First, I’m having more fun with the Steam Deck than I have with any other gadget I’ve tested in years. The Stream Deck, on the other hand, is a complete disaster. It’s hasty, incomplete, buggy, and insecure. People would return the system I’ve been playing en masse if Valve sold it at Best Buy or GameStop.
Of course, this $400 mobile gaming PC from Valve isn’t available at Best Buy. Half-Life and Portal creator Valve is distributing it directly to Steam users, the platform that pioneered the idea of selling “early access” games before they’re finished. Remember when Valve let an unknown developer sell an early access version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which was flawed and buggy? It had a significant impact on the world. The faults didn’t matter because the game’s unproven model was incredibly entertaining — to the point where PUBG, its clones, and the games it inspired (such as Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Apex Legends) are among the most popular games on the planet.
The Steam Deck has its recipe as well. It’s a Linux computer that, like a Nintendo Switch, can play Windows games at unheard-of prices. I can’t get enough of it, much like I can’t get enough of PUBG, a game I played for 452 hours despite bugs.
Welcome to the game console in early access. Bugs will be present.
- At an unheard-of price, you can get powerful, high-quality hardware.
- Decades of games are playable because to infinitely adjustable controls.
- Allows you to easily balance performance and power loss.
- Interrupt and resume games
- It can also be used as a full Linux computer.
- Software that is unfinished and has bugs
- The grumbling of the obnoxious fan is nearly unavoidable.
- Even now, some of the most popular games aren’t working.
- At maximum fidelity, the battery life is two hours or less.
Let’s get one thing straight: it’s easy to look at photographs of the Stream Deck, see a Nintendo Switch, and imagine yourself playing a massive library of PC games that “just work” without having to fiddle with graphics settings or controls. That’s not the Steam Deck we have today, and it’s not only because the Steam Deck is a hunk of junk that can fit a Switch in its grips. (It was reminiscent of Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer engulfing Princess Leia’s Tantive IV.) Today’s Steam Deck, on the other hand, wants you to modify and forgive more than the standard PC.
But the magic of Steam Deck is that it makes PC gaming portable for the first time.
What exactly do I mean? Last year, I borrowed a then-top-of-the-line Aya Neo mobile gaming PC and completed Persona 4 Golden on that $800-plus Windows machine. However, it never seemed exactly like PC gaming to me. With the joysticks and touchscreen, I could barely navigate the OS; there wasn’t enough performance to play even moderately demanding games like Outer Wilds and Valheim; there were no precision controls for shooting or point-and-click games, and there was no point in bothering with anything other than the lowest graphical settings. (There was also no way to suspend the system fast and reliably without losing progress.)
All of it is turned on its head with the Steam Deck. Its bespoke AMD CPU with RDNA 2 graphics, which starts at $400, instantaneously outperforms any boutique portable gaming PC on the market. While it may still struggle with the most recent games, it’s powerful enough that I’m able to play Control and the Resident Evil 2 remake at 60 frames per second outside of huge fights, and I can even turn the graphics up if I’m willing to take 30 frames per second instead. Older or less demanding games, such as Max Payne 3 or Mirror’s Edge, can readily run at their top settings.
If you’re playing a game that doesn’t require a lot of power, like Hotline Miami or Nidhogg, you can reduce the frame rate, GPU clock speed, or even processor wattage to extend the Deck’s battery life. It only takes three taps to get fast feedback on your frame rate, clock speeds, frame times, and even how rapidly you’re depleting the battery and how long it’ll survive with the excellent open-source MangoHud overlay.
VALVE STEAM DECK SPECS
- 7-inch, 60Hz, 1280 x 800 IPS screen with 400-nit brightness
- 4-core, 8-thread AMD Zen 2 CPU
- 8-core AMD RDNA 2 graphics, 1GB video memory
- 16GB LPDDR5 memory, 8GB accessible by GPU
- 64GB eMMC storage ($400), 256GB NVMe SSD ($530), or 512GB NVMe SSD ($650)
- 40Wh battery
- USB-C port with USB 3.2 Gen 2 data, DisplayPort 1.4 video out, USB-C PD charging
- Dual-band Wi-Fi 5 (2×2), Bluetooth 5.0, UHS-I microSD reader
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- 1.47 pounds (669g)
- 11.7 x 4.6 x 1.9 inches (298 x 117 x 49mm)
You might argue that all of the titles I just mentioned support gamepads, but what about the decades of mouse-and-keyboard games? The Steam Deck allows you to borrow or create a bewildering assortment of bespoke control schemes that help people feel at ease. You get four rear grip buttons and a pair of Steam Controller pads that are so customizable that calling them “trackpads” feels like a disservice. You get an entire traditional gamepad worth of analog joysticks, triggers, and face buttons — almost all of which feel fantastic, I might add — plus four rear grip buttons and a pair of Steam Controller pads that are so customizable that calling them “trackpads” feels like a disservice. You can click, swipe, flick, and “spin” a virtual trackball; press down on their pressure-sensitive surfaces; and even set their edges to move or turn your character indefinitely… and each of the Deck’s 20+ programmable controls can issue multiple different commands depending on how and when you press them. With other keys and per-key turbo modes, you can create macros and chorded combinations, and it’s all a little confusing — and Valve scarcely explains how any of it works.
