Valve’s Steam Deck Is A Glorious But Unfinished Dream Console

Valve’s Steam Deck Is A Glorious But Unfinished Dream Console

It’s not every day that I get to review a device so unique that it could revolutionise mobile gaming. But here it is, straight from the dreams of dedicated PC gamers who have long yearned for a handheld console. Valve’s Steam Deck is exactly that — a portable device ergonomically similar to the Nintendo Switch that is capable of playing PC games.

If you’re wondering why now, that is partly because the technology to shrink a gaming PC into a handheld console hasn’t existed. I’ve played dozens of hours on the Steam Deck and can say with some certainty that the necessary tech has arrived. Using a powerful yet efficient AMD chip combined with super-fast RAM, the Steam Deck delicately balances performance, thermals, and battery life to deliver a satisfying gaming experience with minimal compromises.

But it isn’t just a console: it’s a full-blown computer with a desktop mode that lets you browse the web, stream music, and watch videos. It supports various inputs, can connect to your TV or monitor, and will soon pair with a dock that effectively turns it into a home console.

Even after spending several weeks with the device, it still feels as if I’ve only scratched the surface of its potential. For now, much of that potential is untapped. Most of your favourite games won’t run properly — or at all — and the software is still very much a work in progress, but despite what might sound like deal-breaking issues, what Valve has achieved is undeniably impressive. So impressive that this once-sceptic is a full believer.

The Valve Steam Deck isn’t available in Australia yet, so this review is based on our U.S. writer’s experience. If you want to perform some wizardry and get yourself a console from down under, we’ve got a guide that could help. Before converting costs, it might help to check this article out, too. Anyway, let’s just all be jealous together as we read on.

Valve Steam Deck

WHAT IS IT?

A handheld PC gaming console that plays Steam games

PRICE

$US399 for 64GB eMMC, $US529 for 256GB SSD, $US649 for 512GB SSD

PROS

Hundreds of verified games (see cons), runs most games at 30fps on medium settings (at 720p), good display, it’s a computer with a desktop mode, expandable storage, easily repairable, (most) buttons feel great

CONS

Many popular games aren’t compatible at launch, software bugs, Short battery life, it is big and a tad heavy, runs warm, can get loud

Valve Steam Deck: What is it?

There’s a lot going on here so let’s go over some of the basics: the Steam Deck is a 7.0-inch handheld game console that plays Steam games. It’s powered by an AMD chip and uses a Proton compatibility layer to allow for Windows games to run on Linux. On that point, Valve’s handheld uses a modified version of SteamOS 3.0 based on Arch Linux, a distro the company chose because it allows for rapid updates.

Because games run natively, the Steam Deck works offline. Valve has no plans of adding 5G or LTE configurations, so you will need a mobile hotspot for online gaming when you’re away from home. When you’re connected, the Steam Deck will automatically save your game progress to the cloud so it carries over to your PC or another Steam device. Much like the Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck can transform from a portable console into a stationary one when connected to the official dock (arriving in late spring) or a USB-C dock with HDMI-out.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

With the official dock, it gains ports for connecting to an external display (monitor, TV), peripherals (mouse/keyboard), and Ethernet. Alternatively, you can pair the portable device to a phone, tablet, monitor, or TV wirelessly using Steam Link and stream your gameplay onto a larger screen or even smaller format.

Another trick is for the Steam Deck to transform into a full-blown Linux machine with a desktop interface. After all, that’s what this is: the heart of a computer in the body of a portable console. In desktop mode, the handheld console can be used to browse the web, launch non-Steam games, and even run apps.

Steam Link pricing and models

Not all Steam Deck consoles are alike. The cheapest version costs $US399 and comes with 64GB of eMMC storage, the mid-tier model Valve sent me goes for $US529 and has a 256GB NVMe SSD, and there is a $US649 version with a 512GB NVMe SSD. Before you spend top-dollar, all three models come with an SDXC-compatible microSD card slot for expandable storage, and you can theoretically swap the SSDs, though Valve doesn’t recommend it (unless you really know what you’re doing).

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Since games are downloaded directly onto the device, the 64GB version might not be the best option. Not only does it have slower storage speeds (NVMe is faster than eMMC) than the others, but you’ll eventually be forced to buy an SD card anyway. You won’t be able to play many AAA games, like God of War (64.5GB), NBA 2K22 (115GB), and Hitman III (60GB), even without anything else downloaded on the console. In fact, I quickly hit my storage limit on the 256GB model and was forced to uninstall games before I could add new ones. If you’re taking the SD card route (which could indeed save you money), be sure to buy a speedy one for the best performance.

