, but it also demonstrates Valve’s dedication to the Steam Deck. I’m delighted to see that since this product has a lot of promise.
I received the top-tier Steam Deck, which costs $649 and contains a 512-gigabyte solid-state drive. The Deck is available for as cheap as $399, but it only has 64 GB of storage. Given that AAA games are often 50 to 70 GB in size, if not more, you’ll want to at least get the 256-GB edition ($529).
Having saying that, the MicroSD card slot is by far my favourite feature. Once correctly formatted, you may hot-swap in MicroSDs to hop in and play a new game, thereby giving the Deck a lot more capacity. I bought a 1-terabyte SanDisk Ultra MicroSD card, which can carry all 41 titles I planned to download, including Mass Effect Legendary Edition (110 GB), ARK: Survival Evolved (101 GB), Destiny 2 (74 GB), Cyberpunk 2077 (67 GB), and Death Stranding (67 GB) (64 GB).
The load speed difference between the internal SSD and the MicroSD is negligible—Death Stranding loaded in roughly 19 seconds on the SSD and 30 seconds on the MicroSD, though this varies. So far, I haven’t observed any significant differences. I have tested it with 32-GB and 256-GB SanDisk Extreme MicroSD cards and got the same results. If you’re concerned about Valve’s limited storage options, MicroSD cards can help.
This Steam Deck is large, but neither as heavy or as difficult to carry as I had anticipated. It weights 672 grammes, compared to 436 grammes for the Nintendo Switch OLED and 174 grammes for the iPhone 13. The majority of this weight is distributed on either side of the console, which is curved at the rear to fit more securely in your hands. It’s strange to carry such a big handheld (12 inches compared to the Switch’s 9-inch length), but you get accustomed to it. Literally. My right hand got numb the first time I played for an hour straight. I now incorporate a couple pauses and stretch my hands out on a daily basis, and it hasn’t happened since.
The placement of the buttons was my main worry, especially because you couldn’t detach the controllers as you can with the Switch. Unlike conventional controllers, which place the buttons and thumb sticks on a diagonal to alleviate strain, the Deck’s D-pad and ABXY buttons are placed horizontally adjacent to their respective thumb sticks. They’re elevated to allow for two trackpads on each side of the console. There are also shoulder triggers and paddles on the rear of the system, which feel wonderful and remind me of the Xbox Elite controller.
I had no issues with the buttons or D-pad, and moving between them and the thumb stick was simple. My thumbs did struggle to reach the thumb sticks themselves. When it comes to trackpads, I found myself relying on the touchscreen a lot more (particularly for password entry), since they may be tough to use when attempting to click on anything small.
The kickstand on the Switch has spoilt me—there is no built-in kickstand here. So, if you want to attach third-party Bluetooth controllers to the system, you’ll need to buy your own gear to keep the screen propped up. Valve has a dock (seen above) with additional connectors for connecting Ethernet or connecting to your TV, but it is not currently accessible.
Speaking of the Switch, because its charging connection is on the bottom, it’s difficult to charge while also keeping it upright. The Steam Deck is dealing with a separate issue. The USB-C charging connector is located off-center on the top, and the cord frequently gets in the way, obstructing my access to the paddles and ABXY buttons. It’s a little bothersome, so you’ll need to orient yourself differently depending on where your outlet is (unless you use a portable battery).
Connecting the Deck to an external device is simple if it has a USB-C cable or Bluetooth; otherwise, an adapter is required. For example, I was able to connect my Xbox controller without issue, but I needed to purchase a USB-C to HDMI adaptor in order to connect the console to my 4K TV and computer monitor. (It functioned flawlessly with both.)
The Deck will operate at the resolution of the external monitor, however Valve claims “Some work need to be done in order for the Steam Deck UI to elegantly accommodate resolution changes.” As Death Stranding created black bars on all four sides of my TV, I became aware of this. The visuals, which look amazing in handheld mode, don’t appear as sharp on the big screen, and there aren’t any choices to change the graphical settings.
The Deck became hot on the top edge where the fan is after an hour or so of uninterrupted play, but because you never have to touch this region, it’s not a big deal. In terms of noise, it’s a touch quieter than a MacBook under stress (not the new fan-less Macs), albeit it varies on the game. Death Stranding caused those enthusiasts to scream even louder than Townscaper.
That takes us to one of the Steam Deck’s major flaws: battery life. It’s a race against time to run it on the 40-watt-hour battery. An hour of Subnautica and Death Stranding play led the Deck to lose 10% every 10 minutes. This happened while it was in aeroplane mode, with the volume set to 50% and the screen brightness set to 25%. You’ll probably get around an hour and 40 minutes of gameplay before the device dies. This is not ideal for a portable gaming gadget designed to be used on the go.