“Wasn’t the Steam Controller a flop?” you might be wondering. But I’m here to tell you that it not only has a cult following, but the Deck also makes it work. If you don’t want to use the fancy touchpads, you can now achieve precision aiming without them: rest your thumb on the thumbstick to activate a gyro, which allows you to tilt the Deck to effortlessly zero in on your target. While you can spend hours building the ideal multi-layered control system, Valve makes it simple to add the gyro or a few extra grip buttons and get back to work.
I performed both with Control, quickly becoming a crack shot with the railgun revolver while binding back buttons to allow me to fly into the air and conjure a shield of debris without ever moving my thumbs off the crucial sticks. I just reduced the “friction” on the simulated trackball in Slay the Spire and Into the Breach so I could easily hurl the 2D mouse cursor around. Many games have already had a terrific controller scheme posted by a Steam Controller cultist — I love what Runic did with Torchlight II — and it’s a breeze to remix any profile you see and share it with the community.
Still, I’m not going to claim that the Steam Controller is superior to my 20 years of muscle memory with a mouse and keyboard or that it’s appropriate for all games. While I’m sure with the correct changes, you could swing a mean sword in Mordhau, the full-forearm motion of a mouse feels natural to me.
The most excellent feature of the Deck, in my opinion, is the ability to suspend the entire SteamOS session at any time without having to pause or save. In Control, I was about to run out of battery in the middle of a boss fight with a horrible black monster, but I never fell behind. I pressed the power button, and although it took me an hour to go back to a charger, I was able to restart it and continue playing.
When it comes to the battery, it is a weak place, but not as awful as I had expected. When I set it to 30fps or in considerably less intensive games, I got just under two hours of Control on the Deck at 60fps and roughly 60% brightness, but nearly four hours when I set it to 30fps or in substantially less intensive games. And because the Deck can promptly disclose its own overall power usage, I never had to question how much time I had left or how to extend that battery life: if you see 20W in MangoHud, you know you’ll get around two hours out of the Deck’s 40Wh pack. Control drew 12 watts at 30 frames per second, Max Payne 2 drew 10 watts at 60 frames per second, while Nidhogg drew only 6 watts. However, not all games follow this formula; Resident Evil 2 clocked in at over 20W at 30fps, and numerous titles clocked in at over 24W at 60fps. You should be aware that downloading games at fast speeds puts a lot of strain on the machine, consuming just as much power and caused stuttering when I tried to play Call of Juarez at the same time.
Though I’m the type of guy who is never far from a high-wattage USB-C PD battery, those sessions were generally lengthy enough to satisfy me. I’ll also point out that the original Nintendo Switch wasn’t significantly hampered by the fact that it could only play Breath of the Wild for 2.5 hours on a single charge. But I’m concerned about what will happen to the battery after a year or two, especially since iFixit states it’s not easy to remove.
However, Lawrence Yang of Valve tells me that the battery will be one of the replacement parts available, and that it must be protected when charging. Unless I was playing a game, I never saw the system consume more than 30 watts, it dropped to half-speed when it got three-quarters of the way, it trickle-charges the last 10% or so, and the last 4% took 15 minutes to complete. It takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to fully charge, and it won’t stay charging on the socket indefinitely: Valve allows it to drain to 95 percent after “a significant period of time.”
The Steam Deck’s fan, on the other hand, does not satisfy me. The ramp-up can be startling, and while Valve’s designers say they’re still tweaking the curve and increasing the ramp rate, “high end games that max out the APU will likely not see a ton of improvement,” they also state “high end games that max out the APU will likely not see a ton of improvement.” On the bright side, the fan performs its job: the Deck throttle never became hot, and neither did the Deck’s grips or controls.
When the Steam Deck is up and running, I’ll finally be able to carry my PC gaming with me. I load up the latest God of War, XCOM 2, or Streets of Rage 4, let my fingers melt into the fantastic controls, listen to the rousing music from the truly excellent stereo speakers, watch smooth gameplay on the remarkably good 7-inch 1280 x 800 screen, and sigh with relief, knowing that I can finally finish my long-neglected PC games one bite-size session at a time.