Steam Link hardware: Almost there

Valve clearly spent a lot of time to ensure this didn’t feel like a first-gen product. That goal was achieved apart from a couple of areas that could use refinement. First, the elephant in the room: the Steam Deck’s gigantic size. Holding the portable game console evoked feelings of gripping a car steering wheel at 9 and 3 o’clock. This thing is wide. Significantly larger than a Nintendo Switch and about the same width as the 12.4-inch Galaxy Tab S8+ I had on hand.

It is also rather hefty at 0 kg, but that weight is distributed evenly, making the Steam Deck feel balanced in the hand. Given the size, this isn’t something you’ll be holding up for hours unless you need to tone your forearms. That aside, Valve mostly nailed the ergonomics.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

My palms moulded to the controller the first time I picked it up, and my thumbs instinctively settled onto the symmetrical analogue sticks. Most of the buttons — and there are many of them — were easy to reach. Others, though, were a struggle. Tapping the bumper buttons (R1, L1) required me to awkwardly flex my pointer fingers toward me, and hitting the Y button fully extended my stumpy thumb. Also, I wish the sticks had been a few millimetres lower so I could bend my thumbs a bit more for better precision. These are small complaints that I resolved with some slight shifting and shuffling, however, as someone with average-sized hands, I fear small-fingered folk might have an even harder time.

Valve used the console’s large surface to its advantage, packing the Steam Deck with more inputs than I can count. Alongside the analogue sticks are ABXY buttons, a Steam (SteamOS menu) button, a quick settings button, a four-way D-pad, an in-game menu button, and a view button. Below the sticks are dual precision trackpads that simulate using a mouse. Up top are bumper buttons, triggers, volume controls, a USB-C port, and a power button. And for good measure, Valve included four more rear triggers (R/L 4 and 5) similar to what you find on a SCUF or Xbox Elite controller.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

How do these all feel? It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The full-size thumbsticks are responsive and a subtle concavity paired with a textured outline prevented my thumbs from slipping off. The trigger buttons are nicely sloped and the shoulder buttons are better than those on the Xbox controller though not as clicky as the ones on the DualSense. I don’t mind the ABXY, D-pad buttons, or rear triggers, which mimic those on most other controllers. What does bother me are the Steam and Quick Settings buttons. They are tragic. So shallow and difficult to press that I can’t wrap my mind around how these passed testing. Fortunately, you don’t need them during gameplay.

The strangest aspect of this controller is that the analogue sticks and trackpads are touch capacitive. When either input senses your skin, gyro controls are activated so you can make minute adjustments to your aim by tilting the controller. How cool!

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

It works as advertised but isn’t something I see myself using, especially given how awkward it feels to move around this chunky handheld. Where the touchpad did come in handy was in desktop mode and when playing certain games that would typically rely on a mouse, like Planet Coaster. And after getting used to the touchpads, I was dying in Cuphead at about the same rate as I do when using the analogue sticks (which is to say, a lot).

The not-so-small segment of PC gamers who double as DIYers will appreciate Valve’s approach to repairability. To that end, Valve will sell you replacement parts and iFixit, the first authorised retailer of those parts, determined in a teardown that the thumbsticks and SSD can be easily swapped by removing a few screws. It’s yet another win for right-to-repair, and in turn, consumers.

If you don’t like the Steam Deck’s controls, the console can connect via Bluetooth to a mouse or other controllers. Bluetooth pairing to my PS5 DualSense controller was effortless and the Steam Deck immediately responded to its inputs. Some games, like God of War, didn’t answer the call, while others, like, Portal 2, brought me back to sleepness college night of playing co-op mode on PS3.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Games are enjoyed on a 7.0-inch, 1280×800-pixel IPS display with a 60Hz refresh rate. Those specs are fine for a screen of this size, and I was pleasantly pleased with the viewing experience. The screen, while not as vivid as the OLED panel on Nintendo’s newest Switch, has accurate colours and its 400 nits of peak brightness is good enough under bright lighting conditions (beware: this glossy screen loves reflections!). Also, the sound quality of the speakers is impressive and they get loud enough to hear over a fan that gets loud under a heavy load.

A quick word on build quality: the Steam Deck feels robust and well-built despite everything being made of textured plastic. The tolerances are tight, there aren’t any dust-collecting gaps in the shell, and everything is nicely aligned. Ignore the size and those two lower buttons and the Steam Deck doesn’t feel like a first-of-its-kind product — at least, not the hardware.