The Steam Deck’s next major problem has been its operating system. The good news is that it is fixable, and Valve is working on it. Several of the issues I encountered have already been addressed, but given the sheer amount of bugs I’ve encountered, there’s a high possibility you’ll encounter your fair share as well.
After six days with the Deck, it became stuck in a starting problem cycle, necessitating a full factory reset. I didn’t have the necessary attachments, so I purchased a USB stick and a USB-C hub to connect the drive and a keyboard to the Deck. I had to use my computer to build a bootable flash drive with the recovery image. This procedure took around 15 minutes (excluding the time I had to wait for those accessories to arrive). Valve developers told me that this is a rare problem that has already been repaired; but, if it occurs again, Valve claims it is working on a “smoother, more user-friendly approach for re-imaging” to address it.
Using the Steam Deck in desktop mode also necessitates some technological know-how. This is helpful since it allows you to run games that require third-party launchers that are not accessible on Linux, such as Blizzard’s launcher, Microsoft’s Game Pass for PC, and EA’s Origin, but you must first install Windows. You’ll need a bootable disc or MicroSD with Windows on it, as well as a keyboard to connect to the Deck, for this. For someone who isn’t familiar with Linux or creating bootable discs, the entire procedure might be intimidating.
Gaming on a Portable PC
The LCD screen’s resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels is adequate. It’s no Switch OLED, but it gets rather bright, so I usually leave it on low. PC games, on the other hand, are meant for huge displays, often 13 inches or more. Changing to a 7-inch screen may not always result in the optimal experience. The transition from keyboard and mouse controls to the D-pad, ABXY buttons, trackpads, thumb sticks, triggers, grip buttons, gyro, and touchscreen may all seem clumsy and overwhelming.
The advantage is that you may remap the controls to your liking or use an external device, such as Xbox’s Adaptive controller, if the present controls or layout don’t seem right. People with visual accessibility impairments, on the other hand, may have difficulty seeing small language on the Deck. Because I’m little nearsighted, I had difficulty spotting certain marks in Death Stranding.
Although you have access to the more than 60,000 titles in Steam’s marketplace, many games will not function optimally on the Steam Deck for some time. Valve offers a Deck Verified initiative to assist gamers in finding optimum games. This is simply a marking given by Valve after playing a game on the Deck. There are four indicators: It has been verified, which implies that it “functions perfectly on Steam Deck straight out of the box.” “‘; Playable, with some aspects working and others that may need to be tweaked to make it playable; Unsupported, which implies the game is presently “not functional” on the Deck; and Unknown, which means Valve has yet to test the game’s Deck compatibility. At the moment, the majority of games fall into the latter type.
I’ve played games in the Verified, Playable, and Unknown categories, and my experience is consistent with Valve’s warnings. For example, a game may not instantly bring up the touchscreen keyboard for text inputs. This occurred in Timberborn, which is classified as Playable with the warning, “Entering certain text involves manually launching the on-screen keyboard.” Don’t let the Unknown category deter you from attempting a game, especially if you already possess it, since it may play rather nicely, as Temtem did. Verified games have the appearance and feel of desktop PC games, and the controls are often easy.
What is one really fantastic aspect that I adore? Play continues. It allows you to start a game on your PC, save it, and then switch to the Deck if you want to sit on the sofa. It was great joy going back into games I hadn’t played in years and picking up where I left off. Unfortunately, developers must support this Steam Cloud function, so you may have to wait for it to work.
Is it worthwhile?
It’s incredible to be able to play games from my Steam collection almost anywhere. I also enjoy that several of the Steam Deck’s components, such as the thumb stick and the SSD, are repairable or interchangeable. Valve believes you should not open the machine, but you have the option.
Still, it’s difficult to suggest the Steam Deck in its present condition, especially if you’re not a die-hard gamer, have visual accessibility concerns, or are concerned about straining your hands and don’t want to spend extra money on a second controller. There’s a lot to admire, but it has the feel of an early-access game. However, if you order it now, your projected ship date is between April and June, so things may have changed by then.
Gabe Newell, Valve’s cofounder and president, assures me that the company would take consumer input and use cases into account for future upgrades and revisions. And here’s the thing: Throughout my interactions with Newell and the developers, I kept hearing the phrase “future generations,” as though a second-generation Steam Deck wasn’t far off.
I’ve played a number of games from my backlog in recent weeks simply because I’m no longer bound to my gaming PC. The experience hasn’t been as smooth as I’d want, but in six months to a year, the operating system may be in an entirely different condition. Alternatively, you could simply wait for the eventual Steam Deck V2.