The Steam Deck is a portable gaming console that allows you to carry your Steam library with you. Although the Linux-based portable PC can run a surprising number of Windows games, attaching it to a monitor or TV is difficult, and emulation requires some setup.
- For its small, it packs a punch
- Games on Steam operate consistently well
- There’s a lot of opportunity for game emulation here
- OF A COMPLETE LINUX DESKOP ENVIRONMENT
- The USB-C interface’s single port limits the number of connections available
- The use of adapters for charging and video output is at best unreliable
- Non-Steam games, particularly emulators, can take a lot of configuration work to set up and operate
- For a portable game device, it’s a bit cumbersome
Valve has a shaky track record when it comes to hardware. The Index is a fantastic VR headset with ground-breaking controllers. In the face of traditional gaming PCs and gamepads, Steam Machines and the Steam Controller utterly fizzled. The Steam Link allowed for surprisingly good local game streaming, however, it was later phased out in favor of an app.
The $399 Steam Deck gaming portable is now available. It’s based on the Steam Machines’ foundations, but with a much more concentrated, unified vision that doesn’t attempt to replace gaming PCs. It’s mostly a Nintendo Switch counterpart, though it’s larger and more powerful, and it lacks a dock (one is scheduled to arrive in late spring). The Steam Deck is based on Linux, but the SteamOS front end is extremely user-friendly, allowing you to quickly install and play a variety of Windows games using Proton. The Linux foundation contains a full desktop environment, allowing for plenty of experimentation and traditional game emulation.
The Steam Deck is a powerful machine that comes in a small (though clumsy) package. It starts at $399, but we recommend investing the extra $130 for the mid-tier model, which has four times the amount of onboard storage (note that all three Steam Deck models have the same CPU, GPU, and RAM power; the display and storage type/capacity are the only differences). Despite its promising first impressions, Valve’s handheld has a number of flaws that need to be worked out, particularly if you wish to connect it to your TV or monitor.
A Massive Transportable
The Steam Deck, at over a foot wide and roughly a pound and a half in weight, is firmly on the bulky side of what you’d call a portable game system. The Nintendo Switch is over two inches thinner and half a pound lighter than the Steam Deck with Joy-Cons attached. That’s unexpected, given that both the Steam Deck and the OLED Switch have 7-inch panels. The Steam Deck fits in a bag, but it’s way too huge to slip inside a jacket or play on the train comfortably. Even my Asus ROG Zephyrus 14 gaming notebook is only half an inch wider than the 4.6-inch-deep handheld, albeit it is significantly deeper and heavier.
The control surfaces and grips, which are significantly broader than the Joy-Cons on the Nintendo Switch and are not removable, make up a large chunk of the Steam Deck’s chassis. There are four menu buttons, a direction pad on the left, and four face buttons on the right, in addition to the normal dual analog sticks. Below the analog sticks and above the Steam and Options buttons are square touchpads. The grips’ width ensures that your thumbs and palms’ meat don’t accidently touch the trackpads or block the speakers, which are situated beneath the Steam and Options buttons.
The top panel of the Steam Deck contains normal L1/R1 bumpers and L2/R2 triggers, albeit the bumpers are a little too high to press swiftly and comfortably. There are also power and volume controls on the gadget, as well as a 3.5mm headset jack and a USB-C port for charging. The system’s capacity may be expanded via a microSD card slot on the bottom edge, which supports 64/256/512GB of onboard storage for the $399, $529, and $649 variants, respectively.
L4/L5 and R4/R5 buttons are located on the back of each hand, beneath the middle and ring fingers. Although the buttons are stiff and narrow, they give important extra inputs. A big intake grille on the back panel works in tandem with an exhaust fan and grille on the device’s top edge to ensure proper airflow. When playing, the fan is noticeable, but it’s far quieter than the fan on a compact gaming laptop (in this case the Zephyrus 14).
