It’s finally here. The product we’ve really all been waiting for, and the review we promised back when we did our unboxing. The chance to play our favourite PC games on the go. Of course, portable gaming isn’t new, and with Nintendo pretty much dominating the space for at least a century now, and smartphone gaming becoming a huge market, PC gamers were being left behind. But not anymore. The Steam Deck is here, and it works, pretty well if I do say so myself, albeit for a few hiccups and bugs along the way. But we’ve been told they’re going to be sorted out. At this point I just want to give a massive shout out to Valve, the creators of the Steam Deck who very graciously provided us with a review unit to take a look at.
The Steam Deck isn’t small. Sure, it’s portable, lightweight, and can feel pretty comfortable when playing games, but it’s not going in a pocket, and it’s taking up a chunk of backpack space. It measures at around 31 centimetres in width, around 12 centimetres in height and depth ranges depending on where you measure. Its handles are thicker of course than the centre, so you can get a good comfortable ergonomic grip on the handles. The whole thing is covered in matte grippy plastic, again for that grip, but I suspect to keep the cost down, though anything more than what it’s offering I don’t think is really even needed.
Its control inputs mimic that of a typical games console controller. You’ve got two analogue sticks, a D-Pad on the top left that’s reachable with your left thumb, your A, B, X, Y buttons, start and select either side of the screen, four trigger buttons and four extra buttons on the back too. On top, you can find your power and volume controls, and some interesting inputs around the front are the two touch-sensitive pads, akin to a laptop mousepad on a laptop. These don’t really come into play while playing traditional games on the Steam Deck, but they do come in handy when you’re in desktop mode, but more on that in another video, as we’re solely concentrating on the Steam Deck with this one.
Under the pads, you’ve also got your Steam button, which takes essentially to the main menu and allows you to access various areas of the Steam Deck like your games library, game settings, media files and settings. The right is quick menu access, and here is where you’ll spend some time fine-tuning the Steam Deck. You can find things like your brightness, audio mixes for sound and voice, your friends list, notifications and more. There are two speakers on the bottom which offer some decent sound while inside of games. They won’t replace a decent headset but will do the job if you’re in the back of the car on a journey or chilling out on the couch playing some games. In terms of inputs, you’ve not got many. One USB-C charging the device or for external peripherals like a display or a keyboard and mouse, and a 3.5mm headphone input.
The Steam Deck’s major highlight is its screen. At first glance, it’s simply glorious. When you first turn it on, it was almost shocking to see that everything is tac sharp, and SteamOS was very readable. The screen is 7-inches from corner to corner and the resolution sits at 1280×800 with a 16:10 aspect ratio. It uses IPS LCD technology which gives colours a much nicer vividness to them and has a max brightness of 400 nits. Its refresh rate sits at 60Hz too, so not the smoothest that PC gamers are used to, but absolutely passable for a small handheld like this, and I go into a bit more detail on this in a bit with my gaming experience. It’s touch-enabled too, which helps with desktop modes and when you’re selecting specific items inside of games, though you can actually get away with not using the touchscreen functionality at all. There’s a cleaning cloth included to remove fingerprints as yes, the screen is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. There’s also an ambient light sensor included, which brightens and dims the screen depending on the ambient light hitting the Steam Deck. I wasn’t hugely keen on this feature. I like my screen to be as bright as possible, but it will save a bit of battery life if your screen is dimmed.
Everything here runs on SteamOS, though it is a Linux based system known as an Arch-Linux and it has a layer on top of that called Proton. Without getting into all of the technical info, it enables compatibility between Steam games and the Linux operating system, without the need for the developer to actually build a Linux version of their games. It’s essentially a portable PC, with a Steam branded and made operating system laid over the top. Yes you can access the Linux desktop, and we’ll be running through all of the different things you can do in future videos, but for now, we’re focusing on the Steam experience, as after all, this is a Steam Deck.