The operative word, though, is “when.” Because the Steam Deck’s software is hotter than any gadget I’ve ever used – every day I used it, I was dodging error warnings, bugs, crashes, black screens, UI issues, regressions, and even full feature changes from Valve on the eve of release.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to reboot the system or reconnect a device because Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or an SD card had stopped working properly. A handful of the games I downloaded never finished installing, either because they stopped in the middle or because they ran out of space afterwards. When I tried to relocate certain games, they said their “content” was “locked” or that they grabbed “corrupt update files.” Parts of my library, or all of the games on my SD card, would go missing from time to time. I accidentally destroyed one card after the Deck appeared to freeze while formatting it, and I reset the console (never ever do that while writing to flash). There were instances when I couldn’t connect to the Steam servers to download save games or authenticate ownership of a title — and believe me, it’s a bummer to discover you can’t play a single-player game like Control or Red Dead Redemption 2 on the road due to DRM. (In a pinch, my phone’s hotspot came in handy.)
The entire system might occasionally lock up. When attaching or detaching an external monitor, the UI might occasionally crash or scale horribly. And, while I had no trouble playing or installing games to SD, I did have a lot of trouble transferring files between the SD and the internal disk – including extremely extended transfer times during which the Deck wouldn’t let me do anything else. I had to re-download Elden Ring after I’d already preloaded it because games I’d already installed needed fresh updates or needed to randomly re-verify a gigabyte or three worth of content. Even when there is no Wi-Fi available, the Steam Deck stops for a long time before launching games, presumably to see whether a cloud save can be downloaded.
Valve’s developers admitted I’d found a flaw in many cases, and to their credit, a lot has changed in the last two weeks. The UI used to be quite choppy, but it’s now much smoother. Even though I can’t utilize the Deck’s controllers or gyro yet, I can now consistently stream games to Deck from my desktop PC. It’s finally stable after at least three major modifications to the frame limiter. A major upgrade to Proton made it possible to play a slew of new games.
However, as I type these lines, Valve has yet to solve Bluetooth, which consistently lags, skips, and fails to reconnect after rising from sleep, and a recent update added a new issue in which the Deck no longer reconnects to Wi-Fi, despite having auto-connect checked and the password saved. Despite Valve’s adjustments, the auto-brightness adjustment has never worked successfully for me. The download progress indicator appeared to be broken after the recent update, and… I guess you get the picture.
Valve said to The Verge in an interview that many things won’t be ready on day one, and that it’s had to focus on show-stopping issues and hardware manufacture while deprioritizing other projects. “So many things will come out right after launch, in the weeks after debut,” says Valve veteran Greg Coomer. “We treat it as if it were the starting gun rather than the finish line.” Early adopters should expect frequent fixes for some time to come, according to Valve’s Lawrence Yang, even though you won’t see the many changes per day I witnessed during the review period.
Is it a negative thing to have frequent updates? It’s always fun to get a head start! It’s fantastic to see new capabilities emerge, such as how I was able to play my games on an external display with three various types of upscaling, including AMD’s FSR, which you can apply to any game from the fast settings menu and made Fallout 4 seem so much better on a big panel.
But it’s not fantastic if you want to hear how well the Steam Deck runs Windows before you buy one, because I never got to test it because Valve’s promised GPU drivers have yet to arrive.
And you might be interested in how well the Steam Deck runs Windows because, despite Valve’s best efforts, the single-most frustrating thing is that you won’t know whether a game will actually run on Linux until you’ve downloaded it, installed it, patched it, let it install the first-time-launch dependencies, and hit play.
Let’s take a look at those efforts, because they’re not insignificant: Many Windows games may now be played on Linux thanks to Valve’s Proton compatibility layer (which is developed on top of Wine). I’ve only seen a few glitches, such as strange effects around flashing lights in Max Payne 3 and jerky cutscenes in 1997’s Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they were also present in the Windows versions. Valve also has a team of employees reviewing the whole Steam catalog to evaluate how games play – according to SteamDB scrapers, 419 of them “work excellent” and 398 are “playable” with tweaks as of February 24th. You may also look at the ProtonDB community reports to see what’s broken, or use Valve’s checker to see whether titles in your library are still playable.
When it came time to play, however, I couldn’t totally trust any of those sources. Every one of them has a flaw. Duck Game is ProtonDB certified gold, but Steam Deck lists it as unsupported, and it didn’t run for me. Even though Valve performed the groundwork to correct it and I played for a few minutes without difficulty, Valve’s database shows Persona 4 Golden is entirely unsupported. And, given the low frame rate and stuttery Xbox gamepad emulation I witnessed when I tried to play, I strongly disagree that Deathloop “plays beautifully” on Deck “straight out of the box.” Half-Life 2 is also listed as a “excellent on Deck” title by Valve, but the default control scheme didn’t work for me (though a custom one totally did).
