Review: The real star feature of Valve’s Steam Deck is its price tag

The Steam Deck is a useful, versatile piece of gaming equipment with a lot of potential. It’s got its share of rough edges, especially as you start to dive into the weirder fringes of Steam’s software library, but travelers, tinkerers, and newcomers to PC gaming will find a lot to like here.

Valve Software, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., announced the Deck in July as its latest foray into both hardware and its support of gaming on the Linux operating system. The Deck, summarized briefly, is an all-in-one handheld gaming PC that offers high-end performance for a relatively low-end price.

There are a few obvious ways in which the Deck’s overall reach exceeds its grasp. The battery life isn’t great, it’s currently only compatible with a relative fraction of the games in Steam’s massive library, and I’ve had a few problems with its controls over the time I’ve spent with it so far.

If you’re a diehard PC player, this isn’t going to replace your desktop or even your laptop, but the Deck brings a lot of interesting utility to the table. Its real value is in its low cost, which can open the world of PC gaming up to a whole new audience.

The tale of the tape

As with everything else at Valve, the Steam Deck went through a lot of prototypes before it settled on the current model. Here are roughly half of them. (Valve Image)

At launch, the Steam Deck comes in three models with three different internal hard drives: a 64GB eMMC ($399), a faster 256GB NVMe SSD ($529), or a top-line 512GB NVMe SSD ($649). All three models also feature a slot for a microSD card for expanded storage, which is mandatory for the cheapest brand of Deck and a solid quality-of-life bonus for the 512GB.

The 512GB model also has special anti-glare etched glass on its front screen, but the three types of Deck are otherwise identical. Each Deck features 16 GB of RAM, a custom AMD processor with a Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz CPU, and a 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz GPU.

“If you’re looking to break into PC gaming for an incredibly low introductory price, however, the Steam Deck might be the single best deal that anyone’s ever offered.”

TLDR: the Deck is very powerful for its price. In my tests using the 256GB edition, I was able to run Doom Eternal, one of the most demanding games in my Steam library, at 60 FPS without any issues, on a portable device. This is borderline alchemy.

To get games on your Deck, you download them wirelessly from your library on the Steam storefront. Your Deck treats your Steam games as if they’re all part of what the Steam desktop client calls a Dynamic Collection, with a big suite of custom filters that let you organize and sort your games by playtime, achievement completion, file size, and so on.

You can play those games directly on the Deck with its two analog sticks, four face buttons, four assignable buttons on the unit’s grips, two analog triggers, two “bumpers,” and two 32.5mm square trackpads with haptic feedback. The action takes place on a 7-inch touchscreen built into the center of the Deck.

The hardware is, admittedly, crowded, and you’re going to want to rework some keybindings sooner or later, but it all works better than I expected it would.

If you’re used to playing something like a Switch in its portable mode, or even on a medium-size tablet, the Deck is bigger but of comparable weight. I put the unit through its paces with a few games from my backlog like Hades and Hollow Knight, and it felt comfortable and responsive over the course of several hours of play.

For comparison’s sake. Top: the Nintendo Switch’s Lite model. Middle: the “version 2,” standard-model Switch. Bottom: a launch-day Steam Deck. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde)

Verified but incompatible

The biggest issue I had with the Deck, in fact, is simply that many PC games aren’t meant to be played on a 7-inch screen. Hades, for example, was tricky; the combat worked fine, but I had to lean in towards the Deck to make out finer details like icons or items.

Along the same lines, Doom Eternal ran like a dream, but much of its onscreen text was difficult to read. I’d already tried The Ascent on the Deck last year, which still runs just fine, but it’s designed with such a zoomed-out omniscient perspective that the Deck’s screen makes it look like a violent, interactive Monet painting.

Yeah, maybe don’t believe all the hype. (Steam Deck UI screenshot)

This was always going to be the Deck’s overall Achilles’ heel. Right now, Valve is working its way through the Steam game library as part of its Deck Verified program, and will gradually label every title on Steam, all 100,000 of them or so, with icons indicating their relative compatibility with the Deck. At launch, roughly 300 games have been labeled as fully Verified, with roughly as many listed as Playable but flawed in some way.

I did ask a designer at Valve about why these particular games ended up being among the first to be tested on the Deck. According to him, the currently Verified games are those which were being played by the people who initially reserved a Steam Deck, and which were of particular interest to the overall Steam community.

There are a few real surprises on the Verified list right now, like a couple of niche indie projects getting Verified before big AAA games like the 2020 Resident Evil 3 remake, but it’s apparently all down to consumer interest.

That Verified label just means a game will run on the Deck, however, and says nothing about the quality of the overall experience. Trying to play Pillars of Eternity on the Deck, for example, was frustrating right from the start, as it requires you to use the tiny right trackpad as a small, imprecise mouse pointer. That turned the character creator into a bad point-and-click adventure game.

Usually you have to do a little work to get your Steam backlog to outright taunt you like this. (Steam Deck UI screenshot)

Several other games simply refused to run on my Deck, or were unplayable once they did. The Deck, like Valve’s Steam Machine before it, uses a custom operating system based on Linux, with a special Proton compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run. As such, getting games to work on the Deck is potentially doomed to be handled on a case-by-case basis, either by Valve itself or a particular game’s mod community.