Connectivity and Steam Deck Specifications
The 7-inch screen on the Steam Deck is functional but underwhelming. It’s the same size as the OLED Switch, but with a slightly better resolution (1,280 by 800 pixels vs. 1,280 by 720 pixels on the Switch). The screen is a 60Hz IPS LCD, so it’s bright and simple to see, but it doesn’t have the same deep blacks and rich colors as OLED.
The Steam Deck is powered by a proprietary AMD processor that includes a quad-core, eight-thread Zen 2 CPU with up to 448 GFlops and an RDNA 2 GPU with up to 1.6 TFlops. They share the same architecture as AMD’s Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs, although there are no direct consumer desktop or mobile chip equivalents. However, it lags behind the PlayStation 5 (10 TFlops) and the Xbox Series X in terms of TFlops (12 TFlops). To be honest, the Steam Deck is only capable of pushing an eighth of the pixels that those 4K systems can.
We couldn’t run all of our regular benchmarking software because of the unique platform, but we nevertheless ran thorough testing to see how well the Steam Deck runs games. In general, it outperforms the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 and other well-equipped notebooks with integrated graphics, but it falls short of a dedicated, high-end GPU such as the Nvidia RTX GeForce 3050 Ti.
The system has 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and a PCIe Gen 2 x1 m.2 SSD with 64GB of storage (or 256GB or 512GB of storage on a PCIe Gen 2 x4 m.2 SSD, depending on the model). The microSD card slot allows for additional storage. The 256GB version was put to the test.
Apart from 3.5mm headsets, the Steam Deck offers a single USB 3.2 Gen 2 USB-C connector that can accommodate practically every connected connection (a headphone jack is there, too). It works with any 45W PD3.0 power supply and charges the Steam Deck with the accompanying USB-C wall adapter. Audio and video can be output via USB-C or DisplayPort 1.4 on the Steam Deck. Yes, the Steam Deck works with a typical USB-C dock to provide additional ports and HDMI output, in case you were wondering.
That’s a lot of heavy work for one USB-C port, so unless you want to wait for the official Steam Deck Docking Station, you’ll probably need to acquire a few non-Valve peripherals. There’s no way to connect the Steam Deck to a monitor or TV right out of the box, and using a USB-C to DisplayPort adapter would quickly deplete the battery. You’ll want to utilize a dock that can power the Steam Deck while also providing video output. To make big-screen connections work better, a second USB-C port for power delivery, or even a micro or small HDMI or mini DisplayPort port, would have been extremely nice.
Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 provide wireless connectivity. Bluetooth gamepads, mouse, and keyboards can be connected to the Steam Deck.
Battery life varies greatly depending on the games you play, so don’t expect to play for long periods of time without connecting the handheld into a power outlet. For games that require a lot of processing power, Valve believes that the battery can last as little as two hours between charges, although simpler games can last up to eight hours. Horizon Zero Dawn and Monster Hunter Rise both have a two-hour time limit, which seems to fit my tests.
SteamOS 3.0: Linux with a User-Friendly Interface
Valve’s SteamOS 3.0 operating system, which is based on Arch Linux and uses the Proton software compatibility layer to run Windows games, is used on the Steam Deck. SteamOS starts in Big Picture mode, with a huge tile-based interface that works well with gamepad inputs on a tiny screen. It connects directly to your Steam account, bringing any Steam games you have loaded (as well as titles you can play from another computer using Steam’s Remote Play function) to the foreground. Saves from any supported Steam games on your PC are also carried over to the cloud.
When you’re in or out of games, pressing the Steam or Options buttons brings up helpful overlays. The Steam button takes you to the home screen, game library, Steam store, settings, and friends list, among other places on the machine (with support for text chat using an on-screen keyboard). The Options button brings up a quick-access menu that includes notifications, your friends list (in a sidebar rather than a full interface with chat), basic settings like screen brightness and wireless connections, and battery life projections. The Steam button in games also shows the presently mapped controls and allows you to change them on the fly.