Even if the listings are correct today, there’s a risk they won’t be tomorrow – like how Cyberpunk 2077 was running before the major patch, but I can’t run it at all as of this writing.
You may also require Windows if you want to play some of the world’s most popular games, which frequently employ anti-cheat software. Remember how I used PUBG as an example at the start of this story? PUBG, Destiny 2, Apex Legends, GTA 5, and Lost Ark do not run at all. My first night with the Steam Deck, I learned it couldn’t run two of the most crucial games I play with my friends — Halo Infinite and Back 4 Blood — and this isn’t an isolated incident. When we asked the top game developers if they’d consider enabling anti-cheat now that Valve has built-in support, the majority of them declined to even respond. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, was braver, telling me why Fortnite won’t — because the rewards don’t justify the effort it would take to convince themselves they aren’t letting cheats in.
On a more minor note, Valve doesn’t distinguish between the Windows and Linux versions of a game when it comes to verification, so keep an eye out for games that have both. My review unit had the Linux version of Rocket League installed, which no longer supports multiplayer, as well as the Windows version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which didn’t start at all. And, while you may compel the Deck to download the other version via a compatibility menu, there’s no way to tell which is which — and, unfortunately, the Linux version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t allow Windows cloud saves, so I might have to start over.
CONTINUE: AGREE TO CONTINUE: DECK WITH STEAM
Before you can use a smart device, you must agree to a set of terms and conditions — contracts that no one actually reads. We won’t be able to read and examine each and every one of these agreements. But, because these are agreements that most people don’t read and can’t negotiate, we started counting how many times you have to touch “accept” to use gadgets when we reviewed them.
In the vast majority of circumstances, two agreements are required.
I can’t say I blame Valve for releasing the Steam Deck before it’s complete. Given that Valve has at least a half-worth year’s of preorders to complete before a single new customer experiences the Deck, I might have made the same decision. That’s a lot of early adopters prepared to put up with certain problems in order to be a part of the club. Furthermore, the Deck’s remarkable performance may not last long, as its RDNA 2 integrated graphics are making their way into thin-and-light laptops and, presumably, additional portables to follow. Stale chips are presumably not something Valve wants to sell.
But you should know that this also means that reviewers like me didn’t get to test everything: Windows, the delayed Dock, Xbox Cloud Gaming (since the Linux browser version still doesn’t recognize the Steam Deck’s gamepad), and the ability to switch between two apps, which Valve added at the last minute. Furthermore, The Verge does not evaluate devices based on their potential. We go over what we can see and feel.
I have some faith in Valve: as the owner of an original Steam Controller and the Steam Link streaming HDMI dongle, as a bystander to Valve’s failed Steam Machines, and as a pundit who can draw a straight line between the Steam Deck and Valve’s failed Steam Machines, I’m pretty sure it’s not just lip service when Valve says it’ll keep updating the Deck and expanding the portable category. Long after it was evident that the Steam Controller and Steam Link wouldn’t change the world, they received bug patches and feature updates.
If early access isn’t your cup of tea, you might want to hold off until a Steam Deck 2 is released. Because Valve, while not believing in the Osborne effect, has already hinted at a sequel. In a new interview with The Verge, Valve reiterated that Steam Deck should be a “multigenerational product.” In an interview with Edge, Valve CEO Gabe Newell went even farther, adding that “the second iterations” will focus on “the possibilities that mobile affords us, above and above what you would get in a regular desktop or laptop gaming environment.”
I told you why I was putting money down when I flew to Valve’s headquarters last August to see the Steam Deck: I loved the idea of taking my PC games on the go, resuming them right where I left off on my desktop, and finally having the time to play through Control and Resident Evil 2 and Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 and a mountain of indie games I used to wait years to buy on Switch because that’s the only way I could find enough time to finish them. So far, that’s the one aspect of the Steam Deck that’s been entirely successful, and I can only hope it improves.
Perhaps game developers will create games specifically for the Deck. Perhaps they’ll come to terms with the concept of anti-cheat. Or it may be like the Nvidia Shield portable I reviewed and bought in 2013, staring down at me from a shelf, mocking me with untapped promise. But, at the very least, this one appears to offer a sizable library of compatible games right out of the gate.
For the time being, I’m having a good time. My own 64GB model will arrive in Q2, and I can’t wait to get my hands on its eMMC storage — and, most likely, swap in the SSD I previously purchased.
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