So, booting up the Steam Deck takes seconds, and it loads directly into the home screen. Here you will find your most recently played games, in case you want to jump back in, a What’s New section that houses news, updates to games and so on, a friends list, so you can see what your friends are playing and finally, a recommended section, which looks at your current Steam library, and recommends you new titles. All very simple, and very self-explanatory. Oh, and you can make calls and chat with your friends from your friends list, by typing on the screen or using the D-Pad. I was also told that the microphone quality was also pretty decent too, and I had no issue at all with the quality I was receiving either from someone I was talking to over Steam.
The meat and bones of SteamOS can be found by tapping the Steam button on the bottom right. This opens up a side menu that gives you access to your entire library, the Steam store if you want to buy new games, your friends list and chat features, media for those in-game screenshots, access to your downloads and settings. The Power option at the bottom will give you the option to turn the thing off, put it into sleep, or shut down SteamOS to access the Linux desktop.
So jumping into the store, chances are you’re going to be sticking to the Great On Deck tab. This highlights all of the Verified games in one big list, which is a big win from me as some non-verified games may not work, and some are just not compatible at all with the Steam Deck. Thumbnails take a bit of time to load in, but it doesn’t really ruin the experience for me. This follows on to your library too, as you’ve probably got more games in your libraries coming from PC, that is compatible with the Steam Deck. Well, the good news is that SteamOS categories those games too into their own ‘Great On Deck’ category.
The way the Steam Deck allocates its games to different categories is pretty great. The first category is for Verified games, meaning these games have been tested for compatibility issues and are playable from the word go. There’s Playable, which are for games that may require some settings tweaks to get working. Unsupported, for games, well unsupported, like VR titles for example and finally Unknown, which basically means Valve haven’t tested. For the majority of this review, I stuck to the Verified list, as this is really going to be the list of games that I would say 80% of users are going to be playing on the Steam Deck anyway. And to be perfectly honest with you, the selection of games isn’t something to be sniffed at. And when you come to install a game that hasn’t been Verified, you will see a prompt before installing it, as I saw for Dying Light 2.
Now, installing games for me was a bit of a mixed bag and wasn’t really the best experience. It took ABSOLUTELY FOREVER to allocate space to larger games. Installing Deep Rock Galactic, Cuphead or Sonic Mania as examples were no problem at all, as they’re tiny games, like 3GB or less. But God Of War? More like God Of Snore by the time it was done as I pretty much fell asleep waiting for it to allocate hard drive space. I’m joking, of course, I just sat, and waited. And waited. And finally, my download started. I was getting around 53.2mb/s peak which I’ve got no problem with. That is pretty good. However, issues continued with the installation of the game, and the Steam Deck was quoting that God Of War was going to take an hour and 30 minutes to install. That figure spiked to one hour and 50 minutes at one point, but then dropped and all of a sudden it jumped to completion.
But booting up God Of War, and it was just so smooth, though I was only getting an average of around 30 to 32 frames per second. But this I suppose is to be expected from a handheld trying to play AAA titles. It was still however an amazing experience, to sit here and play something as meaty as God of War on a handheld device. Of course, the fan was going mental, keeping the parts inside nice and cool, and there was quite a bit of heat being expelled from the top of the device. Temperatures were hitting around 67-degrees on the GPU and 70-degrees on the CPU. The cooling fans though loud did do a great job of keeping the device cool. To get around the fan noise though, just stick in a pair of headphones and you won’t notice the squeal. Of course, though, this is a game that is running at the Steam Deck’s native resolution of 1280×800, and I didn’t push it too far in terms of graphical presets. Introducing God Of War’s High preset was enough to cause some noticeable frame drops and stuttering, so I lowered it back down to the Original preset.
I noticed a bit of stutter as well when playing some Deep Rock Galactic, where the hub world was a little stuttery. By no means unplayable, but it just felt like frames were being slightly dropped. Once I was inside a mission though, it was fine. No issues at all for me.