With a power button press, SteamOS activates a helpful sleep mode. The system enters a suspended state after a few seconds, similar to the Nintendo Switch’s sleep mode, allowing the portable to conserve battery life when not in use. The suspended state also works in games. While playing Horizon Zero Dawn, I had no trouble putting the Steam Deck to sleep and afterwards picking up where I left off without having to reload the game.
The SteamOS interface is highly user-friendly on a portable device, and it may be all you need if you only plan on playing games from your Steam library, but the Steam Deck can do much more. The system may be rebooted into Desktop Mode by pressing and holding the power button, which launches the Linux KDE Plasma desktop environment. It’s a Windows-style interface with full Linux control, including the ability to install software outside of Steam. This mode is required for installing emulators such as Dolphin and RetroArch on the Steam Deck if you wish to emulate older games.
Gaming Performance on a Steam Deck
The Steam Deck Compatibility program makes it easy to see which Steam titles have been confirmed to operate with the Steam Deck. Each of the four compatibility indicators will appear next to each game on Steam. A green Deck Verified icon indicates that the game runs almost flawlessly on the Steam Deck. A yellow Playable icon indicates that the game will run, but you may need to make some adjustments (usually manual control configurations). A gray Unsupported indicator indicates that the game will not run on the Steam Deck. Finally, a gray Unknown indicator with a question mark indicates that no information is available about whether or not the game will run.
Verified games, All Games, Installed Games, and Non-Steam Games and Software are all divided into tabs in SteamOS. In the All Games tab, you may also filter out games that are Unsupported or Unknown.
There are 63 Verified games and applications in my Steam library, 104 Verified or Playable games and apps, and 524 Verified, Playable, or Untested games and apps. Only 29 games and apps remain unsupported on the Steam Deck, accounting for around 5% of my total library. This is where we start having fun figuring out which games work and which don’t, as well as how well the Steam Deck handles the ones that do.
All games load at about the same speed as a PC with a small SSD; the highest-end Steam Deck, presumably, loads games faster. This includes the typical Steam preamble loading that occurs when you start each game for the first time. Because the majority of these games are Windows games that run on Proton, all of the typical DirectX and other files that must be installed on Windows must also be processed on the Steam Deck.
Horizon Zero Dawn has been verified and performs admirably on the Steam platform. In testing, the controls functioned well, translating everything to conventional gamepad inputs. The game has varying frame rates and doesn’t always achieve 60 frames per second, although the action is generally fluid. However, up close viewing of exploding barrels caused the game to stall and jerk until the effects faded.
Elysium Disco: The Final Cut has also been verified to work on the Steam Deck with pre-programmed gamepad controls. With this setup, I was able to control the main character with the left analog stick while cycling between surrounding objects with the right stick or right touchpad (which provided a helpful little feedback bump for each object I selected). I couldn’t simply assign classic PC adventure game mouse controls to the trackpad, though I could set the right trackpad to operate like a mouse and move a cursor on the screen manually. Touch-screen mouse pointer controls, as well as a Bluetooth mouse linked to the Steam Deck, functioned flawlessly.
Another Verified game, Bayonetta, works smoothly on the Steam Deck with accurate controls. The game’s graphics are set to Medium by default, and it plays at a steady 60 frames per second. With the visuals set to High, Bayonetta performed admirably, but it couldn’t sustain a steady 60 frames per second (and often dipped closer to 30fps).
On the Steam Deck, Inscryption is marked as Playable (not Verified), and it loads without a hitch. Because it lacks a gamepad, the trackpad, as well as the touch screen and Bluetooth mice, act as mouse pointer controllers. If you have a comfortable way to handle the mouse pointer, it’s playable and indistinguishable from the PC version.