Steam Link performance: What games does it play?

The Steam Deck runs a modified version of SteamOS 3.0 based on Linux and uses a compatibility layer called Proton to run Windows games. If you were hoping all of your favourite Steam games would work perfectly on day one, I have some bad news. Before they can run on this new hardware, games need to be optimised and tested. Valve is currently in the process of verifying games and working with devs to bring them up to speed, but this will take some time.

Right now, there are more than 400 verified games on the unofficial SteamDB compatibility list and over 500 playable ones. It’s a small drop in the large bucket that is Steam’s game database, but if I’m being cheeky here, these hundreds of games represent the largest day-one launch library of any handheld console. Before you get too excited, some of your favourite games — or many, in my case — aren’t yet supported.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Here is where I turn to our friends at Kotaku. Senior writer Luke Plunkett shared that he has 810 games in his Steam library (!) but only 59 of them are considered fully certified to run without compromise. Another 66 are functioning but “require extra effort to interact with or configure” and 632 games are untested (plus 23 games that definitely won’t work).

In my experience, most of the games I immediately wanted to test, including Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon 5, Far Cry5, FIFA 22, and Battlefield 2042 were unverified. I downloaded anyway, but to my disappointment, they didn’t even launch. Suffice it to say your best bet is to stick with games that Valve has flagged as “Great on Deck.” These include a mix of popular titles like NBA 2K22, Hitman III, Cuphead, Portal 2, Dark Souls III, and God of War, along with smaller indie releases like Stardew Valley, Grapple Dog, and Loop Odyssey. There is enough here to snack on, but for the Steam Deck to reach widespread appeal, newer, high-profile games need to be added to the mix. Fortunately, that is happening at a steady pace — puts a finger to ear — and Elden Ring was added just yesterday.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

As I’ve alluded to above, Valve places games into four categories based on their compatibility with the console. Titles appearing in your library and the store with a green checkmark are “Deck Verified” games, meaning they run just as they would on a gaming PC. Next are “Playable” games denoted with a yellow caution icon; these will run but with issues Valve clearly outlines in the game’s listing. Then there are Unsupported games (mostly VR titles) and the largest group: “Unknown”. Fortunately, Valve created a handy tool that tells you which games in your Steam library are compatible with the Steam Deck.

Thanks to an AMD APU consisting of a Zen 2 CPU (4 cores/8threads) and RDNA 2 GPU, plus 16GB of speedy DDR5 RAM, games verified to run on Steam Deck run well. For the most part. To give you a general idea of this console’s performance, the Steam Deck’s approximate power is 1.6 teraflops, putting it squarely between last-gen consoles in the Xbox One S (1.4 teraflops) and PS4 (1.8 teraflops) when it comes to raw graphical might.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

I played about a dozen different games and encountered frame rate drops on only a few occasions. Adjusting the graphics settings always resolved these problems without hampering the gameplay experience. After enjoying smooth gameplay in the low 30fps range, Control began to lag as I encountered hoards of Hiss-possessed enemies.

Dialling the resolution down from 1280×800 to 720p brought my frames back up from the mid-20fps range to beyond 30fps, which saved me during an intense firefight sequence. Most games I played, like Portal 2 and Cuphead ran at a full 60fps at 720p with graphics set to medium, while more demanding titles like God of War just barely breached the 30-fps threshold.

You do have to be careful, just as you would be with a gaming rig. Run too many games at once and the Steam Deck will get overwhelmed, as it did when I foolishly tried playing God of War with Control idle in the background. The Kratos-led adventure game crashed, and when I tried closing Control, so did the rest of the system. This wasn’t the first time I had to restart the handheld, though most of my troubles stem from unfinished software.

Steam Deck software: Unfinished but rapidly evolving

Valve is rushing to fix bugs, add features, and improve the performance of its software before the Steam Deck lands in customers’ hands. Even today, after weeks of pushing out updates, the software very much remains a work in progress. You should be somewhat relieved knowing things are moving in the right direction. I’m a fan of the overall SteamOS interface, which is easy to navigate with its large icons and simple menus, and as bad as they feel, those two Steam and Quick Settings buttons make connecting to wifi, pairing Bluetooth devices, and toggling night mode easier to accomplish than on a full-size system.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Those who have used Steam’s desktop launcher before will find this version of SteamOS familiar. At the top of the home page are your most recently played games and underneath are “What’s New,” “Friends,” and “Recommended” tabs. At the top are a search bar and icons for wifi, battery life, and your profile. Hitting the Steam or back button pulls up a left-hand menu with tabs to your library, the Steam store, Media (screenshots and video captures), Downloads, Friends & Chat, Settings, and Power.