Conversely, there were plenty of games that worked fine on the Deck. Hollow Knight ran nearly perfectly, as did SNK’s classic King of Fighters 2002, Lucas Pope’s indie mystery Return of the Obra Dinn, the indie detective game Disco Elysium, and the 2013 shooter Shadow Warrior.

For every game I tried on the Deck that didn’t work or didn’t play well on the hardware, I was able to find another that worked right from the start. Even so, buyer beware: just because your favorite game is listed as Verified or Playable doesn’t mean that you’re going to enjoy the experience on a Deck.

Fight club

The Steam Deck, out of the box, has Bluetooth compatibility and a single USB-C port. In order to hook any other kind of wired peripheral up to the system, you need to use a compatible powered USB-C hub.

I made sure to grab one, as one of the things I really wanted to test with the Deck was how it handled an assortment of arcade sticks and similar peripherals. My buddies and I regularly get together to play games like Street Fighter V and the recently-released King of Fighters XV, and many of them bring weird custom hardware for that purpose.

With a USB-C hub, I found I could hook any wired controller, even some of the weirder ones, up to the Steam Deck without a problem. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde)

Once I figured out how to hook it up, I found the Deck was able to handle whatever USB peripheral I could throw at it with no difficulty to speak of, ranging from hand-built arcade joysticks to Hitboxes to my Hori Fighting Commander for Xbox (above).

It did present some initial difficulty, as the Deck is set up to treat its own controls as Player 1 regardless of what is or isn’t plugged into it. After a bit of experimentation, I was able to figure out how to change that in one of the more obscure menus, although it liked to change itself back without warning.

I figured that the Steam Deck would come equipped to handle obscure peripherals, since one of the earliest promotional shots Valve put out specifically featured a Hitbox controller (below), but it was nice to get some independent confirmation. It bodes well for other game genres that have their own weird controller options, like flight sims or realistic racers.

They were signaling to a very specific audience with this promo shot, and I am in that audience. (Valve Image)

The Deck itself, however, wasn’t able to handle fighting games with quite as much grace. Playing KOFXV, I often found myself missing inputs with the Deck’s left analog stick. This also turned out to be an issue with other games I tested with similar controls, like Shadow Warrior.

The Deck’s controls are comfortable, but they aren’t necessarily very precise, and that’s another factor that can affect the overall experience. I’m sure that 90% of the players on Deck will never notice something like this, but it’s going to play a role.

To be continued

You know that “running first-time setup” window that Steam opens on desktop whenever you initially launch a game? This is what it looks like on the Deck. (Steam Deck UI image)

To some extent, this is a review in progress. Valve was working on the Steam Deck’s OS and software throughout my time with the system, sometimes to the point of shipping multiple patches in a single day. Many of my initial issues with the Deck, like a weird framerate bug that made KOFXV play like it was underwater, got fixed in the first week I had it.

Along those lines, one of the Deck’s biggest problems at the moment is its desktop functionality. As advertised, you can use Bluetooth or a USB-C hub to hook a monitor, mouse, and keyboard up to a Steam Deck, then switch its OS to a desktop model and install any other programs you like. It’s not just a game system; it’s also a pocket-sized workstation, if you want it to be.

This is a seriously useful feature on paper, but at time of writing, it doesn’t seem to work well or consistently, especially if you then try to run a game off the desktop. This already works a lot better than it used to, however, and I’m sure Valve isn’t done with it yet.

The desktop option isn’t being discussed as much as it should be. As I’ve touched on before, a lot of the coverage of the Steam Deck is heavily focused on its visual similarity to the Nintendo Switch, with the attached implication that the Deck is a direct competitor thereof.

This is an overall mistake. For one thing, the Switch came out almost five years ago and has sold over 103 million units. Now is not the time for anyone, even a company like Valve, to try to shoulder-check its way into that end of the video game market.

For another, I’d argue that the real marquee feature of the Steam Deck isn’t its portability, but its price point. It’s got the MSRP of a decent Chromebook, but delivers performance like a top-end gaming PC, including the ability to install and run any number of non-gaming apps.

With Bluetooth or a wired hub, your Steam Deck can become the center of a Linux desktop. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde)

That’s the subtle genius of the Steam Deck. If you’re already heavily invested in Steam, with a computer at home that can run your games and maybe a laptop you can take on the road with you, you don’t really need the Deck. This goes double if you enjoy the kinds of PC games, like grand strategy (Stellaris) or isometric dungeon crawlers (The Ascent) that don’t translate well to the Deck’s small screen.

Of course, the exception here is if you intend to use the Deck for homebrew programming. From the start, Valve has signaled to its audience that it’s just fine with whatever its customers choose to do with the Steam Deck’s hardware. If you’re looking to wipe the Deck’s hard drive and turn it into a multimedia library or emulation machine, you’ve got tacit approval from on high, and that’s frankly irresistible.

If you’re looking to break into PC gaming for an incredibly low introductory price, however, the Steam Deck might be the single best deal that anyone’s ever offered.

On its own, it’s a comfortable-if-flawed gaming device with a lot of good to great games, but its price and its desktop options really push it over the edge here. You may not need a Steam Deck, but you probably know a college student or newbie gamer who could use one. 

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