Monster Hunter Rise was untested on the Steam Deck, but it booted up without a hitch and auto-configured all of the necessary gamepad inputs. Although the game took longer to load than the Verified games, the action was consistently smooth. Monster Hunter Rise’s Average graphics level, like Bayonetta’s, provided a steady 60 frames per second. However, when the game was set to High, it still ran smoothly, albeit with frame rate dips.
Although Dying Light 2 is untested and only a few months old, it can still be played on Steam. The game came with pre-programmed controls that mostly worked, albeit while exploring menus, the analog sticks controlled an unwieldy mouse pointer instead of snapping to items. The visuals were set to the highest levels by default, resulting in sluggish performance. The game became playable after lowering the graphics option to Low. It’s not fantastic, but it’s adequate, and considering the Steam Deck’s size and specifications, it’s still quite impressive.
Emulation of a Steam Deck
The Steam Deck appears to be an ideal system for playing classic games on paper, but you won’t be able to do it through SteamOS. Switch to Desktop can be selected by holding down the power button, which shuts the SteamOS front end and loads the KDE Plasma desktop, a Windows-like interface that gives you access to all of the features and capabilities that a typical Linux computer provides. You should generally avoid making any modifications through this mode unless you’re experienced with Linux, and be careful with the file manager because the Linux file system is much different from Windows. Fortunately, finding emulators to load on the Steam Deck doesn’t require a lot of digging.
The Discover software store opens when you click the shopping bag symbol in the lower-left corner of the desktop. It’s full of free, open-source apps that you can install on the Steam Deck by just pressing the install button. This includes Linux games, which might be hit or miss in terms of quality (though Sonic Robo Blast 2 and Sonic Robo Blast 2 Kart are worth playing). There’s a section dedicated to emulators under Games, and there are many of them, covering a wide range of game systems. RetroArch is a one-stop-shop for emulating several consoles, including Dolphin for the GameCube and Wii, PCSX2 for the PlayStation 2, and even DOSBox for classic PC games.
After you’ve installed these emulators, you’ll still need to do some labor before you can play anything. I’m a retro game collector with a sizable GameCube collection, thus I can make disc images for Dolphin to use. It’s one thing to get them into my PC; it’s another to get them onto the Steam Deck. To use the microSD card slot for additional storage, you must first format it; however, you should be able to insert a card containing the contents you want to play and copy them to the internal storage using the file manager in desktop mode (if the Steam Deck has free internal storage space). I warned you to use the file manager with caution, which you should, but clicking on Documents and creating a new folder beneath Documents to store your games is secure. I had already loaded the internal storage with Steam games to test, so I attached a USB drive to a USB-C hub and copied data from there in desktop mode.
After you’ve added the games you wish to emulate to your Steam Deck, you’ll need to configure the emulator to work properly. It may take some experimentation to properly map controls and achieve the greatest balance of graphical quality and performance.
Finally, you must manually add any of these emulators or any Linux games you installed using SteamOS to Steam in order to use them. This must be done using the Steam client in desktop mode. You can add non-Steam games to your library and select any installed Linux program from the library screen. They appear in SteamOS under their own section as non-Steam games once they’ve been added. You won’t be able to execute them without going into desktop mode because they won’t have any tiles or icons.
Dolphin ran quite well on the Steam Deck after the aforementioned tweaking, which included adjusting several graphical settings (mainly switching from OpenGL to Vulkan). F-Zero GX clocked in at 60 frames per second while rendering at twice the quality, and it looked great on the Steam Deck’s screen. When I played it on SteamOS instead of desktop mode, there were still a few window problems, but the games looked fantastic. The Steam Deck can be one of the best handheld retro game systems out there if you’re willing to put in the time to configure each emulator. However, as stated in the next section, this isn’t the case when replicating classic games on your big screen at home.
Windows can theoretically be installed on the Steam Deck. That’s not a good idea just now because drivers haven’t been finalized, and getting Windows to operate with the handheld and its bespoke parts will be a difficult undertaking that dwarfs any Linux tinkering. Wait until a reliable installation solution with all of the essential drivers has been ironed out.