Valve is still tinkering with things but the general layout is good. Icons are large and user-friendly, animations are smooth, and the OS sound effects are delightful. For full transparency, SteamOS 3.0 was a complete mess not long ago. Late additions have made all the difference. One of my favourites is a currently playing tab that lets you quickly resume or exit a game. Another desperately needed feature was a way to shop only for games that are “Great on Deck.” Valve added an entire page to the store with exactly that. There are still plenty of rough edges, which I’ll get into below, but most of the major problems have been addressed.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

At its core, the Steam Deck is a PC. As such, Valve’s console has a desktop mode. Here, you can open Firefox to navigate the web, download apps, install a non-Steam game, or connect a mouse/keyboard and monitor and use the Steam Deck as a regular computer.

It’s…wild, actually. I read Gizmodo.com on Chrome, listened to music on Spotify, and wrote the exact words you’re reading right now on LibreOffice, straight from the Steam Deck. It was all sorts of strange, and yet, with help from those touchpad squircles and a Bluetooth keyboard (the onscreen keyboard is a disaster that Valve promises to fix), it somehow worked.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the software — there are plenty. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hard restart this system because it suddenly froze up. Cutoff interfaces, performance hiccups, and missing features plagued this device early on, and some of those issues remain. Fortunately, things have improved so much that the console sitting next to me as I write this review feels quite different from the one that first arrived at my doorstep.

Regardless, I wish the Steam Deck had been delayed another few weeks so early adopters and reviewers like myself weren’t effectively beta testers. To its credit, Valve has been 100% transparent about the endless updates it has pushed out (some of which have arrived as recently as a few days ago) and promises to fix the remaining ones.

From handheld to home console

When a 7-inch screen isn’t large enough, you can connect the Steam Deck to an external display using one of several methods. An easy but potentially problematic mode is with Steam Link, which creates a wireless streaming connection between Steam devices. Within minutes, Portal 2 running on the Steam Deck appeared on my Sony Google TV via the Steam Link app. The game played in full-screen mode and the visuals were fine even though 1280×800 resolution isn’t ideal on such a large display. Latency, even with a strong internet connection, was a major problem, and made me put down the controller after just a few minutes of playing.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

While connecting to a TV and desktop with Steam Link was effortless, my attempts to blow the Steam Deck up onto a monitor by connecting the console to a USB-C dock with an HDMI-out input were fruitless. I tried two different docks on two separate monitors and had no luck. Valve explained to me that multi-display out docks like my HP USB-C Dock G5 are not supported in Deck mode yet, though a fix should arrive in the near future. The best option is to use a USB-C SST (single-stream transport) dock or a USB-C-to-HDMI cable.

Arriving in late spring is an official dock for the Steam Deck that “props up your Steam Deck while connecting to external displays, wired networking, USB peripherals, and power.” Unlike the one for the Switch, this dock won’t provide any additional power to the console. We’ll update this review once we get the dock in for testing.

Battery life and charging

Steam rates the Steam Deck’s battery life at between two to eight hours of gameplay depending on the game you’re playing and which settings are enabled. It’s a wide range but an accurate one based on my testing. I was getting around four hours of mixed gameplay and UI navigating. Runtimes dropped considerably when playing more graphics-intensive games like God of War (about 2 hours) and jumped up to around four hours when playing less demanding titles like Portal 2.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

The Steam Deck charges via USB-C and comes with a generic charging adaptor. Based on extensive testing from GamerNexus, the Steam Deck, when turned on and idling, can charge to 80% in 100 minutes and reach a full charge in another 80 minutes. It deliberately stops short of reaching 100% to preserve the battery, a technique used by many smartphones and laptops.

Should you buy the Steam Deck?

If you’re a PC gamer who has waited for a portable device to play your favourite Steam games on a plane, train, or just when lounging on the couch, the Steam Deck is worth considering, even in its current unfinished state. There are hundreds of verified games, most of which can be played on at least medium graphics settings, and the hardware, while far from perfect, is perfectly usable.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

If you’re on the fence, check to see which of your PC games are verified for the Steam Deck. If the ones you’re interested in playing haven’t been tested, then don’t feel pressured to take the plunge. Diehards eager to get their hands on this system have already preordered so many of these that shipments are now scheduled for Q2 of this year — at which point, the Steam Deck will hopefully have received the updates needed to make it reach its full potential.