Where I think the Steam Deck truly shines though is playing those more indie/arcade or more casual type narrative-led titles. Think Stardew Valley, GRIS, Firewatch, Hellblade, which by the way with the audio pans of the whispers, sounds great out of the front two speakers on the Steam Deck, or even to some degree Cuphead as long as you’ve got the eyesight to spot the smaller enemies flying at you. Those kinds of pick up and play titles that you could just relax on the sofa or while you’re in bed (okay, maybe not Cuphead, that game is frustrating as hell) and just play a simple narrative experience. Or maybe even something that doesn’t require a lot of reading, or trying to shoot or hit small targets on the screen, because for me anyway, it gave me a bit of eye fatigue. I know my eyesight isn’t the best, but this was very hard at times, especially with things like controller prompts for God of War or Elden Ring, where I was learning what the buttons do.
Speaking of Elden Ring though, that game was still just as infuriating on the Steam Deck as it is on my main PC. Yeah okay, I die a lot, sorry I can’t just git gud, what can I say. But still, it’s amazing to have a game like this as a portable experience. I did have to adjust my settings, as the game remembered my PC settings and was forcing a 1440p resolution, so I had to turn it down to the native 1280×800 resolution and I set my quality preset to medium, and I was easily hitting again a smooth 32fps consistently. And it did feel really smooth I must admit. Moving on to some racing, I played some F1 2022, and when installing the game, SteamOS gave me a prompt saying that it had some graphical compatibility issues, though Steam has marked it as a playable game. In reality, though, it played great. I had no issues with getting into a race or in the menus, and there was no real stutter either. Again, the graphical performance isn’t set to the highest to hit those consistent frames. My game again defaulted back to native resolution, but set the graphics preset quality to Ultra Low. I still managed to get a smooth experience this way, and to be perfectly honest, the screen is so small anyway, details that could have appeared on higher graphics preset levels probably won’t be seen anyway, so for me, it really made no difference. It’s surprising at how good an experience this thing is with playing games, seeing as it’s running off of an APU. Sure, it’s Ryzen’s Zen2 architecture, and that’s great in itself, but to get the smoothness and detail, that processor is working hard, and it produces and wonderful experience. There’s an overlay for those wanting a little more information. Just hit the Quick Menu button, head to performance and turn on the performance overlay. It’s really there for those tinkerers who want to get the most out of their hardware. Is it going to be interesting to all users? No, it’s not. But it’s a nice touch as well if you’re trying to diagnose a problem with the Steam Deck or a particular game.
For me, one of Steam Deck’s biggest downfalls is battery life. You can get around two hours out of this thing before you’re going to have to reach for the charger. It isn’t exactly ideal if you’re expecting to take it on a long haul flight on holiday or a camping trip where you’ll probably be quite limited on power, or even a long car ride. Sure, there’s USB-C charging, but I found in my own experience that USB charging isn’t powerful enough to keep the Steam Deck powered and charging at the same time. It slows down the power drain to extend your battery life. And that’s me charging it through my PC directly, my mobile phone charger, and a flurry of USB plugs I had laying around the house. This could also be down to the version I have here. As I said at the start, Valve was kind enough to send us one to test, and it came directly from the USA, so I had a USA plug. Whether the voltage or amps or whatever linked to electricity played a major role I’m not too sure. But when I used the official plug with a UK adapter, the Steam Deck was able to stay powered for a lot longer.
The Steam Deck is an amazing piece of hardware. Being able to play your PC games on the go is just superb. There are some limitations, especially when it comes to running other games from other launchers, that requires you to hit the Linux desktop, but that’s for another time. As a portable device to play your Steam games… almost flawless. Game selection is good, the software or overlay is great, functionality is awesome, but the battery life is a major concern, and it’s going to get annoying having to reach for the charger so often, or getting caught short on that long haul flight. Steam Deck 2, please aim for a better battery! But in all honesty, if you’re like me who works from home, has a pretty beefy gaming PC on the desk, are you going to need a Steam Deck? Probably not. But if you’re regularly commuting on a train or as a car passenger, want something to chill out with while lounging on the sofa or in bed before sleeping, then yes. Steam Deck is an amazing product. Plus it also comes with all the added features that Linux offers too, so that’s a huge win as well.