TVs and Monitors aren’t quite ready yet
When it comes to connecting the Steam Deck to a TV or monitor, the system becomes strange and difficult. The Steam Deck should theoretically be able to output video through DisplayPort or HDMI via the USB port. The findings of the testing were, to put it mildly, mixed.
To connect the Steam Deck to my TV, a TCL 55R635, I initially tried using a Belkin AVC002 USB-C-to-HDMI + Charge Adapter. When I unplugged the power supply from the adapter, all I got was a screen flicker on the Steam Deck itself. That adapter was returned, and I replaced it with an Iogear GUH3C3PD USB-C hub with PD pass-through and HDMI. It wouldn’t work with the charger plugged into the hub, but unplugging the charger and cycling the Steam Deck into and out of sleep mode got the device to work. The main issue was that the signal created an excessively zoomed-in image that neither the Deck nor my TV could rectify.
The home screen rendered in full when I plugged the hub into my 2,550-by-1,080 monitor. Using my display, I was able to load games. The Steam Deck, on the other hand, didn’t go beyond its 1,280-by-800 resolution, relying on the adaptor or hub, as well as the linked monitor or TV, to manage it. Horizon Zero Dawn’s performance suffered as a result of the game’s blurry Deck-native resolution.
When I put the charger into the hub, the picture cut out again. Disconnecting the charger had no effect. The signal was restored after putting the Steam Deck to sleep and then waking it up again. It appears that the Steam Deck cannot be charged while using an adaptor or hub to output HDMI. Perhaps there is a hub that will enable that, but in my testing, I haven’t been able to get it to function. This means that even if you can get an acceptable picture on your monitor or TV, you’ll only be able to play a graphically heavy game for two hours before the Steam Deck needs to be disconnected for charging.
Hopefully, future system updates will address this issue, allowing for simultaneous charging and HDMI output via normal USB-C hubs, HDMI cables, and power pass-throughs. But I couldn’t get it to operate for the time being, rendering the Steam Deck almost unusable as a docked device. The future Steam Deck Docking Station should hopefully solve these problems.
Playing with a (Nearly) Complete Deck
The Steam Deck is a promising mobile gaming device that still has a few kinks to work out. It’s quite powerful for its size and price, and despite being a Linux-based device, it performs admirably in many modern and outstanding Windows games. It isn’t as powerful as the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X in terms of graphics, but it does have the advantages of being a home console in terms of size and power. This is a portable device with a lot of punch. Its large emulator collection just adds to the allure, even if some games demand more effort to run than those on Steam (and the Linux desktop itself can require a bit of fiddling and finesse on its own).
The Steam Deck is wonderful if you simply want to play Steam games on a portable. The Steam Deck is certainly worth checking out if you’re prepared to put in the effort to get your favorite emulators working on a handheld. However, if you fall anywhere in the middle, the method isn’t optimal. It’s not well suited for installing and running non-Steam Windows games or any other Windows software, and going beyond the Linux software library’s relative comfort zones in desktop mode necessitates knowledge. That could change if the Steam Deck enables dual-booting into Windows, but for now, it’s a Linux playground with a steep learning curve.
The Steam Deck’s connectivity is also severely limited by its single USB-C connector, especially as HDMI output and power delivery with third-party adapters and hubs are sporadic at best. In my experiments, I was unable to charge the Steam Deck while it was attached to a monitor or TV, and the video output was inconsistent. Given that the system can run high-end games for as little as two hours between charges, this is a big issue that will hopefully be addressed with the official Steam Deck Docking Station.
You should consider the Steam Deck strictly as a gaming portable until we can guarantee reliable HDMI/DisplayPort output with power delivery. And, until Windows can be loaded on it, think of it as a well-curated Linux machine that also happens to run a lot of decent Windows games.
Valve Steam Deck
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